Chase Johnsey (second from right) in English National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. Elliot Franks, Courtesy In The Lights PR.

Breaking the Binary: Trans, Gender-Fluid and Other Nonbinary Artists Are Seeking Equal Opportunity in Classical Ballet

George Balanchine famously said "Ballet is woman." He should have added that ballet is man, too, because it has long been defined by the traditional male-female binary. A formal challenge to the paradigm was launched in June, when Chase Johnsey was offered the opportunity to dance female corps roles in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty in London.

"I am a classical ballerina," says Johnsey, a freelance dancer who identifies as gender fluid and uses he/him/his pronouns. His ENB performance (in the mazurka and as a marchioness in the hunt scene; he also understudied a nymph) made headlines around the world and turned him into an activist for the cause—not to change classical ballet, but to open its doors to artists across the full spectrum of human gender. By hiring Johnsey, ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo put ballet's gender-exclusiveness on notice. "Our work and our company should reflect the world we live in," she stated via email. "Ballet should have no barriers; it's for everyone, everywhere."

Johnsey isn't alone. Jayna Ledford and Scout Alexander, two young transgender dancers, are training hard to break into the professional ballet world. We spoke with them about the dreams, achievements and challenges of nonbinary artists in the intensely gendered world of ballet.


Embracing the Gender Spectrum

Gaynor Minden named Jayna Ledford a 2018-19 Gaynor Girl.

Dwayne Dunlap, Courtesy Ledford

Decades of research shows that human gender and sex are not limited to a strict male-female binary. The spectrum includes, but is not limited to, cisgender people, who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth; agender people, who identify with no gender; gender-fluid people, who identify as a unique blend that is not fixed on the spectrum; and trans people, who don't identify with their assigned gender and who may (or may not) use clothing, cosmetics, hormones or surgery to transition to their authentic gender. People everywhere on the spectrum choose the pronouns (he/she/they, etc.) that feel right to them. (Gender is also extremely personal; we aren't disclosing information that could compromise the dancers' safety or well-being.)

Johnsey, 33, focuses on dancing female roles. For 14 years he was a star in the drag ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances from Paquita, Don Quixote and Le Corsaire earned him a 2016 UK National Dance Award as Best Male Dancer. He resigned from the company last January, alleging harassment and discrimination (an internal investigation did not substantiate those allegations).

Regardless of his gender identity, Johnsey argues that his technical and artistic qualifications should make him eligible to dance in a traditional ballet company. "If I were in the back of the corps, and nobody noticed me, then what's the issue? I'm not hurting anybody," he says. "I'm trying to open possibilities for dancers."

Males dancing females' roles, and vice versa, is an issue for many people. Concerns range from unfair competition to a fear that ballet's artistic standards will be diminished. "Some directors or choreographers simply don't see it happening because it's never been done," says Johnsey. And in a New York Times article about Johnsey's ENB debut, former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan quipped, "If he is the best girl for the job, then great," yet voiced concern about men already having fewer hurdles than women in ballet.

NYCB principal Ashley Bouder, a longtime fan of Johnsey's and a supporter of inclusivity in ballet, feels that worries about nonbinary artists taking women's jobs are overblown. "There are so few trans dancers that it doesn't represent that big of a threat," she says. "If nonbinary dancers get that job, they may just be better. That would be true for anybody."

Indeed, Johnsey and the other dancers in this story want to dance at the highest possible level. Johnsey, for example, prepared for The Sleeping Beauty by taking women's company class, working with ENB associate artistic director Loipa Araújo and developing longer, leaner musculature with ENB's dance scientist through nutrition and cross-training. "A lot of my pointework wasn't necessarily correct," he says. "The world for females in ballet is very tough, and the work is a lot more detailed."

Many have suggested that Johnsey would find more acceptance in contemporary dance. "What I am addressing is classical ballet," he says, with obvious frustration. "I'm not gonna back down, because then I'm not fighting." He cites Misty Copeland as a role model. "It wasn't until she changed the world's mind that the ballet world finally changed its mind."

Fighting for Authenticity

"I had to choose between not dancing at all and living my truth," says Scout Alexander.

Quinn De Anna, Courtesy Alexander

It can be difficult to grasp the elation a nonbinary dancer feels when they are finally able to dance as their true selves. "Up until about age 17, I was struggling with having to train mainly as female, because it was the only option I had," recalls Scout Alexander, 19. The Cleveland dancer, who dreams of performing male roles in a major ballet company, was assigned female at birth and is transitioning to male, and uses male pronouns. "I had to choose between not dancing at all and living my truth."

