A dance to equality: One transgender ballet dancer’s ongoing journey towards acceptance
‘There is no happy ending for transgender people at the moment and we have to do these art projects to hopefully gain acceptance,’ says transgender ballet dancer, Sophie Rebecca.
“I dance with a lot of emotion because it means so much to me. And every time I dance, it’s potentially my last performance so I give it everything I’ve got,” says English dancer Sophie Rebecca, the first openly transgender ballet dancer to train at the Royal Academy of Dance when the institution abandoned its policy limiting participation in female courses only to dancers born female.
There is not much of a market for older dancers and the 39-year-old dancer tries to make each performance as impactful as she can.
According to a 2004 study conducted across 11 countries, titled Making Changes: Facilitating the transition of dancers to post-performance careers, “Currently active dancers expect to continue their performing careers well into their forties. However, dancers whose active careers are now over remember that, although they thought they could continue until their late thirties, on average they actually stopped dancing professionally in their early to mid-thirties.”
As part of its seventh edition, on 16 July 2020, the South African International Online Ballet Competition is hosting a discussion on the possibilities of social progress through ballet with a panel of human rights advocates. In a conversation that explores how the art form has advanced high-level diplomacy, its ability to bring healing to victims of trauma and how it can encourage acceptance of transgender identities within the arts, the panelists, including Rebecca, will discuss the role ballet plays in the work each of them does.
The beauty of dance is that it stretches our imagination beyond our measured awareness.
Having been led to reckon with her own identity through experiencing ballet, Rebecca is an advocate for greater inclusivity in dance. She works with Ballet Beyond Borders, a non-profit organisation and dance festival that provides a cultural, educational and diplomatic exchange through an inclusive dance programme that incorporates “classical ballet and all genres of dance from folkloric and Native American cultures with indigenous nations of Africa and South America, hip hop, tap and contemporary choreography”.
On that platform, she shares personal accounts of her transition through choreographed pieces that give audiences an intimate view of the inner aspects of her journey. “Being able to tell my story as who I am has been vital for my mental well-being. There have been instances where audiences have been reduced to tears sharing in my emotion in the past. Healing and processing that raw emotion through dancing has been therapeutic,” she says.
The beauty of dance is that it stretches our imagination beyond our measured awareness. It’s an empathic exchange, between performer and audience, that transcends the linguistic limitations that curtail our understanding of the world and each other. The power in the dancer owning their expression is that it allows them to shape the light in which they are seen as they navigate their spiritual impulses. Considering how society fails humans of the transgender experience through the erasure and exclusion that fuels the violent circumstances they are subjected to, dance can be an important component in contextualising their humanness.
Rebecca says she first recognised her gender dysphoria when she expressed an interest in being a dancer, after having seen a ballet performance as a child. She was met with resistance and told that it’s not normal for boys to dance and that’s when she started questioning why she was being viewed as a boy. After a decades-long search, she eventually found a ballet coach who could teach her, uninhibited by transphobic views. And it’s through finding an emotional release as a dancer that she was able to build confidence to transition from presenting as male.
Art contributes to the cultural norms that influence the conversations the media puts into focus and it’s been an effective tool in shifting mindsets.
Nuanced conversations surrounding representation define true inclusivity as people from different demographics controlling the narratives used to portray them. The popular entertainment media’s depiction of marginalised groups has been lacking at best and dehumanising at its worst, with transgender people, in particular, being erased or shown as mentally ill or socially deviant. And as even the Netflix documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen shows, this accounts for a large number of the world’s reference points for transgender people and it fuels widespread misconceptions that result in transphobia. Art contributes to the cultural norms that influence the conversations the media puts into focus and it’s been an effective tool in shifting mindsets.
Rebecca often feels that she wears the weight of portraying perfection for the sake of all transgender dancers.
“[With Ballet Beyond Borders…] we’re working on two more pieces and I need them to be about how I wrestle with who I am. I expect those to be dark because there are a lot of heavy emotions involved in that and I hope we can create an honest and powerful piece,” says Rebecca. She notes that she doesn’t want to get caught up in creating too many happy endings with performances because there really haven’t been many for transgender people as yet.
“In the UK, there are politicians who are considering getting trans rights rolled back to the point where my partner and I are looking at possible countries to escape to. There is no happy ending for transgender people at the moment and we have to do these art projects to hopefully gain acceptance,” she emphasises.
And it’s not that there’s no room for transgender presence in society: research findings point to women not having an issue with sharing bathrooms with transgender people, for instance, yet trans-exclusionary views persist even in supposedly feminist spaces, and there is a chance that new legislature in the UK could impact how transgender people access those spaces. Rebecca sometimes has to drastically reduce her water intake for days on end to limit the necessity to access public restrooms.
“I’m hoping that the last performance piece in our trilogy [with Ballet Beyond Borders] will be uplifting. They say that society regresses right before we move forward with our ideas and I hope that this is the last big push,” says Rebecca.
For now – while her ballet classes are on break for the term – she is purely focused on building medical health systems to help improve patient care through her IT company, Learning Health Solutions, which combines data from multiple sources like hospitals, GPs and community care to designing and maintaining the cloud server architecture that has assisted the UK government’s response to Covid-19. DM/ ML/ MC
Sophie Rebecca will join former US Marine turned dance company director Roman Baca, former US Ambassador Maxwell Baucus and Charlene Campbell Carey from Ballet Beyond Borders in a panel discussion about Ballet Diplomacy that will be streamed live to the SA International Ballet Competition Facebook page – web.facebook.com/groups/saibc – on Thursday 16 July at 15h00 SA time.