“I deserve to be heard, because I am a woman and I do have a dream”. Bridget Gray
I have questioned what is genuinely me and what is an affect of being ‘socialised’ since first being told I was ‘UnLadylike’ aged 4. Baffled stayed with me at suggestions that I ‘shouldn’t’ do certain things according to my sex.
Whilst I was making Ladylike I have had the honour of interviewing B-girls, Salseras, Tangueras, Rockers about their views on being a bgirl, being a girl, and being a ‘Lady’.
We all need real life superheros who reflect and inspire us. Seeing someone who you can fit the shoes of just speaks in a different way. I had a dream to make Ladylike, a piece that reflected real women, latin women, black women, mixed women, break-women, superhero women.
In the media: the women I was seeing were beautiful, but they were not heroes, they were ‘sidechicks’ without much script, and they weren’t doing the saving but being rescued.
In Salsa, I had Iris de Brito to look up to, but I often experienced sexism, and of course dancing Samba (which had chosen for my love of the dance not based on the costume) not many people appreciated the steps I had trained so hard to get over my outfit. And then I discovered breaking. Breaking was empowering. I could step out of the box that defined me by body or dancing ‘sexy’. I could wear baggy tshirts, I could be a different side of me.
So I covered up my Latin background: In this new ‘gender-less’ world I wanted to be anonymous and androgynous (I love my latin world, don’t get me wrong… but here I could be a different version of me). But eventually, even in breaking, I began to realise that gender was interfering with my freedom. Some bboys saw me as ‘irrelevant’ if I couldn’t rep like the guys, or simply for being female. Sometimes I saw the bgirls who were accepted were complemented on them being ‘like a guy’. And sometimes I would hear the men speaking about women in a way much worse, more sexist than on the salsa scene. (I love this scene… but these are also truths I have experienced and witnessed).
I was wearing a mask to fit in and conform in these different worlds and became confused about where and who the real me was, and what I have learnt that I need to accept all of me. I need to celebrate and rejoice in my femininity without being told to stop ‘dressing for men’, ‘dancing like a girl’, ‘asking for it’ or ‘being a lesbian feminist’. So how can we stop these ‘shoulds’ or ‘should nots’ seeping in and making us conform, hide or deny our true selves? Below is my summary on some of the best quotes and thoughts I collected interviewing some inspiring women from across the globe on see how they see things and how they navigate being truly themselves in a society that tries to put us in boxes. You can also read the full interviews here:
Rokafella (Nuyorican B-girl), Mantis (White NYC Bgirl), Brie (White NYC Bgirl), Judi (Canadian-Jamaican Bgirl), Iris De Brito (Portuguese-Angolan/UK Salsera),
Kiyah: (St Kitts-UK Street Dancer), B-girl Azara (UK-Jamaican bgirl), Lia (Cuban Rumbera/Contemporary Dancer), Anna (Anglo-Argentine Tanguera/ Contemporary Dancer).
How do you define a B-girl?
I think breaking attracts women because it is an opportunity to escape from a society that teaches us how to be defined by gender. At the same time, as Bgirl Lady Jules, says, ‘The competition of this dance turns a lot of women off’. Maybe women are not naturally competitive, maybe they are not taught to be, but those who do find breaking seem to find a sense of relief from societal ‘norms’ in the role of bgirl.
I love this quote by Bgirl Chyna USA: ‘You go to a battle & the idea is to be aggressive, offensive, like you’re attacking somebody… In your normal life your’e expected to be polite & ladylike. Breaking is an opportunity to be badass & it’s cool’
A Bgirl is someone who is redefining society’s idea of ‘woman’, but perhaps she doesn’t even think of gender when she breaks. She gets lost in herself and the music. She is confident, powerful and independent, and as Bgirl Briesky said, ‘she is determined as fuck’.
How do you be a girl?
As Azara Meghie said, ‘I don’t try I am a girl.’ Being a girl, a woman is not definable by others, by our appearance, or even necessarily our sexual organs, but by us ourselves. There is no box definition, each of these inspirational women is perfectly themselves and perfectly female just as they are. The world as we know it is a great game of dress-up that we can opt in or out off. As Ru Paul says, “You’re Born Naked and the Rest is Drag”. We can choose to put on the appropriate ‘uniform’ for different social situations, and to listen to or reject the pressure society puts on us to be ‘perfect’, ‘pretty’, ‘happy’ or ‘cool’. I think our freedom comes from accepting, loving and learning not to be true to ourselves.
As a child I desperately wanted hair that was so long I could sit on it, because that was what I saw in the story books. Now, I feel liberated by the ease of having no hair and by my own individual style which is sexy, tomboyish, but ultimately, woman. I don’t believe in conforming to how society teaches us to look, or even that our appearance really defines us. We have to do it for ourselves. Not for a man (or a woman) to think we are sexy, not to fit into a box, but for our own enjoyment, free from judgement. We have to question and redefine what we are taught and find our own truest identity.
How do you define a girl?
I think that nurture and society interfere with how we perceive gender on such a subconscious level that it is impossible to know what is true and what we copy or learn to assimilate. As Sirley Chisolm says, ‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl.” Perhaps we as a society have created these gender roles to control and make sense of the world, or perhaps as Lia Rodriguez says, ‘Girls are the soft part the beauty the sensuality, the mother.’
I wonder how the world would differ if women ran it rather than men. Perhaps some of the qualities my interviewees attributed to women, such as nurturing, protector and intuition would change the world for the better!
Do you ever feel like you are more boyish/less like a girl?
