Intercorporeal choreographies: Gay performance practices and the interstices of desire

Jonathan Bollen, University of New England, Australia

Dancing and sex

I’m talking about dancing. I’m talking about sex.
I don’t want to confuse the two.

I’m sitting in the spa at City Steam, a sex venue for men in Sussex Street, Sydney. It’s Friday night, around 11pm. There is a young Asian man in the shower across the way. And there is music playing – as always. It’s up-beat top 40s and club hits, the kind of music you can dance to. Which is what the young Asian man in the shower is doing – dancing to the music, mouthing the lyrics, posing and pouting and putting on a show. I can’t recall what song was playing. Perhaps ‘It’s Raining Men’ – though it would be that cover version by former Spice Girl Geri Haliwell, not the original version from 1983, sung by those big black divas the Weather Girls. Whatever the music, the young man’s show-girl choreography is straight off the dance floor, straight out of a drag show, straight from an MGM musical as he swishes and swirls and washes that man right out of his hair. He’s chubby, though not Weather Girl chubby. He’s having fun. I smile. I glance across to another man in the spa. He’s young, slim, and suburban white. We swap sides so he too can enjoy seeing the show.

Another night I’m dancing at a dance club in Darling Harbour, Sydney. I’m at Queer Nation at a club called Home. It’s a Sunday night, probably some time after 2am. The dance floor is crowded with gay men and their friends, but mostly it’s crowded with gay men. In one quadrant of the dance floor the men are bare-chested, a little older perhaps, and keen on being men amongst men. In another quadrant, the men are younger and more fashionably dressed, some wear t-shirts, some wear sunglasses, all wear designer labels. They’re keen on their dancing and seeing themselves seen. In both quadrants there are Asian men and white men, though more white men, it seems, where the men are older and more Asian men by comparison where the men are a bit younger. It’s the gay scene in Sydney as specific as it gets – age, race, and attitude, gender and sex. The DJ plays Madonna’s ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’. The remix is sensational, the dance floor erupts, it’s one of those moments. Gay men, all of them, dancing around me, some singing along, head back, butt out, inhabiting the lyric: ‘Do you know – what it feels like – for a girl?’. I wonder if they do. ‘Like do they think they know!?’, I say to a friend later. She laughs and tells me to stop thinking about work.

I’m talking about dancing. I’m talking about sex.
I wasn’t working that night.

Not at Queer Nation, nor at City Steam. But dance floors and sex venues are two of the sites I’ve been researching gay performance practices over the last ten years or so in two relatively distinct phases. The first phase, a project of doctoral research in performance studies, focused on the dance floors at Sydney’s large gay and lesbian dance parties from 1994 to 1998. The second phase, a series of research projects in health education undertaken since 1999 in collaboration with David McInnes and in conjunction with government health agencies and gay community organisations, have focused on sexual contexts like the city’s sex venues that provide opportunities for casual sex between men. I regard my work in this second phase as applied performance research and one motivation for this paper is to retrieve that work from the contexts which fostered it, from health education and sexuality research, and to relocate it in the context of performance studies. Specifically, I want to discuss how I applied some of the approaches of performance studies in researching gay men’s sexual practices. And I’d like to share some new things I’ve learnt about ways of thinking performance in the process of doing so.

There are some remarkably persistent conceptual habits for thinking the relations between dancing and sex. In one version, dancing serves as a causal precursor to sex, a ritualised routine, driven by instinct, that arouses and anticipates the enactment of sex. In another version, dancing represents the triumph of civilisation over sex, the elevation of baser instincts and desires into a cultivated and courtly artifice of romantic interaction. In both versions, sex is used to explain why we dance; sex figures as dancing’s inner-truth and elaborates its meaning and rationale. Back in 1994 I was rather anxious about the relation between dancing and sex. Several months into the dance party project a supervisor told me that dancing and sex are much the same thing. The idea made me squirm. As I set out on fieldwork, it made me feel like that anthropologist observing the mating rituals of go-go dancing teenagers in Beach Party, the 1963 movie with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. It made me feel that beneath the flashy surface of dance floor moves there lay a deeper, darker, more explanatory reality which I was expected to reveal.

Of course, gay men do sometimes have sex on the dance floor or somewhere nearby soon after dancing. And this coincidence and contiguity of the two practices is interesting enough. But saying ‘it’s all about sex’ doesn’t get us very far. Indeed, I began wondering to the contrary what would happen if I were to say ‘it’s all about dancing’. What would it take to use our knowledge of dancing to ‘explain’ what happens in sex? If we thought about sex as cultural performance, as meaningful movement, as representational activity, as social interaction? In other words, what would it take to analyse sex – and I mean the practice of sex – using the conceptual repertoire and analytical resources that have been developed in performance studies? At the time, such questions served to de-nature sex, to disarticulate sex from its biological determinants and to reconceptualise it, alongside dancing, as another bodily practice, another ‘technique du corp’ (Mauss). Now I would recognise how impoverished a concept of performance became embedded in routine assertions of the social construction, the cultural production of sex. Nevertheless, between now and then, it’s been interesting to observe how a metaphoric investment in choreographic concerns came to characterise research on gay men’s sex.

