Fragments from a history of dancing queens

Jonathan Bollen, PhD candidate, UWS Nepean

Paper for CSAA Conference 1999 SYNTHETICS: Making & Re-making Culture

Hence I do not envisage a ‘history of mentalities’ that would take account of bodies only through the manner in which they have been perceived and given meaning and value; but a ‘history of bodies’ and the manner in which what is most material and most vital in them has been invested. (Foucault, 1978: 152)

Social constructionist histories of homosexuality have often set out by projecting a universally homogenous field of homosexual acts only to analyse its differentiation with the incision of historically, socially, culturally specific discourse on homosexual identity. This point of departure inaugurates a now well-familiar interpretive enterprise that benchmarks an otherwise continuous corporeal practice against a shifting regulatory discourse, such that “homosexuality as we know it today” (Sedgwick, 1990) only appears when it does as a discursive construct in the historical documents of religious, medical, legal, scientific, educational, literary and mass-media institutions. Biased by an overwhelmingly textual record, such histories seem destined to sustain ideational analyses of homosexuality in which corporeal practice is either disregarded entirely, its continuity an assumed irrelevance, or recovered as residual trace, the material other of discursive regulation or evidence of its resistance.

One of the tasks for a project called ‘Queer Kinaesthesia’ that I recently completed was to muster resources for an analysis of the corporeal styles and kinaesthetic capacities enacted in contemporary queer social practice. That these styles and capacities might have a history, that their history might persist in, what Bourdieu has termed, the “practical coherence of practices” (1990:92), and that their historical persistence may be articulated in ambivalence of regulatory discourse, are the proposals that motivate what I am presenting today.

That is all I am going to say by way of orientation, although I would like to acknowledge, at the outset, that my interest in these questions was spurred by the archaeological work of Thomas King (1993) and Moe Meyer (1993) in excavating the corporeal history of camp. Whilst the history of dancing queens is inseparable from the corporeal of history of camp, the fragments I have brought along today are drawn from occasions, scattered over the last century or so, when men danced together with men. The first fragment is drawn from a social dance manual, Assistant for A. Dodworth’s Pupils, that was published in 1873.

By the early 1870s, after some thirty years of teaching in a variety of educational institutions, Allen Dodworth had established in New York a dancing school of his own (1873: 3-4). There he taught girls and boys together in afternoon classes, and young men by themselves in the evening. The rationale for this arrangement of classes is unclear. Presumably, young men worked during the afternoon and young women did not venture out of an evening. But his advice “To the Young Gentlemen of the Evening Class” is fascinating. Having noted that “the best of instruction, in any art, is but a small portion of the work to be done”, Dodworth proceeds as follows.

I, therefore, recommend you, as quickly as possible, to throw aside all embarrassment, and at once come to the determination that you cannot learn [to dance] by receiving a few directions, but that it will require from you a considerable amount of exertion and perseverance. …

Remember this, that a dancing school is a place to which you come for the purpose of throwing aside your awkwardness, not a place of amusement. But how can that awkwardness be thrown aside, if it is not well shaken!

Don’t be afraid to ask each other to dance. He must be an unkind person who will not assist his fellow pupil, especially as each in turn may receive assistance from another. …

No teacher in the world could dance with each pupil until that pupil is accomplished; in truth, it would be a mistake to dance only with one person. Therefore, frequently change; dancing sometimes as a gentleman, again with the same partner as lady, then alone, so that you may learn to be self reliant. If you are doing wrong, the instructor will put you right. If you are doing nothing, there is nothing to put right. (Dodworth, 1873: 11-12; emphasis added)

Whilst the image of young men dancing together, “sometimes as a gentleman, again with the same partner as lady” is particularly delightful, Dodworth evidently had some trouble in getting the young men to dance at all. Although the source of their “embarrassment” is a matter for speculation, Dodworth’s subsequent dance manual throws considerable light on the issue of “awkwardness”.

Dodworth’s Dancing and its Relations to Education and Social Life, originally published in 1885, is rather less emphatic about men learning to dance with each other. There is no reference to an all-male dance class and Dodworth merely notes that “two gentlemen may practise together quite as advantageously as with ladies” (1900: 33). However, in a number of passages, Dodworth explicitly addresses the “awkwardness” of young men.

