Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Solo dance performance: once as a girl and once as a boy


Earlier this year, I gave myself some dance goals for 2012.  One of them was "Choreo a solo blues routine and perform it in front of actual people."

First weekend in November, in Washington, DC, I was afforded the opportunity to perform a piece* I've been working on since mid-August at Bambloozled, which is put on every year by the fantastic folks at Capitol Blues.

I think it went pretty well:


Spoonful from David Mudre on Vimeo. Dancing and choreography by Christina Austin.



The second half of this performance was at Snowbound Blues in Rochester, NY.



The second time, I'm dressed as a boy.  Weird.  I won't lie to you, this post is gonna be long.




I had a few reasons for wanting to make a solo routine.  The biggest was just to work on my personal quality of movement and expression.  On a panel of slider bars indicating my relative strengths as a dancer, those have been weaker than my partnering skills. Making a solo routine was a fantastic way to get myself to actually put in practice time.

At the same time, the deeper down the rabbit hole I go, the more I want to play with the fact that dancing can also be art.  So I wanted to do something more conceptual than just "look at my dancing, it's amazing."  Also.... I wasn't confident I could pull "Look at my dancing, it's amazing" off.

I wanted to do something that wasn't just "sexy."  I kinda feel like that's been done a bunch of times, and by better dancers than me. Furthermore, one of the things that I love about blues dancing is that it enables a broad range of emotional expression.  Moreso than lindy, I think.  But while lindy's default emotion is "fuck yeah!", what people, including me but especially women, default to most in blues is teh sexay**.

The tipping point on this was probably a solo comp I watched this summer, populated by some of the best in our scene.  And I found much of it very uncomfortable to watch.  Specifically, the parts where the contestants were all up in each other's personal space in a sexually agressive way.  And it was almost all women.  Like most other solo blues comps I've seen.

And I pass as a boy alright. So I thought it'd be interesting to play both sides, and do something fucked up or angry and dark.

Reactions:

Most everybody who saw it live "got" the first performance, I reckon. There were catcalls and such at the beginning, which I expected. But even that setup was kind of, well... to trick people. To guilt them? (sexy, sexy... damaged. ewwww.) To make the audience think they were getting what they expected and then not give them that. The room got palpably awkward halfway through, when I 'shot up.'  You can't hear it on the video, but I actually heard somebody say "OH" at that spot.  Like, "oh, shit." And the applause hung for a second.  That second made all the work I put in totally worth it.

The individual feedback I got on the first performance was mostly of the "oh shit" variety.  People who found a new meaning in the song (it's kind of about heroin, but not everybody knows that), people who found it challenging and dark.  Some people said it was "cool." I don't think anybody came up to me to tell me how much they "enjoyed" it, though.


The second time, for the boy performance, I did succeed in surprising a bunch of people by listing a guy's name on the audience ballot for the showcase comp.  "A guy doing a solo piece? How unusual." But what suprised me was the catcalls persisted throughout the performance. Including when I was 'shooting up'.  I was kind of shocked by that.  The room got mostly silent at the end, when the piece 'breaks', but there was some hollering right up until through the final pose. The applause did not hang.

(The catcalls in the guy performance: is that because people knew I'm not a boy and so they thought the whole performance was a joke? like a gag? Dunno.)

A lot of people came up and sunnily told me that it was great.  A number of people who saw both told me they liked it better the second time (more on this later).  People seemed less disturbed in general, although I still got a few comments on it being a very "different" kind of piece.


Confounding variables, my reactions, and questions for anybody reading:

Variables that make it hard to talk about people's reactions vis a vis gender (there are a bunch of them)

- the first time was surprising, and a lot of people saw it twice
- I performed it twice, and was way less nervous and keyed up the second time.
- The first time, I was wearing more revealing clothing... but that also has to do with what we EXPECT "feminine" clothing to be.  The guy costume does hide some movement by being simply more clothes.
- The audience in DC for the girl performance was *much* closer to me.  They could see my face, and I could see theirs.
- The lighting and spaces were very different.  The first performance was in a low-ceilinged dance studio, with everyone crowded around and frankly not that much light.  (The video was filmed on a much better camera so it's not quite so noticeable on the films.) The second performance was in a restored ballroom, and everyone was quite far from me and spread out very leisurely.  The "stage" area in Rochester was probably nearly as big as the entire room I danced in, in DC.