Choreographic practice: from dance parties to sex venues

In 1999 I worked for six months with David McInnes on a collaborative project in educational research and development at the AIDS Council of New South Wales. The project aimed at developing interventions in health education for men who use or want to use sex venues and the research we undertook investigated how men learn to use sex venues and what knowledge, skills and capacities they acquire in doing so. In embarking on the project, we were struck by the prevalence of choreographic metaphors in the research literature on gay men’s sexual interactions. Researchers of gay men’s sexual practices such as Gary Dowsett spoke of the ‘choreography of sexual encounters’ which he explained as:

the subtle and nuanced movement of bodies in sexual encounters: the stalking of partners, the shifting of attention from general possibility of sex to the specific opportunity for sex, the inviting glance, the suggestive movements of bodies, the first contact, the sequencing of exploring bodies, and so on (Dowsett 1996: 143-144).

And the health educators we worked with found application for choreographic metaphors in developing education interventions based on our research – such as these pages from When You’re Hot You’re Hot, a printed resource about sex venues for men with little or no experience. Text, photos and design emulate a dance manual in an attempt at representing sequences of action and interaction that constitute cruising and sexual negotiation in sex venues.

[Show pages – leave page three displayed]

In our work on that project, we recognised that one reason for the choreographic metaphor was its capacity to describe sexual interactions that entail little or no talking. In this regard, we saw how the metaphor offered researchers a substitute for talk: a way of scripting how bodies move in doing sex or, conversely, a way of gesturing towards sexual experiences that lie beyond the limits of scriptable knowledge. We described the first version of the metaphor as ‘scripted choreography’, where researchers saw sex as the enactment of a determinate sequence of actions, a choreography that may be analysed for its structure, for what its sequences and elements mean. We described the second version as ‘liminal choreography’ where researchers invested sex with qualities of creativity, transgression and flow that would exceed the categories of structural analysis. We also noted that in both versions, researchers used the metaphor of choreography without much discussion of its implications and without reference to the elaboration of choreographic theory within dance studies.

These interests and investments in the choreography of sex invited an application of ideas about improvisational practice that I’d developed in researching dance parties. Reading across a set of dance party narratives recounted in interviews by partygoers, I had begun to conceptualise their experience of the party as a complex, interwoven choreography of trajectories, converging and dispersing, coinciding and passing, and linked together at points of intersection. In analysing sex venue practice, I shaped an approach that prioritised the mobility of practice but located that mobility in a social milieu, a circumstantial ensemble comprising occasion, location and other moving bodies. Agents accumulate capacities in their interactions with others but are constrained by circumstance in their enactments of practice.

As part of the sex venue project we analysed a set of twenty interviews where men recounted in detail experiences at sex venues in Sydney. Reading the interviews as a kind of performance documentation that recorded the mobility of their sex venue practice, we analysed experiences at sex venues along three dimensions.

• Trajectory: a temporal-narrative dimension that recounts a sequencing of moments, activities and engagements, as men trace their movement through a venue in recounting an experience.

• Scope: a spatial-situational dimension that registers shifts in attention paid to the venue and its areas, to the self and to others, to particular bodies and their body parts, as men describe the various situations through which they move.

• Moments: an actional-relational dimension that clusters together particular kinds of doings and particular ways of relating that constitute various applications to sex venue practice as men recount the details of what they did at particular points.

[Explain analysis]

On the basis of our analyses, we found that the choreography of doing sex at sex venues was neither a scripted sequence of actions nor a liminal realm of corporeal flow. Rather, we argued that doing sex entailed the deployment of improvisational capacities – by which we meant a body’s repertoire of moves, its training in the choreography of doing sex. Crucially, we observed how the negotiation of circumstance would constrain the deployment of improvisational capacities within particular sexual contexts: what to do, in this place, at this time, with these bodies and their body parts, and with what they are able and desire to do. At the same time, we suggested that sexual contexts would provide opportunities for incorporating new actions and capacities being deployed by others: how you can learn by doing and being done to, by watching and being shown how, by talking about what to do and recounting what went on. In this way, we concluded that improvisational capacities, incorporated by selves and encountered in others, would accumulate a choreographic repertoire for doing sex. In turn, the circumstantial deployment of these capacities would shape the choreography of doing sex in particular sexual contexts (McInnes & Bollen 2000).

