"Do I dare disturb the universe?"
~T.S. Eliot

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Response to JK Rowling

Harry Potter Hard Cover Boxed Set: Books #1-7: J. K. Rowling ...
I'll preface this by saying I write this from the perspective of a cisgendered and heterosexual woman...But as a progressive, ally, feminist, and one with a deep connection to Harry Potter, I have a few things to share.


As a life-long Harry Potter fan since age twelve and an LGBTQ ally and activist since age fifteen, when I joined my high school's gay-straight alliance group, I have some feelings about JK Rowling's string of tweets and latest essay that defends her views on the "right" way to go about trans-allyship and activism.

I know that I am in the company of millions of people when I say that Harry Potter has had a powerful influence on my life.  Particularly because I read the first book when I was twelve, I was literally growing up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione as we came of age in parallel worlds.  My friends and I dressed as characters for Halloween, joined online forums to "take classes" at a virtual Hogwarts (this was the early 00's before virtual classes were really a thing), attended midnight book release parties at Barnes and Noble, and gathered in costume at the movie theatre for the film premieres.  This description, while admittedly nerdy, describes the geekdom of many in our millennial generation who identified strongly with the characters, were gripped by the plots, and found solace in the fantasy elements and overarching themes of love, friendship, and acceptance.

When I first read Rowling's tweets, I was confused and disappointed, but also wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Rowling has long been a voice for center-left politics, a champion of advocacy for children's literacy, and particularly those living in poverty.  Perhaps she was just a bit off in her wording and spoke--typed--without thinking, I thought.  But I continued to circle back to her tweet on June 6, which responded to using the phrase "people who menstruate" in place of "women."  "I'm sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?"  The sarcasm here struck me as nothing else but surprisingly mean.  So I dove into Rowling's manifesto published on her website with as much of an open mind as I could muster.

Rowling starts with taking issue with those activists who harass and verbally abuse those, including herself, who voice a different opinion, and she expresses the dangers of "call-out" and "cancel" culture.  I can understand this, as I, too, take issue with the far-left's inability to include people in activism if you do not "sign up" for the entirety of the platform.  In this case, the exclusion of those who might have slightly different views on one topic but who are overwhelmingly progressive and have the desire to be activists is problematic and counterproductive, and I can understand Rowling's point here.

That being said, as I read on, the issue of exclusionary practices under the guise of intersectionality or liberalism is not so much the problem in Rowling's case.  The problem ultimately lies in Rowling's lack of understanding what being transgender means.  Without getting overly into the weeds of Rowling's statement (you can read it, here), she argues that transitioning--especially young people and most especially girls--needs to be taken with caution and regard.  That doesn't sound so bad, except her writing is riddled with unchecked-non-facts about the percentage of people who transition and then regret changing genders and so detransition, the number of children who think they are trans and then decide later on that they are cisgender, and the number of young people who transition but might not know what's best for them because they are on the autism spectrum.  I don't want this post to get into a fact-check line by line, but her percentages of transition regret and detransitioning seems to be at about 1-2% (https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/media-s-detransition-narrative-fueling-misconceptions-trans-advocates-say-n1102686), and though there does seem to be an interesting possible autism-transgender correlation (https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-07/aru-sft071619.php), with about 14% of those transgender participants having a diagnosis of autism in one study, that by no means indicates that these young people are not capable of making a decision on their own of whether or not to transition.

The second portion of Rowling's essay focuses on women's rights and safety.  Rowling writes openly, possibly for the first time, about being a sexual abuse survivor, and I read this part with empathy and sadness, regardless of my agreement with her on the overall topic.  However, she mentions this because she sees transitioning as something that is becoming increasingly easy to do in the UK (as someone who has not considered transitioning myself and lives in the US under Trump's reversals of Obama-era protections--I don't see that as true here, though I cannot speak about the practices in the UK). Rowling fears predators who could lurk in women's restrooms and changing rooms, a trope oft-quoted by conservatives as a way to speak out against trans-rights, and a point which has little statistical merit.  Rowling also writes on women's experiences being unique in our strength and power, if not marred by harassment and abuse.  If I'm interpreting her writing correctly, she fears that by allowing anyone to just "become a woman" if they feel like it, it cheapens the lived experience of womanhood.  Additionally, she quotes controversial American researcher Lisa Littman, who wrote that she observed whole friend groups seemingly and suddenly coming out as trans, pointing to the "social contagion and peer influences" of gender dysphoria.  This point, is probably the least well-researched and the most maddening.  I'm not sure the extent to which Littman's "research" has been peer-reviewed and thus debunked, but there are so many reasons why multiple friends in one group might discover together that they are trans, including similar interests, a mutually supportive teacher or mentor to whom they all seek guidance, an LGBT-inclusivity club or activity that they happen to bond over, etc. As we know, correlation is not causation, and anyone using their intellect and their heart must know that you cannot "turn" someone trans any more easily than you can "turn" someone gay (i.e. you can't).

