The LGBTQ+ community has often turned to the arts as a way to find a safe space to express themselves. Dance has always been seen as a vehicle of expression, a way for a person to use their bodies to convey a story.
However, within the world of dance, gender binaries have held strong. Dance has often been seen as a feminine activity, even though several narratives contradict this thought and suggest that dance, as a concept, is masculine in origin. These notions, unfortunately, have made it even harder for those from the community to gain the kind of visibility they do deserve. The lack of representation has not only allowed these preconceived notions to thrive, but it has also left many queer, non-binary dancers struggling to find their place within this art form. Despite these challenges, there are many who have managed to let their love for the art rise above it all. We spoke to five dancers from the LGBTQ+ community, who have made their mark in the world of dance, about their love for the art, the challenges they faced, and more.
‘I want to narrate genderless stories’: Patruni Sastry
Patruni Chidananda Sastry is a classical dancer and drag queen, who started dancing when he was as young as 4 years old. “I was born and brought up in a small town. My father was a Carnatic singer, and so, I always had roots in dance,” he explains. Watching Ramya Krishnan in Padayappa (a 1999 Tamil film) was the final push he needed to start learning the art form. He started learning from his aunt, who was a Kuchipudi dancer. By the time he turned 13, he had also started learning Bharatanatyam. While dance took a step back between 10th-12th standard, he picked it up again soon after.
Soon after he moved to Kolkata, and started performing, and using dance as a language. “Once I started performing, there was a conflict. I was unable to talk about my queerness through my dance,” he shares. The parity in gender expressions that are maintained in classical dancer forms, he says, makes it difficult for queer, non-binary artistes. “When a non-binary dancer enters the stage, they don’t know which box to put us in, and I want to narrate genderless stories,” he opines.
Trained in Expressionist dance, he began to develop his own style called Expressionism. “I wanted to create something that does not have any kind of template so that I could express myself and my thoughts and use dance as an outlet to identify my gender in a safe space and put it out in the society,” he shares.
Additionally, he adds that certain ideas that dominate the field of dance need to be done away with. “You are expected to have 20-30 years of training to be seen as a mature classical dancer. Rural trans people don’t have the facilities to pay for dance classes if at all they are able to join one. This disparity makes it impossible for people from the community to make a space for themselves as classical dancers,” he says.
Dance, he shares, should be seen for what it is: a genderless form that allows people from all walks of life to express themselves, against music, using their bodies. “We should be doing away with this labeling and copyrighting of dance forms, and make it more open. Allow it to be the safe space it is for many,” he shares.
To this end, he has been working towards taking dance to a space where it takes its own space. He has started an exchange program of movement. “It is a drag cypher, where drag queens come together and present a movement and go back. It is a circle to share ideas of movement in a different way,” he says. He hopes that over time, dance, as an art form, is able to transcend divisions and become more accessible.
Follow Patruni’s work more closely on Instagram.
‘No matter what challenges might come your way, just keep pursuing what you love’: Smitin the Artist
Smitin Bhosale, a Biology teacher based in Hyderabad, is also a Kathak dancer. “Dance is an integral part of my life. I am still training and simultaneously performing for various events. I have not taken it up as a full-time career, but I look forward to it down the line,” he says.
Formally trained in Kathak and Kuchipudi, Smitin also likes to perform Maharashtra Lavani, Jazz Funk, Bollywood, and even contemporary and semi-classical forms. But, Kathak, he says, is his first love. “It’s the form I picked up first and the one that I have learned more in-depth,” he explains.
One of the greater challenges in pursuing dance, for him, was finding an authentic and supportive teacher. “It’s very important to find a dance school or a teacher who accepts you for who you are. Obviously, I am not out to all of my dance teachers, but I have to make sure that even if they come to know they should be okay with it and not harm my training,” he shares.
There is a responsibility that comes with being a queer artist, according to Smitin. “Dance is a way to express yourself, but when I am on stage, I am also representing the community. I have to talk about the community through my performances and convey things in a way that people can understand and appreciate it,” he elaborates.
One thing he wishes to do to make life different for the upcoming and future queer dancers is to make available proper platforms for them to perform and express themselves. Queer artistes are often judged based on their gender identity and sexuality. “I want to create a safe space, where they are seen only as a dancer and performer. We are all artistes and art is not restricted to any gender, religion, or caste,” he says.
It is never too late to pursue your love for dance, he adds. “Don’t give it up on your dreams. You can start at any age. I started at the age of 24. No matter what challenges might come your way, just keep pursuing what you love, and you will or shall find how wonderful it is,” he adds.
