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Three dancers challenging ballet’s rigid gender norms

Genderqueer ballerina Chase Johnsey, and transgender dancers Scout Alexander and Jay Ledford, are making history in their field

Since the age of eight, Chase Johnsey has wanted to be a ballerina. The genderqueer dancer (who uses male pronouns) is an ex-member of New York’s all-male drag ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and won a UK National Dance Award for Best Male Dancer for his portrayal of the female titular role in Paquita when the company toured the UK in 2016.

In theatre, it has long been accepted that cross-gender casting can shed new light on plays that have been staged a thousand times over; the recent trend for casting female actors (like Maxine Peake, Harriet Walter and Glenda Jackson) in Shakespeare’s great male roles attests to this. Yet this remains virtually unchartered territory in mainstream ballet companies – in part because men and women are trained to dance so differently. Male dancers are expected to be tall, strong and athletic, mastering powerful jumps and lifts, while ballerinas are delicate and petite, their style of dancing more focused on balance, poise and ‘pointe work’.

Advertised as ‘men on pointe’, the dancers at Trockadero master this traditionally female technique to dance as their drag alter egos, something Chase was already doing at 14 years old. “I saw the girls in ballet class on pointe and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do,” he says when we meet in London after his morning class. “So I bought myself a pair of pointe shoes, out of a catalogue because I didn’t want to go to a store, and when I put them on I felt free. It was natural for me.”

In his 14 years with Trockadero, Chase performed many of the great female principal roles in ballet, yet he never entertained the idea that he might be able to dance female roles in a mainstream ballet company. But when he felt compelled to resign at the beginning of this year, after accusations that senior staff members were bullying dancers who appeared “too feminine” failed to be investigated, English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo offered Chase the chance to make history by joining the female corps de ballet for her company’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Chase made his debut during the production’s opening night last month, and in doing so, became the first person in history in a major classical dance company to dance as the opposite gender to that which they were assigned at birth.  

The English National Ballet made no particular efforts to draw attention to the historic occasion – “they were keen for it not to be seen as a PR stunt” – and as a member of the corps de ballet, the success of his guest appearance with the company was judged on his ability to blend in when dancing in unison with the other ballerinas. “I went through the same process as the girls,” Chase says, “and therefore we looked the same, even if our anatomy is different.”

He may not have been centre stage, but the fact that he was on the stage at all is a significant mark of progress in the fight for representation of gender-nonconforming dancers in an industry that has, for a long time, offered them no share of the spotlight – at least not within traditional companies.

Chase is realistic about the fact that, at 32, he may not be afforded the opportunity to do this again. “I know that I have limitations, but what I’m doing is so much bigger than me,” he explains. “If I can liberate conventional ballet companies then that creates jobs for a lot more people. What was impossible eight weeks ago and had never been done is now possible.”

“Overcoming the deeply rooted male/female binary in ballet roles is very difficult, but hopefully dancers like Chase and myself can educate the ballet world so it can move forward” – Jay Ledford

A possible shift in the industry can also be seen in some of the young dancers coming through ballet school, with the progress being made for transgender representation in other sectors of the arts being mirrored in the ballet world. One dancer forging his own path is Scout Alexander, a young trans man who is about to start a training contract with a company in Ohio.

Like Chase, Scout has faced his fair share of discrimination. “Since I started ballet until about age 17, I struggled with having to train as female because it was the only option I had given my circumstances,” he tells Dazed over email. “The majority of my training years were spent in extreme discomfort, because I was forcing myself toward a career that I wanted but down a path that I didn’t. My ballet teachers and my family insisted that I wear make-up and perfume every day, that I dress ‘appropriately’, and that I made sure my hair was kept long so that it could be tucked into a neat bun.”

Now that he has found a company which is open to training him as a male dancer, Scout is hopeful that things can be different. “I have been told that I am trying to achieve the impossible, but I know that in our current society, someone like me pursuing a career in dance is not an unthinkable concept anymore. It is my goal to be the first transgender dancer contracted into a renowned, professional ballet company, and to ideally work my way up to being a principal dancer.”  

Another talented transgender ballet student, Jay Ledford, was on a full male scholarship at Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C. and is now seeking a pre-professional training program that is open to her training as female. Over Instagram DMs, she tells Dazed about similar challenges to those faced by Scout. “I started ballet when I was five years old. I was the only boy in ballet, and I wanted to wear a leotard instead of the traditional boys’ uniform but the studio wouldn’t allow me to do so.”

Now that Jay has begun transitioning, she’s running into problems with companies that have known her as a successful male dancer, and are finding it difficult to accept her as female, having previously cast her in male roles. “Overcoming the deeply rooted male/female binary in ballet roles is very difficult,” she says, “but hopefully dancers like Chase and myself can educate the ballet world so it can move forward.”

For Chase, the “most rewarding thing” is the fact that his journey will open doors for Jay, Scout and other genderqueer or transgender dancers who may previously have felt that these was no place for them in the industry. It may be one small step for him, but a grand jeté for the ballet world as a whole.