So basically, the first performance was more intimate, which matters a lot for this piece.

I will say that this is a difficult piece to perform.  Just as much as it is difficult to watch, I suspect, if not more.  It's kind of type II fun.  But I did find the experience of making this and performing it very *rewarding.* I got to show people a new perspective on something, and that is kind of the best thing about art.

One person who's opinion on dance I respect very much told me that she thought the second time was better because the male character starts with more strength, which makes it more impactful when it breaks at the end.

I do wonder if people liked the second time better because it was less uncomfortable to watch.  Was that because of the differences in setting? Or because I didn't do as good of a job projecting emotion in that character? (I'm not really sure I did the male character justice. That was really difficult.) When I was trying to put the male character together, I felt that he had a lot more anger than the female character, who mostly feels confused and desperate. Does it have something to do with what we (I) expect from men? (not vulnerability) Or how we deal with men's pain? (uncomfortable laughter? skepticism? denial?)  Did I pass well enough to elicit authentic reactions?


One final question I was sort of posing- guys, where is your solo blues dancing? But I don't feel now like that's quite as urgent a question as I felt when I put this together.  At Bambloozled, Josh Brody and Marc Longhenry put on a brilliant showcase piece with some manly dancing.  And at Snowbound, all three places in the solo comp went to men (the finals was just about half and half).


I really would like to hear people's opinions on this.  On the confounding variables, on the perception of gender for the two performances, if it SAYS anything to you about how we construct gender in dance.  If you'd like to see more performances that explore desire, loss, anger and other not-sexy things.  Other thoughts.  I invite comment.

Thanks for watching and reading!



EDITED TO ADD- I do want to take one more second and be like "fuck yeah, blues community."
> The organizers of both events knew what was planned a priori.  They's seen my routine, they'd seen the costumes.  They knew what was up and they were down.
> Nobody gave me shit for this. Zero people.  There was exactly a complete lack of hostility to me dressing in guy drag.  And we're talking in person, confusing to straight boys and girls alike. I was packing a fake penis. The works.  Everybody was pretty universally like "that is an interesting idea."  So yeah, rock on, blues kids.  I super appreciated the space to try something a little different.


*To be super pedantic, clearly not all of what is in this routine is only blues.  There is heavy jazz influence and some contemporary-ish stuff going on in spots.

**Feel like I want to mention at this point that this was not a protest against sexy dancing, which I enjoy, both as performances and sometimes during social dances.

29 comments:

  1. My contribution to the conversation is over here: http://prodigalshenandoah.tumblr.com/post/37282537235/gender-in-blues-dance-were-gonna-talk-about-it

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  2. I didn't articulate in my response to Brandi's specifics about what I felt toward the pieces, and I will do so now. (But first, massive high five. I was surprised and excited to see you stepping out in this manner, and I think you did a great job!!!)

    For the female, it felt slutty and dirty to me, and I almost didn't finish watching it. I am so tired of women dressing in skanky clothes, slithering around, and calling it blues. But I'm glad I did finish watching, because I can talk about both pieces in full. I didn't know you were shooting up. I thought you were cradling a baby (maybe because you were so obviously a girl?), and I didn't know the song was about that...I wasn't listening to the lyrics. At first, I didn't know this was choreographed. I thought your dance as a woman was strange, not as on the beat as I would've liked, and very loose and sexual. I didn't enjoy seeing your dance pants or when you shimmied your chest toward me. It felt so overt and dirty...and I realized toward the end it was on purpose.

    I really enjoyed your boy piece. At first, I thought there was too much hip in it. I thought, if you're going to be a boy, be a boy, remove the hips. Very few boys have looseness in their hips the way women do. Quickly, I realized it was the same piece, and I moved away from thinking about you being a girl trying to dance like a guy and realized what you were saying. I felt like the man was stronger, but maybe in deeper pain. I felt like when he was pushing against something, it was very hard...whereas the girl seemed loose and falling more. I felt like the man piece was less dark, because it was so much less overtly sexy.