Follow Smitin’s work on his Instagram
‘When I perform as a drag king, it affirms my identity’: Siaan
Siaan, AKA Mx. Stallion, is a content creator and a drag king artiste, who found their way to dance at a very young age. “My mom is a dancer. While I have not learned dance professionally, it has been a part of my life, and has been my way of expression,” he says. He takes to social media and drag performances to experiment and express themselves.
He mostly does freestyle and is inspired by all the things he has seen as a child, from Bollywood to Hip-Hop to breaking. “Being a queer artiste makes me want to be more authentic every single day. It makes me want to express and embrace the things I like in my everyday life and discover something new about myself every day,” he shares. Movement and dance, he adds, had helped him with his dysphoria. “When I perform as a drag king, it affirms my identity. I get to break those gendered notions around movement with these performances,” he confides.
The idea that dance needs to be sexy, has allowed trolls to be hateful on social media. “When you are born in a certain body, being in a patriarchal society, people, especially cis-men tend to comment on the way you are choosing to move. But, I like to look at it differently. It is not about how a dance looks, but all about how a person is expressing themselves through that form,” he shares.
The way dance makes him feel and the energy release it offers is what he loves the most about the art form. “Every art form has the power to make you feel a certain way, and that understanding has helped me in my everyday life,” he explains. Everyone should be allowed to enjoy dance, whether they have learned it professionally or not. “People should be able to express themselves the way they want,” he adds.
He hopes to see more queer people learning dance. “But this depends on the privilege you have and the forms they want to pursue. So, I want to see more opportunities, and safe spaces, where people can move the way they want to without being judged,” he adds.
Follow Siaan’s work on Instagram
‘I will use my expression to prick the most rigid minds’: En Lai
chow En Lai, who hails from Assam, moved to Mumbai in 2017 to make a career as a choreographer/ dance artist. “I have always been very fond of the industry. More importantly, it was my love for the camera that brought me here. The decision to make a career in dance was not something I had to think about so much,” he says. Every day he danced, every competition, and every choreography he worked on, simply grew his love for the art. His mom, he adds, used to drape Mekhela chador (Assamese ethnic saree) on him and take him to cultural night events for performances. “I think all of these things really help us choose for ourselves and I am happy I did because it made me happy!” he says. Currently, he is practicing heels, whacking/waacking, and contemporary movement.
To him, being a queer artist means being unstoppable. “Every opposite force is trying to hold me back. There are questions about my choices and it’s impossible to convince everyone to consume my art. But, am I going to stop? No! I am here to stay and even though I don’t care about being relevant, I will use my expression to prick the most rigid minds,” he shares.
The lack of roles for queer artistes is a huge challenge he faces. “Job opportunities for authentic roles and people like me are few. Yes, you can be a dance teacher, or a choreographer, or a movement director, but I want to bag roles on camera,” he shares. This dream is dependent on people, who are ready to think outside the box and create such opportunities. “I do see it happening, but it’s also not on a large scale,” he muses.
Dancing, he says, enables people to say the unspeakable. And, doing so in a safe space allows one to tap into their vulnerabilities. To future queer dancers, his only advice is to not wait for opportunities to come knocking at your door. “Create your own opportunities, please! We are blessed with resources like social media. We haven’t come this far to just look back and enjoy,” he adds.
Follow En Lai’s work on Instagram
‘I hope performers and teachers prioritize being kind and compassionate’: Musiq
Shraddha Kutty, also known as Musiq, is a queer performance artist from Mumbai. Trained in ballet for 9 years, they also dabbled in Salsa and Latin Ballroom dancing, until they fell in love with Hip-Hop and Breaking. They also enjoy Afrobeat dance and Samba Carnaval. “I started dancing when I was around 6 years old, and just fell in love with the stage and performing. That’s when I decided to do more of it and to keep doing it all my life,” they say. Musiq, is also a cat parent, model, actor, and UX designer.
“I feel empowered to be and express myself as a queer artist. I draw a lot of energy and freedom from being an artist because it allows me to step into different parts of myself and create new or different kinds of experiences both for myself and my audience,” they share. The process, they add, helps them play with how they want to present themselves.
The rhythm they feel in their body when hearing and understanding a song’s groove for the first time is what they love the most about dancing. “It’s how I get into a song. I need to keep listening to it to explore the different ways I want to dance to it,” they share. Working in a toxic and cisnormative industry is what they consider one of the more exhausting parts of being a professional dancer. “Having to navigate this while trying to establish oneself or continue working in the industry is challenging. It takes patience, willpower, and a lot of support,” they explain.
The one thing they would like to do to life different for the upcoming and future queer dancers would be to try and create safer spaces for queer dancers and continue the de-gendering movement. “My hope is that more performers and teachers prioritize being kind and compassionate in this space and imbibe that in events and shared spaces. Dance is such an act of joy it needs to be shared and experienced, and not gatekept,” they add.