The issue here is that Rowling is not using the brains of a Ravenclaw, the courage of a Gryffindor, the heart of a Hufflepuff, or even the leadership of a Slytherin.  I sometimes think of Rowling like she's caught in a time capsule, still a late-twenties single mother writing the first Harry Potter on napkins and paper scraps at a cafe in Edinburgh, rather than the fifty-four year old woman that she is.  Not that age defines progressiveness, but the passing of time combined with privilege (wealth, heterosexual, white), perhaps, have influenced her more than we like to think.  The problem is what do we now do with this information, now that it has landed in a pile of disappointment and anger, like a Howler on our doorsteps?

I think that so much of the sadness that we, Harry Potter fans, feel, is due to the irony of the situation; she isn't heeding the voices of the characters she created herself.  While the books admittedly lack a 2020 vision of diversity and inclusion (I have since read fantasy novels with gay characters and gender-fluid characters--shoutout to Victoria Schwabe's Shades of Magic series! EDIT 7/6: Alison Goodman's Eon duology also features trans and gay protagonists), Rowling penned, albeit, subtly, Black , Jewish, Indian, and Asian characters among the ones to courageously take down He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.  The Weasley family, all of them serving in some capacity in the final battle of Hogwarts, lacks the money and status of some other more "pureblood" wizard families.  Hermione, muggle-born, is arguably one of the most triumphantly feminist characters ever written.  Luna Lovegood is quirky and weird and is symbolic of all misfits.  Tonks is a vaguely gender-queer rebel badass.  Lupin is a shabby and lonely professor with a deep secret and the most generous heart. And, I'm unsure which way this cuts, but debatably in a too-little-too-late and perfunctory sort of way, Rowling announced in 2007 that she always saw Dumbledore as gay.  Although in a 1990s sort of careful and overwhelmingly white, Christian-centric way,  the books are overwhelmingly filled with the themes of not just tolerance but acceptance and celebrations of differences.

Rowling also taught us the power of humility and the ability to change and become a better person.  We learn in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (#5) that James Potter, Harry's father, was arrogant and prideful in his youth, bullying the dark and brooding Snape. We see other moments throughout the books where a character does not project the best version of themselves.  Harry and Ron snap at each other in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (#4), emotions coming to a head due to hormones and jealously.  Harry's pride gets in the way more than once, as his hubris leads him to seriously wound Malfoy and throw a tantrum at Dumbledore, who was only trying to protect him in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (#6). Sirius Black, we learn, was also part of James's gang who harassed Snape as kids.  Snape, takes his jealousy of James and longing for Lily out on Harry, tormenting him and his friends at school.  The reason I mention these less-than-ideal moments is because in the end, the characters come around and realize which way the moral compass is leading them.  James changes, with the help of Lily, to become a better man.  While I'm not sure he ever apologizes to Snape, though he at least becomes a seminal member of the Order of the Phoenix and sacrifices his life, along with Lily to save Harry. In classic redemption arc storytelling, Snape ultimately serves as a double-agent for the good guys and sacrifices himself for the cause.  Ron learns how to be friends with a famous person without getting all bent out of shape about it, and Harry's ego drops a few pegs as he becomes the hero he was born to be.

I write all this to say, why can't JK Rowling act like her characters?  If Rowling were writing herself, here's what would happen.  Rowling's agent will delete or suspend her Twitter account for a while and would demand that she refrain from re-explaining herself on her website.  Some of her friends will quite literally bop her on the head and tell her that she's "completely mental."  Then she will begin the process of learning--a process she has said that she has already done because she "talks with trans people."  But this time, she will really learn and listen with an open heart.  If she is interested in studies and statistics like she seems to be, she will read real studies in peer-reviewed journals that are promoted by GLAAD, HRC, and other notable and reputable organizations.  She will issue a true apology to all of those who she has hurt.  She will understand, as Emma Watson so simply and beautifully put it, that 'trans people are who they say they are."  She will demonstrate that she is changed through writing, activism, education programs for children, and charities for LGBTQ youth.  She will learn that trans people, particularly trans people of color, are a part of a particularly vulnerable community who need our support rather than doubt and skepticism.

