After so many months without live theater, music, and dance, shows and tours are finally starting to return, much to the delight of folks that love live performances and were not able to attend or perform in them due to COVID-19. To me, dance in particular is a medium that allows for the physical expression of intangible feelings and emotions.
For the first time in more than a year, live dance has returned to my hometown in the form of Caleb Teicher and their dance crew from New York City, who recently traveled down to South Carolina to perform live dance shows for Charleston’s annual Spoleto Festival.
I had the pleasure of chatting with them about their work as a dancer and choreographer, their experience as a non-binary performer, and advice for folks looking to learn more about dance regardless of their background or previous experience.
ELI BUNDY: COVID-19 dramatically altered performing arts in every way. How did your life as a dancer change, and what has it been like to start performing shows again?
CALEB TEICHER: COVID changed all of our lives – logistically, financially, psychologically. But I think for people who perform mostly live shows, it was a major blow in every way it could be. Artists are not really ‘woe is me’ kind of people, because if we were, we would probably not be in the business at all. It’s not glamorous. It’s very fun, but mostly hard. And it’s the kind of thing you’re mostly in if you have to be in it.
Everyone was sad to have their shows postponed and projects canceled, etc. But I never heard my community of artists really linger that much. I think we understood that things needed to be shut down so that people didn’t die since the work we do is very high risk in terms of public health.
It was beautiful to see how people were taking care of each other. I felt there was a lot of community and kinship and a desire for mutual aid among the arts community. It was a very sad year – I’ve never not danced for a year-plus, and I basically didn’t. That was sad, I miss my friends.
Coming back into it, I feel like I care about different things. A lot of the things I cared about pre-COVID are still there. I care about community, I care about being in physical spaces with people. The pieces that we performed at Spoleto existed pre-COVID. They feel like things you’d create in response to COVID, but they existed prior. I think they hold up though. They’re about comfort and community and connection.
I think my muscles for being a person sort of atrophied. I can’t believe we used to work so much all the time – I’m exhausted. I don’t know what our generation is doing – Generation: Hustle. But that’s a whole other story.
ELI: Does your background as a non-binary person influence how you choreograph or perform?
CALEB: Before my values were expressed, in part, through my identity, they were expressed through my values and actions. And before I found myself feeling most comfortable being nonbinary, I first and foremost had these values. Among them, I thought that people should dance with whomever they want to dance with, regardless of gender identifiers. That’s not a revolutionary concept in the history of Lindy Hop (“Lindy Hop” is the name for a style of partnered swing dance that began in the African-American communities of Harlem in the 1930s) – this dance, at its origin, was revolutionary in many ways, and people of similar genders often danced together.
“I thought that people should dance with whomever they want to dance with, regardless of gender identifiers. That’s not a revolutionary concept in the history of Lindy Hop –but that idea is, still, a revolution-in-process for most dance audiences.”
That idea is, still, a revolution-in-process for most dance audiences. When I first made Meet Ella (which has a lot of Lindy Hop in it), I was still identifying as a man/boy in 2016, and my dance partner Nathan Bugh identifies as a man. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but it was to many other people. People have these ideas of like, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these masc/femme partnerships, and that wasn’t what was happening.
I was just very excited to dance with Nathan, mostly because of his values. I liked the way we worked together, the way we shared the dance, the ideas and artistry that Nathan brought to our partnership. For our performances at Spoleto, it morphed into a trio because Nathan hurt his foot and wasn’t able to tour. And the other people who know the dance identify as women. I brought two women to bring the piece with me on tour, because I was concerned about the piece accidentally being heteronormative.
Depsite being nonbinary, I recognize that I still present to much of the public as being a man. So it freaked me out to think about people seeing the piece and thinking, ‘Wow, what a nice classic heteronormative thing.’ So I wanted to bring in people of other genders.
ELI: Historically, performance dance has been very heteronormative. Especially during your show in Charleston, it was great to see the queering of performance art in that way. We could use more queering of our art, especially around here.
CALEB: It’s very important, but the value of it goes beyond aesthetics. It’s about people’s temperament as dancers. I brought those particular dancers down to make sure that we were expressing a range of perspectives on jazz dance. Jazz is the type of idiom that allows for some really radical ideas and different perspectives. I think there’s something there’s a lot baked into jazz dance about equality and gender as well. It’s not just important to me to subvert expectations. It’s not supposed to be that schticky – like “oooh, two women dancing together.” It’s about the lens that you imagine your audience brings to it, and I’m trying to catch people of all different lenses. Like queer folks might be excited to see representation on stage. But other people may see that and it’s a newer thing – and they may think, ‘maybe it’s good for me to see two women dancing a romantic ballroom dance.’
