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An American genderfluid man named Chase Johnsey has made history as the first male dancer to perform as part of a female ballerina ensemble in an international ballet company, the English National Ballet. This is an especially big deal because female classical ballet dancers are expected to physically resemble one another, dance fluidly and en pointe (on their tippy toes) whereas male performers dance more angularly, are expected to lift female dancers and do athletic leaps. As such, Johnsey has had to retrain and re-shape his physique to embody a feminine ideal.
Johnsey is currently performing as part of the female corps de ballet in the English National Ballet production of The Sleeping Beauty. While he doesn’t go en pointe like his female co-stars, there’s otherwise no difference between his performance and theirs.
Chase Johnsey took his first ballet classes at age 14. As a self-described “really tiny, really thin, really weak, very feminine and effeminate dancer” his ballet teachers said he’d probably never make it in professional ballet because he lacked the strong physique of male dancers.
Then, at age 17, he joined Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male comedic troupe in New York whose dancers play both male and female roles, performing as his alter-ego Yakatarina Verbosovitch. During his time in the group, he won Britain’s 2017 National Dance Award for Best Male Dancer. But, he quit the troupe after accusing it of more than a decade of discrimination and harassment.
He worried he’d never dance again. But soon after, he joined the English National Ballet when Tamara Rojo, its director, offered him a short-term contract in March. “[I was] very sensitive about this being seen as a publicity stunt,” Rojo says. ”This is about reflecting the world we live in. There are different races, cultures and beliefs in our company — this is another aspect of that view.”
“I want to be seen as a ballerina,” Johnsey says. “My hair is up, I wear makeup, female attire. I am able to do female roles and look the part, so that is artistically what I do.
He has had facial surgery to feminize his appearance, has worked with a nutritionist to lose 20 pounds since joining the English National Ballet. He has also worked with a physical trainer and the company ballet mistress, Loipa Araújo, to retrain and reshape his five-foot-five-inch body, according to The New York Times.
He adds, “I am a small, petite guy, but I am a man. My shoulders are wider, my calves are bigger, the textures of my muscles are different. I had to cannibalize my body, make it run on energy from muscles and figure out how to lose muscle mass without losing strength…. I keep evolving and I am pushing the limits of what I can achieve. I am trying to see how feminine I can make myself within those limitations.”
He continues, “With the Trocks, if you messed up, you could make a joke about it. [I had] completely the wrong idea about what makes a ballerina beautiful and graceful. It is actually strength, hidden within softness and grace, and I have had to figure out in my genetically male composition, how to find that.”
Chase Johnsey appears alongside two other queer dancers in this video of how he’s helping change the face of dance:
“But sometimes you have to fight to be yourself,” he says. “Hopefully this will help open things up not just for genderfluid people, but for transgender dancers and also women who want to perform in male roles.”
There’s some proof that things are already opening up. “In the last few years, there have been far more instances of choreographers creating same-sex duets, and being more unconventional in casting choices; recently the choreographer Justin Peck, at the New York City Ballet, put a woman in a role originally conceived for a man,” The New York Times reports.