Angularity is a deformity, more frequently caused by habit than by nature; and when the matter is neglected until the age of fourteen or fifteen, boys rarely correct such habits; their exercises, plays, and games, with the prevalence of a silly but general conviction among boys of that age, that it is effeminate to be graceful and manly to be awkward, have greater influence in strengthening these angular habits than the efforts made on the other side can have in correcting them. In the case of boys, therefore, it is important to form good habits of motion and to encourage correct ideas upon the subject at an early time of life, as a shield against the coarser influences with which they find themselves surrounded at school and college. (Dodworth, 1885/1900: 6; emphasis added)

Note that Dodworth does not consider “awkwardness” an inherently masculine attribute, but rather a consequence of bad habits, poor training and “silly” ideas. Indeed, given his interest in corporeal training, Dodworth repeatedly attributes masculine “awkwardness” to the kinaesthetic of competitive sport and military drill – or what he elsewhere terms “the undue attention given to the cultivation of muscle” – instilled in boys and young men during their training at schools, colleges and military academies (Dodworth, 1900: 18, 21-22, 32, 266). That there are two masculine kinaesthetics in Dodworth’s dance pedagogy, that their difference is a matter of training not the inheritance of social class, and that one of them displays the “graciousness of manner” (18) characteristic of the dancer, whilst the other carries into “social intercourse habits learned in playing base or foot ball” (21), is all that remains to be noted.

If I have been considering discourse on men dancing in the late nineteenth century, it is not that I may reveal the ‘lost meaning’ of the historical artefact I now wish to consider. In spite of contextualising discourse from the historical record, the Dickson Experimental Sound Film, made in 1895 at the Edison Studios in New Jersey, remains frustratingly opaque. The subject of the film is dancing, an obvious choice perhaps for an early experiment in synchronising moving pictures with sound. What is rather more notable is that the dancing is performed by two men.

Dickson’s film, mentioned briefly in Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet in a chapter entitled ‘Who’s A Sissy?’ (1981: 6-7), has become a contested artefact in the celluloid history of homosexuality. Whilst I am more than happy to take the film as a cinematic document of two men dancing together in 1895, it is interesting to note that the sound track is no longer extant. Given that synchronised sound was the point of the experiment, its loss is obviously lamented. Yet in one particular lament, it is as if the sound – perhaps a metaphor for discourse – would hold the key to the mystery: “what remains is the image of two men waltzing to the tune of a forever silent melody” (Hubbard, 1995). [The sound has since been restored.]

What can be said about the dancing performed by these men? Clearly they are waltzing, and mostly in time with the bowing of Dickson’s violin. Although I suspect they do not waltz with exemplary Dodworthian grace. Their steps lack “precision”, their torso’s lack “attitude”, and they sometimes get out of step. They hold each other closely, too closely for Dodworth, and their inner right thighs contact as they step between each other’s legs. In fact, their hold is unusual, a deviation from the standard. They do not dance, as in Dodworth’s studio, one “as a gentleman”, the other “as lady”. Rather, both men hold each other with a ‘gentlemanly’ right hand to their partner’s lower left back. Yet both return the hold with a ‘lady-like’ left hand resting upon – actually, they grasp – their partner’s upper right arm.

With each partner performing part ‘gentleman’ and part ‘lady’, their symmetrical hold may suggest the enactment of an in-between ‘third-sex’. Yet it remains completely unclear whether their dancing together in this symmetrical hold either ‘sissifies’ both men, as Russo implies, or refuses their ‘sissification’. And if given their ‘awkwardness’ one decides on the latter, it still remains unclear whether their hold is a (hetero)masculine response to a feminising threat – neither wishing to dance as a lady – or a queer innovation for an unusual opportunity – both wishing to dance as men. It was, after all, an experiment. Yet on one of their turns, one of the men – in fact, the more proficient of the two – smiles with evident enjoyment or awkward embarrassment or both.

Neither Dodworth’s pedagogical project in teaching young men to dance, nor Dickson’s experimental film in documenting men dancing to music, articulate a discourse on homosexual identity. Nor may such an articulation be made without forcing a relation of content-expression signification between a material artefact of men dancing together and an ideational hermeneutic of their desire. Nevertheless, it may be possible to ask of these artefacts, not the ideational question, ‘What did it mean?’ when two men danced together, but the rather more practical, ‘How did they do it?’

I have already suggested that the men in Dickson’s film are not dancing, one “as a gentleman”, the other “as lady”. But what happened when Dodworth issued that instruction, some two decades earlier, “to the young gentlemen of the evening class”? What if, “throw[ing] aside all embarrassment”, Dodworth’s young men not only “asked each other to dance” and danced as instructed, but applied to their dancing that “silly but general conviction” about what it entailed to dance, one “as a gentleman”, the other “as lady”. What if, in dancing together as a couple, some young men not only enacted the gender difference of the standard ballroom hold – one holding, the other held, one leading, the other following – but also inflected their enactment with a kinaesthetic difference – one dancing with rather more “manly” “awkwardness”, the other dancing with rather more “effeminate” “gracefulness”?

