Would you say you use social media as a strategy in handling cultural appropriation?
I do online, but I also encourage people to have discussions in person. When I’m dealing with the issues of cultural appropriation or body-policing, I always try and think of how to offer alternative ways of going about it. In the past I’ve been criticised for my stand in relation to different cultures and different musical genres. I play a broad variety of pop music by artists of colour from all over the world, so for me, one approach is contextualising and giving credit to where they are from. I feel there isn’t always a right or wrong way in how to deal with it. It’s a lot about cultural sensitivity and profit.
There are certain things I wouldn’t teach, but if I get too caught up in the complexities, I risk losing sight of what I’m trying to do. I just really promote the music I’m playing, so people will buy it to support the artists. I contact the artists through Instagram, which is awesome because it’s so easy and they are often super flattered. I say “Hey, I want to promote you – how?” and they tell me to repost them on Instagram, or to buy their song on a specific platform. I am also careful about who I promote and what they are promoting, by extension. I like to choose empowering songs and people the participants can relate to.
Do you always try to stay positive?
There are different types of activism and I support them all because you need to have different types of activism. Some of my friends are fuelled by anger, which is important. It’s an active emotion and it propels a lot of people to fight hard. But it’s also exhausting and can make you feel like shit. My positive celebratory approach is first and foremost because it fits my personality best. I’m super critical and say things as they are – if there’s an issue – but I’ve also learned, on a very basic level, that being welcoming means people feel I am not intimidating and they can come and chat with me about stuff. That’s the kind of framework that you need in a safer space.
In what concrete ways are you being welcoming during FemmeFitness?
I bring bananas to my class. I bring tampons and I say how I feel. I want to make sure there is an atmosphere where people can come and tell me that their knee hurts, that they have their period or whatever. Generally, for people to be free to share how they feel. I also noticed that people do that with each other. The other day someone forgot their T-Shirt, and some was like “oh, you can wear mine!” That does not happen in a gym.
Is your positive approach primarily designated to femme-identifying people?
Until now, masc-presenting people have come, but as I try and prioritise femme, queer and PoC that is the main audience. I think about people whose bodies are constantly policed, like people with disabilities, gender non-conforming and fat folks, but I would never turn anyone away. Also, because of the dominating group, if you are a cishet white man for instance, you might feel out of the majority, so the whole dynamic completely changes. I’m at the front and I encourage you to follow me, so it’s not like you could just do your own thing. It’s not that some guys can just sit on the side and watch. That’s the only real rule I have. If you’re exhausted and you need to take time out, of course please do. But there’s no creepy watching!
Did that ever happen?
Once I did a class in a somewhat secluded place outside and a group of 14-year old boys came past. I saw them and thought: ‘Oh no! How do I go about this? If I tell them off it completely kills the vibe. If I suddenly switch my presence, the people in the class will feel awkward and the boys might get annoyed and I will get annoyed, because my good mood is then gone.’ In that moment we had a pause between songs. They were watching and giggling, and I decided to be really friendly and tell them to come and join us and that we were having lots of fun. Initially I thought they would say no, but two of them joined in and stayed for two routines. I was so touched by that.
So, you actually dissolved the male-gaze by including them?
My class does not exclude anyone. Thinking about how you are perceived in society is not meant for women only. For me, femme has to do with femininity and maybe stereotypical dance moves or expression, but it should be accessible to anyone. For an hour, I want to celebrate these forms of being. In doing so, it can be ironic, subversive or funny. It can be deeply connected to your identity, or not. And in that situation, I was really moved by these 14-year old kids who’d surely never do those dance moves normally but were having lots of fun in that situation.
Do you think they enjoyed the dance moves?
Yes! I actually realised that some privileged people like cis-het white men might find it tricky to move in a certain way because they’re so conditioned. But my guy friends who’ve come have loved it too because it’s another type of vulnerability that they’ve exposed themselves to – which is why I don’t think FemmeFitness is just for women. I think men, trans people, queer people – all people– can benefit from allowing themselves to move this way for an hour.
Is this empowerment?
I think it can be super empowering, yes. Also, collaborating with people and learning from them in a mutual exchange, is at the heart of empowerment. I recently looked it up, and the definition is giving power or agency to someone, but I really disagree with that; I don’t think it ever works. There are other examples, where you help someone empower themselves, which I think is slightly better. But really, even if you have a platform and the capability to offer support, it still means work. People have to do it themselves. I can’t say that people can come to my class, feel great and leave with all their body or other insecurities gone. That’s not the way it works. But I can share some words or feelings that might be helpful to others.
So how do you work on your own empowerment?
In lots of ways my FemmeFitness work has helped me. Recently I did a workshop about Asian stereotypes where I realised that few of my friends really knew about my dance history. I did South-Indian dance for ten years. Now I’m coming to terms with where this comes from and why I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it; why was I embarrassed. Now it’s cool to wear bindis, which was so not cool when I was younger. In this workshop I met many others who had had similar experiences, and that empowered me. My main inspiration is talking to other people and I go by personal experience, which is often undervalued in very academic feminist circles. I generally follow people and do things that make me feel strong and secure.
And how do you stay open?
That is also part of my own process. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding when you get through it. You learn that everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect. I make politically incorrect mistakes, as do others around me, but I’m aware that everyone has a story and background that shapes them. We are all on our own, diverse paths to feminism and empowerment. This is also part of my approach, I guess. Altogether I think empowerment is sharing. I feel really empowered from the people who come to my class and I’ve learned lots. It’s amazing.