Episode 2

Published on:

29th Jan 2020

Rachel Sparks – Something in me was ignited and I was like, "F*ck this!" - 002

In this episode of Queers & Co., I'm joined by dancer, choreographer, dynamic relationship facilitator and heart centred dance & embodiment educator, Rachel Sparks.

We chat about gender-neutral partner dancing, the importance of consent, the experience of making the short film, Swivel, as well as the lack of representation of LGBTQ+ folks in mainstream shows like Strictly Come Dancing.

If you haven't already, be sure to join our Facebook community to connect with other like-minded queer folks and allies.

Find out more about Gem Kennedy and Queers & Co.

Podcast Artwork by Gemma D'Souza


In this episode, we mentioned the following resources:

Full Transcription

Full Transcriptions of every episode are available here.

Gem: Hi Rachel. Thanks so much for joining me. How are you?

Rachel: Yeah, no problem. I'm great. I'm feeling good today. Having had a nice workout this morning, I'm feeling really kind of full of energy.

Gem: Awesome. so there were quite a few things that I'd love to chat to you about particularly around your work with gender neutral dancing. But for anyone who doesn't know your work, I wonder if you could just tell us a bit more about what it is that you do before we start?

Rachel: Yeah, sure. So most of my business is teaching people to dance. And my focus has always been on how to make dance a safe place for more people. And in particular, I, as part of the queer community, I saw that there was a need for a safer space, particularly for partner dancing. As I was a Latin and ballroom dancer, I decided to start teaching and to find a way to teach it so that the gender roles were just not an issue and a problem. So that's, that's how gender neutral partner dancing and came about. There are other people doing it. I just wanted to put my spin on it. Another important thing for me in that is creating good spaces that help people to be autonomous in their bodies and feel that they're making choices rather than just being told what to do. So consent is really big in my classes and I try to work mindfulness and self-awareness into my teaching as well. That's the bulk of my work but I also teach couples to prepare for their weddings - queer couples, but also straight couples and always given the option to swap roles or mess it up a bit. I like to mess with the traditions. And I also coach as well now. I've trained in Embodiment principles. I now coach people on basically learning how to listen to themselves, to their bodies and their intuition better. For me it's about freedom, finding freedom in themselves and freedom in their choices.

Gem: Yeah and you can see how all of those things link together really well. I know on your website, you mentioned that other people are doing it as well, but this is your spin, but you said that there are records going back to the 1980s of gender neutral dancing.

Rachel: Yeah. So it's been called same-sex dancing really. And it was out of necessity. People like Jacky Logan who's just recently been given an Honour in the New Year Honours List for her work. Her and Ralf Schiller did this incredible thing of starting same-sex dance classes for queer people, for gay and lesbian people mostly, cause that was the language that people had at the time. They wanted to be able to dance with their own partners so they created spaces for that. That was a risky time to do that as well. They're the pioneers really. We've shifted in culture and in society in lots of ways but there's still a need. For me it's a slightly different angle because just linguistically saying 'same-sex' you're also assuming gender, you're assuming gay or lesbian really. I was thinking about the broader community and particularly because my personal partners have been trans or non-binary and I was thinking about what makes these spaces unsafe. Even the same sex spaces are they unsafe or at least they don't feel necessarily inclusive or welcoming? Not to diss people who are still doing those things. For me I guess it's very present in my life. I surround myself with great people of different experiences and different gender expressions. So it became a priority for me.

Gem: Yeah. And I really liked what you said about who you dance with doesn't have to represent your sexuality because historically, I guess one, we assume everyone's straight when you see a straight couple dancing and two, there's often some kind of romantic implication by dancing with someone rather than dancing alone and to take the kind of romance out of it and to actually... I think you talk about it's being a conversation rather than anything else. And that seems different as well.

Rachel: Yeah... It can be both though. You can think about it as being like a ritual. It can be a dating ritual to dance together. And at one point in time, you could look back tribally, that's important in some cultures to dance and do ritual. But it's not just about mating, it's also about creating connection and keeping community alive. I think it's just the sexualization of things that we just do in our society at the moment... I don't want to take away from the fact that actually it can be incredibly bonding and it can be useful to people who are in romantic connection to try dancing as a way of exploring their relationship. And that's something I offer as well. And... I guess it's not but, it's and... there's real value in us as individuals exploring how we communicate with other people. Dancing really shows stuff up. It's super obvious as soon as you start looking at it as to how people communicate and partner dancing requires this listening and this paying attention to ourselves and to another person. For me there's value in it across different configurations if you like. So the configuration of a couple finding value for their relationship but also the configuration of just an individual person exploring what it's like or what their habits are in relationship to another person and that could implicate or impact positively how they then think about their work colleagues or how they communicate with their friends, do you see what I mean? It's about relationship in general and how we relate. It's what I'm super curious about and what I've been exploring. So I diverted a bit but there's the potential for romantic connection to be explored and really nourished by partner dancing. And it's not the only thing cause any person we come into contact with we are in some kind of relationship with straight away.