If this is what happened, we have alternative answers to the question, ‘How did they do it?’ The men dancing together in Dodworth’s studio imitated the enactment of gender-difference articulated in social dance practice. This is at least evident in Dodworth’s instructional metaphor; it may also have manifest as kinaesthetic inflection. Whereas the men dancing together in Dickson’s film confound the enactment of gender difference. Since neither is dancing as “gentleman” nor “lady”, they actually do dance alike.

The pedagogical context of Dodworth’s dance studio and the experimental context of Edison’s film studio may have enabled men to dance together, quarantined from the heterosociality of the ballroom and dance hall where men normally danced with women. Indeed, when not the subject of pedagogical instruction or experimental film-making, the notion of men dancing together was apparently so incongruous that anti-dance literature of the period made frequent recourse to the imperative ‘fact’ that “men do not dance with men”. They did this order to assert that dancing was (hetero)sexually motivated and to recommend that, if dancing between the sexes were prohibited, there would no longer be any interest in dancing at all.

Nevertheless, as artefacts from occasions when men did “dance with men”, Dodworth’s dance manual, and Dickson’s experimental film document two choreographic ensembles for men to dance with each other in a social dance practice that otherwise enacted the articulation of ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’. What is important about these ensembles – one imitative of gender difference, the other confounding in its symmetry – is that they were also enacted elsewhere. In other late nineteenth century contexts – also, in some senses, pedagogical and experimental; certainly no less quarantined – men were taking “pleasure in motion and association” by dancing together with men. Unlike the dancing in Dodworth’s studio or Dickson’s film, however, the dancing in these contexts was performed by men who had begun – and about whom others were beginning – to articulate a discourse on homosexual identity and to articulate that discourse to dancing.

For historians researching homosexuality in north America, the period from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, has been a test-case in the adjudication of relations between discourse and practice. In this context, ‘discourse’ refers to analyses of the “construction of homosexuality” in texts written within medical, scientific, legal and governmental institutions, whilst ‘practice’ refers to “subcultural experience” recovered often from the same sources, but also from journalism, literature, letters, diaries and oral history (Mumford, 1996: 396-397). The problematics of this distinction have sustained an ongoing historical debate about the origins, relations and dispersal of two models of homosexuality: an earlier “gender inversion” model in which sexuality is necessarily articulated upon gender difference, and a later “object relations” model in which homosexuality is predicated upon a same-sex object of desire.

One of the many problems in sustaining a distinction between discourse and practice in such historical research, is that the medical scientists and psychologists who discoursed on homosexual identity were also often armchair ethnographers of subcultural experience. Indeed, during the 1890s and 1900s, the gender inversion model appears to have been substantiated not merely through individual case studies documented in clinical practice, but through the collection of anecdotal evidence and first-hand observations of men cross-dressing in female attire, conducting themselves effeminately, and dancing as ‘ladies, either with other men or on stage in a show, at drag balls and dance halls across Europe and North America. Such scenarios of men dancing appear in the sexological literature with relative frequency. Here is one such account.

Male negroes masquerading in women’s garb and carousing and dancing with white men is the latest St Louis record of neurotic and psychopathic sexual perversion. Some of them drove to the levee dive and dance hall at which they were arrested in their masters’ auto cars. All were gowned as women at the miscegenation dance and the negroes called each other feminine names. They were all arrested, taken before Judge Tracy and gave bond to appear for trial, at three hundred dollars each, signed by a white man. … The names of these negro perverts, their feminine aliases and addresses appear in the press notices of their arrest, but the names of the white degenerates consorting with them are not given. (Hughes, 1905; excerpt in Katz, 1976: 48-49)

On the basis of this report, one can only guess how the “negro perverts” and “white degenerates” danced with one another, if they got to dance at all. Although, Marshall and Jean Stearns spoke to a musician who played “at a Negro dancing school in St Louis around 1901” who recalled that “they danced quadrilles, lancers, polkas, and things like that”; that is, dances from the Anglo-European tradition of social dancing. However they danced, it would seem evident that a racially marked and imitative enactment of gender difference structured their performance. Kevin Mumford – whose article “Homosex Changes” directed me to that source – regards this imitative enactment of gender difference as discontinuous with later interracial enactments of homosexuality in the 1920s and 1930s.

Reading accounts written by urban sociologists and reports from police investigations during those decades, Mumford explores a convergence of African-American culture, dancing, criminal conduct and emergent (homo)sexualities in the vice districts of Chicago and New York. Mumford argues that an object relations model of homosexuality was emerged in these contexts through a pedagogical process of intercorporeal exchange. Mumford proposes that relations between black men and white men dancing together in underground clubs were sexualised within a kinaesthetic drawn from the traditions African-American social dancing.