    I enjoyed both of them and really enjoyed this experiment. I think this was done brilliantly and intelligently!!

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  3. re: the girl performance feeling sexy and dirty.... yes. Very much on purpose. The thought train of "that is a sluttly outfit" to "Perhaps she is an actual prostitute?" was intentional. It was supposed to feel.... exploitive, at the end.

    The part that I'm referring to as 'shooting up' is at 1:39 in the first video and 1:59 in the second video, when I clamp my left arm and raise it above my head.

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  4. First of all, those boogie drops are slick.

    Regarding the lady drag choice - there was a vulnerability element there that didn't come across in the other performance. The precarious heels, your small dress, not to mention the socially constructed "woman = vulnerable" trope... they all enhanced your dramatic theme.

    With long sleeves and pants, it's not that your (beautifully executed) choreography was hidden, but that the added coverage created some emotional distance. An interesting effect.

    Thanks for the great performances! I hope we get to see some more blues and swing showcases taking advantage of the full spectrum of human emotion soon.

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    1. "the added coverage created some emotional distance."

      That is very succinct. The other thing about the very revealing costume for the first performance (and the precarious heels) is that it makes me FEEL more vulnerable. So it's easier for me to embody that in the more revealing outfit.

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  5. Okay, my thoughts:

    First off, I didn't see the Snowbound one live, and the video doesn't show your face well, so that complicates my reading. For the Bambloozled performance, I was right in front of you. I had seen you shaking before the performance. I could see your face, the ridges of your vertebrae, and your neon underwear.

    I'm privileged in this conversation, because I'm pretty used to "reading" visual media like performances. I think critically about outfits and movement styles and music and all sorts of things. So I figured out pretty quickly on the spot that your Bambloozled performance was meant to be in-our-faces: that the underwear were probably consciously chosen; that even if you didn't intentionally choose a near-backless dress, it showed off how thin you are, which added a layer of ache; that you were *not* smiling and *not* engaging the audience with your eyes. You made the audience feel strong emotions, because your performance was raw.

    I do think that your clothes did change the crowds' reactions for several reasons. At Bambloozed, the visibility of your underwear and how low-cut your dress were added an element of exposure. And because you were dressed "femininely," that kind of exposure seems really dangerous, like a potential accident about to occur, and people couldn't take their eyes off you. I'm sure being close to the audience helped. That element not exist in the Snowbound version as far as I can tell.

    In the Snowbound performance, you were distanced from the crowd by space as well as by clothing. You weren't "exposed" in the same way. If your expressions were more powerful or raw, I unfortunately can't tell from the video.


    And yeah, I for sure want more performances that are about things other than sexy things. The beauty in the evoking emotion, not necessarily in evoking nice-feeling emotions.

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    1. Mo said some things way better than me while I took the time to write this.

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    2. Re: skinniness.... 1) the backless dress was super on purpose. I knew you'd see how thin I was. Neon underwear, also super on purpose. 2) the contemporary-ish move at ~1:20 in the DC performance was pretty much in there because I knew you'd see all the ribs in my back. I thought it'd look hungry. That... gets lost in the guy performance, for sure.

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  6. Christina,

    Thank you so much for performing these brave and fascinating performances. I, like so many other women who dance, have experienced conflicting and growing perceptions of self, sexuality, and gender identity while learning to express myself and negotiate my dance partners' and scenes' expectations on the dance floor; perhaps presumptuously, I feel like your performances speak to all of those subjects.

    My reaction to the first video was initially "This looks like a woman who wants to be dancing burlesque, but hasn't got pasties on," and my discomfort grew until I realized the emotional weight as well as drug and class overtones of your piece. I can understand the unavoidable differences presented by these two performances, but found myself wondering whether the reaction would have been different to the second piece if (in addition to what you and others have said about emotional vulnerability of the performance due to close quarters) you were able perform the transformation in front of the audience--to begin the piece in your man-stume, and after the drug-transformation/emotional catharsis twirl behind a screen and emerge as the junkie hooker character.

