The audition sheet for Spring Dance was asking for help identifying me. First, at the top of both pages, it requested my number, a large 47 on a large index card, which I nervously pinned and re-pinned to different locations on my large shirt at various points before the audition began. Next, it wanted to know any identifying features that I could provide, presumably so that the choreographers could link numbers and names to corresponding bodies.
I think that this was a psychosocial experiment about how we see ourselves. Perhaps it was meant for practical use in the moment and was open to reflection and discussion later (and I am clearly doing just that), but I took that question (asking how I identify myself) to heart from the moment I answered, through the audition hour of trying not to be obvious about looking at myself in the mirror, and all the way until now.
I had initially skipped this densely worded request for self-description (meaning I did not read it) in favor of simpler, more familiar questions such as “Name” and “Address.” Yet ultimately I discovered and filled out the originally skipped question, both by pen and aloud. My verbal declaration of “red plaid” was met with stares. One lovely co-auditioner tried to gently convey the reason for the confusion by holding up a piece of my grayscale button-down, making eye contact with me, and slowly forming the words, “Red…plaid?”
I realized immediately that my delivery had created some confusion. Never underestimate the power of the pause. “Red,” I repeated, pointing to my hair. Lowering my hands to my shirt, I once again said, “Plaid.” On the sheet, I added a slash between the two words, and the phrase, “Not colorblind,” which is funny because 1. It is true and 2. It is not a useful physical identifier for a dance audition.
I am always uncomfortable when I have to describe myself. I remember riding the train to my interview for Wesleyan in trepidation, not over my academic future or my college applications so much as over the impending moment in which I would enter the café and my interviewer and I would have to find each other based on the physical descriptions we included in our latest emails. She told me she was “short with long, dark hair.” This was funny to me because I naturally googled her and found that she was an actress with headshots on IMDB; I thought that if I had the same visual googleability I might have foregone assigning words to my appearance. Still, I agonized over what I should say in return. If she considered herself short, was I comparatively tall, even though I am of average height and have friends who are taller? If her hair was dark, was mine light? I told her only that I had red hair, and then agonized over whether this was true enough, as the dye job badly needed a touch-up at the time.
I was brought back to this moment during the audition when my glances in the mirror indicated that, with my hair up and neither squeaky-clean nor standard-hair-clean, it did not look totally red. What if they could not identify me based on the word “red” (I had not written “hair”), or worse, thought I was delusional about my hair color? It was especially worrying because one of the choreographers had beautiful, thick, and undoubtedly natural red hair, and here I was, an impostor.
Things got worse from there. I got warm and a little bit sweaty. What a relief it would have been to remove my tent-like top. But that would mean losing my second physical identifier, and who would I be without it? Not red/not plaid/not colorblind? That could probably describe everyone else in the room. In the name of individualism, I kept my shirt on.
The next night, in one of my classes, we watched a piece by a light-skinned artist who spoke to the camera, declaring her blackness and implicating us viewers in what she told us. “I’m black,” Adrian Piper said, and then invited us to deal with this—what she called a social fact—together. Racial identity, she demonstrated, is both fiercely personal and inescapably public. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I consider my hair color a strong part of my identity, and I perform the color I choose (outside of applying chemicals to my head to make it so) by referring to myself as a red-haired person casually and, when prompted, physically characterizing myself that way. My racial and gender identity, meanwhile, are usually assumed and not requested. They are social facts that affect my daily life in ways to which I am so accustomed that they are usually invisible.
My hair color is no such social fact, but unlike my whiteness and womanhood, it is often distinctive and thus useful when strangers need to identify me. In that audition room, the only man could have set himself apart by writing down his gender, but “white woman” or “black woman” would just create confusion. Even (wrongly) assuming that race and gender have obvious visual cues, if they cannot helpfully distinguish one from 20 others in a room, what use are they on a campus of thousands?
Following the audition, we were given a chance to finish or add to the sheets we had originally filled out. As I explained that I was probably poorly suited for the piece by the choreographer who required “exhaustion” of his dancers, due to my need to take it somewhat easy on my ever-healing broken foot, it hit me that I had possibly overlooked something. When I had initially entered the Pine Street studio, I had proclaimed, pointing at my walking boot-bound foot, “We’ll give it a try!” While stretching about 15 minutes later, I had assured everyone that I would be fine. My right foot and ankle were conspicuously bound in layers of cotton fluff and ACE bandage.
Was I denying a visible disability and a layer of my identity by not listing it as an identifying factor? Was it a cop-out, whiny, or excuse-like to mention it? Have I been over-thinking a simple request for days? Perhaps.
Litviskiy is a member of the class of 2015.