Mumford quotes from investigators who reported that “in one speakeasy…two men were dancing with each other kissing and sucking tongues” and that in another the “women were dancing with each other, imitating the motions of sexual intercourse and the men were dancing with each other, all indecently” (Mumford, 1996: 406-407). Mumford speculates that they performed the “Black Bottom” or “the Turkey Trot”, dances that African-Americans from the south had brought with them when they migrated north. Given the references to “motions of sexual intercourse”, it seems likely that they performed stationary dances, in close physical contact, either front-to-front or one behind the other, with an emphasis on coordinated pelvic action. In any case, this was precisely the kind of dancing that had been outlawed in a large number of American cities during the 1920s. Yet, as Mumford discovered, the dancing performed in black clubs and the dancing that was subject to prohibition, was also the kind of dancing that white homosexuals were performing together at private parties, beyond the survey of the law.

In the 1930s, Earl Bruce, a University of Chicago graduate student, studied the patterns of behaviour among white homosexual men at a private party…. According to Bruce, ‘the owner of the apartment, a homosexual about 25 years of age, runs a small dancing school downtown. Many of his pupils are homosexual.’ At the party a ‘Mr J. played a number of pornographic records sung by some Negro entertainers; a homosexual theme ran through the lyrics.’ These homosexual men could be found ‘swaying to the music of a colored jazz orchestra,’ providing the ‘unconventional sight’ of ‘two young men in street clothes dancing together, cheek to cheek.’ (Mumford, 1996: 408)

Yet again, it is impossible to know precisely how these “two young men” were “dancing together”. Although the fact that they were “swaying to the music of a colored jazz orchestra” both dressed in street clothes would suggest that their relation was not crafted through an imitative enactment of gender difference, but through the relational symmetry of a cross-over kinaesthetic drawn from African-American dance traditions.

Here then, to finish on a note of local interest, is a recollection – collected by Gary Wotherspoon – of what went on at a ‘dancing academy’ in inner city Sydney during the 1930s. I also have some photos taken in 1949 at a drag ball staged not far from here and published in one of Sydney’s now defunct tabloid newspapers.

The place for thrills was a dive in Wentworth Avenue – up a long flight of stairs and into a dimly lit large studio, with a dance floor lined with tables – called ‘Black Ada’s’ – it was officially called ‘The Academy School of Dancing’ and was run by the largest negro you ever saw, called ‘Black Ada’. … The cost of ‘dancing lessons’ was 2/6 with supper – and it was brilliant. The place was packed to the hilt, dim lights, a bottle of ‘plonk’, lots of ‘knowall’ girls as a front and in the half-light everyone looked beautiful. The dancing was real, body to body, pre-war stuff and you haven’t lived unless you’ve really danced – asking some beaut guy for a dance, clasping him in your arms and check to cheek – sex on the dance floor!

About 1am the Vice Squad used to make its routine call and when Black Ada opened the door and saw them she would press a bell and we’d all scatter for our seats leaving only the blokes dancing with girls. So by the time the Vice Boys got to the top of the stairs it looked like a Sunday School hop and Ada used to call out in time to the music ‘one, two, turn – one, two. Will the couple on the right keep in step!’ We all pissed ourselves at the tables trying to look as if we were studying the waltz. It was hilarious – Ada was very strict and no ‘funny’ business went on, but in the half-dark how could she see all – in fact the favourite dance routine was to dance with your hands down the back of your partner’s trousers – oh the buttocks of it all! (Wotherspoon, 1991: 61-62)


Bourdieu, Pierre (1990) The Logic of Practice, translated by Richard Nice, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Dodworth, A. (1873) Assistant for A. Doworth’s Pupils, New York: Nesbitt & Co.

Dodworth, A. (1900) Dancing and its Relation to Social Life, New York & London: Harper & Brothers (originally published 1885).

Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley, London: Penguin Books.

Hubbard, J. (1995) ‘100 Years of Cinema / 100 Years of Sodomy’ curatorial note, Mix 95: New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival,

Katz, J. (1976) Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA, New York: Crowell.

King, T. (1993) “Performing ‘Akimbo’: queer pride and epistemological prejudice” in Meyer, Moe, ed. The Poetics and Politics of Camp, New York: Routledge.

Meyer, M. (1993) “Under the sign of Wilde: An archaeology of posing” in Meyer, Moe, ed. The Poetics and Politics of Camp, New York: Routledge.

Mumford, K.J. (1996) Homosex Changes: Race, Cultural Geography, and the Emergence of the Gay, American Quarterly, 48/3: 395-414.

Russo, V. (1981) The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, New York: Harper & Row.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1990) Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wotherspoon, G. (1991) City of the Plain: History of a Gay Sub-Culture, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger.