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Levan Gelbakhiani in And Then We Danced. Image: © Music Box Films

When I was in Year 12, I wrote a short story that everyone called brave and devastating and really important. It was none of those things. It was about a fictional American artist whose boyfriend had left him, so he built a house and called it a sculpture.

There was no underlying metaphor, but people were quick to ascribe meaning to it anyway. Was the boyfriend actually a secret suitor I had been seeing? (No—I had never even been kissed.) Was the breakup a reference to a Pride event at my school that had been cancelled a few weeks prior because of complaints from conservative teachers? (No, although I wish it was.) Was the story a thinly-veiled coming-out? (This one confused me the most—I was already out, and had been since Year 10.)

Suddenly, people began taking an interest in my queerness, and for a while, I relished the attention. It felt like karmic balance was finally being restored—for all the lunchtimes I had spent alone and lonely, wishing for a friend, or even a casual acquaintance.

But slowly, I began to feel like a sham. As more and more classmates I had never spoken to before asked me about the mechanics of anal sex—a question I couldn’t possibly answer—I had one realisation: that I didn’t know anything about being queer.

*

To rectify this, I devoured whatever queer films I could find lodged in the backwaters of Pirate Bay. In one night, I watched:

Beautiful Thing (1996), about two working-class boys living on a London council estate who fall in love, first love;
Edge of Seventeen (1998), about a boy’s summer fling with his hunky co-worker, and his eventual heartbreak; and
I Killed My Mother (2009), about a troubled teen whose mother sends him to boarding school after their relationship breaks down.

I watched, I watched, I watched. I saw enough on-screen sex that I could now stumble my way through a conversation about its fleshy, intimate details next time anyone asked. I also saw characters transformed—by sex, yes, but equally by dance. If there was one thing all of these films shared, it was their conflation of dance and discovery. Characters kissed under neon lights. On the dancefloor, they shed their grievances and became different selves.

I felt like to be queer was to know how to manipulate your body exactly as you wanted, arching or bowing by design.

If there was one thing all of these films shared, it was their conflation of dance and discovery. On the dancefloor, they shed their grievances and became different selves.

When I started university, I made a pact with myself. That, taking after the adolescent leads of Beautiful Thing or I Killed My Mother or Edge of Seventeen, I would make every effort to ‘be myself’. What I really meant was ‘be explicitly queer in the way that I had always dreamed about’, but ‘be myself’ sounded better. It had a nicer ring to it.

*

In Granta, Paul Dalla Rosa writes on an iconic moment from RuPaul’s Drag Race:

The drag queen Violet Chachki walks onto the runway in a black sequined gown and tartan gloves. Midway across, she takes off her belt and twirls. The gown unfurls into a skintight tartan jumpsuit. It’s beautiful. Revelatory…She walks as if nothing happened.

He is talking about what he wants from a short story—this sense of unbothered, nonchalant metamorphosis—but I think the metaphor applies to queer culture in general, which has, in one way or another, always been about transformation. The frivolous—a runway reveal. But also transformations from closeted to out of the closet, from shame to pride. Politically: transformation as revolution, as collective action. We spend our entire lives fighting for change.

*

I have always wanted transformation to be fast, as fast as it occurs in cinema. Dancefloors, bars, clubs—these were all catalysts for internal change in the films I watched in high school, intermediary spaces where characters could pass through and emerge anew.

Like Edge of Seventeen’s adolescent protagonist Eric (Chris Stafford), who—for lack of a better phrase—‘finds himself’ through his local gay bar, I wanted to be transformed by something larger than myself. Importantly: not to transform, which implies labour on my end, an effort made towards a tangible goal, but to be transformed, to let change wash over me like a gentle tide, to be overcome by motion and emotion until I had no choice but to become someone different, someone for whom self-expression was instinctual, not forced.

Edge of Seventeen,’ I wrote in 2018, ‘lingers on the bar as the site of queer discovery and queer eroticism, both of which become integral to Eric’s coming out.’ He dyes his hair. He shakes off his first heartbreak. He learns how to be queer.

