Make It New: “Triversity” and West Coast Swing

“I don’t plan on getting political. But I need to say this: that was incredible. I don’t see three women dancing. I see three performance artists kicking ass and doing their thing.” –Robert Royston

Hours after watching Triversity perform at DCSX (November 19th, 2017), I struggled to articulate my thoughts—mostly because my voice kept catching and I was definitely going to cry and my words failed to give voice to the power of what I watched. I know these women. I’ve danced with them and watched them dance. They’ve led and I’ve followed. I tried to lead and they followed. In particular, Helen Chao is a fellow co-founder of Camp Westie, our alternative dance experience we created in 2015. I’ve seen her personal story evolve during that time, leading her begin a degree in social work. These dancers are powerful both on and off the dance floor.

The Triversity Performance was something so intricate and powerful in what they created, what they innovated on the dance floor. It was watching a dance form that I know and love glimpse new potentials. This dance is not staying the same and never has—that is the nature of West Coast Swing. It is a dance defined by evolution, even when that evolution frustrates, frightens, or undermines old methods and structures.

Sitting beside that dance floor, I watched the dance become new all over again. And I wept in the face of how beautiful it is being made. And not just being made in some unknown future—it’s beautiful in the present.

Triversity is a team of three women who are “ambidanceterous”: they both lead and follow, both on the social dance floor and in competitions. Just that weekend, one of the dancers received first in the intermediate Jack and Jill and another had placed in finals as a leader for the Advanced Jack and Jill—the only female lead to do so. The fact that there are female leads in Advanced and male follows in the Advanced division feels like a new phenomenon, one not seen even three years ago—or at least, it was not permitted in official competitions for points and so it was not seen. Points matter and where the points go, so go the dancers.

The fact that this is a team of three is also a unique development. Steal dances and teams of 3 have long existed as “games” in dance events and dance communities. In a style based on the traditional models of “one lead-one follow,” the introduction of three partners is a departure from the norm. And the performance itself did not follow any standard or typical exploration of a 3-person dance (where it’s either two leads steal leading one follow or one lead with two follows).

There was no clear lead/follow role in this dance but a complicated, complex, rich exploration of movement and music.

To quote a recent video I watched, “We don’t want to put a limitation on our art.”

It is impossible to talk about Triversity without also mentioning dcRolePlay, the dance team where these three dancers first met and collaborated. I wrote about dcRolePlay on this blog two years ago when I first saw them perform at SwingFling in August 2015. I was moved by the power that de-gendering dance roles gave to the performance and felt like dance had fundamentally changed for me.

This happened again when I saw Triversity.

To offer the fullest commentary on Triversity, I must add the note that I’ve been disappointed in the most recent dcRolePlay performances and disappointed in a way that will illuminate the critical work that Triversity has taken on.  dcRolePlay, instead of de-gendering being the medium for their art, it has become the subject of their art, their song choices including music from “Rent” and their opening arrangement highlighting different relationship structures. This shift to explicit statements is, I must note, entirely understandable desire given the shift in political climate in the last year and the rise of hate crimes–and in regards to the movements within west coast itself to evolve against those stories. It makes sense–and yet it is a limited approach when many of us long to see question-free, degendered dancing. Politically, perhaps we aren’t there yet (NASDE just decided to not de-gender their routine divisions). I look forward to the day that we are.

Triversity has stepped into a critical, innovative space in the dance world. They are making art. They are redefining the dance. They are doing what dcRolePlay did before them—exploring the artistic edges where gender is not the central story in partner dance. I struggle to suggest that they are creating “beyond” the conversation of de-gendering. For example, I would hate to suggest that women not write or create about “women’s experiences” because they are somehow less “universal” as many [male] literary critics have suggested in the past. But rather, I see here the chance to create within and from a new narrative.

Yet Robert Royston’s statement was a testament to the power of this exploration: this was art—art created by performance artists who did their work with power and grace. There is truth in this. Triversity has taken a new narrative about what it means to be in a dance and made something literally new with that story. That is, in my book, more interesting in this present moment. I am grateful for dance spaces that create in this kind of way, that take stories about who we are and what we are in the world and make something that is powerful and empowering. There is room to make new things with a creative dance space that Helen, Faith, and Katia have created.

A special shout out to DanceJam Productions where the video I shared was taken, an event company that has officially de-gendered competitions at all of their events.

NASDE: you’re next.

Photo by Dan Sweet





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