a conversation with Anya Susan
March 5th, 2022
Interview conducted by Rosie Elliott
Can you introduce yourself?
I am Anya Susan. I am 20 years old. I'm from Miami, Florida and I'm currently attending NYU Tisch Contemporary Dance program. My pronouns are they/he/she. I identify as gender fluid, Queer, and black.
What drew you to dance and made you want to pursue it?
I think how beautiful I thought it was. When I was a kid, we would watch the Nutcracker DVD and Wendy Whalen would do Arabian. I think that was the first moment that I asked my mom to sign me up for dance classes because I thought that she was just the most beautiful. I just didn't understand how people could do that. I just thought it was so fascinating.
That being like the first person that sparked your interest in dance, do you feel like that was the vision you had of a dancer?
Yes, absolutely. Someone that was very feminine. Someone that was very white. Someone that was very slender. As a kid, I didn't have the understanding that some of those things were impossible for me, but that was the example that I had, and that was really all that I wanted. The training that I got really reinforced that and didn't really give a lot of other information as to what I could be or where my role was in dance. I think that really makes so much sense as my first example. It took me until I was a lot older to sit back and realize that there's so much more. That isn't a standard that we should be praising because kids like me, need to know that that's not all there is.
Was there ever a point in your dance training that you considered quitting?
Yes. Oh my god. Yes. I think the first time that I thought that maybe this wasn't for me was after a year of doing competitive dance. It was very stressful. That was the first time where dance didn't feel fun anymore. I was about 11. I was also told that, you know, dance has this very brutal, aggressive side to it, and that if you can't get through that, if you can't push through that, then you're not meant to be doing it.
And in high school I thought about quitting almost every single day. And I think it was just I felt that so many factors of dance were working against me and my identity and who I was. I just didn't feel like there was a place for me in it. And that this was for others.
What is specifically different in the dance world as opposed to societal, non-inclusivity of queer, gender non-conforming, and trans people? What is specifically not working in dance that is compounding the effects of societal standards?
The first thing that I think of is mirrors and how much time we spend looking at ourselves and our image. I feel like there's something about the aesthetic that is so much stronger in the dance world. It’s “what do you look like and not how do you feel?”
Is there any specific memory that you have, a moment that you can pinpoint, that made you feel like there is no space for me in this?
There was a lot of information given to me growing up that there were only very specific places where I could dance and very specific things that I could do. Why isn't anyone else getting this message? Why are white dancers being told that you know, you can do anything, the world is yours. When I would say I really have an interest in ballet or really have an interest in contemporary, it was no, you will do Horton or no you will you will be this because that's the place for you.
There was a moment at this studio I was at, a very ballet centered studio, where I tried to go in a group with the men in the class, and the class was actually stopped. I remember being told, “don't ever do that again.” It was just a moment of "oh, wow, there are rules and I cannot break these rules, and they're gonna be here, and I just have to live around them." I can't do this really small thing. And I think I was 13 when that happened and it was just eye opening.
What were the consequences in your mind for breaking the rules?
I think this class specifically was operated on fear. There was one class where I pulled my hamstring in the middle of the class, and I didn't say anything for at least 30 minutes, and I was just in tears in the back of this class because I could not move. But I was so afraid to say I just pulled my hamstring. I just cried and cried until he said, "Why are you crying?" And that was like, Oh, now I can explain myself because I've been asked. I think that that just makes it really difficult when there's no open communication and when you know the communication that is there is yelling or talking very sternly and cultivating a very fearful environment.
Do you think that that sort of conditioning in your younger life has penetrated your outside social life in terms of not being able to confront others or use your voice or take up space?
Yeah, absolutely. I think there's a lot of agency in myself that I feel that I don't have. It's very hard for me to speak up for myself. And in many situations, and I think that I've just been conditioned to think “if something bad is happening to you, you just push through because that's what it is. You can't really do anything about it. Just live with it until it stops.” And I think that that's something that is seen in dance so often, just the acceptance that it is always hard and there is no other way. And that saying something about it is the wrong thing to do. Just suck it up. And yeah, that's something that definitely I work on every single day is using my voice in a way that I didn't feel that I could through dance.
So, now in college, and where you're at in your life and career, do you feel like that's still the case? Or do you feel like there is more room for your voice and your full identity?
Yeah, I definitely feel like there's more room. There has been an effort to have more communication with students. I think there's still a hesitancy on the faculties part and the students part of trying to navigate this differently just because I know so many people have had this experience of fear and had this experience of not being able to communicate. There have been changes made to the curriculum that I feel also has helped with that instead of a men's class, now it is just jumps and turns and everyone has to take it. And there are no groups, everyone's doing all of the same things. There is going around in a circle when you are introducing yourself and being asked what your pronouns are, what your preferred name is, and things like that, but I feel these are small steps, but I think that they are helping.
If you could dream what the dance space for younger children would look like in five years. What do you think would be different?
I think I would pull from what is making dance much more enjoyable and safer that I'm experiencing now, and what wasn't there growing up. I think having dance teachers seeing dancers as individuals and as people and as children, and their own beings, I think is something that would have really, really made a difference, just kind of humanizing the experience. You can take things seriously and have fun. There's just having teachers check in on students or even get to know them in small ways or just really connect with them on some level or I don't know maybe asking them what their goals are. Being asked, what do you want to get out of this class and how can I give that to you? Instead of this is my curriculum you will move through it, as I say, and whatever you get out of it, it's what you get out of it. I think it was nice to be asked, Hey, welcome to my class. Here's what I am offering to you. Is there anything else that you need? Or where do you want to take this and how can I help you? And just kind of sitting down and establishing that. If a teacher says, you know, I don't know everything, and I'm also learning, makes it a more equal learning environment and more of a conversation.
Is there anything that you want to say to young dancers right now If you could give them a piece of advice or just something to hold on to and remember?
I think not to take it so seriously, and to really allow yourself to experience dance as a kid, and just to be a kid, just to be a child in a dance class. And enjoy being a child in a dance class. Because, you know, there's so many things in life that are so difficult, and I don't think that dance needs to be that all of the time. Because there's something a little sad about coming to college and having more fun in dance at 20 years old than I did at 13. I think I would say that to just enjoy it, just really enjoy it.
Thank you so much for sharing.