Exploring Gender Identity Through Dance and Performance
Jules Skloot is a dancer, performance maker, and teacher based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He grew up in Madison, WI, and received a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA in dance from Sarah Lawrence College. He is a choreographer and dancer in the renowned queer dance company, Ballez, and associate director of Opequon Quaker Arts Camp. We met Jules, because he lives on our block in Fort Greene. After stalking him and his cute dog Rosie from afar, we finally struck up a conversation and were blown away by his charm and kind heart.
Tell Us About You, And What You Are Passionate About?
I like to spend my time with my dog, Rosie. I like being outside with her and I like that caring for her means I have to adventure outside in all kinds of weather. I make art in different forms but mostly dance and live performance. I love singing with people, making up songs, and playing music. I want to play more music with people, but sometimes I'm too shy, so I play music by myself. I like writing letters and postcards to friends around the world….and I really like baking.
I'm passionate about social justice, and about doing everything I can do to make the communities I am a part of nourishing and just places for all people. I am passionate about creating a world where people are not imprisioned, where everyone has a home and gets to stay in it, where everyone gets health care and food, and the right to be themselves and thrive.
I'm doing the best I can to be myself and to follow my intuition about where I should go and what projects I should put my energy into. I'm spending a lot of time with young people, filling them with as much love as I can, and treating them like they're real human beings, not just waiting to be human beings. I'm living collectively and fighting collectively for secure, rent-stabilized housing in a gentrified neighborhood.
What was your journey like to feeling comfortable with your gender identity?
I had to let my gender identity develop and get to know it over time, like a lot of people, I guess. I didn't feel like a girl growing up, but I was told I was one and treated accordingly, and I didn’t think there was another option so I conformed. I fiercely identified with feminism. In my home I had space to have a fluid/queer gender expression, I didn’t often get told what to wear or how to sit, we had a lot of dress ups around. My folks appreciate counter-cultural attitudes and expressions so there was room for that. I had a whole punk rock time where I wore a lot of jewelry I made from hardware store scraps.
I did not feel the same spaciousness in regard to gender identity. My parents didn't really think about it, they didn't know how to lead the way for me. Like a lot of us queers, we have to parent ourselves in that way and find people, find our way. There were some butch lesbians in my life when I was younger that were touchstones, teachers in my school or parents of friends. But obviously, there wasn’t a whole lot in the media around me.
Going to college, which was an enormous privilege, was transformative as a place where I came into contact with so many new ideas, so many people that were thinking and talking about their gender in a more expansive way, and for the first time I gave myself the freedom to really show other parts of my gender and experiment and grow. That was the first time I knew that I was talking to and engaging with other trans-people.
Coming to feel comfortable with my gender identity was a process of listening to and trusting myself, working through a lot of shame and discomfort, and connecting with other people on their own journeys.
Can you tell US more about YOur role models?
One of my earliest gender possibility role models was one of the moms of my dear friend from preschool who was this big butch cop who, seemed so sturdy and in charge. I remember going over, it must have been the first time I went over to her house to play and we were maybe like five or six or seven. I don't know, young. I remember the first time I went to their house, just pulling Emily around the corner to the stairwell and saying, "Is Alix a boy or a girl?" She said, "She's a girl, silly." And I was like, "Cool." That was very welcome information.
My role models were people who expanded my idea of what boy was and what girl was. I just felt really interested in gender queer-ness, and looked for it around me, and looked also, for people who were transgressing gender-role expectations. Sometimes I passed as a boy as a young person when I wore boy clothes. I really loved the boy section of TJ Maxx, and felt thrilled once when a store clerk directed me there. There were just moments where it was tremendously satisfying if we were sitting in a restaurant and they'd ask, "And for you young man?" I'd be like...[chuckle] It makes it more fun, if I can have gender, might as well make it fun.
How would you describe your style? How has your relationship with clothes evolved over time?
The first word I thought was 'faygeleh,' which is a Yiddish word that means little bird. Which could be a slur for faggot. But it's been reclaimed by folks for self-identifying purposes as that word has been in English too. So faygeleh. Butch floral. Fluid. Sturdy and soft.
When I was younger, luckily I felt a certain freedom to express my gender through my style and just experiment with style. I grew up middle class, so there was definitely the privilege of getting to go shopping, and having access to more choices. But around puberty time, I felt this crackdown of expectations, and I felt I was supposed to be a girl, so I was trying. And there's a part of me that really likes feminine things, I love textiles and bright colors and patterns, and I was really into style from the 40’s. My mom and I used to really love looking at vintage clothes and vintage dresses together. I loved seeing how they were made, with like beadwork, and pintucks, they seemed so much more special than clothes from the present day. That also felt like sweet quality time and attention from my mom, but we got into a hard spot as I grew older and more into my gender as it is now. She thought, "Great! This is beautiful vintage dress here. Wear it." And I said, "Okay!" So, I wore those things for a while, and it's not like I hated them, but I don't know, things were a lot more complicated than that... My gender felt more fluid and so when people saw me, I wanted them to see that there was a lot more to the story than just a girl. It became really uncomfortable feeling like there were all those parts of me that weren't seen. So I stopped wearing those dresses for the most part, but I still appreciate how they're made and looking at them. I do still love dressing up in all kinds of gender-fabulous ways. I'm a performer, I love getting to play around. I like drag, and shapeshifting, and possibilities.
Can you talk about your experience moving from wearing girls clothes to feeling you had to be uber masculine to being comfortable playing with your gender expression?
When I was wearing the vintage dresses I was also wearing ball bearing jewelry that I made at the hardware store and safety pins in my ears and combat boots and ripped up jeans underneath the vintage dresses. So it was like punk rock femininity. When I got to college and started feeling more free to express my butchness and masculinity, I felt like I had to just dress only in boys clothes and have this hyper masculine look. At that time in the late 90’s early 2000’s there was this butch dyke look that was very sporty, which is pretty silly when I think back now because I never really played sports. When I grew into myself a little more, got more comfortable with myself, I didn’t feel like I had to prove my masculinity as much. Part of that has been about language, about being able to use my words to say, "this is who I am." So I don't have to work so hard to show it all the time. But that negotiation around how I feel and how I think I’m being perceived is still a part of my daily life. There are still times where I just want to present more masculine and make sure people get it, and times where I want to express my femininity, it’s just when I was younger the femininity was compulsory and assumed. There is a violence to that, so I guess there had to be a violent rejection of it.
I wore a skirt recently but it's contextual where I feel like I can let those parts out and still feel safe and seen. Of course getting to feel safe and seen is relative and contextual, and also for sure related to my privilege as a white and raised middle class person.
There was a tremendous relief that I felt around gender expression after I had top surgery. My chest felt like something so abstracting and disorienting before. Something I had to push myself through or around, and the discomfort was always present like radio static. The peacefulness after that was kind of astounding. There's also the comfort of not having my chest bound all the time, so the comfort of being able to breathe.
What's your relationship like with clothes? how do different clothes make you feel?
I like things to be soft, i can’t handle itchy. I make choices based on where I'm going and what I need to do there, do I need to do a deep plie? Will I be painting or getting involved with ink? Is there someone I want to kiss there? Do I need to look professional? Like a professional what? What is professional anyway? These are questions I ask myself. I feel like there is an intuition I tap into when I’m getting dressed. I am a pretty shape shifty person. Didn't RuPaul say "We're born naked and the rest is drag"? I was reading a thing recently... I don't remember where it was but he was talking about how we're all “God in drag,” I like that.
At the camp where I work there's lots of dress-ups, I wear fancy things that I don't mind getting dirty and that's fun, to play really hard and get really sweaty in a 1980s floral dress. I really like the queer blending of tough and soft at the same time. The creativity of clothing is exciting to me. Actually, talking about this is reinvigorating my commitment to dressing creatively and subversively. Or at least remembering that it is always a possibility. I don’t want to conform to some kind of boring adult look. You know who lives in our neighborhood [Fort Greene] is Martha Wilson the feminist artist and she wears her hair all asymmetrical and half silver, half flaming orange, and when I see her on the street I am sure that I’m gonna have a good day. She’s an inspiration. Keep an eye out.
That childhood friend who I told you about, the one with the butch parent, we we're all grown up I guess and she’s now in grad school in our home state of Wisconsin, studying and thinking about the connections between fashion and textiles and social activism. We were talking on the phone the other day and she told me that everyday since the presidential election she's been taping words to her clothes and wearing them out in her day. So far she’s written “I love immigrants” “I love black lives” “I love queers” and “human being against islamophobia.” I love and feel grateful for this action of hers.