*

The same happens in Beautiful Thing, Edge of Seventeen’s contemporary in New Queer Cinema—an era defined by adolescent angst and all of its turbulent, ecstatic melodrama. In Beautiful Thing, two boys, Jamie and Ste (Glen Berry and Scott Neal), are transformed by circumstance. Initially experimenting via fumbled attempts at intimacy behind locked doors, a chance discovery leads them to a queer bar in town where, for the first time, they’re left to their own devices away from the prying eyes of parents and neighbours.

The bar itself is nondescript. It’s a little dingy, and its occupants are—for the most part—slightly older. There is no dancing to be found here. But the shift it inspires within both boys is glorious: just seeing community around them, jubilant and free in their shared deviance, seems to grant them permission to move. In the scenes following, they run amok on their way home, pushing, touching, chasing each other, their once-elasticated tension now fully released. Their play-fighting becomes a dance of its own. When they kiss, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. The awkward fumbling dissolves, and what’s left is the pure, honeymooning ecstasy of first love.

I have returned to this scene time and time again since I first watched it. With its giddy Mama Cass soundtrack preaching self-love, it has become a salve—however cheesy—for moments of insecurity, nights where I am too anxious to sleep. When I was eighteen, I watched this scene like a ritual, imagining that I was Jamie, or Ste, or maybe both at once.

*

That same year, I met G at a boozy camp for first-year students. He was older, more assured (having transferred from another course at another college), and regaled me with stories of sweaty benders and euphoric hook-ups. I thought: this is the life I want to have.

G also took me to my first gay club, a month after I met him. ‘We have to do this,’ he said, and I nodded—I knew. When I think about that club, I sometimes doubt myself. I think, maybe I’m misremembering, or imagining it fuller than it actually was, because I needed it to be perfect—the perfect swell of bodies, the transcendent flurry of motion lifting me towards self-actualisation.

When G clutched my arm and pulled me towards the dancefloor, I wanted to feel like I was coming into my own—unlocking all the areas of my body, my sexuality that I’d previously not even known existed. I wanted to be swallowed by the crowd until I lost sight of my old self completely, and I told him as much.

‘What?’ he shouted over an electro remix of Katy Perry’s ‘Firework.’

I said it again. I want to be swallowed…  He laughed, even though he didn’t hear me.

On the dancefloor, I wanted to feel like I was coming into my own—I wanted to be swallowed by the crowd until I lost sight of my old self completely.

A while later, after G and I had drifted naturally, after we had gone dancing a few more times, I bumped into a high school friend on the street.

‘How are you?’ she asked. ‘Your life looks so exciting!’

‘I feel like I’m a different person,’ I lied. ‘I’m having all these new experiences and it’s, like, life-changing!’

 

*

I thought about G for the first time in years when I was in New York a few months ago, visiting MoMA. The work, Wu Tsang’s We hold where study carries with it the distinct sensation of being haunted by some inexplicable force that pervades the body as much it does the mind. Two images overlap at a blurry border—one, a deserted field shrouded by dusk, then pitch-black night; the other, a rehearsal space awash with saturated hues of blue and red. In both, a pair of dancers lets loose with demonic frenzy—flailing, ricocheting, cascading in ghostly corporeal symphonies.

They play like alternate dream states of one another, although it isn’t immediately clear which is reality and which delusion. Like the famous dream of Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi—so sensorial, so tactile it left him unsure whether he was man or butterfly—the two screens in We hold where study carry equal weight. The occupants of both mime abstract conceptions of love, death, co-dependence—almost, but never mirroring each other exactly.

Tsang’s is a queer work, if only for its subtext of transformation alone, imbued into its choreography. In a review for Artforum, Catherine Damann writes: ‘Tsang’s work and its title limn a desire for different arrangements, both physical and social, than the ones we have so far known.’

The performers in We hold where study contort their limbs in dance styles not yet discovered; for the briefest of moments, they may even blend into one at the hazey shared edge of the two screens. Even as Tsang restricts her dancers to physical parameters (the field, or the rehearsal room), it feels like they are accessing some greater spiritual plane. They are transformed by the very act of movement itself.

