The study by Bailey and Oberschneider (1997, this issue) looks at relationships between sexual orientation and dance. The hypothesis under investigation essentially asks: “Are there known relationships between homosexuality and dance as a profession?” This prompts me to write of an association I became aware of several years ago.
An acquaintance of mine, Thomas J. Aguilar, died in Honolulu in May 1993 from AIDS complications. In Hawai‘i Aguilar was open about his homosexuality and his AIDS condition. He was active in educating about the disease and fighting against homophobia. Our professional association was primarily related to my capacity as Co-Founder and Director of the Hawai‘i AIDS Task Group.
Aguilar was a showman with talents in acting, singing, and dance who also choreographed and directed. He came to prominence for his performances as a lead character in the London and Broadway productions of “A Chorus Line.” The gay newspaper, New York Native, in an obituary (26 May 1993) reported on Aguilar’s accomplishments and noted that in one of his interviews he talked of his HIV infection. In that interview he mentioned that of the 17 original men cast in “A Chorus Line,” only he and one other still were alive. Now he too is gone.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Public Theater on May 21, 1975. This was some half-decade before the AIDS plague was noted in the United States. In the 20 years since the play’s opening, however, 16 of the 17 men in the cast have been reported to have died of AIDS. Nothing is known about the drug taking, blood transfusion, or surgery histories of these 17 men and I am not privy to the sexual orientation of the male cast members. One can, however, speculate on the high correlation between AIDS-related death, homosexuality, and dance.
A second separate item is related to the hypothesis. In traditional Hawai‘ian dance, men and women danced, but not together. As with many other matters of life, dance was associated with religion and in such things the sexes were often kept separate, e.g., food preparation and eating was also associated with the kapu system and men and women were not allowed to eat together although they could have almost any type of sex together (Diamond, 1990). Sexual expression of all types was accepted in male and female dancing and the medium was used to tell erotic stories, for sexual invitation, celebrating religious and social events, to perpetuate oral history, and more. Essentially, thus in traditional pre-Captain Cook Hawai‘i, all males and females were expected to know something about dance. In many of these dances the male displays were often, without doubt, what we in present day society would consider very masculine. They might depict aggression, battles, and such. The female dances often were about love, sacrifice, relationships.
Dance (hula; hulahula) itself was sacred and protected under the goddess Laka. According to tradition, Laka would take mild possession of the dancer—become one with the dancer—and dance through him or her. During hula training the dancer was dedicated to Laka and “he or she had to stay absolutely away from the opposite sex until after graduation” (Pukui et al., 1972; emphasis mine). Nothing is recorded about same-sex relations but it could be assumed that that too was prohibited. After graduation any type of sexual activity could he resumed. During the Makahiki festival, the celebration of the New Year according to the Hawai‘ian calendar, dance was a major factor. The dances often had an erotic character and the transition from idea to deed was often expected to follow. “The dancers, whatever their sex, cannot refuse the sexual advances of the spectators they have aroused.” (Valeri, 1985; emphasis mine).
In contemporary Hawai‘i society, the situation is quite different. Now the typical traditional type dance group (hula halau) is filled by females.1 Many male troupes do, nevertheless, exist both separately and as part of a coed halau. But even in these halau, the men and women dance separately; only for tourist shows might they dance together; never for a Hawai‘ian audience. These groups dance for professional and recreational purposes.
The general impression among dancers and the general population is that a high proportion of the male dancers are gay and that among the male leaders and teachers of the groups, the kumu hula, almost all are gay. This is said matter-of-fact without any stigma or condescension. it might he added that homosexual and ambisexual activities, as indeed almost any sexual activity, were accepted without stigma in traditional Hawai‘i (Diamond, 1990).