    Oddly, despite many comments about the differences between the gendered performances, my primary experience of this contrasting lens was through the filters of sexuality and class. To me, that was the primary difference between the female and male performances--despite being clean and sexy, Christina, you do toy with our disgust in the first performance, as a grungy and hopeless streetwalker, addicted to drugs and using her sexuality as her mealticket. That was the greatest strength of the first performance in my opinion, and why it remains my favorite of the two. The second performance... lacked that. I don't know how much of that might be changed by dressing like a homeless man, but I would be really interested in seeing that performance from you, Christina. I know you would dance it beautifully. Congratulations on your first solo blues performance!

    I would comment more about my own feelings about sexuality, blues, gender, and dancing here, but I think this is already getting TLDR. Besides, you've inspired me to gender-bomb the next dance I go to, and would love to write back after trying that! I am a passable lead, and might be able to pass with a hat, although the urge to belt out sweet transvestite and swivel my hips might overcome me sometime in the night ;)

    Thank you again, and best wishes,
    Emily

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    1. - Love your response.
      - totally *was* wearing pasties under the dress, just in case. They were red. THEME.
      - It occurred to me after the fact that I should have gotten the boy clothes dirty. Or something. I was shooting for "middle class teenage emo boy" but I could probably could have stood to look a lot scruffier.

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  7. I want to say more about this later, but something that may help with comparisons: http://youtubedoubler.com/?video1=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DAlEww9I9_7s&start1=&video2=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Ffeature%3Dplayer_embedded%26v%3DFOf5GxcrWLk&start2=&authorName=meahwahwah

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  8. My original comment was eaten because of login issues. Twon't happen again. And sorry for distracting from the thread on Tumblr. I'm a little sorry.

    On to it!

    I am a Lindy Hopper and have never really cared for or cared about blues. I see that you're there, I acknowledge our connection, but it's never interested me. And yet, I read your blog. :) That said, when it popped up in my RSS I did not watch the videos because I assumed they'd be typical schmexy blues routines and those have never interested nor entertained me.

    It wasn't until I started reading through your article that I went back. I watched the boy one first, then the girl on after, then finished reading the article.

    Preference: I was more engaged and interested in the boy performance. You passed very well as a boy, hips or no, so it was easy to accept that as I watched. I LIKED that it was more closed off and your quality of movement was more interesting to me.

    I wasn't able to engage with the woman one because I don't find overt expressions of sexuality at all entertaining, especially how they're usually treated in our communities. Costuming and styling was just not my cuppa. Not that I think those kinds of performances are BAD or slutty or shameful or anything - I just don't enjoy them.

    I wouldn't have noticed the Shooting Up Move if I hadn't read the article and was looking for them. That could be a reason people didn't GET it? It sounds like more of your viewers were more aware of it than I was, though. But maybe an improvement would be to modify that moment to last longer, or repeat, or be more exaggerated would help it read better.


    Gender-wise, I am much more moved by expressions of vulnerable emotions in men than I am in women. I think it's mostly because I've been conditioned to think they are much more rare and that the intensity of emotion required for men to get there is much higher. That may or may not be true, but it does feel that way to me sometimes. So the pain felt more intense in the boy one.

    I think it was really cool that you used the same choreography for both and they both fit. It was a great example of how moves don't need to be inherently gendered and that gender is a performance in itself.

    This was great. Thank you!

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  9. Wishing that dressing "feminine" didn't have to mean revealing...

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    1. I feel like this is a complicated point. I read that statement at least two pretty different ways and I hope you can clarify for me. Do you mean "Feminine doesn't have to mean that revealing and I wish you'd picked a different costume" or "I lament the fact that the state of our society is such that casual clothing for women is much more revealing than casual clothing for men"?

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  10. Mightily impressed!

    Yes, I think variations in setting and costume will have made a real difference to the responses you got (in my experience the flashing underwear is really what makes the girl version quite poignant somehow - really pushes the sex point, and the idea that the girl doesn't care that she's showing her pants - or maybe that she wants to).

    BUT the gender question is what really interests me - yes women in dance (blues or lindy or whatever) can feel a lot of pressure to be 'feminine' whatever that means to you. I'm FINALLY coming back around to the idea that my penchant for androgyny is fine, and that I can still be a super dancer without wearing a pretty dress or making sexualised movements.

