From go-go dancer to drag king: Living gender through performance

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From go-go dancer to drag king: Living gender through performance

By Karli June Cerankowski 2011-12 Graduate Dissertation Fellow

by Karli June Cerankowski on Monday, August 6, 2012 - 12:41pm

Diane Torr in Go-Go Dancers Seize Control, with permissionWith a commitment to feminist politics in her dance and performance work, Diane Torr began go-go dancing in 1979. She quickly became a cult icon known as “Tornado” in the working class bars of New Jersey.

In 1981, she created a go-go performance that would be the first female erotic performance for other women at the Women of the World Theatre Festival in New York. The idea was to explore glamour and what it meant to perform aesthetically in an erotic way for women. The performance fell apart when the festival attendees nearly rioted in outrage, and Torr and fellow dancers had to escape through the back alley, where they were surprisingly confronted by a group of women who thanked them for their performance. In this moment of appreciation Torr was reminded that there are audiences out there connecting with her work.

It is no surprise that her experiences as a go-go dancer continue to inform her later solo performances, but how does one move from go-go dancer to drag king extraordinaire? For Torr, the transition began in 1982 with a commissioned performance entitled Arousing Reconstructions. Working with Bradley Wester, who had a body type similar to Torr’s, they created androgynous tableaux. When Wester began cross-dressing for the performance, Torr followed his lead. “It’s all his fault (that I began to cross-dress,)” she joked.

arousing reconstructionsAfter that, Torr began performing regularly in male drag in New York nightclubs. These drag performances connected her to performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who invited Torr to pose in drag for a photo shoot in a feature piece on Johnny Science, a transgender activist and artist. This project inadvertently led to Torr’s first public unstaged appearance in drag when the shoot ran overtime, and she had no time to change before attending an event at the Whitney Museum. Torr tells a story of how a woman flirted all evening with Torr, believing her to be a man. This experience of “passing” as a man at the museum not only tested Torr’s abilities to perform masculinity, but also heightened Torr’s awareness of how the woman performed her femininity as she flirted.


Man for a Day groupMan for a Day - the experience of passing

This experience inspired the creation of the “Man for a Day” workshop. Joining forces with Johnny Science, who had been teaching drag king workshops on using makeup, they taught the first workshop in 1990. The workshop focused on gesture and behavior as well as dress and makeup in the performance of male drag.  

Torr has been teaching women how to temporarily become men ever since. In her “Man for a Day” workshop, taught recently at the San Francisco Center for Sex and Culture, Torr teaches participants to adopt traits that culturally convey masculinity and power. The workshop attendees practice taking up space, sitting with their legs wide apart, and eating large mouthfuls of food.

Torr’s emphasis is on the performance of learned behavioral traits. These are traits society has constructed and defined as either masculine or feminine, although none of these behaviors are inherently possessed by men or women.

Performing at work - and in everyday life

The performative aspect of gender is not necessarily a new concept. As previously featured in Stanford's Clayman Institute's Gender News, Stanford Business School Professor Deborah Gruenfeld points out how traits that convey authority -- such as standing or sitting with a wide stance or looking directly into a person’s eyes -- can be performed by both men and women, but with different cultural affects in the workplace.  

Similarly, Kristin Schilt’s work on transgender men’s experiences in the workplace lends a similar perspective on how embodiment of gender affects how others perceive skills and capabilities in job performance.   

Torr’s point of departure from Gruenfeld and Schilt is her emphasis on the performance of gendered characteristics in everyday life. “Women give away power all the time,” Gruenfeld said in a leadership program at the Clayman Institute. And this is just as true when women sit in compressed postures on public transportation as when they look away or smile while making an authoritative point at work. Torr’s workshop asks participants to become aware of their own learned gendered behaviors and to temporarily step out of those norms in order to perform other gender norms in self-conscious, critical, and sometimes comical ways.  

From performance to understanding

IDiane Torrn Torr’s 2010 book, Sex, Drag, and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance, co-authored with Stephen Bottoms, she combines a critical analysis of the performance of gender with a history of her own journey as a performance artist. Speaking to an audience at the Clayman Institute, Torr detailed her journey from budding performance artist to drag king pioneer in a quest to understand gender as performance.

Torr has continued to develop male characters, which she has performed comically, satirically, and even seriously as a form of embodied memory. Her performances sometimes serve as a way to recreate the lives of lost loved ones. Torr tells a particularly poignant tale of her creation of a character based on her friend who died of AIDS.  She sees her performance as a way to physically embody his memory and to figuratively extend his life.  

From Torr, we learn that performance and becoming a man for a day can be fun and even funny, but can also teach us so much more about the construction of gender, how we embody our identities, and how we remember and honor those we love and admire.


Diane Torr's talk: "Sex, Drag, and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance" was organized by Stanford's Program in Feminist Studies and co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute. 

Karli CerankowskiKarli Cerankowski is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University and a 2011-12 Graduate Dissertation Fellow at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research.