December 17, 2021   8 mins

A dancer’s life is physical and challenging. You cannot escape your body. I started training when I was three-years old and have endured scoliosis, lordosis, hypermobility, chronic knee pain as well as multiple injuries. I’ve broken bones and my jaw while dancing; I’ve had steroids injected into my neck, multiple surgeries and pain you would not believe.

But the joy, the pleasure of my embodied reality is worth it. I know exactly when my period is due, the sensation of ovulation and the micro-weight gains pre-period that affect my balance, my flexibility and my confidence. I understand the pressures of aesthetics, the desire to be thin, to be ripped, to be long limbed, to be fast and athletic. It’s never ending what you should or could be as a female body in my artform.

I am a dancer and choreographer and have been making work since graduating from London Contemporary Dance School in 1998. I set up my eponymous dance company in 2004, and would regularly tour the UK, Europe and the USA. My work includes 5 Soldiers and MK Ultra which explored conspiracy theory through the lens of pop stars, music video imagery and Britney Spears. I dance, I teach, I speak, and I collaborate.

The body is at the heart of my work and research. To explore the idea of how we inhabit our bodies, I have joined an all-male infantry battalion to train with soldiers, I have been on the beat with West Midlands Police, I have worked with children and teenagers. I have tried to understand the pain women feel about their identity, their changing body in puberty, their sexuality and their confined role in society. I’ve trowelled through the internet and dived into conspiracy theory.

At times, face-masked in mud, helmet and body armour on, clutching an SA 80, I felt more macho than any man I’d ever met. Leaping out of windows, throwing grenades, I felt as cocky and dangerous as any human could ever be. Dressed for a dinner at a private country estate, dangling earrings and floor length gown, I could not feel more feminine. But these are gender stereotypes. These are roles that say soldier = boy, dancer = girl. I stand on the front line of the gender debate, challenging myself and everyone around me, and it’s easier than it looks. You just have to engage your mind, engage your body and be in time in space in the present.

But the frontline of the gender debate is a dangerous place to be. Which is why today I find myself without a dance company, ostracised by my former executive co-director and my board of trustees.

I was shunned following a party at my house during which I disclosed that my new work would be based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando and I revealed my growing unease around the erasure of the word “women” and the biological denialism associated with Gender Ideology.

I did not intend to cause offence or make this about individuals — my ideas were forming and I wanted to have robust debate to find out what the other side thought. But to even float these thoughts in the privacy of my own home was deemed beyond the pale. I was subsequently accused of transphobia and have been investigated for bigotry by my own company. Last week, I decided that I no longer had any trust in my board, and that they had abused the grievance policy of the company to unfairly investigate me. I had no option but to resign, citing constructive dismissal in the hope that I might take back control of my life and my creativity. They tried to silence and shut me down; the next day they took my phone and personal email accounts that were intertwined with the company I founded. I’ve endured dishonest and gross misrepresentations of my views spoken and written about me, and I have quietly tried to maintain my sense of self, my sense of humour and my sanity.

I believe adult people have the right to be, to feel and to identify any way they want. I do believe, though, that if we erase the word women, if we stop it meaning a biologically based sex class, it becomes a word that can include any male who self-IDs and by doing so we erase women’s rights, the women’s movement and the very basis of attacking and naming sexism and misogyny. The idea that to even state that “a woman is a woman” is extremist or transphobic is deeply chilling and totally false.

The past few years have been dominated by the gender debate online, with the defining moment of the JK Rowling statement, and her eloquent exploration of defending the trans community, defending women, and attempting to explain how domestic violence so affects us as women, and that asking for same sex protections is not in itself transphobic. In fact, in our desperate desire to explain our mistrust of men, so many women have had to re-traumatise themselves, dredging up pain and hurt from the past, as I have done, to help to try to explain just how scared we all really are.

Throughout history it is the artists and the intellectuals who are shut down first — those who dare to question the status quo, or are the first to notice cultural shifts. As artists it is our job to be thinking ahead, following trends, thinking through the eventual outcomes or legacy of new waves of thought. And while my feminism burns bright, I was still feeling uncertain as to what was the right approach to this new way of thinking and talking. I wanted to do the right thing, I wanted to be inclusive, I am a modern progressive artist, I can adapt, change, shift my norms.

So I began looking for a novel or a book that I could hang a lot of my sex and gender questions on, reading, researching, studying Olympe de Gouges who wrote the amazing tenant of Rights for Women, the French Revolution and its betrayal of rights for all (and certainly not for women), sexual politics, and returning to second wave Angela Carter, bell hooks, Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir.

Then I came to Orlando. I saw the film, and then read the book, and I was utterly blown away. I had found Virginia Woolf pretty impenetrable as a young woman; but when I sat down with it this time, I read it in a heightened state over two fabulous days. I knew I’d fallen in love — with Orlando, with Virginia, and then after reading the letters between Virginia and Vita Sackville West (as recommended by the local LGBT reading group), I fell in love with Vita too. I was so inspired byWoolf’s third way of approaching all of this muddled and difficult stuff.

