Dancing in an Epidemic: The interplay of dance and AIDS in 1980’s America.
(Cheshire, England, UK)
For many years there has been a consistent association between gay men and dance. Following the decrease in ‘masculine’ work after the industrial revolution, men were no longer pigeon holed into one profession. This lead to some men choosing careers in the arts and in dance. It is clear that there is an urban myth that all males who partake in ballet or contemporary dance, widely seen by some as effeminate past times, are themselves effeminate, therefore they must be homosexual. For a long time the apparent connection between gay men and dance remained unexplained and unfounded; it was not until the latter half of the twentieth century when social and cultural commentators highlighted this apparent link between the gay community and dance. This link was cemented on the third of July 1981, when the male dancer, his body and his sexuality would become a part of an epidemic (Gere 2004:4.) It was on this day that GRID (gay related immune deficiency) entered the public domain in a news paper article referring to consistent cases of skin cancer among gay men. Shortly after this, GRID, later named AIDS, became a recognised disease with epidemic status spreading panic and fear among American society. The disease was quickly traced to gay men and became a predominantly ‘gay disease.’ However, it is important to note that cases of AIDS and HIV were also contracted from blood transfusions, intravenous drug use with used needles and in some cases from mother to child during childbirth (Gere 2004: 45.).
The relationship between AIDS and male dancers is one that contributes to a wider network of issues that make up the semiotics of the 1980‘s AIDS epidemic. David Geres book, entitled ‘How to make dances in an epidemic: tracking choreography in the age of AIDS,’ 2004, examines the interplay of AIDS and choreography in the United States, where AIDS had the biggest impact on the gay
community either through death, the number of cases of AIDS or the number of people confirmed as being HIV positive. He asks what is possible when art and politics of this nature collide while providing detailed analysis of the political landscape of the early 1980’s. As well as looking at choreography of theatrical dances, Gere expands the term ‘choreography’ to include protests conceived by the ACT-UP foundation and the NAMES Project - AIDS quilt, adding another level of choreography to his exploration. Geres book provides the basis for this essay and subsequently for the choreographic exploration undertaken within this unit through his questioning whether or not a dance can say AIDS. He uses a three part theorisation to ascertain if a dance is about AIDS:
1. The dance must denote gayness - the abjection factor. Gay men are outside the mainstream or marginalised.
2. The dance must depict (denotatively or connotatively) male - male eros.
3. If the dance is to be perceived as having to do with aids, it must depict mourning, or loss.
This three point system provides a theoretical framework to apply to work of the time and Gere analyses work in his book using this system. It also provides two important research questions for this units choreographic exploration where the piece asks can a dance piece denote a sexuality? Or a sexual relationship?
This essay will look at how AIDS met dance and what they created in the 1980’s. As well as looking at the artistic implications and output of choreography, questions will arise such as, is it possible to make a gay dance? What was the impact of the media and politics on choreography of the time? As well as asking these questions, contextual information of the epidemic and social commentaries will also be considered when forming arguments to create a full picture of what was happening to dance and dancers at this time.