Dancer to Dancer

It Gets Better—Really: 5 Queer Dance Pros Share What it Was Like to Come Out

James Whiteside (photo by Nisian Hughes, courtesy Whiteside)

The world isn't always a welcoming place for LGBTQIA+ people. But for those figuring out their sexuality, dance can provide welcome opportunities for expression. We talked to five star dancers about their experiences coming out and growing up, and how dance helped them live their full truth.


Kyle Abraham, Artistic Director of A.I.M

Kyle Abraham (right) in rehearsal (photo by Tim Barden, courtesy A.I.M.)

For whatever reason, people were calling me gay before I had a chance to figure out how I identified. But I'm so happy to have come out when I did. I was 15 years old, and it was actually music, TV, and movies that made me comfortable with the idea of being gay. Seeing queer representation in music, like Morrissey, the singer for The Smiths—there was such a beautiful ambiguity about who the music was written for, who the pining was for.

A lot of my friends were heavily involved in zine and rave culture, and the openness really created a space for me to come out to the people in my inner circle and then to family. Dance was an outlet for feelings of isolation and loneliness. You can connect that to my sexual orientation, but you don't have to. Race plays such a powerful role in both my identity and sexual orientation. In America, we're still fighting hard for black folks to be seen as beautiful. We need to be patient and empathetic toward our differences, rather than negating what makes us powerful and special.

If someone comes out to you, tell them that you're there as a sounding board for anything they need. Don't say, "I love you no matter what." Tell them that you love them even more than you did before the conversation. You should be so proud of them for exposing more of their true self to you.


Emma Portner, Choreographer and L.A. Dance Project Artist-in-Residence

Photo by Alex Black, courtesy Portner

I went to a very queer-friendly arts high school and never felt like I had to "come out." I was just myself, and that followed me into young adulthood. One of my ballet teachers at my high school was a lesbian, and her role in my life was super-important. My parents were supportive, but I always kept my sexuality a secret at my competition studio. I was afraid the other parents wouldn't let me dance with their daughters anymore. I was free and in hiding, depending on the day, where I was, and who I was around.

Being in a highly visible queer relationship is like being in any other highly visible relationship, except that your existence challenges what's considered normal. In that way, being queer comes with more responsibility and weight. It means you recognize and confront oppression, and that's a beautiful thing. Of course, people staring at you while you're getting groceries is weird and invasive, but it's no challenge compared to what trans women of color, indigenous people, or racial minorities face every single day of their lives.

Early on in my choreographic career, I made it a point to have women dance together intimately, supporting each other equally, with strength. My work has always mirrored who I am. If my story, as someone who was judged, bullied, and taken advantage of, can be a beacon of hope for struggling LGBTQIA+ youth, I'm so happy for that. I want to tell those kids to find something (or someone, or somewhere) that brings them a feeling of safety, and to hold on to that thing. Dance was that thing for me.


Nick Lazzarini, Founding Partner of Shaping Sound

Photo by Joe Toreno

For as long as I can remember, I've always identified more with females. Growing up, I had friends who were girls, who turned into girlfriends. But in the back of my mind I always knew I liked boys. When my parents and I finally talked about it, it was after I did "So You Think You Can Dance." My mom came out to visit me in Las Vegas. She said, "You can talk to us about anything. Your girl problems...or boy problems." I turned white, but my mom said nothing was changing, and that she and my dad were happy I could be my full self. She said they had always known.

When I was a kid, dance gave me a safe space. In school, especially elementary school, I felt like I couldn't speak up or be myself because of bullies. Being around my friends in dance allowed me to be who I was. Once, when I was about 13, I got in a fight with another kid. I just snapped after years of bullying. It wasn't the right thing to do, but I understand why it happened. It's important to remember that kids aren't born mean. Fortunately, I've always maintained a tight-knit group of friends, people who knew me before I came out, and who have always been there for me. It's important to find those people who you know, no matter what, will be there for you to fall back on.


Ariana DeBose, Broadway Dancer

Photo by Jenny Anderson, courtesy Debose

When I was younger, friends would ask why I didn't have a boyfriend. My answer was always "Because I'm not interested and I sure don't have the time." You know: #icantihaverehearsal. Growing up, I was very focused on my training. It wasn't until I moved to NYC that I really started exploring my sexuality—though, looking back, I realize it was dance that taught me how to be vulnerable with others.

