Like many young kids, I was enrolled into a community ballet school. I remember my first class clearly, I was wearing my favourite oversized jumper that was the same colour as tinned spaghetti and we pretended to be fairies. My first public dance performance was as a ‘baby pink rose’ when I was four. As most small ballet schools, mine would include the youngest group (lovingly called the tiny tots) in recitals to run across the stage and wave at their parents. Twelve years later, this was also one of my final dance performances; as the eldest students would accompany the tiny tots and guide them in a ring-around-the-rose.
Dance is hard work, and I was only doing it on a hobby level: I would do around ten hours of classes a week, spend my weekends either at the ballet school or training at home, and regularly miss school for rehearsals, competitions and ballet examinations. Dance taught me my motivation, stamina, and drive. Dance trained me in the strange art of practising something so intensely until it looks effortless.
Dance taught me my motivation, stamina, and drive. Dance trained me in the strange art of practising something so intensely until it looks effortless.
The most defining experiences I had at ballet school were all the moments I lost myself in my body. When I spent hours perfecting choreography, and finally nailing it. When movements where imprinted into my body, so that my physical self dissolved into a flow of shapes and stories. When the lines between the music, the movement, and the human disintegrated, and we became one.
From ages 3 to 16, dancing was one of the biggest aspects of my identity. At the same time, I was struggling to understand my ancestry, my gender identity and my sexuality. While being so enveloped in the world of ballet - a clear-cut white, cis - and heteronormative world, I was beginning to understand that my own did not look the same.
I stopped dancing for my final year of high school to focus on exams. As much as I will always love to dance, there were many things that restricted me. I think being so deep in the ballet world hindered me from seeing my transness earlier— the ability to conceive gender non-conformity was not something I gained until establishing a few years worth of distance. So it was surprising when I began to see how my dance training was actually helping me feel stronger in my transness. Sure, the conservative Western dance world I trained in was not about celebrating marginalised identities. This is a problem that is continuing to be brought to light in numerous ways around the world; dancers of colour are still fighting for their long deserved recognition, ableism and fat-phobia is rife, and the ballet world is most definitely rather rigid in its understanding of gender.
While being so enveloped in the world of ballet - a clear-cut white, cis - and heteronormative world, I was beginning to understand that my own did not look the same.
And yet, dance raised my body and I to listen, acknowledge and look after each other. Nothing in my life has made me feel as good about my body as dance. Nothing has made me feel as connected to my body. I spent years learning about my muscle groups, my bones, my ligaments and my form. I have studied how they connect to each other, flow into each other and work together. I have practised movements that bring awareness and feeling into every facet of my body. Dance has taught me how to be in relationship to my body; how to witness it, and how to live in it. How to maintain and respect it. How to see what it offers me, and what I can offer to it in return.
As a non-binary person, this knowledge and this training as been invaluable. When I experience gender dysphoria, I know I can delve into my dance practice to reconnect with this body, these limbs and this breath. I have learnt to understand the power of presence in this body, to nourish and appreciate it and all it does for me.
Like any relationship, my body and I have our ups and downs, our misunderstandings and miscommunications. I often wish my body looked different, or that I was a different person who would fit into this body better. But I like to counter this thought pattern by acknowledging the inextricable link I have with this psychical manifestation. Who has been there for me for every waking and sleeping moment? My body. Who has carried me through every season, mood and thought? My body. Who has always stood by and witnessed me? My body. For better or for worse, through sickness and in health, until death do us part. Even if I could usurp my mind and soul from this body, I could never erase the memories and histories we have shared so intimately in this life thus far.
We all have the same organs, the same muscle groups, the same hearts, the same breath. Bringing my awareness to the feelings of this particular body, as experienced from within, lets me witness it outside of the world’s and my own perceptions and expectations. So, I find moments that belong only to my body and I. Moments where I can reconnect with my body as my home.
When tackling dysphoria, the solutions often only comprise of hormones and gender affirming surgery. For many trans people, these are not viable options due to financial barriers. For many more, they may not be out to their family or community. For others, this simply doesn’t speak to them. And I think for all of us, physical changes don’t fully remove the feeling of dysphoria from our bodies. Yes, changing our physical selves is an act of harmonising our body with our mind. But I think this harmonisation requires a lot of internal work too- no matter where we stand on surgery and hormones.
I have been fumbling and stumbling through my journey as a trans person for more than ten years now, and am only just coming to a place where I could save up to undergo gender affirming treatment, even though I am still on the fence about whether I want to. Over the last decade, I have used delving into body awareness practice as a way of developing a sense of harmony between my body and mind, without changing it. I have sought ways of separating my body from social perceptions, and instead explore its physicality as simply a body. A collection of limbs. A mass of muscles, organs and skin. Taking gender out of the equation, the body becomes something else, something I can see without judgement. Practising this experience, this witnessing naturally culminates in the truth that if this is my body, and I am non-binary, then this body is also non-binary.
I have been fumbling and stumbling through my journey as a trans person for more than ten years now, and am only just coming to a place where I could save up to undergo gender affirming treatment, even though I am still on the fence about whether I want to.
Only retrospectively can I appreciate how important this practice has been, can see how in dark moments I found consolation in feeling the edges of my skin when submerged in water, or tracing the weight of me against the ground. The sensation of bare feet against warm asphalt, sunshine falling across my shoulders, or rain trickling down my forehead. Sensing and witnessing the barriers between the body that is mine, and the world around it. I cherish these moments and seek them out on a daily basis.
I recognise that this bodily wisdom was born out of over a decade of dance training, a decade of building that bodily relationship, the foundation I now rely on to ground my existence. Over the past few years, I have sought ways to communicate and share this knowledge, and build resources for my trans siblings to explore their own bodily relations, culminating in my most recent work, transomatics. Trans, because it is a practice developed for the trans community, and somatic: a term coined by Thomas Hanna that means ‘to experience the body from within’.
Experiencing dysphoria is often described as feeling alienated from your own physical self, a feeling of wanting to flee your body. The practice I wanted to share with my trans siblings is about inviting them to instead sink further into their bodies. To feel the mechanics and functionalities of a body, removing the interpretations and perceptions of it, and instead witnessing it without judgement.
I have found that somatic practices, practices of sinking into our bodies, can act as a balm on the wounds of dysphoria. When we invest in our relationship with our bodies, we become stronger. We become deeply rooted in our existence and prove that we are worthy— by virtue of these solid bodies that are our homes.
Sumarlinah Winoto is a freelance writer.