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.
“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”[note]“Dancing Qweens,” Dancehouse program notes, Melbourne, Victoria, January 30, 2019[/note]. “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”).
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”[note] In the House: James Welsby, Dancehouse, accessed January 31, 2019 [/note] 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 50-year 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,[note][Will Kohler, “The Very Gay and Interesting History of the Almost Lost tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance,” Back2Stonewall, June 17, 2018[/note] 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.”[note] Angelita Sofia Biscotti, “Archer Asks: DANCING QWEENS performer James Welsby,” Archer Magazine, January 15, 2019[/note] 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.