Gem: Yeah. That makes so much sense. And so with that in mind, I know that you've obviously been dancing since you were really young. I think you said age 3. I guess it's been a real kind of evolvement of different dance styles and different things that you've been exposed to. But what do you feel you've learned about yourself through dance?

Rachel: Mmm. Oh my gosh. Yeah, that's a great question. It's really interesting cause I learnt some very classical styles like ballet and then I also did partner dancing but in a different dance school and they had a very different emphasis. Up until about the age of 17, I was very used to just being told what to do and instructed. I became very, very disciplined as a person. It really shaped me as a person. It was only when I was about 17, I had this massive change in my life. I had a bereavement, my brother died and everything in my perception shifted. What mattered to me changed and it really woke me up to realising that I had for so long just been good, done the good thing or followed instructions and always been very well behaved. And something in me was ignited and I was like, "Fuck this."

I didn't want to be bullied and I felt that some dance teachers do have a tendency to push their students in unhealthy ways. So that was a big wake up call and I had started to do contemporary dance at school. I was very lucky. I just went to an average comprehensive school in Kent, in Gravesend. We were very lucky to have a great dance department. And my dance teacher at the time was super encouraging of me taking contemporary dance further. Because it's a thinking style of dance, well it depends who's teaching you but for us it was about becoming thinking dancers, not just vessels to move to someone else's goal. So that shifted a lot for me and basically I decided to focus on contemporary after that and I went to uni and studied that and then that became almost therapeutic to me because I was dealing with this massive bereavement and I'd moved away. I went to Leeds Uni and that particular course was really good at exploring dance beyond the elite. We really looked at the value and the healing properties of dance. They didn't use that word, but that's how I see it now is the value of dance to everyone and how it can be accessible to pretty much everyone.

Gem: I was just going to say that ties in so well with what you said earlier about consent, because quite often in spaces, particularly as children who've been to dance classes. I started dancing at the age of three and I remember just not feeling like I had a choice a lot of the time and I thought that was normal obviously because quite often in patriarchal societies that's how people are brought up. Right? You do what you're told. But as I got older, and I guess now when I look back, I think how much enjoyment was taken out of it just because I didn't consent to what I was doing quite often. And I wonder when you bring that into your classes that people come to, how is that received that people have control over whether they say yes or no when a partner asks them to dance or whether they can choose to move their bodies in certain ways or choose not to.

Rachel: Yeah, I've had feedback about it that it's unique and it's very helpful. This is the reason why some people come to my classes, it's because they get the choice. And most people still say yes, but then if they're saying yes from a place of autonomy and "I am choosing this for me because this is what I want to do", it's so different to "I'm doing this because the teacher told me". The quality of that in ourselves. Basically for me its about self-love. It's such an overused thing right now but how can we be kinder to ourselves? How can we be way more compassionate to ourselves cause I really do think we make better choices that way in life. And we are fed so much shit all over the place from all angles, from social media mostly and TV and newspapers and everything. We're just so consumed by all of this and we consume it without even realising we're doing that. So for me, if we can come back to our bodies and come back to what's really true and what our choices are, then we may start to wake up a bit more to where we're actually making conscious choices or where we're just habitually going along with life. It does feel like there's a shift going on right now. Just the very fact that we've got Extinction Rebellion, we've got young people, young kids going out to protest. It's like they're taking control. It really feels like there's a shift going on because we have to, because we're destroying our planet this way. This feels like it's beyond the individual. It's broader than that for me.

Gem: Yeah, absolutely. I don't think I told you, but I have two children and they're home educated for the very same reasons and they're involved in a very good consent-based project that I'm going to speak to the Founder of in a couple of weeks. But it's all about the children. Making a choice and choosing what they opt into and what they choose not to do rather than in a school environment where you know they often don't have choices. And I think young people actually realising that their consent is a thing that they have ownership over. I guess that's not really something that our generation or older generations realised. That's a really powerful, powerful thing and hopefully a powerful tool for change.

Rachel: Exactly. And thinking back to the original question that you asked me, I had some lovely words come from one of my students the other day. Unprompted she just shared something and it really touched me and it was just that she had come to my dance classes because she wanted to explore a connection with people but also our connection to our body. And even though the dancing has been super valuable and she's enjoyed the dancing, you can see that as the external, the aesthetic. The most valuable thing has been what's been going on internally and what she's learning about herself. And I was like, "Woah..."

Gem: It's everything hoped for!

Rachel: Exactly! It's just perfect and I think that's the thing I realise that I almost used to separate these interests that I had. I teach dancing to people and I was always so interested in how do we reconnect to our bodies. I always felt like they were somehow separate and now of course they're not. Dancing is a route to that. It's a pathway to that. So I realised I could really combine and... even though I really simply promote my classes as a dance class with these ethics that are really holding it up - the ethics of consent and the focus of having mindful approach - , it's actually having effect that people are having deeper experiences than I could anticipate and it is wonderful.

Gem: Yeah. And I guess just holding a space for those people to come. I know you mentioned about your classes being open to everybody, for example, so every shape of body, every size, every gender or no gender. And just making a space where people can reconnect to their bodies is really powerful because quite often with things like diet culture, we don't have that space. And people who exist in larger bodies often don't feel like... It would probably be the last choice for a lot of people to choose to go to a dance class. Because in the past they may have found that really problematic or traumatic in different ways. But to actually have that is really radical.

Rachel: Yeah, it's super important to me. And actually I'm starting to see how other people are sharing the possibilities for safe spaces for dancing bodies, whatever the shape and whatever their experience. I'm quite interested in how I might reach more people who have found the idea of a dance class to be so, so painful. I would love to reach more people really. That's my hope because I've had discussions with friends who are fat activists and they talked about how they value what I'm doing but the process for them to get from thinking about coming to my class to actually coming to my class... there's a process there for them. I'd love to have conversations with people about what I could do more or what needs to be there, what needs to be supported so that more people with different bodies can come and feel safe. Just as I talk about it, I feel this sense in my heart. I feel sad that so many people get restricted by what pains they've been through and the traumas they've experienced from the way society treats people with difference. Yeah, it ignites my mission even more whenever I think about it.

Gem: Yeah. I don't know if you know Dr. Charlotte Cooper, do you know her?

Rachel: Not sure. Tell me...

Gem: She was my podcast guest last week. She is a fat activist and over recent years, part of her work has been around dance and she did an incredible dance at the Wellcome Trust. They had a horrible exhibition on obesity. So her and her dance partner did this amazing dance in the hall, I think where the sculpture was. And actually since doing that, the sculpture has been removed and they've sort of re-framed how they have the exhibition. And just hearing from her what her journey around dance has been really empowering to realise that I thought at a certain age, that dance was something I had to leave behind because I was told that I was too fat to dance essentially. And so from age 13/14, I stopped but to see people like Dr. Charlotte Cooper who are doing it and who are I guess just pushing the boundaries of what people think that fat bodies can do is really, really encouraging and I think the more people hear about it, the more they'll want to explore it as well. Cause there aren't many other better ways than dance to get in touch with your body, just to move it. It's something that as fat people we're so disconnected from, you're kind of like a pair of eyes walking around in a body just seeing the outside world and not really feeling, which is I guess where our work overlaps because a lot of the work that I do is around tuning into your body and where the feelings are. And it's something that we're very often very disconnected from, aren't we?

Rachel: Totally and I think it's a symptom for many people for many different reasons. This sort of...

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About the Podcast

Queers and Co.
A podcast for queer folks and allies on self-empowerment, body liberation and activism.
Hi, I'm Gem! Join me as I chat to queer folks and allies about self-empowerment, body liberation and activism. My guests are at the forefront of change-making, working in areas like fat activism, sex positivity, intersectional feminism, drag/cabaret, LGBTQ+ activism and children's rights.

I'm a transformational coach, activist and founder of the Queers & Co. zine, podcast and community. Through my work, I support LGBTQ+ folks and allies to reclaim their personal power and take up space so that they can impact the world in ways they have only dreamt of.

Find out more about my work: www.gemkennedy.com
Find out more about Queers & Co.: www.gemkennedy.com/queersandco

About your host

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Gem Kennedy

I’m Gem. I'm the founder of the Queers & Co. zine, community and podcast, as well as a transformational coach and activist. I’m also queer, fat positive, an intersectional feminist and Mum to two free-range children.

I help LGBTQ+ folks and allies to reclaim their personal power and take up space so that they can impact the world in ways they have only dreamt of.