"It's kind of weird to be in a relationship in this community," said Erica Ricketts, 23, a 2013 grad of the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. As she navigates the challenging task of making a career in dance, she has the support of her girlfriend, Greer Dworman, 25.
Dworman graduated a year before Ricketts, and they started dating in March 2011 as classmates at Columbia. The two first met in a contact improvisation class"I know! It's so gay!" says Dworman. The cat was out of the bag about the on-campus romance when a professor spotted them together at a coffee shop. "They have meetings... we don't know what they talk about ... [but] if we ever broke up, the faculty would be devastated!"
Post-college life for the couple, as for most new dancemakers on the scene, has been an eclectic mix of jobs and activities. Dworman has gravitated toward arts administration. After school, she "was sort of done making work for awhile." A production internship at Links Hall kept her participating in the dance community and led to opportunities with RTG Dance, Sean Dorsey, and supporting production roles with her colleagues as they graduated from Columbia College and entered the professional dance community. She started working as a program manager for The Space/Movement Project, and this spring will make her debut as a dancer in the company.
Ricketts kept her thesis concert alive, showing it at D-49 ( a Chicago Moving Company ( CMC ) contest for emerging artists ), and in Detriot. The D-49 project lead to an upcoming opportunity to show new work in CMC's annual Dance Shelter project. She also makes sound scores, and has found a niche with the performance art community stemming from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ( SAIC ). Ricketts' androgynous look is not one that many traditional dance companies gravitate toward, regardless of her strong training and facility. Performance artists have expressed a stronger desire to work with queer and androgynous artists, telling Ricketts "'[We] want someone who looks like you,' meaning, the gay on top of my head."
Dworman and Ricketts both came from very traditional dance backgrounds, which included a lot of ballet. Identifying as a dancer and identifying as queer sometimes clashed; Ricketts felt this conflict acutely when she came out in high school while still enrolled in a traditional ballet school. "I never got good parts in the Nutcracker," she said. "If I had been allowed to do the boy variations, that would have been fun. But that didn't happen. It wasn't so bad, maybe because I had the realization of what I was going to become in college."
She knew that pink tights and a bun were the penultimate place for her in the dance community, and she was able to more carefully craft her identity in college. "I love going to ballet class, I just don't want to wear ballet shoes, and I don't want to get my hair out of my face, and I don't want to wear a leotard, so I avoid those things," Ricketts said. "Just like a lot of young men don't do ballet because everyone's going to think they're gay, a lot of gay women don't do ballet because everyone's going to think they're straight!"
Dworman agrees that it's not the idea of doing ballet, but the heteronormative box that surrounds it that is the problem. "[Erica] is a beautiful ballet dancer...There needs to be space for this type of expression," she said, and while they've found queer ballet popping up on the New York scene, the two have yet to find a more accepting version of ballet in Chicago. She, too, has gravitated toward the performance-art scene, and is considering moving to New York to be among artists who share her values as a dancemaker.
What is involved in those values? "Less dance!" Dworman said. She added she finds it refreshing to participate in a dance-based vocabulary with people who don't have formal training. "I've been dealing with my size, as a performer, and my facility in that capacity," she said. "I don't identify myself as a fat person, but I'm thick, and that's not what people want. It's hard to get a gig here, and that's what I'm working with."
In a way, Dworman identifying herself as queer is as intimately connected to her size as it is to her sexuality. She desires a dance community that is void of connotations tied to a performer's size, gender representation, or sexuality. "I want to feel challenged and completely confused," she said, and isn't currently finding what she wants in Chicago.
For Dworman, making the move may be a "coming-out," more than realizing she was interested in dating woman. "I didn't come out. ... I just learned that dating women was another formation of being. I was challenged by my body, my facilityand I still feel that way now. My relationship is ... my relationship, and it's important to me, but my challenge is how my body works ... and that's totally queer!"