Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Carolyn Stuart: Making Contact

For this dance teacher and Contact Improvisation devotee, gender and movement are fluid: “We are in constant motion—that’s life. We’re constantly evolving. We are the transition.”

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Dance teacher Carolyn Stuart. Photo: Hannah Krafcik

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*Content Warning: This story contains a reference to fatphobia.* 

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Carolyn Stuart has taught dance in Portland for decades. I first came to know her through the local dance community, where I learned of her commitment to Contact Improvisation, a practice that involves using principles of physics to create imaginative partner dances.

More recently, in an email exchange, Carolyn shared with me that she has started to identify as gender-nonconforming, an experience that bubbled under the surface of her consciousness for most of her life.

I caught up with Carolyn this fall to learn how her long view of the feminist movement has entangled with her burgeoning consciousness of gender-nonconformity—and how all this relates to her practice of Contact Improvisation. 

“I have to literally look at myself in the mirror to remember what other people are seeing and possibly projecting,” she said to me as we chatted over coffee this past September. “According to numbers I’m 76 years old, but … like, what is that? I feel all and none of the ‘ages’.”

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon


Gender Deconstruction: An ArtsWatch Series


Her disidentification with age echoes the sentiments of other Gender Deconstruction participants. In sharing Carolyn’s story as it has been relayed to me, I am compelled to start at the beginning of her dancing life, which unfolded in tandem with both her personal growth and the social movements of her day. 

Carolyn began dancing at age 12, in 1959. “My mother had the insight to put me in a modern dance class,” she explained, adding, “My father didn’t like much excitement in the home. So I could be excited at dance class.” Her love of dance continued to flourish during her time studying at Portland State University in the late 1960s. “I entered PSU as a philosophy major, found dance, and then didn’t do anything else,” she remembered. 

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Carolyn reminisced about how her time dancing with Vaunda Carter—who started PSU’s first dance class under the umbrella of its athletic department—left a large impression on her life. She decided to pursue dance at PSU despite being impressed upon by authority in the field that she did not have a “dancer’s body.”

During this early decade of her dance career, Carolyn also began to quietly question gendered dynamics within the feminist movement. “It’s so interesting looking back at my life because things happened, but it is not until now that I am naming and claiming them on the outside,” she reflected. “A big point was that in the ’60s the feminist movement came on the world. And my reaction to it was, ‘Really? Do we have to separate people to get them back together?” In her estimation, by drilling down into the identity of “womanhood” in relation to “manhood,” second-wave feminism risked invoking more separation between people of all genders. “Aren’t we already apart enough?’,” she asked. 

“And, at the same time, I fully understood,” she continued. “I understood the oppression of women. And I understood how important it was to address that.” 

The feminist movement of her time ultimately led to a quiet, internal revelation about her own experience of gender. “It was clear to me at that moment: I just want to be Carolyn.” She realized her gender is wide-ranging and inclusive, encompassing a dynamic swath of human experiences. 

As I learned this part of Carolyn’s story, time seemed to collapse, sending me backwards into feminist history and also forward into the future of gender relations yet unknown. Her questions about the dichotomy between womanhood and manhood reminded me that, as much progress as was made through the waves of feminist movement, second-wave feminism helped set the stage for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFS. This brand of feminism rejects Trans and GNC identities outright, even as it also rejects the oppression of gender roles.

Carolyn’s insights struck at a core concern of many social movements: How do humans acknowledge divergent ways of being without erasing the gradients and overlaps between individuals, which can become sites of understanding and empathy? How do humans grapple with disparate experiences of life while acknowledging that our fates are tied up in one another? 

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Carolyn Stuart. Photo: Hannah Krafcik

Carolyn’s journey took a sharp turn during her college years. Due to a confluence of reasons, including getting pregnant, she dropped out of college, but continued to pursue her love of dance by choreographing for Portland Dance Theater (now defunct). This work left her feeling unsatisfied. 