I absolutely consider myself an advocate for queer dancers. Working in the Broadway community has given me a platform, and I take that very seriously. I think letting young people see that you can, in fact, be a successful artist and be out and proud gives them something to hope for. I was one of those young dancers, once. And while I might not have been bullied, I know what it feels like to stay silent for fear of being judged. I want young people to know that attraction is a good and natural thing. Standing in your truth is one of the most difficult and empowering things you will ever do for yourself.


James Whiteside, Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre

Photo by Nisian Hughes, courtesy Whiteside

I've always been aware that I'm cisgender but I have an extreme fascination with the feminine, and a deep respect for it, as well. As far as my homosexuality is concerned, others were aware of it before I was able to accept it. My friends would suggest that I was a homosexual, to which I'd vehemently reply "No I'm not!" After a while, it became clear that they'd noticed something I didn't yet have the strength to face.

As a young person, I was bullied because I was a dancer. I was called fairy, faggot, pussy, pansy, and more. When I was in high school, my friend asked me to dance with her in a pep rally. I was terrified, but I was also determined to show people that my life wasn't a joke, that I should be taken seriously and respected—pretty intense stuff for a 16-year-old. My friend and I choreographed a number to Britney Spears' "Oops! I Did it Again," and when we performed it, the school went nuts. I felt vindicated, and learned that the best way to shut up your haters is to rise above them. Like Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen" says, "Everybody hatin', we just call 'em fans though."

Now I'm beyond willing to be vocal, honest, and blunt about my sexuality. I am not ashamed. If that inspires others to accept themselves, then my heart is full. Once you've found yourself, help others find themselves.


A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "It Gets Better—Really."

Show Comments ()
How To
Thinkstock

Picture this: You're in rehearsal, and you finally get a move the way the choreographer wants it—except that it makes your back twinge each time. Should you say you're in pain, or should you suck it up and keep going? You don't want to injure yourself, but you also don't want to jeopardize your role.

The dance world often teaches students to be quiet and obedient around authority figures. That said, there are definitely instances when you need to speak your mind. Try these tips to navigate sticky situations.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

Keep reading... Show less
Victoria Caban brought the heat with her flamenco routine. (via YouTube)

I never thought we'd make it here, you guys, but after 11 grueling weeks of competition and five rounds of Duels, "World of Dance" will enter The Cuts phase of the show next week. The talent is unreal this season, which makes the goodbyes that much harder. Last night, during the last round of The Duels, we witnessed a mass exodus, as only six acts advanced to the final round. My heart still hurts a little, and I've got no more tears left to cry, but I'll pull it together to recap the evening for you.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Showstopper is the nation's leading dance competition. It provides the perfect platform for dancers, teachers, and choreographers to showcase their talents and hard work. Showstopper's environment is inviting, motivating, and above all, inspiring. If you haven't experienced it, now is the time!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
He's been appearing on/choreographing for the show since 2006. (Adam Rose/FOX)

"Mister Travis Wall," as Cat Deeley would say, has had one heck of an epic "So You Think You Can Dance" journey. Since first appearing on the show as a contestant during Season 2 (back when he had frosted tips!), he's become one of the series' most respected choreographers and mentors. In fact, his work for "SYTYCD" has earned him Emmy nominations every year since 2011. EVERY. YEAR.

To celebrate his latest Emmy noms—for "SYT" Season 14's "Change is Everything" and "Strange Fruit"—The Wrap magazine talked to T.Wall about what the show has meant to his life. And as always, Travis was full of dancy wisdom.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Class at the University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance (photo by Ema Peter, courtesy USC)

If you closed your eyes and pictured dance paradise, what would it look like? Maybe you'd start your morning in rehearsal with a renowned contemporary choreographer, and then work on a dance driven by computer programming, and then run to a music video audition, and end the day discussing the impact of African dance styles on American pop culture.

Guess what? That dance paradise isn't just a dream. It's the University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, a young program that's already attracting some of the most talented dancers around—for good reason.

Click here to meet Alyssa Allen, Simrin Player, and Jake Tribus, three of USC's standout students.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Jo Rowan (front) teaching ballet class at Oklahoma City University (photo by Shane Bevel, courtesy OCU)

Let's say this right up front: Everyone agrees that a talented dancer can move to NYC or L.A., start auditioning, and get booked without a dance degree. And graduating from a program doesn't guarantee that you'll have a successful dance career. So, what weight does a degree carry in the industry? "The reality today is that if you don't get a degree, you will be at a disadvantage," says Dr. Sally R. Sommer, director of the Florida State University dance department's semester-long immersion program in NYC. Proactive and engaged college students become more adaptable, thoughtful, and resilient dancers. Combine these qualities with a deeper understanding of dance history, practical experience with the professional expectations of choreographers, and access to a growing community of peers, guest artists, faculty, and alumni, and it's easy to see why a degree could mean more doors are open to you.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun

In case you missed it, our favorite actress/dance fangirl Jennifer Garner hit the studio this weekend to brush up on her technique (stars, they really are just like us). And the end result might be even better than Garner's #TutuTuesday posts. At the request of American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, Garner took to her Instagram story to participate in Lil Buck's #GoinInCirclesChallenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Jo Rowan (front) teaching ballet class at Oklahoma City University (photo by Shane Bevel, courtesy OCU)

Let's say this right up front: Everyone agrees that a talented dancer can move to NYC or L.A., start auditioning, and get booked without a dance degree. And graduating from a program doesn't guarantee that you'll have a successful dance career. So, what weight does a degree carry in the industry? "The reality today is that if you don't get a degree, you will be at a disadvantage," says Dr. Sally R. Sommer, director of the Florida State University dance department's semester-long immersion program in NYC. Proactive and engaged college students become more adaptable, thoughtful, and resilient dancers. Combine these qualities with a deeper understanding of dance history, practical experience with the professional expectations of choreographers, and access to a growing community of peers, guest artists, faculty, and alumni, and it's easy to see why a degree could mean more doors are open to you.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
The Top 10, sporting some EYEBROWS, in the opening number (Michael Becker/FOX)

And then there were eight. Just as we were starting to get attached to the Top 10, those pesky "So You Think You Can Dance" rules came into play and forced us (er, the judges) to slash two of the finalists from the competition. How rude! (But, Nigel announced ever-so-proudly, the entire Top 10 will be going on tour together once the season wraps.) Before the eliminations, each couple performed twice—and never in any dancer's own style. "So anything could happen," explained Cat Deeley, clad in a splashy, sequined floral minidress and a massive hair bow. And oh boy, a LOT of things did.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Soooo gorgeous. (via Instagram)

Edgar Degas' famous sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen has been getting a lot of love recently—and by "love," we mean everything from a tutu upgrade to a full-on musical telling her story. But artist Doyle V. Trankina's reimagining of the sculpture, with none other than Misty Copeland taking the place of the young Paris Opéra Ballet School student who inspired the original? It might be our favorite Little Dancer tribute yet.

Keep reading... Show less
Giveaways

Tired of uncomfortable tights that dig into your waist and create unflattering bulges? Body Wrappers' knitted wide-waisted tights will keep you comfortable and give you the confidence you need to perform your very best during dance class. Enter below for your chance to win a pair!

Keep reading... Show less
How To
Thinkstock

Because they're the one part of college applications you don't do yourself, teacher recommendations can feel like big, scary question marks. As Sarah Langford, college counselor at The Chicago Academy for the Arts, says, "When admissions chooses between equally talented candidates, a memorable letter can put you in the 'yes' pile." But take heart: You have more control over what ends up in these letters than you might realize. Here, Langford and Sarah Lovely, director of college counseling at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, spill the secrets to ensuring you'll get letters that'll help launch you into the dance department of your dreams.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
The P-rouette shoe is made from 3D-printed fabrics—and our minds are seriously blown. (via Dezeen)

Pointe shoes printed on a 3D printer may sound like something only possible in the future. But imagine our surprise when we found out these high-tech shoes actually exist! Yes, you read that correctly...you can PRINT pointe shoes—and the end result offers less pain and way more durability than traditional methods.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Giphy

Although we watch "So You Think You Can Dance" for the killer choreography and fantabulous dancing, sometimes the show is downright hilarious, too. Here are seven laugh-out-loud "SYT" moments that still have us giggling.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
The Top 10, sporting some EYEBROWS, in the opening number (Michael Becker/FOX)

And then there were eight. Just as we were starting to get attached to the Top 10, those pesky "So You Think You Can Dance" rules came into play and forced us (er, the judges) to slash two of the finalists from the competition. How rude! (But, Nigel announced ever-so-proudly, the entire Top 10 will be going on tour together once the season wraps.) Before the eliminations, each couple performed twice—and never in any dancer's own style. "So anything could happen," explained Cat Deeley, clad in a splashy, sequined floral minidress and a massive hair bow. And oh boy, a LOT of things did.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Giveaways