‘See I embrace all of my masculine and feminine traits. And I accept the fact that there are those who might hate on me simply because I don’t act like their version of a lady’ Bridget Gray
Lots of the interviewees saw particular traits (despite being in themselves: a woman) as masculine, such as being passive to female (Omega), and dominant as male (Alpha). I personally think these definitions can be unhelpful. We will never fit completely into an archetypes, be that the sidechick or the superhero. I agree with Rokafella who said that ‘when I am working, I forget gender and go for functional: whatever best serves the work.’ If you are a leader, then you have to take on these ‘male traits’ to lead. Often women get told they are being ‘aggressive’ or ‘bossy’ or general words which are linked to masculinity as leaders and that that is a negative. I am a leader, but I am also feminine, I am sensual and I am soft voiced and my work approach too is collaborative- which is apparently a female quality not a male one…
Do you enjoy to be/feel sexy? How?
Feeling sexy is often about our life experiences, and how others have made us feel. Being an object of someone else’s desire can provoke both positive and negative feelings, and can become addictive or a need for validation, but ultimately it is when we choose to attract that attention, when we are doing it for ourselves and are in control of that desire that we feel sexy.
‘I’ve always been aware of others attention and enjoyed it mostly, but not always.’ Anna Alvarez
When we feel good in ourselves, we can feel and be sexy no matter what we look like. Maybe some people happen to look better than others in baggy clothes, or without makeup, or training means they have a better figure, but it’s the internal feeling that projects out into the world, and that we experience on a daily basis. Music can make me feel sexy too (especially if the lyrics are positive), but mostly it comes from feeling good about myself, feeling in love and inspired by the world.
Do you ever try not to be sexy or play down your sexiness?
Last year, Federal Court Justice Robin Camp asked an alleged rape victim, ‘Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?’. The 16 year old woman in Brazil who was being gang raped by 30 men’s images were tweeted, getting over 550 ‘likes’ with thumbs up, smiley faces and comments like ‘must have been asking for it’.
Women are still seen as objects. If I am walking home at night, even just from the bus stop, then I will try to look ‘unsexy’ and change out of my heels so I can run if I need to, or put on trousers to feel safer going home. Recently, I got off a bus, and on my way saw two other girls running… I found myself questioning at that moment how real this fear of sexual predators at night is? and feeling angry that women fear and feel vulnerable like that in a ‘civilisation.’
I think most women in the western world, most of the time do not feel oppressed by how they dress for fear of attracting the wrong attention. We have a way to go for women to be able to express themselves without judgement, being subconsciously influenced by the male gaze, or for it not to become a topic of conversation (for example the recent Olympic press around questions female athletes who were asked in comparison to their male counterparts).
Do you think being feminine has a different meaning in the Latin/ African American/ West Indian/Breaking/Salsa/Dance (etc) (your) community?
‘In breaking, I have not felt the force of having to be feminine.’ Azara Meghie
There are roles that we have to play specific to the behaviour in our community, and some empower us, and some box us into a role. In breaking I could be more aggressive or competitive, but at the same time, I am liberated that I can battle a guy and we are equals on the dance floor (asides from some body parts differences). It is a space where we can be equal, and free from judgement based on gender stereotypes. I love that in the breaking community, most of the time I train and focus on honing my skills to elevate to superhero without being looked at or come on to.
“In tango: the woman is active. We respond and reply with our. We interpret the music, flourish. We are strong. We are Dominant.” Anna Alvarez
In Latin danceI feel it is more of a celebration of the divine feminine energy. In the UK I have felt annoyed on jobs that sometimes it is more important how I look (figure hugging/tiny clothes, make up, a big smile) than how I dance. At the same time I can be so soft, sensual, divine feminine energy and quintessentially Ochun which makes me smile!
All the women I interviewed are empowered by creating their own rules according to how they feel. I love to be all of me regardless of any attachment to what society tells me is male, female, good, bad, weak, strong, old, young, and regardless of gender, ethnicity, class.
How do you define a feminist? Are you a feminist? Why?
“I recognise I am a female ahead of my time
And in a male dominated slam I will still shine”. Bridget Gray
A feminist is someone who believes in equality regardless of race, gender, sexuality or disability. Feminism doesn’t mean ignoring differences or pretending we are all exactly the same-we are not. But it does promote equal opportunities, eliminating sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination against disability.
From my interviews, I learnt that it is still a word that is often misunderstood, even amongst women (which is worrying in my opinion). Feminism as a history has had problems, because it has ignored other inequalities, so perhaps Womanist is better? Alice Walker coined this term to it recognize women as survivors in a world that is still oppressive in many ways.
Things are changing positively, with many woman making a stand. There has been an incredible attendance world wide of the rallies against the sexism and bigotry of Donald Trump. Feminist debates are being fronted by inspirational and influential media faces such as Emma Watson (who is currently also causing ‘hype’ just because she ‘posed’ and showed ‘boob’. I love Chimamanda Ngozi, Beyoncé, Madonna, Alicia Keyes (who is also running her ‘no make up’ campaign) for what they are contributing to the feminist cause. There are also many incredible women fighting for the rights of women worldwide, such as Malala.
I think the patriarchy continues to have a negative affect on how we are taught we ‘should’ behave as a woman, and results in vulnerable young women and girls prioritising other people’s opinion, pleasure and approval over their own, and leaving us confused about trusting our own judgement and knowing instinctively what choices to make.
Whether society sees us as ‘Ladylike’ ‘Unladylike’, ‘Bgirl’, ‘Womanist’, no matter what our Gender, we are all such beautiful individuals, and we are also all the same… We are human. All the women I interviewed are wise in their individual choices, and are doing something important as humans, and they are also freely making choices and defining themselves as individuals.