Sophie Rebecca (Photo: Simon Ho)
UK ballet dancer Sophie Rebecca is making a powerful impact through her performances and activism as a proud transgender woman in the traditionally conservative ballet world.
The former racing driver became, at the age of 34, the first openly transgender person to train in the Royal Academy of Dance’s courses for female dancers. (The organisation changed its policy to become trans-inclusive in 2013.) Sadly, Sophie’s earlier ballet training as a teenager was cruelly cut short by a transphobic teacher.
While she now also works as an IT professional, Sophie has used her dancing talent, international performances and personal journey to become an articulate changemaker.
On 16 July, she will participate in an online panel discussion titled Ballet Diplomacy as part of the annual South African International Ballet Competition. MambaOnline spoke to Sophie about her journey to self-realisation as a woman and as a dancer.
You were a racing driver for nearly a decade? What was the experience like as a trans individual?
This isn’t something I talk about all that often as it’s rather painful to look back at and I’m still unpacking all the emotions. I think that this was a period where I was desperately trying to be more masculine to try and run from and hide the truth. I was still a long way from accepting myself as a person, I was never out as a trans person during that period of my life. I still have a fondness for racing and feel one day I may return to the track. There are other out trans racing drivers, like Charlie Martin, who are leading the way, which is encouraging. I kind of fell into it when I went on a rally experience day; I’d gotten on well with my instructor who was impressed with my driving abilities and at the end of that day they offered me a job. Once you’re in, it’s a bit of a boys club and work comes in from all over once you’re known.
Your dream to be a ballet dancer seems to be poles apart from the hyper-masculine world of racing…
Racing is very much a hyper-masculine world and it was about as far away from ballet as I could think of, so it was a good cover. As a trans person, you spend your life worrying about being outed or having someone realising you’re trans so you become an expert in building a persona that’s so far from who you really are to try and avoid suspicion. I think it’s why a lot of trans people suffer poor mental health because it’s exhausting maintaining an alternate persona. Sometimes, after a long hard day at the track I’d get home, go to bed, curl into a ball and cry.
When did you first become interested in ballet? What inspired your love for the art form?
When I was about four or five I saw some dancers on TV. I fell totally in love with the way they moved and of course like many budding ballerinas I was mesmerised by the costumes. I wanted to be a ballerina there and then but was gently informed by my Mum that ‘boys weren’t ballerinas’. This is also my earliest memory of wondering why people thought I was a boy.
When you started dancing ballet – while presenting as a boy at the age of 17 – you were rejected. Please tell us about how it impacted you.
I’d long tried to find a teacher how would teach me the female routines in ballet as I didn’t want ballet to be just another prison of my perceived gender. The need to dance was overwhelming and I started taking class. It was wonderful to be finally dancing! Occasionally, at the start of an exercise the music would announce “steps for girls…” and my teacher would apologise, but of course I was more than happy with that. Eventually, though, my teacher found out I was trans and decided she couldn’t teach me anymore. I was devastated. It was like a reinforcement that there was something wrong with me. The rejection really hurt.
“I’m known as the transgender dancer but I’d rather be known as the dancer who happens to be transgender…”
Do you have any resentment that you were not able to continue to pursue your passion for ballet again until later in life?
I live very much by the philosophy I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I’ve not done, so I tend not to look back. There’d be no point holding on to anything like resentment and, yes, I’m sure I’d be a much better dancer today had I been able to continue back then but it doesn’t really matter now. I can’t change that. I am where I am now and I’m working as hard as I can do be the best dancer I can be.
How would you describe your personal gender identity journey; with yourself, your friends, your family and society?