    HOWEVER it does seem like there's still some "teehee it's funny/good because it's kinda gay" attitudes around, of which I am also occasionally guilty before I check myself. When a man leads another man, or when leads follow and ham up their swivels or hands on hips or duck-face pouts. When a man dances a 'sexy' move I almost think he gets more reaction because he's like, doing a girl's move. Gaaaay. It's campness, a form of comedy. If a feminine woman does lots of 'macho' moves - well, she's often seen as not doing her innate sexiness justice. Or something.

    I'm trying to think of examples of women dancing solo in more 'masculine' ways - and in my head I'm thinking Chicago, some Fosse stylings, or Beyonce's Single Ladies (more about that http://dogpossum.org/2012/09/single-ladies-j-setting-and-battle/ totally worth a read) ......

    ...but all the routines I can think of when women do 'manly' movements, feature women not wearing very much at all. It's like "oh shit, they look too much like men, let's make sure they show some boob and hip to keep them sexy".

    Not sure where I'm going with this. But it's all interesting.

    I'm getting more interested in feminist issues lately - one big one being 'slut shaming' and the idea that some people 'ask for it' (i.e. assault, catcalls, etc.) - but alongside slut shaming stands tomboy shaming. As women in dance we're so heavily expected to be girly (especially when following) which may be one reason leads take a long time to consider learning to follow, and when they do, often camp it up. Can we not be superstar follows/solo dancers without bringing the sex all the time?

    (To be fair, Frida Segerdahl does this well, although she's been getting steadily more feminine with age in her clothing - which may just be fashions within the competition ring.)

    ..... and finally, having proclaimed sexism on the ranks - I just want to celebrate the lindy and blue communities for their wonderful scenes. I felt much more like a female 'object' dancing salsa and modern jive in the past - lindy allowed me to have pure, exhausting, brilliant fun - and blues allows so much individuality that these are the dances I've stuck with and am now also well into leading as regularly as following in.

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    1. "Yes, I think variations in setting and costume will have made a real difference to the responses you got (in my experience the flashing underwear is really what makes the girl version quite poignant somehow - really pushes the sex point, and the idea that the girl doesn't care that she's showing her pants - or maybe that she wants to).

      BUT the gender question is what really interests me..."

      I would argue that that the costuming is an inherently gendered difference. There is no convincing boy costume that I could have worn that would have resulted in the guy character flashing his underwear. And I don't think there was any convincingly male costume I could have worn that would have so easily read as being "for sale."

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    2. Also, I agree with your points about same-gender dancing, especially between two guys, get treated as comedy/ camp in the lindy community. At the blues events I've been to, I haven't seen that. It's solidly within the umbrella of customary stuff that happens.

      As far as women and "manly" dancing have you seen Mike, Laura, and Falty's performance from Stompo? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ItmVVFFi_w) Laura isn't dancing "manly".... she's still clearly Laura. But she's wearing guys clothes and the routine is styled like "look, 3 badasses" and not like "Two guys and a girl dancing." I thought it was hella cool.

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    3. Ooo thanks for the replies!

      And yes I agree you'd have struggled to find male clothing which gives off the same kind of vibe as that intended by the female outfit chosen. Chances are, if you had... it wouldn't be familiar to much of your audience and the catcalls would have kept coming anyway.

      Also thanks for the video! Similarly I like the 'Moses Supposes' routine done by Dax and Sarah a year or two ago (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F82aNRznvnk) - but both these feature more masculine clothing. Do we only see badassery without sex if the feminine look is removed? Not being petulant, just... like everything else - I think it's interesting!

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  11. Okay, so I watched the video of the boy version first. I saw them on Jerry's page and just clicked without thinking. When the male name was announced, I was like, "Wait, did I get the wrong video?" And then you came out and I believed for a minute that it was a guy. Then I realized that you were in drag, but my initial experience was of a young guy dancing in a very vulnerable, shy, weak sort of way.

    The woman's performance came across more powerfully to me. I don't watch blues very often due to all the sliminess I associate with it. Sexiness is a very private thing for me, and it's not my cup of tea to watch it. That said, you didn't seem sexy as a woman (all the cat calling seemed so out of place!). It was more ... well you explained it. There's a reason I'm not a dance critic. Words kind of escape me here.

