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Dancing Qweens

Queer history lesson with Valerie Hex

Performance
Valerie Hex (James Welsby) presents “Dancing Qweens”
Place
Dancehouse, Melbourne, Victoria, January 30, 2019
Words
Gracia Haby

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.

Gracia Haby and cousin, 1980.

***

“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”1. “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”).

Valerie Hex (James Welsby) in “Dancing Qweens.” Photograph by Matto Lucas

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”2 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”—alongside the bigger picture of queer cultures as we approach the 50year anniversary of New York’s Stonewall Riots, 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,3 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.”4 And though my waacking version of “shampoo and conditioner” lacked rhythm and conviction, I understood the message, and had fun in the classroom: be you.

  1. “Dancing Qweens,” Dancehouse program notes, Melbourne, Victoria, January 30, 2019
  2. In the House: James Welsby, Dancehouse, accessed January 31, 2019
  3. [Will Kohler, “The Very Gay and Interesting History of the Almost Lost tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance,” Back2Stonewall, June 17, 2018
  4. Angelita Sofia Biscotti, “Archer Asks: DANCING QWEENS performer James Welsby,” Archer Magazine, January 15, 2019
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