I cannot say it any more perfectly than Daniel Radcliffe, who released a statement saying, "If these books taught you that love is the strongest force in the universe, capable of overcoming anything; if they taught you that strength is found in diversity, and that dogmatic ideas of pureness lead to the oppression of vulnerable groups; if you believe that a particular character is trans, nonbinary, or gender fluid, or that they are gay or bisexual; if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred."

Rowling taught a generation and more to stand up for what's right.  Now it's our time to teach her.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Dancing in the time of Covid

In an effort to get back into writing, I've decided to document some experiences of dancing, teaching dance, and engaging in other artistic endeavors throughout the coronavirus crisis.

Today, I had a particularly dance-centered day, and it was wonderful. I teach a modern class on Thursdays over Zoom (Join me! Approximately intermediate level but all levels welcome! https://us02web.zoom.us/j/6815439759).  My crop today were three dance teachers, all of whom teach in Chicago Public Schools and are excellent leaders in the world of dance education.  I love teaching dance to beginners, but when you teach to other dancers or dance teachers, it feels wonderful to jive and flow with little necessity to stop and explain.

Following my class, I went straight into a Gaga class streamed from New York, taught my Omri of Batsheva.  I couldn't believe when I arrived at the Zoom class that there were about 250 people tuned in!  I arrived a few minutes late since my class backed right up into the Gaga class, and it was my first one--I had no idea Gaga on Zoom had gained such a following.  Most of the class, I had the screen centered on Omri using "speaker view" but on occasion I changed it to gallery view to see some of the other dancers.  It was a bit hard to mentally focus amidst such exciting togetherness, and at one point I just had to scroll through the pages and pages on Zoom (12 of them?) to see everyone's movement.  Next time, I will be more focused on my own class and not fiddle with the screen, but this first time I couldn't help but look around me at all these beautiful people, dancing together in their individual spaces.  I even caught the the names of some old friends I've danced with in Israel in the past.  Check out Gaga's streamed classes, offered at convenient times in local Tel Aviv or Eastern Standard Time.  https://www.gagapeople.com/en/gaga-online/

Later I attended an ILDEO meeting (Illinois Dance Education Organization) and gathered with other local dance teachers to talk about issues and ideas with teaching dance remotely.

To keep feeling inspired, I find that collaborating with other artists has been a fulfilling use of my time during this quarantine. Here are a few things I've done or will be doing:

  • Composer Dorian Wallace's 100 Seconds to Midnight, an Earth Day musician and dancer collaboration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgFYLs2l5O0
  • Dancing in the Socially Distant Orchestra (Adam Grannick) excerpt from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=611447409714493
  • Playing horn in the Socially Distant Orchestra excerpt from Holst's The Planets; Jupiter: (upcoming)
  • Singing (possibly, if I get my nerve up) in the Eric Whitacre Virtual Choir
Collaborating on a piece of art keeps us together during these distant times, and keeps us alive, inspired, and resilient.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Today I had the pleasure of watching a Hubbard Street rehearsal for Decadance. They were rehearsing Minus 16 with a representative from Batsheva. This piece--which I have seen Batsheva, HS, and Alvin Ailey perform--never gets old for me. Today I saw the dancers, who I usually view as stars--as people. They laughed and joked. One fell out of the chair in a particularly exuberant moment. They shouted and worked on their pronunciation of "shebashemaym u'vaarertz." They arched again and again.
I saw Minus 16 for the first time as a sophomore at U of I, when Batsheva came to Krannert. I fell in love with this grinding groove of rock-Hebrew-folk, a song I knew since childhood. It strikes me as irreverent and yet somehow completely spiritual. I love it, and it was amazing to get an insider glimpse of the rehearsal process.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Black Lives Matter...thoughts from the woods of Michigan

I realize there's been a lot of awful things in the news lately. I feel separated from it here in the naturey, artsy haven that is Interlochen. I've been trying to catch up and read about the latest terrible events that have rocked the black community. I began to have conversations with colleagues about what we can do. I also saw Abraham.In.Motion, perform here, a dance company that focuses on physical portrayal of social issues. The nearly all-black company performed a piece representing the events in Baltimore and Furguson, and it was very powerful for me, and relevant. What am I trying to say? I'm not sure exactly, what I wanted to say I am here, and I am with you.