Sitting in the dark, I watched We hold where study four times, on loop, transfixed. By the last viewing, movements I had initially considered grotesque had become graceful. The work no longer felt haunted, but gleefully enlightened—it knew something I did not. The more I watched, the more—here, thousands of miles away from home—old desires resurface. Before I knew it, I found myself longing again for transformation, the way Tsang’s dancers experience it, without quite knowing why.

Wu Tsang, We hold where study, 2017. Image: © MoMA, reproduced under Fair Dealing provisions.

*

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I looked up a bootleg version of We hold where study, filmed by a rapt audience member from a dark corner of the gallery. I kept watching. I thought about Zhuangzi’s dream.

When I was younger, I thought clubbing could be catharsis—the key to understanding my queerness. If I danced enough, if I shimmied this way or that, if I shut out my thoughts completely and let my limbs do the talking, I could model myself after other queer archetypes; I could be who I wanted to be—man, or butterfly, or something else entirely. I recognised that films like Edge of Seventeen and Beautiful Thing were works of fiction—fantasy, even—but I couldn’t help but let their visions of queer expression beguile me into thinking I could be the same.

Unlike those films, though, We hold where study isn’t a mere celebration of pride. It’s something closer to prayer. Tsang’s dancers feel like they’re reaching for higher powers—their transformation starts in the body but moves upwards, towards the skies.

I know where I have seen this kind of yearning before: in the hushed melancholy of I Killed My Mother, where Xavier Dolan’s character, Hubert, is uprooted from his Québécois lifestyle into the conservative ranks of a regional boarding school on his mother’s wishes to discipline her untameable son. He is quieter there, more reserved; his life (and his boyfriend) are stuck in Quebec. It’s not until he meets a boy—a Prince Charming type (Neils Schneider) with a mop of blonde hair to match—that he smiles again.

Like a music video, they dance under laser beams in slow-motion. You can tell it’s 2009 because the song beneath the scene is Crystal Castles, plaintive and searching. In an anonymous club, Hubert kisses Prince Charming—and kisses, and kisses, for what feels like hours. But something breaks: he remembers his boyfriend back home, and runs away. What begins as an ecstatic release becomes something darker altogether—a descent into sin, and a plea for absolution.

*

In We hold where study and I Killed My Mother, dance is purge and purification.

In Beautiful Thing and Edge of Seventeen, dance, movement is freedom of expression.

I have been trying to learn or unlearn both all my life, to varying degrees. Whether frenzy, or ritual, or catharsis: to dance with such purpose is doomed. First, I danced to attain some sense of self-awareness, then self-reckoning, then to cleanse myself of the anxieties that came with both.

Dance is purge, purification, catharsis. But it isn’t just those things—it’s a calculated risk for survival.

I haven’t achieved any of these things. Truthfully, I don’t know my body (or myself) that well. When I dance nowadays, I keep my eyes firmly shut, not because I am overwhelmed by a pulsating rhythm—although maybe that too—but because I wish I could erase myself completely, to not think about who I am, what I am doing, whether I am queer enough or too much. These are deluded ways of thinking, but they’re comforting in the way delusions often are: temporarily, enough to keep insecurities at bay until I open my eyes again.

Recently, I watched And Then We Danced, a film from Georgia that has received (deserved) international acclaim while being picketed by homophobic protestors in its home country. Its lead, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), is a traditional Georgian dancer for whom queerness literally manifests in bodily terms: a softening of the wrist, an embellished twirl in a choreographic style otherwise obsessed with rigid masculinity. Midway through, he goes to his first queer venue and dances himself to oblivion, surrounded by other queens and freaks like himself.

For Merab, dance is purge, purification, catharsis. But it isn’t just those things—it’s a calculated risk for survival in a place where expressions of queerness face tangible threats of violence. It’s transformation in every sense at once. Suddenly my anxieties seemed insignificant.

*

As I wrote this piece, I realised I was falling back into old habits. Just like I had longed for a great dancefloor epiphany, I found myself expecting to be changed by the process of writing. I thought I might find closure on the page.

That hasn’t happened, but what did happen was: I went to a queer club for the first time in a very long time. I danced with my eyes closed, and for a second, I felt ​calm.

I Killed My Mother and Edge of Seventeen are available to stream now on Kanopy.