What has been your experience finding clothing that fits your personal style?
I used to love going shopping at thrift stores because you can find treasures and not everything is the same. However, thrift stores in New York are really expensive! When I'm visiting other places, I love shopping in thrift stores because it’s cheaper than New York and you also get remnants of the culture of that place, of what people are wearing there, have been wearing there, so it's a cool mash-up, soup of style, it's more to play with.
I find that sizing is difficult, because I like to wear men's clothes and usually I buy from the men's department. Things are often proportionally off for my body. But, I’ve found that in Uniqlo, I know what my size is and it fits my body and the clothes are well made, they don't fall apart and they're relatively inexpensive so that's the store that I probably most often shop at these days. I like having clothing swaps with friends to pass things around. Feels related to social justice too, there's so many clothes being produced and thrown away, so it's cool to recycle things and pass them around or support businesses that are making responsible choices in their production.
What has been your experience finding clothing that you are comfortable wearing?
My ability to find clothes that I'm comfortable in has not always been easy. I wasn't always super comfortable in my body and then I think there were times where what I was choosing to wear was in direct relation to wanting to find some sense of comfort or ease. That’s a lifelong process of self-love and acceptance and it's not always joyful celebration. Unfortunately, we've all internalized messages about our bodies, that they're bad or not right or it would be better if it was just a little bit more this or a little bit more that and so sometimes that voice gets in there when you're trying to get dressed, trying to go out in the world. I support people and myself doing what we have to do to get that sense of comfort or feeling like you can be powerful, have your feet on the ground, or have your feet in stilettos, whatever you need or want.
How do you think things are changing in terms of people accepting more diverse ranges of gender expression and identity?
Things are changing a lot. I was just reading some study that found that the majority of young people these days identify their gender and their sexiality as queer, or identify as unidentified which is very different than when I was growing up. There's a lot more visibility, characters on TV shows, in movies, in books and just public figures. And that just really makes a difference when people can see pieces of themselves out there. It changes everything.
Kids are clearly an important influence on your life, can you tell us more about what you do with kids.
With kids, I get to be the one that says, "You don't have to sit still." Well, sometimes you have to sit still when I'm giving directions, but we get to be imaginative in our bodies. I'm a dance teacher, so I tell stories and we get to experiment with what the stories feel like and look like in our bodies. They don't really care what it looks like, it's really about what it feels like. I get to invite them to be big and powerful, and they can also practice being small and scared. It's like play, drama, therapy, fun. It's not really therapy, but I think it's healing.
I work in the summertime in a summer camp, where we just get to be wild and quiet as we need to. I try to listen to them, because they have a lot to say, a lot of stories. I also teach a health class. We do a units about puberty and identity and nutrition, and I really love that I have the space to talk about taking care of themselves in the world and talk about things like food justice, talk about normalizing their bodies. Everyone has a sexuality and it might change over your lifetime. Just like talking about the fact that everyone has hair on their body, like it's a myth that people who were assigned female at birth don't, things like that. I get to say, "This is normal. You're going to be okay however you are. You're good." I feel it's important to talk to kids about that because there's a lot of shame about having a body and having a sexuality. There's a lot of shame around people's identities
DOES THE CONVERSATION ABOUT BEING TRANS COME UP WITH YOUR STUDENTS?
I mostly work with preschoolers and kindergarteners. Every day I get asked by young people about my gender. Even the ones who have known me all year. Part of it is they need the repetition of being able to ask because it's a question that gets shut down in most other places. I don't get offended or surprised, and I am not like, "Shh." So, I think that's maybe also why they ask me so much. But, it's also developmentally a time where they’re really learning the rules of the world, they're just three and four year olds, so they're like, "These are the rules. So, what's up?"
