At age thirty, transgender performance artist Daniel B. Coleman Chávez is still working through injuries sustained during the rigorous, even punishing training he underwent in childhood and adolescence as a female ballet student. In that time, Chávez, who is now a professor of women's and gender studies at UNC-Greensboro, acquired a professional dancer's body and performed major repertoire works. But he was also internalizing ballet's disparagement of the black female body. Warned at puberty about quickly developing gluteus, calf, and thigh muscles, Chávez tried to starve them off, begging his parents to have the bones in his feet cracked and reset to look like those of white ballet dancers.
"There was so much about my female form [my teachers] wanted to erase the strength from so I would be smaller," Chávez recalls.
He couldn't truly begin to embrace blackness in performance until Venezuelan choreographer Gonzalo Espinoza, in a work titled Presa (Prey), first unleashed what Chávez now terms "the wild." It was one of his first experiences with modern dance. That and subsequent experiences gradually revealed the strength of his erotic power. Its gender and racial dynamics were not feminine, a realization would ultimately compel him to leave dance despite being accepted for a summer session at the prestigious Alvin Ailey school in New York.
That decision haunted Chávez for years to follow. But the insight also launched his journey across the continuums of race and gender. Married and divorced at twenty-one, Chávez came into queerness first as a "soft butch lesbian" and then as a nonbinary transmasculine person: one who chooses both male and plural personal pronouns (he, they) but does not identify as a man. Chávez began to explore the contested borders of ethnicity and gender as a member of Guillermo Gomez-Peña's performance art troupe, La Pocha Nostra, in San Francisco.
Still, in coming to terms with the intersections of transmasculinity and blackness, Chávez ultimately discovered he needed dance. Un-Becoming Ailey, showing in UNC's Process Series this week, covers the last half-year of Chávez's efforts to unite these elements in a multimedia performance piece involving photography, video, movement, and poetry.
"There's so much about blackness, black people, black bodies, that gets ungendered by our history in this country and others," Chávez says. "Now I come as a more masculine-presenting person in a performance space, but there are still so many female forms present inside and outside me. Strength, for me, is not gendered because it's constantly interfacing with my blackness. So the gender gets multiplied. And that's what I want."
Feminism remains a fundamental part of that multiplicity for Chávez. "I don't exist without feminism," he says. "As I started to transition, I realized how much I needed the feminist community to feel like a whole person."
Spending time in a large transfeminist community in Barcelona, Chávez resolved that trans people need to be present in the feminist community, and that transmasculinity presents a golden opportunity "to rewrite masculinity as we know it."
"Not so long ago, I was a lesbian woman," he says, acknowledging that many of his relationships are still with lesbian and queer women. "That is my community; never would I embody a masculinity that would distance me from them."
For the last six months, Chávez's physical transformation has mostly involved strength-building and stretching, activating the muscles and body parts he once feared would disclose his blackness on stage. That's changed, to say the least; with a stronger body than ever, queerness and movement are both helping Chávez come into his blackness as never before.
Predicated against the hyper-visibility he has felt, in ballet and as a transgender person, Chávez says he has been rehearsing in a space without mirrors.
"I'm not trying to get my body to look like any certain aesthetic—masculine enough, or this-or-that enough," he says. "The choreography I'm working on is very much not about, 'Does my body fit?'"
Instead, Chávez's work is invested in "what my body can do, and what it feels like, over the visual." He knows that audiences will still recognize a highly trained body in his performance.
"That's fine," he says. "I have a lust and love for the virtuosity of the trained dancing body." He pauses, then laughs. "I just want that without all the rest of it."
His two public showings are slated to coincide with the Transgender Day of Visibility, which Chávez later realized was problematic.
"Visibility is not the answer" for the communities he navigates and studies, Chávez says. "We are already hyper-visible in public space. When trans people walk around, you're constantly getting clocked as trans. It's part of the problem, and it endangers us."
What's needed instead, Chávez says, is the creation of social space where trans-ness is viewed as normal. Un-Becoming Ailey is a chance to convey "being a trans body from a space of joy, eroticism, and the pleasure of moving in space, and to invite others to do the same."
After all, everyone, not just trans people, lives in a modified body. "From the second we're born and have food put in us, from our first haircut, lotion product, or anything not coming from a natural source, we're modified," he says. "We're always transitioning."