“I was deeply into the process, but unable to name that yet. And I can remember a dancer saying, ‘Well, can’t you just tell us the moves?’” Carolyn elaborated. Her interest in the exploratory work of collaborative creation conflicted with the dominant tradition of learning and reproducing set choreography in contemporary dance. On top of that, the overwhelming competitiveness of the scene soured her work, and she realized, “This is not my scene.” 

Carolyn quit choreographing but continued to attend performances in Portland, keeping the flame of her love for dance alive. At one such performance, she had an experience that changed the course of her life forever. 

“I went to a choreographer showcase at the Echo Theater in 1984 and this Contact duet came on the stage, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I was just riveted, while my eight-year-old son was crawling around under the seats annoying people. And I didn’t care one bit,” she recalled. “The words went through my head: ‘You’re going to do this for the rest of your life no matter how frustrating … I have to know how two people can retain their autonomy while appearing to dance as one body!’”

Unlike the dance she had previously studied, which usually involved refining and performing predetermined movements, Contact Improvisation relied on instinctual choice-making for the co-creation of dances on the fly—a practice influenced by jazz music jams and martial arts, among other things. Carolyn took up studying the practice quickly thereafter, disclosing, “I had been asking for something to keep me on the planet.” In this way, Contact Improvisation saved her life. 

Carolyn Stuart. Photo: Hannah Krafcik

Interestingly, around the time Carolyn discovered Contact Improvisation, she also decided to table her sexuality. This decision came about after she had a vision of herself in a cartoon strip, depicted next to a different man in every frame. Through this imagery, Carolyn gleaned insight about her past and possible future: She realized that she had been pursuing affection and validation from men through her sexuality because she never received paternal affection from her father. Consequently, she made the choice to take herself “out of this strip,” to put her sexuality on a shelf in the proverbial closet and stand on her “own feet” in the world. 

“CI showing up at the same time was perfect,” Carolyn said. “It provided me with relational physicality and human connection that was special in sexuality, but without the emotional complexity. It introduced me to the present moment in which I could be fascinated as a creature, here and now, on the earth and explore how this creature organizes itself and relates. Almost magically, the judgments of my body—internalized from both dance classes and also from my father’s nickname for me, ‘Fatso’—fell away. I could delight in myself as I was!”

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“It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a good handle’,” she added, clutching the flesh at her waist. 

For Carolyn, gender roles had informed both the experience of sexual attraction and the harmful beauty standards. The personal choices she made regarding her sexual life and dance practice gave her a space to play outside of these gendered expectations. And while they still occasionally cropped up in her dance practice and relationships therein, Carolyn consciously chose not to engage them. 

“We are in constant motion—that’s life. We’re constantly evolving. We are the transition,” she said as we discussed the myth of fixity. Harkening back to her early interest in philosophy, she noted, “Life is actually living me.” 

Carolyn Stuart. Photo: Hannah Krafcik

In Carolyn’s estimation, rigid constructs and identities, gender included, exist out of alignment with the liminal nature of life, inhibiting human evolution and sustainability. As we talked, I wondered what questions and critiques forthcoming generations might have about the social movements of my own, and considered that perhaps these kinds of sentiments might be dormant somewhere in my own consciousness as well, waiting to be catalyzed as Carolyn’s had.  

“I have a one-and-a half-year-old great-grandson now. I want a new world for him, a world that cares for all instead of the current ‘either/or’ world that breeds pain and suffering,” Carolyn underscored, gesturing to the significance of social change. When it comes to Gender Deconstruction, she offered up the long view, modeling elderhood with a heart open to new language and to new ways of thinking about herself. As for gender pronouns, the question of the present day, she said simply, “Call me anything, because I feel like I have it all inside me. The pronoun that makes the most sense to me is we.” 

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Writer’s Note: Carolyn and I discussed which pronouns would suit the story best and decided to go with she/her. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver
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