Wednesday 30th January, 2019
Presented as part of Midsumma Festival
Choreography & Performance: James Welsby/Valerie Hex
Collaborators & Performance: “Mad Fox” Maggie, Ally Cat, Joel Bray, Rolly (performed by Alex Xand)
Lighting designer: Sarah Platts
Costume designer: Tristan Seebhoms
Dancing Qweens: Queer history lesson with Valerie Hex, my response drawn up especially for Fjord Review.
There is a photo of me dancing in the lounge room of my family home. My arms are flung wide overhead, making the Y shape to the Village People’s Y.M.C.A.. My mouth is parted in a smile, mid pronunciation of the letter Y. Caught in a moment of bliss and expression on the imaginary dancefloor before the fireplace. I am dancing with my younger cousin, following the playful choreography. The letter M: let your elbows point like rabbit ears on your head. The letter C: hug a beach ball to the left-hand side. The letter A: arms overhead once more, fingers touching to create a triangle. My favourite record is spinning, and I am happy. In the adjoining room, the grown-ups are presumably talking about grown-up stuff, missing all the fun, until my Dad picked up the camera and recorded this moment for posterity.
The year captured in the discoloured photograph is 1980. I am five years old. My memory can no longer tell me what costume I imagined myself to be wearing but I feel certain there were feathers and sequins in there.
* * *
”Patterns or sequins?” enquires “Mad Fox” Maggie. Sequins, please, I think. Anything, I say. “How about this black dress with sequins on the hip?”
I am at Dancehouse for Dancing Qweens presented by Dancehouse and Midsumma Festival. In the theatre, long racks of cloths create a wall before the seats. A friendly invitation to put on a costume, if you wish. A friendly invitation to dress as I Am What I Am. Be Disco. For a spell. Forever. Whatever.
A wardrobe, a dreamscape, courtesy of the “KonMari Method”, announces “Valerie Hex,” James Welsby’s alter ego, from the stage. The audience now clothed in the purged second-hand items that no longer “spark joy” for the previous owners have become a part of a marvellous sea of sequins and a fair amount of non-breathable fabric. At the end of a red-hot day, Dancehouse is an oven for the continued cooking of one’s limbs. Sweat poured down my back and made a mop of the dress tied about my hips with the sequins visible.
We have gathered for Hex’s history lesson. Some of the class sit on a handful of seats arranged in the area which normally serves as a stage. The remainder, myself included, sit cross-legged on the floor. To my right someone in a fluorescent ruffle-sleeved bolero makes a fan from their program, and I inch forward to catch the breeze. The subject: “a new work by choreographer and drag artist James Welsby (Valerie Hex) exploring 50 years of queer dance history channelled into a highly interactive and surreal experience of queer bodies in motion. ‘Same-sex ballroom’, ‘waacking’, ‘voguing’, and ‘heels’ are styles that have informed this kaleidoscopic take on history that ultimately inquires into the future of queer dance”.[i] Dancing Qweens is unmistakably a celebration of being who you are, accompanied by a 10-week public program of workshops (Let’s Get Metaphysical), conversations (Let’s Get Critical), and queer dance classes open to all (Let’s Get Physical).
Just as when I look at a photograph of myself as a child, memory makes it hard to distinguish what actually took place, Dancing Qweens “question[s] the weight of history, its relevance today, and the fallibility of memory” by looking at how dance “styles may have evolved”. Patterns alongside sequins; the personal — “being true to yourself in an uncompromising way, connecting with community, …. and making sure [your focus] is about what your practice [as an artist] can give to others”[ii] — alongside “the bigger picture…. of queer cultures as we approach the 50–year anniversary of New York’s Stonewall Riots[iii]”, and a year on from the same-sex marriage postal survey in Australia. It’s all in there. Shimmying, on a Wednesday night, like no-one and everyone is watching — it’s up to you. Past and present, and what might be ahead.
Our first participatory lesson begins with a Tea Dance[iv], and when the bell rings, we all change partners, in reference to a bell which sounded in the event of a raid, signalling that everyone in the venue should switch, as society deemed and the law enforced, to mixed couples. By way of Janis Joplin, costumes changes, and a crying baby mask, we arrive at the Village People and my chance to let my elbows point like rabbit ears atop my head as I make the letter M. Now no longer one to dance in public, if at all, I didn’t tap into the happy five-year-old version of me in the photo, but that’s okay.
My reservation gives me scope to think about what it is I like about being an audience member, and ultimately why I like going to see dance. Dance as an expression of freedom and openness is something I experience in making artwork, in drawing, collaging and writing. I would be lost at sequined-sea without my images and words; when I see dance, I see others perform with a confidence I feel when working in my medium. It is poured into a different vessel, released in a different way, and fascinating to me: authentic communication in another guise.
For Welsby, “dance connects my identity with my moving body and nothing feels more authentic”.[v] And though my ‘waacking’ version of “shampoo and conditioner” lacks rhythm and conviction, I understand the message, and have fun in the classroom: be you.
[i] Dancing Qweens, Dancehouse program notes, 30th January, 2019.
[ii] ‘In the House: James Welsby’, Dancehouse, https://vimeo.com/300408594, accessed 31st January, 2019.
[iii] Stonewall Forever, https://stonewallforever.org/, accessed 31st January, 2019.
[iv] ‘The Very Gay and Interesting History of the Almost Lost tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance’, Will Kohler, Back2Stonewall, 17th June, 2018, http://www.back2stonewall.com/2018/06/gay-history-lost-tradition-sunday-tea-dance.html, accessed 31st January, 2019.
[v] ‘Archer Asks: DANCING QWEENS performer James Welsby’, Angelita Sofia Biscotti, Archer Magazine, 15th January, 2019, http://archermagazine.com.au/2019/01/dancing-qweens-james-welsby, accessed 31st January, 2019.
Image credit: Valerie Hex (James Welsby) performing in Dancing Qweens by Matto Lucas