Looking back at this work on the choreography of dance parties and sex venues what stands out to me now the emphasis on accumulation and constraint. This emphasis, which reflects an uptake and application of Butler’s account of gender performativity, has been useful in our attempts at critiquing and displacing persistent fantasies about sexual liberation, about our capacity to liberate ourselves through dancing or sex. And in the face of such fantasies and the cruelties of their promise, it seemed responsible to reflect just how dance floors and sex venues are productive of routine regulatory effects. On the other hand, too tight a correspondence between capacity and circumstance – between, in Butler’s terms, the body and the law – may have dulled our perception to the practical possibilities of innovation, transformation and learning. How can we think about about experiences of newness in sex? What’s the experience of learning new moves?

Experiencing newness

In his book Deleuze and the Political, Paul Patton writes how:

Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between, on the one hand, assemblages of desire that are fixed or delimited in particular ways, shut off from all but certain specified relations to the outside, and on the other, more fluid and open-ended assemblages in which new connections and new forms of relation to the outside are always possible, even at the risk of transforming the assemblage into some other kind of body (Patton 2000: 77).

Accordingly, expansion or an exposure to newness would entail the extension, enhancement, or amplification of a body’s capacity to do and to feel, to affect others and to be affected, to enter into new and potentially transforming relations with other bodies. In contrast, foreclosure would amount to a fixed or delimited specification of practice, arising perhaps from the force of habit or actively secured through a commitment to certainty, decisiveness, or the guarantee of competence in ways that circumscribe and constrain what a body may become in its interaction with others. At least, this is how David McInnes and I applied these ideas in a recent project where we were funded by NSW health to explore gay men’s experiences of learning in contexts of adventurous sex.

Often at some point in the negotiation of casual sex between men, one man will turn to the other and ask ‘What do you like?’ or ‘What are you into?’. The context of the sexual occasion constrains the sense-potential of these otherwise most general of questions. What is sought, and sometimes supplied in response, is a specification selected from an array of sexual practices and roles. The intention is to establish some practical parameters for the sexual interaction that is unfolding. The effect is to guarantee the production of pleasure and pride in an ensuring performance of sexual competence. Yet there is a civilised certainty entailed in such enactments of sex that would foreclose an encounter with newness. For instance, for some people and in some contexts, the practice of fisting, as one participant told us ‘can be the most boring experience on earth’. On the other hand, when participants recounted sexual occasions that they regarded as interesting, exciting, unusual or new in some way they were occasions where bodies entered into sex with an open or exploratory attitude to what will transpire.

We collected many such stories. Here’s one we were told by a man we’ve called Mark.

So I met this guy or he picked me up at a club, and he had a red hanky in his right pocket. And I asked him […] what it represented, because I was a bit naive, at the time, I suppose. And he explained it to me. And I had never thought about anything like that or dreamed about that situation before. So it was just like, ‘OK, right.’ […]

But then he left me his number and he wanted to see me again. And so he rang me up one time. And I went over to his place and we started to muck around. […] And I started to play with his arse and you know, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. This feels OK.’ And you know, I was getting turned on by the whole experience.

What did it feel like? It’s sort of weird, yeah, just to actually feel what it felt like to be inside someone’s arse, I suppose. It’s just like smooth and soft and warm and you know, just quite weird really. It’s like the skin’s sort of wrapping all around your hand and just you’re just working through that. I don’t know how you can explain that. It’s quite weird. […]

So that was really a bit of a spin out for me to do that, because I hadn’t done that before. And I was really getting turned on by the whole experience. And since that experience […] I’ve done it heaps of times.

Even though he had heard about fisting and what it entailed, Mark did not know in advance of doing it that fisting would turn him on. Nor did he know, in advance of that occasion, that fisting would become incorporated into his sexual repertoire as something he now likes to do. This we call an erotics of unpredictability.

I no longer have faith, if ever I once did, in an assertive sexual politics of proudly performative self-declarations that are impervious to the transformative shame-potential of interacting with others. Our capacity to perform ourselves with pride, to declare who I am and what I’m into, may be an effective defence against shame. But as Elspeth Probyn observes, ‘pride stifles the power of our bodies to react’ (2000: 129). As an alternative I’d advocate a sexual politics of intercorporeality as the condition of bodily transformation in sexual interaction. Where the possibilities of sex are not foreclosed in advance and where pride in the performance of sexual competence is no longer guaranteed, sexual occasions may be experienced as open-ended intercorporeal assemblages where the affective dimension of power and the transformative potential of interaction are enhanced.

I’m talking about dancing. I’m talking about sex.
Here’s what I’ve learnt about performance.

Whether our performing exposes us to open-ended experiences of intercorporeal affectivity or encloses us in routine enactments of transferable competence depends not on whether we’re fisting or fucking or dancing to Madonna and feeling like a girl. Whether we can soften to the future possibilities of the new depends on the extent to which we can tolerate being transformed in our interactions with others.