The dichotomy...
From a Black Lives Matter protest in Chicago, November 2015

Interlochen's Kresge Auditorium

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Blog revival!

I'm currently back at Interlochen Arts Camp, teaching this summer, and so it seems like the perfect time to revive this blog!

Stay tuned for updates from the "Land of the Stately Pine!'

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Twelve Years Ago

Twelve years ago, a 13 year old girl had a piece of her innocent view of the world torn apart as she watched the towers fall live.  She was a freshman in high school, and believing in all things idealistic and optimistic, she broke down when her world ceased to turn.  She watched in the fine arts wing of her highschool with her band, choir, and orchestra mates, as concrete turned to rubble, as computers, printers, millions of sheets of paper, and humans....turned to ash.  Our major symphony turned minor....eerie...dissonant.

That night, the girl went to her safe place, the studio.  The language was the French vocabulary of ballet, but the metaphor was a powerful one--the real and human connection of movement.

Twelve years ago, some other children, not more than five years old, toddled around their living rooms, confused why their parents were glued to the television, ashen-faced, or picking up the telephone with tense, hushed voices.

Twelve years later--today--the worlds of the girl and these children collided.  In the no-long-children's eyes, she sees a bit of same teenage innocence she possessed.  They inspire her and remind her why it's okay to still believe in the goodness in the world, to live every second.  The beauty is there, in our steps and in our voices. "I want to walk into the sun and be unapologetic," they say.  I believe we will.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Final Gaga Experiences

More than a week later, I say shalom again, where we have since had one more week of sweating, grooving, and floating as part of the Gaga intensive.  It was an experience I won't forget, and it was amazing to work with Ohad Naharin and amazing Batsheva masters.

Much of the week was a bit challenging for me personally because I was sick some of the time--I contracted either food poisoning or a stomach virus of some kind that caused on/off pains from Sunday-Wednesday.  I'm writing this/sparing unpleasant details not to be dramatic but because of what it revealed about my dancing.  This was a new realm for me--working through through injury is not unfamiliar to me (for better or for worse), as well as dancing when simply feeling "under the weather". This was a bit different than these usual ailments.  But I found surprisingly that if I had the strength to actually push really hard, the ache usually eased up for a bit.  Don't get me wrong, there were times I admit I was lazy in class.  But if I had the guts to push, I felt like the heat and subsequent sweat was a healing power.  By the last two days I was feeling better.  It was a big bummer (to use really intellectual vocabulary) that it had to happen during the workshop--but now I feel like I can push through anything. :)

It was incredible to have the opportunity to have Ohad, specifically, so many times, and to hear his reactions in our final discussion.  Behind a disposition that once intimidated me (or still does a bit actually), he is a very humble man who concerns himself not with the fame of his work or the acclaim of his company, but rather with spreading the joy of movement to all people.  In our final discussion, someone asked him about the fame of Gaga and Batsheva, and he said that it does not matter much to him--all that matters is that his dancers and students are doing something out of joy and making art that feels right.

Another interesting thing is that I found out he calls Gaga a "movement language," not a technique.  After two weeks of studying this, I understand that it really is a language that you can use to enhance your vocabulary and influence your own...dialect of movement.

It was also amazing how many dancers came from around the world—the number of languages I heard spoken (real ones, that is, amongst the Gaga language :) ), the number of people who flock to Tel Aviv for dance (and definitely not all, or maybe even not even most are Jewish!)—is incredible.  The complex weavings of Israeli historical and religious significance is just a secondary aspect for which the main purpose for the pilgrimage is dance.  I met some special people with whom I hope to be in touch.

I’ve been thinking a lot of what I can take from this workshop.  I feel like this time around studying Gaga, I have gained even more knowledge that is applicable to dance technique and my teaching style.  When I studied in Tel Aviv in 2008, it was an incredible experience, but I realize in hindsight it was truly only an introduction to Gaga.  Now that I have participated in an in-depth workshop that applies the technique to Batsheva repertoire, I realize its scope of influence, and how technique seems more free and flexibility is more available.  As I move on to student teaching in just a couple weeks, I hope that the Gaga language will help me speak about dance in a way that will excite young dancers.  Something I’ve always loved about Gaga and has drawn me to it since the beginning is its life, joy, and movement-affirming qualities.  Our teachers at this workshop—maybe Ohad more than anyone else—see movement as an ultimate blessing and healing power.  I hope I can take this joy and transmit it in my passion for teaching.