I get a lot, "Are you a boy or a girl?" And I answer differently every day, which is also part of a conscious choice. I don't necessarily want to confuse them and I don’t want to be evasive. But I do want to show them that it's not just an either/or. There's not really one answer for me. For some people, obviously, some trans people, there is a really clear answer, and sometimes I do just answer, "I'm a boy." There was one time, there was a kindergartener that I had who was really expressing in a tomboy way. And every time there was a story she would always find a way to just tackle me and hug me. She really needed connection to me. Other classmates of hers asked about my gender. But she didn't ask till the very end of the year. After my class, they all line up and put their shoes and socks on, and then go single file out. She waited at the end of the line till everyone had gone around the corner, and then she lingered back and she asked, "So, are you a boy or a girl?" and I had this moment where I was like, "I'm a girl. I'm a girl." Because I wanted her to know that...That's what she was asking.
The question is really more for them than it is anything about me. So, sometimes I try to understand what are they really asking? And then some days I'm just really tired and I say, "You asked me that five times, and I already told you. Do you have to be a boy or a girl? No. So, what do you think? Quick. Cool.""
WHAT DREW YOu TO DANCE?
I think there was a time where I would have said that dance is my gender or how I express my gender. I was always a dancer. That's just how I feel most alive, moving around and interacting with the world in a dancing way. I love that dance, like poetry, poetry which comes through words, in the form of words, but it gets at concepts and feelings and vibrations and realities that are beyond words. It's through the words, but it transcends them, it's bigger than it's own structure or... I feel like dance does that with aliveness, with body and spirit. It's bigger than what you can talk about or nail down or it can be quite simple and you can interpret it, like, "This is a dance story about this." But there's so much other slippery nuance and life within it that it is very queer to me. And I think that's why I'm a dancer, part of why I'm a dancer.
Dance and performance is a key part of your identity, can you tell us about The Ballez?
Well there's the Ballez and then there's just me being a dancer in general. The Ballez is a queer ballet company/project that I've been working on for the last six years with Katy Pyle who's the artistic director. It has different seed genesis moments, but my growth in it came about six years ago when we were working on duets together, me and Katy, and we were really investigating queer desire, and shame, and embarrassment. We actually made a piece where we were wearing quilts, we were just covered in quilts, we were naked underneath, hiding, shrouded. There was more to it than that, but, we were deep working on those duets and then we started working on a duet that became the Firebird Lesbian Princess duet at the center of The Firebird which was the first official Ballez.
Why is it called The Ballez?
It's a play on the word ballet, but lez is inserted as a reference to the word lesbian. And it's so interesting, because at the beginning of Ballez as a project, I remember being in a social situation with a lot of mostly gay, cis-men talking about it, and then one of them said, "Well, why don't you just call it Ballgay?" and I was like “Grrrr...” I personally don't identify as a lesbian, although there are times where I feel aligned with lesbians and feel very connected. I feel my ancestors are lesbians in a way, they are my heritage, or just we're related, and we live in a patriarchal misogynist world, right? There's a reason why it's okay or more comfortable now for everyone to call themselves gay, but people don't want to call themselves lesbian, because it feels like a word that people would say, "Eww!" Or shy away from. So, Ballez is a queer company that centers lesbian, the word, the concept, the people. There are cisgendered gay men that are in it, but the idea behind the name was a centering of the lez.
What advice do you have for people struggling with their Gender identity?
Whatever choices you make to survive, aside from harming yourself irreparably, are okay (I know people who would argue with me on this one, so come let’s talk about it!) Whatever you need to do to try things out and find a slice of comfort, go for it, keep trying things, notice how you feel.
You’re not going to feel this way forever. Your feelings will change and grow, and you will feel bad again in the future, but there's also going to be relief. And especially for young people, I think it's good and important for them to know that there will be a time where they have a lot more agency to make choices for themselves and they'll get there. There are options and there's community and if they've never seen the person that they want to be, then they just get to make it up and try things out.
ARE THERE ANY Resources you would recommend?
For me both while growing up and now as an adult, seeing and making art was/is so helpful and fortifying: Books! Drag! Seeing live music and radical performance! Going dancing! Going to rallies and protests, joining social justice campaigns and organizations. Finding elders. Holding friends close. These are all things that helped me grow myself up and stay alive.
Resources in NYC: Callen-Lorde, Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), FIERCE (for young people), Audre Lorde Project (ALP), community style acupuncture at Brooklyn Open Acupuncture or other places that offer it, Third Root Community Health Center, The LGBT Center, Trans Lifeline.