Much of my journey was about accepting myself. I grew up in the 80s and 90s before the internet so I had no reference to others who were like me. I didn’t have the language to describe myself until my mid-twenties. All the TV and movie portrayals I saw were negative towards trans people and the media was very hostile too, always equating trans people as a danger to others. That bleeds into your own psyche and eventually, you start to believe it. I spent a long time thinking I was some kind of monster. Eventually, with the advent of the internet and especially YouTube, I was able to see there were others like me. That there were trans doctors, writers, poets, inventors and models and it really helped me to realise I wasn’t a monster but someone very fortunate to see the world in a different and unique way. All through my childhood, there had been signs of what at the time was called ‘gender incongruence’ so my family were not really surprised at all when I came out. Many had long suspected something and some asked why it’d taken me so long to realise it. Ultimately I’ve been very lucky to have such a wonderful accepting family and society as a whole in the UK is accepting. You still get the odd person who stares or makes a comment but it’s vastly outweighed by the many kind humans out there.
Dancers in ballet are usually expected to conform to certain physical criteria – height etc. How do you feel about these restrictions and how do they hinder you, if they do?
I am so far from the usual ballet body it’s almost hilarious, but then I have just turned 40! The ballet world has an unhealthy obsession with height and weight which is something I often talk about as I sometimes take class with younger dancers and I hear how they feel about their bodies and it’s often not healthy. Here are these gorgeous young women in total control of their bodies when dancing and they hate themselves. It’s heartbreaking. I’d like to think I offer something to audiences that isn’t limited by my height and size. Just having the right body won’t make you a great dancer. To be enjoyable to watch you have to have something to offer the audience on an emotional level and the sooner the ballet world catches up the better. That’s why the diplomacy event at SA International Balet Competition is so crucial. We need to have these discussions as it gives us an opportunity to reach people who can start to make change.
Sophie Rebecca on stage (Photo: Ballet Beyond Borders)
As a proudly transgender woman you are not simply a dancer but are also viewed as a “transgender dancer,” a groundbreaker and an activist for the trans community. Can you expand on that?
For me, this is a double-edged sword. I’m known as the transgender dancer but I’d rather be known as the dancer who happens to be transgender. That is to say, I’d rather my dancing spoke more for me than my identity as a trans woman. There’s also the problem with being viewed as a groundbreaker which I no doubt am, but I know of several amazing young trans dancers coming up through companies all over the world who are much better dancers and examples than me so that pressure of being a representative for trans dancers is very high. I’d rather be noted as an adult dancer as there’s such a strong adult ballet scene all over the world and not only is it great exercise it’s a wonderful community who often don’t get many chances to perform.
How have you been accepted by the ballet world? Has it been a welcoming or affirming experience? What sort of challenges have you faced?
The ballet world has been incredibly welcoming to me. I have fabulous teachers at my studio but sometimes going into a new studio can be tricky. I notice looks – sometimes I might be the first trans person they’ve ever met- so I think there’s a lot of subconscious bias built up against trans people due to the way we’re portrayed in the media. People can be wary which I can understand as I have experienced that myself but usually once I get moving they realise I can dance and that’s why I’m there. There’s ultimately a mutual respect too. Ballet isn’t easy so I think people appreciate the effort I put in. I may not be the best dancer but every day in class I give it 100%.
How is the ballet world evolving to become inclusive of transgender individuals? Is it transforming enough and what needs to change?
This is a tricky one. You mentioned earlier about ballet bodies – this expectation is often what could be described as hyper-feminine and if someone who was a trans woman had the right body you wouldn’t know they were transgender as they’d fit society’s expectations. And with the world still a long way from embracing trans identities why would any dancer risk it being known they were trans? So we may have already had several trans dancers at top companies and not known it. If young trans people receive treatment and have the option of puberty blockers and hormone replacement when they’re old enough, their bodies develop in the same way as anyone else of that gender. A good example is Chase Johnsey who danced for English National Ballet. Chase is gender non-conforming. He’s (he prefers ‘he’ pronouns) the size you’d expect of a female ballet dancer and when he took to the stage no one was any the wiser. He was also an award-winning male dancer before he came out as gender non-conforming, so he has the talent, ability and body to take on any role. I’d personally like to see more roles in ballet opened up for women. I can’t tell you how many female dancers I know absolutely love the male variations with all the jumps and leaps. I’m very much a lover of classical ballet but it’d be nice to see more strong female characters so this isn’t just about transgender individuals.
