- Photo by Fernando Rodriguez
Born in Davao in the Philippines and raised in Des Plaines, Dee Alaba began dancing at the age of four. A graduate of Columbia College, she currently performs with the Seldoms, Loud Bodies, and Erin Kilmurray. She has also appeared in New Dances with Thodos Dance Chicago and DanceWorks Chicago, and with the Cambrians. Here, Alaba reflects on her experiences as a transfemme dancer in Chicago.
As told to Irene Hsiao
My mom was a dancer. She used to ask me to practice ballroom dance with her while she waited for her partner—that was before I was even in school.
My mom cofounded [USP Dance Theater Davao, now known as Pangkat Silayan], a dance company at the University of Southeastern Philippines. They toured to a lot of places. The U.S. was her last tour, and she stayed. Seven years later, she brought me and my two brothers. My father is still in the Philippines. I went back in 2019, 12 years after we moved. I still remembered everything, but everything was different.
We were separated from 1999 to 2007. I remember her hugging me and crying and saying, “It’s going to be a while until I see you.” I think I was in kindergarten when this happened. I remember being in first grade and thinking, “My mom still hasn’t been home. Where is she?” Next thing I knew, years and years had passed. The only time she came home was when my grandma passed away. All the family members from the states came. My mom walked in, and I was like, “What?!” It took a while to process that it was her. I was like, “That’s my mom. Thats my mom!”
Before she moved, I was always with her because I was the youngest. I would go to rehearsal with her, and during city festivals in the Philippines, I would be on my mom’s float, running around and throwing candies at people. It was like a big old Pride Parade for the entire city!
[Once] my mom made me take a ballroom workshop. The guy who was leading the workshop was like, “You should compete!” But I wanted to be my mom: I wanted to do all the fancy twirls, and I wanted to be lifted. The male counterpart was so boring, you just hold onto her, spin her, dip her—when I saw that, I was like, “No, this is not for me.”
To this day my mom won’t tell me why she quit dancing. It was a weird transition when I told my mom I was going to dance. Asian families are like, “Be in the health industry, be a nurse, be a doctor, be a psychologist, whatever.” I asked her during my first solo competition for dance team my senior year in high school. That was the first time she saw me dance since I was a toddler. I won first place, and she was like, “I’m so proud of you. I’m OK with you pursuing dance for college.”
After I graduated from high school, I let my hair grow. My mom gave me my very first skirt, which gave me the confidence to wear women’s clothing full time. I never wore men’s clothes when I was in college—except in ballet classes. You know how ballet is: women go first; men go last. Women do this; men do that. It felt wrong to my body. And when I did West African, one of the teachers wouldn’t let me wear lapa, which is what women wear, because I didn’t have a vagina. He would ask, “What do you have in there—let me see!” and chase me around the class every time I wanted to do the women’s part.
When I started college, I had already transitioned, but I didn’t identify as trans. As a freshman, I was like, “I’m a gay man with long hair who wears women’s clothing.” I thought “trans” meant you had transitioned fully—you’re on hormones, you got your boobs done, you’ve done gender confirmation surgery. I didn’t know you could be transfemme, transmasc, transsexual, transgender. I was like, “Oh, that’s where I am. I’m transfeminine. I want to do women’s roles, because that’s who I am. I’m a woman.”
Back then, I was just Dwigth—that was my name. People would be like, “What are you?” I would be like, “I’m Dwigth. I’m me. I’m feminine, but as long as you respect me for who I am, I don’t care if you use he; I don’t care if you use she.” I did not care about pronouns until Columbia professors started asking, “What’s your preferred pronoun?’ my junior year. One of the things I realized was that I was doing it for people’s comfort. People would be like, “I don’t want to offend you if I call you ‘he.'” I realized, No, I need to own this. I need to fully accept that this is my identity. That’s when it started. I announced on Facebook, “I go by she/her now, I go by Dee now.”
After graduation, a lot of auditions I saw were looking for male or female dancers. That was discouraging, because I identify as female, but will a company looking for dancers respect me as such? For New Dances 2018 with Thodos and DanceWorks Chicago, they didn’t say they were looking for male or female dancers, just dance artists. I saw J’Sun Howard and Katlin Michael Bourgeois on the choreographers list, and I was like, “OK, I can do this. There are things for me out there.”
Especially working with Erin Kilmurray, I get to express my authentic movement and my identity. For her workshop for Search Party, [the notice] said, “female or female-identifying dancers.” Seeing “female-identifying,” I was like, “Oh, this is for me.” Working with Erin really kickstarted my dance career. She was like, “Take the jobs that will respect you. Do the jobs that will celebrate you.” That was when my whole perspective changed. I don’t have to audition for dance companies because they’re looking for male or female dancers; I can create work, I can collaborate, I can work with people who are looking for artists and not just male or female bodies. It’s an ownership of my authenticity.
I have had conversations with other trans dancers in the community. I give the same advice: look for the people who will celebrate you and respect your identity, not just a job. That’s toxic! I don’t know how they’re going to perceive or use my body. I still see audition notices looking for male and female dancers. If that’s their thing, that’s their thing. At least I know not to work for them.
The celebration of authentic self is Pride itself. You owning your identity, your celebration of yourself. We’re an evolving community. I’m truly pleased to see a lot of non-gender binary and trans dancers coming out now. v