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    1. I think personally not wanting to watch sexy performances is a perfectly valid preference.

      Your comment seems to call ALL sexy performances "slimy," though. I think that's... pretty unfair actually.

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    2. "the sliminess I associate with it" It's an association. I've had too many boners on my leg, one-sided staring contests, forced body rolls, and so on when I've done blues dancing with strangers. That stuff is permanently etched on my brain. Often when I watch blues dancing, I feel those things happening to me again. It makes me feel uncomfortable and slimy. I have low tolerance for boundary violations.

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    3. I misunderstood your comment, then. I am really, *really* sorry that has been your experience with blues.

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    4. I know, I try not to let my dislike for blues tarnish other people's experience of it. We all like different things. It's funny, I want other people to be free to do things even if I don't like doing them. :-)

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  12. Okay, so I just re-watched both performances using the Youtube doubler (linked in a comment above), and I have some ideas of why I may have viewed the woman performance as more powerful, and the guy performance as weaker. In the female version, your arms were up more, a more classically powerful stance. In the male version, they were more by your sides. Also, it's hard to tell with the costume/lighting differences, but your pelvis appeared more tucked and your ribcage more dropped in the male version (a body language sign of submission).

    Did you feel like the different costumes inspired you to dance differently?

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    1. Did the different costumes change my dancing? For sure. A lot. The heels are very relevant. Also... I was actually packing fake junk. And I practiced with it. I had to change one spot in the choreo because I couldn't cross my legs the same way in pants and with junk as I could bare-legged. But also just having that... hanging between my legs, lol. Changes the way you move.

      The arm stuff I mostly changed for gender presentation reasons- the reason you can see my shimmy the first time is the dress moves. In the guy costume, it'd never read, and I'm wearing a binder, so my chest is kinda restricted. The arms with the shorty georges... the raised, wavy arms just didn't look masculine.

      The body language notes are very interesting, from an "inside-out" versus "outside-in" way of projecting emotion for performances.

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  13. I don't have anything insightful to write other than bravo for creating these two pieces, sharing it with the community, sharing your thoughts on how it went, and inviting the conversation about it. Really brave and provocative.

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  15. Just watched both of these. Hot damn woman I wish I would have been around to see them live. I actually read the blog and comments on my phone before I could get to computer to play the video so some of the things I perceived in them may have been skewed by knowing that you were shooting up etc. I did watch the girl version first then the boy. I know you said you were more nervous in the first one but it looked to me like the female version was more raw and gritty where as the boy version was more shy and vulnerable. It was an interesting juxtaposition for me because usually we as a society associate grittiness with the masculine and vulnerability with the feminine which isn't to say at all that the opposite can't be true. I did see the sexiness much more so in the first one and I think maybe some of the OH as in Oh shit comments may have been the combination of the showing the panties and the drugs. They are very much in your face things that "good girls" just don't do. I think that that is the reason that so many people were uncomfortable. As far as movement having danced in both flats and heels I can say that they do absolutely change the way you move so I can see that. I've never "packed" so I don't know about that but I applaud you for your commitment to getting into character. Maybe that was part of changing the way you move, even having practiced and worn you man parts I imagine you still aren't as comfortable with them as an actual man so it came out in the dance as the vulnerability. I love that you used a guys name as well. So before I start to devolve into rambling I think this was well done and I think that you are awesome for having the balls to do it.

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  16. Re: Guys and solo blues

    I can only talk to my experience as a slightly-older, pawkward, mediocre dancer, but the vast majority of solo blues I've seen (performed and taught) have been of the sexy "you know you want some" variety, or the aggressive "you want a piece of this" variety. Anyone who has talked to me for more than 30 seconds knows that those two emotions just aren't in my default palette. As a result, I've shied away from even taking solo classes with the intent of bringing the movement to my partnered dancing.

    The few times solo dance has appealed to me (either performed or just messing around on the dance floor) is when the dancers began expressing other attitudes. My favorite male dancers/instructors to watch are those who play up the goofy or show amazing musicality (the kind where the exact motion isn't as impressive as how well it fits the music).

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