“I’m sure gender non-conforming people would love to see themselves mirrored on stage.”
The roles and characters in ballet are traditionally seen as being very much based on gender binaries. Is this true and should these be challenged?
I’m somewhat in the middle on this. I love classical ballet and all the traditional ballets. It’s certainly my style but I’d love to see new ballets rooted in classical technique that push boundaries while reflecting more of the world we see today: women leading, supporting men, being strong. I think we could really inspire a generation of dancers if we try to push these boundaries, and this is just when talking about the classical gender binary. I’m sure gender non-conforming people would love to see themselves mirrored on stage.
Bullying at school is a reality for so many of us in the LGBTIQ+ community, especially for those who are gender non-conforming. How did you cope with this and what advice would you give to young people who are in the midst of it?
I was bullied relentlessly at school for being too effeminate; it’s how I learned to hide who I was at all costs but this came at great personal cost to me as I lost who I was for many years. I think the world has moved on a lot since then but it’s still not easy for LGBTIQ+ people in school. I think the best way to deal with it is to find strength in community and try to connect with other LGBTQI+ people but above all to remember that You are amazing, You are valued and You are loved.
As part of the SA International Ballet Competition, you’ll be participating in a panel discussion on the role of ballet in diplomacy and change. In what ways can ballet and dance create change regarding transgender inclusion and affirmation?
Ballet and dance are forms of communication that can be an intensely emotional exchange. It’s easy to demonise a minority when you’ve never met someone from that minority but when they’re on stage bearing their soul there’s a strong chance you’ll connect with that person on an emotional level and this connection can lead to empathy and a desire to learn and understand them better. I think creating works around our experiences can move attitudes towards trans and gender non-conforming dancers. Charlene Carey from Ballet Beyond Borders and I intend to develop more works that will be raw; a retelling of my experiences as a transgender person, a painful but therapeutic process.
What is your hope for future opportunities for transgender or non-binary young people who dream of dancing ballet?
I cannot wait until we get to see our torchbearer, someone who’s talent is so undeniable that people have to take notice, that they are the dancer who is trans not the trans dancer. I believe they will give hope to the rest of us that change is possible. I also think that should someone in this day and age have the right talent and body that they would have more opportunities today than they would have even six years ago and I hope we can continue to push progress in that direction.
Society has changed dramatically when it comes to gender identity awareness in just the past five years. What most excites (or frustrates) you about this and does it make you hopeful for the future?
In the UK sadly with the visibility, has come the attacks and there is much misinformation being circulated online and in the mainstream media about trans lives. We rarely get to have a conversation beyond bathrooms which frustrates me endlessly. There’s no evidence trans men or women using the correct bathroom presents any risk to anyone else and rather the opposite is true. We should be having much more important conversations about the future and about how the world is going to treat trans and gender non-conforming people equally, not debating our right to exist. But the thing that fills me the most with hope is being among the younger generation. It’s incredible to me to see how much they just get it. They’re not clinging on to a tired world of binary identities or gender roles and they aren’t going to put up with the status quo. They are far more accepting than my peers in my generation and I believe the world is theirs and our future.
Sophie Rebecca will join former US Marine and dance company director Roman Baca, former US Ambassador Maxwell Baucus and Charlene Campbell Carey from Ballet Beyond Borders in a panel discussion about Ballet Diplomacy Live on the South African International Ballet Competition Facebook page on Thursday 16 July at 15h00, SA time. To watch the ballet competition, ballet classes and Gala performance from 13 to 18 July, download the ArtOfLife app, available free on the Google Play Store. iOS users can manually register and pay by sending an email via firstname.lastname@example.org.