Orlando absolutely is a man at the start of the novel, a privileged, precocious boy, beautiful, charming, rich, aristocratic. He falls in love, he loses in love, he writes dreadful poetry, he is humiliated, he is confronted with real warfare and can not cope with his “manly role” to fight and he goes to sleep. When Orlando awakes, she is a woman. A total sex change. A different-sexed body, a thing that even with modern medicine, hormone treatment and surgery, can never, ever be achieved. But humans have the power of imagination. There isn’t one woman alive who hasn’t imagined what her life would be like had she been born a man, the freedoms, the right to pleasure, the right to self.

The problem, Woolf seems to suggest, is no man has really, deeply, truly thought about this the other way around. Men have still not truly grasped the radical notion that a woman is a fully created, total, embodied human being, worth exactly the same as any man. The fact that then Orlando does have a wonderfully wicked time in Georgian England (a time where at least 20% of all women and girls in London worked in the sex trade), is both delightful, titillating and fun.

Remember, it would take until the Sixties and the contraceptive pill before any woman could have sex with a man and not be concerned about the consequences of pregnancy, and what that meant for her and her baby’s future. Woolf knows that women and men are not so dissimilar. We have wants, needs, and desires, but we do not have equal treatment, in the eyes of society or in the eyes of the law. Interestingly, even the GRA of 2003 made sure that no woman could change gender to be a man in order to inherit aristocratic wealth. Exactly as in Orlando all those years before. Some things don’t change…

Unfortunately, because of my attempt to articulate my gender critical beliefs, I now find myself without a company and without an Orlando. I stand accused of transphobia, which is damaging to the trans community, to women and to me and my reputation as an artist. But I must defend myself, defend my views and stand with the other, incredibly brave women and men who are speaking out against this dangerous ideology. The oppression of women is based entirely on our biology and our reproductive rights and vulnerabilities. We embody our oppression and our strength.

I feel this powerfully in my own body. A dancer’s body, but also a woman’s body; a body that has been raped, assaulted, attacked, strangled, knocked out and abused. My body has been in deep pain, physical and mental. My body has been a victim, that has scars running deep — on my scalp and in my soul. But it is also a body that has created, nurtured and given life. A body that coped with pregnancy, that survived an emergency birth, and then breastfed an infant until he was 30 months. A body of beauty, miracle, love and care. A body that sat in local cafes, shamed me with my bursting boobs, leaking nipples and abundant health. A body that was met, even as an infant suckled, with tuts and looks from by passers — the old judging my openness, the young unable to see boobs as anything but sex objects. I sat there, ashamed but not understanding why until I realised that I felt like an an animal. I was an animal. It shocked me. I couldn’t identify out of my life-giving properties. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t female; I was a woman, a mother, a life giver, yet I wasn’t respected or liked or even tolerated because of it.

Something changed in me. Something deep, and I became braver, fiercer, angry even, about how badly women are treated. And it certainly wasn’t just me — it was all my friends, all those forceps births, split and cut vaginas, c-sections, dangerous births, the refusal to give any kind of painkillers, husbands and partners banned from the birthing room. And then there is the aftermath: the refusal to learn your baby’s name. The infantilising of you and your body and your baby, despite being a grown-up professional woman. I felt like I was 10 years old and being told off. The moment of sheer relief when one midwife treated you and your body with respect and compassion. Often the most overworked and exhausted of women who still hung onto a modicum of love and respect for our bodies and babies.

This body, my body, it’s been through so much. But it is a dancing body, a body with more to give and to learn than ever before.

My body is why I challenge the belief that we are walking meat sacks. How can it be that we are just flesh, blood, fluids, nerves, muscles, bones. That we are nothing alive, we have nothing to feel, nothing to give pleasure. It is this sort of “transhumanistic philosophy”, that we are merely a brain homunculus behind two jiggling eyes, which is the destroyer of women, of our innate power in the universe, of our understanding that we are mammals, we live on a finite planet, we eat and we shit and we make love and we birth babies and we orgasm and we feel pain and we feel hurt and some of it is from outside of us and some it we invent inside ourselves.

We only have this life, this existence and this time on this planet. We cannot invent a new planet, we cannot pretend we do not exist, we cannot pretend our bodies are not ours. We are more than the sum of our parts, we are our bodies, minds and consciousnesses. We are only just now starting to truly understand the connectivity between our minds, bodies, nature and the planet.

So I say no to the new puritans, the sex deniers and the body snatchers. No to erasure of my sex, no to erasure of my boundaries and my safety. You are asking far, far too much and we know it. We must, and always must, state our truth of our own existence.

Rosie Kay is an award-winning British choreographer and dancer.