ELI: Coming from NYC, which is arguably one of the more accepting places for LGBTQ+ folks in the US, how was your experience coming to the South to perform?
I was a little nervous! What we’re presenting is very New York, but we were welcomed pretty famously and wholeheartedly. I got so many more nice messages from people across the LGBTQ spectrum here than I got hate mail. Which is great! I’m prepared to receive hate mail! Let it roll off your back or whatever. The arts have long been a good place for queer people, and I doubt that’ll change.
“What I love about dance is that it’s an opportunity for you to relate to yourself and to get to know your body. By getting to know your body, you get to know you. All of the important realizations I’ve had about myself have been about me as a physical person.”
ELI: What’s it like being a non-binary person as a dancer? Dancing seems like a pretty binary and traditional field, at least from the outside, and your art heavily involves your body and attention from an audience directly on you, so have you struggled with meshing your gender with your career, or has it been a comfortable shift?
I definitely think since ‘coming out,’ I just feel more comfortable with myself, so it’s easier for me to be more comfortable with other people. It’s much easier to be a performed version of yourself when you feel more comfortable inside. I’m super fortunate that nobody was surprised. One of my best friends said, “I mean, bitch, I’ve been waiting.” And with other people, when I nervously told people, they followed it up with, “Cool… So where do you want to go to lunch?” And it wasn’t a big deal.
Before, I may not have been using these words to describe myself, but I have long been living that truth, and now I feel more comfortable talking about it and saying it. And helpfully, there’s a nice set of vocabulary I can use to talk about it.
In terms of the dance community, I think it depends on what type of dance you’re in – if I were in ballet or hip-hop, maybe it’d be different. But the dance forms that I’m in primarily, Lindy Hop and Tap Dance, there is more acceptance of different gender identities. My experience with it has been that everyone’s been awesome, really loving and accepting about it. I feel fortunate about it for sure.
A funny thing: in Lindy Hop, one person leads and one person follows. It’s literally a “binary” dance form! I started as a lead because no one asked me – and then six years ago, I started following, and now I’m mostly a follower. Despite only having these binary titles of lead/follow, it’s really an oversimplification of dance roles that have so much spectrum… In that way, it’s a lot like gender. I think there’s a lot of space in these dance forms for people who feel the way I do.
ELI: Has dance helped you understand yourself better? If so, in what ways?
Dance is the lens through which I experience pretty much everything. I finished high school as a junior, and then I moved to New York. I moved at 17, I’m 27 now. And all of the important growing up, understanding myself, becoming an adult stuff has been through the lens of pursuing a career as a professional choreographer/dancer/art-maker.
What I love about dance is that it’s an opportunity for you to relate to yourself and to get to know your body. By getting to know your body, you get to know you. All of the important realizations I’ve had about myself have been about me as a physical person.
And then later, when I got involved in dance that was physically connecting with other people, I started to examine how I relate to others. A lot of my early dance training was about me reflecting on myself – my body looks this way, now I need to make it look like this way, etc.
Later, I was more focused on other people and dancing with other people. It’s about you finding out how to communicate with and as a part of something that’s beyond your own body. And that’s kind of everything. Maybe I’ll do something else with my life at some point, but I will probably always see the world through the lens of dance. It’s like a primary language to me.
ELI: What are ways that folks can learn more about dance and get involved now that things are starting to open back up? Do you have any advice for folks that are apprehensive about getting started because of dance’s historical rigidity or traditional exclusion of a wider array of bodies and backgrounds?
As a field overall, Tap Dance and Lindy Hop are some of the more open and accepting and loving communities I’ve seen. I think there are spaces for people of all abilities, races, identities, and sizes – really just all perspectives. I can’t vouch for every single studio, teacher, scenario, or social dance. That would be great if I could say that the entire community is equally accepting and open. But instead I’ll say, by and large, it’s a really accepting community. So I’m a fan of the ‘genre’ – there’s probably a space where you’ll feel comfortable. They’re also just beautiful dances. They feel better in my body than ballet ever did.
There’s a new Instagram account dedicated to gender-inclusive Lindy Hop. The handle is @GenderNeutralSwing, and it’s a growing catalog of videos of people representing different gender expressions. There are lots of clips of people in 2021, modern day people doing it. And there are great historic videos. You can go back to old videos and there are cool videos of two men dancing together. I’m constantly proud to be a part of the jazz and swing dance scene – it’s not something they’re trying to get hip to in 2021, it’s something they have a long history of accepting and being aware of.