Facing backlash after coming out as trans at age 15, Alexander debated quitting ballet altogether. "I wasn't sure if I'd be able to have a career and have this identity, because I had been told that the two couldn't coexist." Unsure if he would be able to train as a male at his studio, he enrolled in open evening classes elsewhere. "I could wear more what I wanted," he says, "but it was not the intense training that I should have been having."


Determined to be himself in the ballet world, Alexander left home at 18. He auditioned and earned a full male scholarship to BalletMet's 2018–19 trainee program. "As long as a dancer can fully participate in our programs at the same or higher level as our other dancers, they are welcome," says BalletMet executive director Sue Porter.

Alexander has deferred for a year while he adjusts to hormone treatment, recovers from surgery to flatten his chest and builds strength for partnering. In the meantime, he is a trainee with Inlet Dance Theatre, a contemporary company in Cleveland. "They've been absolutely amazing with accepting me and training me as 100 percent male," he says. "Since I am so new into my transition, there's a lot of things I'm way behind with compared to other guys my age."

Making Hard Choices

"I just want to dance," says Delaware dancer Jayna Ledford, 19, who was assigned male at birth and faced barriers early on. When Ledford started ballet lessons at age 5, "I asked if I could wear a leotard like the other students, and the teacher said no," she recalls. As many studios do, her school hewed to the standard division between boys' and girls' training, and she was forced to leave. Ledford ultimately decided to conceal her gender identity, and went on to excel in men's training.

Last January, though, she felt ready to come out as trans while on a full male scholarship at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, and began using female pronouns. "It was really easy after that to just be myself, and it felt amazing," she says. The students were immediately supportive, and the school made accommodations, such as exempting her from male partnering class. Last spring, she began hormone therapy and started pointe training.

In spite of Ledford's long legs, dolphin arches and graceful port de bras, her status as a trans female could mean an uphill path to her dream roles of Juliet, Aurora and Kitri. "I'm nervous for Jayna," says Michele Xiques, who has trained Ledford for five years and is director of First State Dance Academy in Milford, Delaware. "There's not enough experiences out there for teachers and directors to turn to. How did you handle it? What were the guidelines? I just want to make Jayna feel safe and help as much as I can because she's got the talent."

Ledford completed her school year at the Kirov Academy in May, and in August decided she would train at home, catching up on pointe technique and dancing The Nutcracker Express in Delaware. ("I get to do new choreography," Xiques says, "because she's able to do jumps and turns that some born females aren't capable of doing because she has so much strength.") She's considering applying for college.

"There are so many obstacles I have to overcome," Ledford says. "I feel sad, but I'm not letting this stop me from doing what I want to do."

These dancers are on the vanguard, and it can be a lonely place. Last spring Johnsey reached out to Ledford, and the two were eager to meet. "Lots of happy tears!" Ledford recalls of their visit in New York. Johnsey agrees: "It's incredible to see in the flesh, right in front of your eyes, who you're fighting for."


Sean Dorsey assisted with this story.

Latest Posts


Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Courtesy Carrie Gaerte, modeled by 2020 Butler University graduate Michela Semenza

Concussions Are More Than a Bump on the Head. Here's What Dancers Need to Know

Your partner accidentally drops you during a lift. You collide head-on with another dancer in rehearsal. Or you're hit in the face while you're spotting a turn. Even if you didn't lose consciousness, you may have a concussion, which can occur from a direct blow to the head or rotary force of the brain moving excessively or striking the skull.

As a dancer, your first instinct may be to keep going, but you shouldn't, says physical therapist and athletic trainer Carrie Gaerte, PT, DPT, ATC, who works with Butler University in Indianapolis and at Ascension St. Vincent Sports Performance. "What's really hard for dancers is admitting that maybe something isn't right," she says. "But the big thing about concussions is that your brain is not like your ankle, shoulder or knee. When your brain has an injury, that needs to take precedence over a role or a job."

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Thinking About College Ballet Programs? Here's a Comprehensive Guide to the Application Process

Gone are the days when you had to skip college in order to have a successful ballet career. College ballet programs are better than ever before, providing students with the training, professional connections and performance experience they need to thrive in companies postgraduation. But given the number of elements involved in the application process, choosing the right program can feel daunting. We've broken the college application timeline down step by step to help you best approach each stage along the way.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks