'Interview with James Welsby: 50 years of queer dance history' / Ivana Brehas
Cover image: Left to right: Rolly, James Welsby (Valerie Hex), and Ally Cat. Photograph by Gregory Lorenzutti.
Choreographer and drag artist James Welsby (a.k.a. Valerie Hex) describes his latest work as an “exquisite corpse” — a mish-mash of time periods, settings and cultures spanning the last 50 years of queer dance history. Titled Dancing Qweens, the show is being presented by Midsumma Festival and Dancehouse, with workshops, classes and conversation panels accompanying the performance season. Verve sat down with James to discuss the past, present, and future of queer dance.
I was kind of nervous about doing this interview. I thought, “I’m not an experienced dance practitioner, or student or scholar of dance — what am I going to be able to talk to him about?” But then I thought, that’s part of the purpose of discussing the history of queer dance — making it accessible to everyone, not just “dance people”. So I’d like you to explain Dancing Qweens to me in the way you’d explain it to a layperson.
James Welsby: It’s like a mini-festival focusing on queer dance, which doesn’t really exist as a genre in the way that other things do. I am making the case that queer dance exists as a genre. There are unlimited different facets to it, but it’s something that’s worth exploring and investigating deeply, in a broad and inclusive way. That’s what we’re trying to do with this project.
If you look at queerness as a political phenomenon, it’s about subverting norms — gender norms, sexuality norms, power dynamics. You’re looking at people who are historically marginalized for their gender identity and their sexuality, and that produces a culture in and of itself. We’re really talking about culture here, more than anything else.
Dancing Qweens focuses on 50 years of queer dance history. Why 50 years? Well, it’s 50 years since the Stonewall riots, so that’s historically significant; and 50 years is historically significant because it’s half a century. There’s been so much progress and advancement made in queer determination, identity, rights and culture in 50 years.
The show starts with a little ‘60s ballroom dancing scene. In ballroom dancing, the man always leads and the woman always follows — it’s like the law. That might be wonderful for a lot of people, but what about people who want to invert that dynamic? That’s something that you find in same-sex ballroom — the partners can swap roles.
Then, the show moves to the ’70s. The setting is a discotheque; the dance style is waacking. Waacking is a queer punk style that’s very joyous and extroverted, in a Hollywood kind of way, but it’s also very queer. It was created by queer people of colour. One of the stars of the Melbourne waacking scene is in the show. Her name’s Maggie — her dancing name is Mad Fox — and she’s one of a handful of people who are allowed to teach waacking in Melbourne. She performs and also teaches the audience a bit of waacking. The show’s a history lesson, a dance class, a performance — an interactive, glorious monster.
The 80s setting is a music video, and it’s looking at coding, like the way George Michael moves in his music videos — the coding that tells you he’s a gay man even before he came out. Like, a limp wrist — that’s real coding for an effeminate gay man. If you stylize that into choreography, then it’s body language as dance, and dance as identity, or as culture.
Then the show moves into the 90s and references voguing — which was invented long before the 90s, but had a cultural explosion because of Madonna. Voguing is a queer style from New York, created by black and Latino queer and trans dancers and artists from Harlem, and it’s spread the globe. The Australian voguing scene is fairly young — it exists mostly in Sydney. An artist called Rolly, who’s a Māori boy from New Zealand, does the voguing in that section of the show.
The last setting in the show is the 2000s, and that’s heels dancing. The setting is the internet. So if you think of Kazaky — or, I guess, Beyoncé — a style emerged that’s like street jazz but done in high heels. Because of the way the heels make you move, it became a dance style in and of itself. Beyoncé’s had many queer choreographers and stylists throughout her career.
There’s also three panel discussions, two days of workshops for performance makers, and 10 technique classes — in voguing, waacking, heels, same-sex ballroom, Bollywood camp, Afro-Caribbean, improvisation, same-sex Latin, and Indigenous identity and queer dance — all taught by different teachers with different backgrounds and different things to bring to the table.
It’s a kaleidoscopic project. It’s not “a show about voguing” — it’s a show about ballroom and waacking and heels and music videos and voguing. It’s a smorgasbord, really. My goal is to introduce as many people to as many styles as possible, in the hope that they’ll connect with some of them, and then continue their relationship with that style.
It’s really important that it didn’t all just come from me, because I can only represent myself and the experience that I have. It’s so much bigger than that. The goal was always to include as many people as possible in the project with different gender identities and dance backgrounds.
James Welsby (Valerie Hex). Photographs by Matto Lucas.
That seems really comprehensive. I’m interested in the research process — how much time it took, if you learned anything new or surprising, or if your perspective changed in the process of making Dancing Qweens.
JW: I don’t know if it is comprehensive, but it’s pretty broad. We did a thing earlier in the year called the Queer Dance Series which was kind of a trial, or pilot, as part of my year-long residency at Dancehouse, and we had 10 queer dance classes — “queer” as in, I made an argument that they were queer — for 10 weeks. I did all 10 of them, and I really enjoyed it.
My research process was with those 10 different teachers. I did a workshop in each, and I also interviewed them — looked at who they are and what they do — and tried to get teachers that are authentically from those communities. I did hands-on, practical research with training from people from the voguing community, the waacking community, same-sex ballroom, same-sex Latin, et cetera.
I also did a lot of research at the Gay & Lesbian Archives on St Kilda Road. So I learned a lot. I met a lot of people, and in the show I engage with these different dancers. So it’s kind of about me being a common thread, but all these experts are bringing their deep knowledge and history in the show.
It’s a very interactive show, as well. It’s partly a dance class. It’s much more light on than actually going to a real dance class — you could do it in jeans. But it’s that element of oral tradition — teaching through spoken word, rather than writing things down — that I wanted to highlight. Storytelling and teaching is part of queer history.
Where does someone begin in approaching this show? A panel? A workshop?
JW: The two days of workshops are for performance makers — artists who already have a practice — but the technique classes are for everyone. They’re pitched at an open level, which means that they’re meant to be very user-friendly. The teachers know to pitch it at a beginner-friendly level, and then if people come who are clearly much more experienced, the teachers will challenge them and modify up. But it’s not about, “advanced, intermediate, beginner” — it’s about an open level, finding a way to challenge everybody. It’s possible; it’s been done — we did it in the Queer Dance Series already.
I think of dance as really safe. You’re not doing parkour in the CBD. You warm up properly, and you have a teacher who understands that people’s bodies are different. It’s about finding how you can do the most, but knowing that people have limits.
Give everything a go. Maybe look at the program and choose one thing — like the show, or a panel, or something that is interesting to you and you know you’re going to like — and then choose one thing that you have no idea what it is, and just give it a go. If you hate it, you can get your money back. (laughs) But you might just learn something.
The description of the show says that it enquires into the future of queer dance. What do you think, or hope, the future of queer dance might be?
JW: When communities that have been historically marginalized become more accepted and assimilated, it’s possible that that culture may be lost — and there are plenty of examples of that happening. They can lose their identity somewhat. You always have to remember, and pay homage to, the founders and gatekeepers of those styles. These cultures were born out of struggle.
In the case of something like voguing, which comes from queer and trans people of colour, I think that queer and trans people of colour always need to be the center and face of that community, and make the decisions for that community. I’m a white artist. I’m lucky enough to be involved in the voguing scene. I know that that’s a privilege. It’s really important that I’m never the face of that, or seen as a champion of it. I can help and be a part of it, but really, it needs to be represented by the people whose culture it really is.
I want to see a voguing community develop in Australia that centres around queer people of colour. I also want to see a drag community in Australia that takes dance more seriously, and engages a younger generation of artists to push the envelope in their rigour and approach to choreography, because a lot of drag choreography is just basic as all hell, and I hate it. It’s tacky, it’s boring, and it’s easy. And I think easy isn’t always the way.
Dancing Qweens runs from 21 January – 3 February. For more information, and to book tickets, click here.