Drag as an Inclusive Space

An Interview with SNJV

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

SNJV is a Bay Area-based drag performer, dancer, choreographer, and actor, as well as one of the organizers of the Inclusive Performance Festival. Planned collectively through Dandelion Dancetheater and Cal State East Bay by a council of Queer, BIPOC, Autistic, Disabled, Jewish, Neurodivergent, Fat, Young, Elder, Outsider, and uncategorizable artists, the Inclusive Performance Festival is presenting virtual, in-person, and hybrid dance, music, theater, drag, ritual, educational events, participatory performances, discussions, workshops, ceremonies, and more this April/May 2021. SNJV’s events include Drag: The Lecture on April 13th and The Drag Show on April 18th. Here, he shares how his drag is an amalgamation of his cultural experience, how he approaches queering the dance forms of Bhangra, and how he sees drag as a study of society beyond the performance.

To learn more, visit www.dandeliondancetheater.org/inclusive-performance-festival.

Note: Throughout April, Stance on Dance is featuring interviews with some of the organizers of the inaugural Inclusive Performance Festival, a wildly diverse group of artists, activists, free-thinkers, and creative rabble-rousers. Emmaly Wiederholt, editor of Stance on Dance and author of this interview, is one such rabble-rouser, and has enjoyed the opportunity to profile some of the other folks involved.

SNJV performing, photo by Kenny Hoff

Photo by Kenny Hoff

Image description: SNJV is pictured performing onstage wearing a sparkly textured tank top and a blue and black skirt. His arms are extended to the sides and he is smiling.

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Can you share a little of your performance history so folks can get a sense of where you’re coming from?

I started dancing very young when I was 3 or 4 years old on the fireplace mantel. My mom is from the Fiji Islands with lineage from India, and my dad is from Punjab, India. They met here in the US. Those cultures have a big expression of art through film and dance, like Bollywood. My parents are movers and shakers, and I was inspired by all of it. That early dancing transitioned to dancing at family parties and functions. I used to invoke the spirit of the popstars like Janet, Madonna, and Prince, but I was doing it in my cultural expression.

That kept going and it started to grow outside of the family. Relatives and friends would say, “Can you come to my party and perform?”  I was performing every weekend at one point. That was my extracurricular activity. As I became a pre-teen, I started performing at Indian festivals. When I was 12 or 13, I performed at the inaugural Fiji Festival, which was held in the Hayward Adult School parking lot. The second year I was asked to perform again, and that was held at the Cal State East Bay athletic field. To come back after 20 years and perform again at Cal State East Bay as part of the Inclusive Performance Festival follows a path that has led me through different cities, countries, and forms of expression.

I have worked with different dance groups, created my own dance groups, worked in the entertainment industry (or at least tried), and ultimately found a home in the Bay Area drag scene. All my identity is a performance of a fiercely divine person who expresses in all forms.

Speaking generally, how would you describe your drag performance work to someone unfamiliar with it?

My drag performance blends my cultural background and my physical expression through dance, fashion, makeup, and my intellect. It is an academic study of gender and the breaking of those binary barriers. It is a study of both American and South Asian popular culture. It’s a live thesis that’s being explored as I move and shake. My drag performance isn’t limited to the minutes I’m onstage; I believe we come from a supreme artist and we’re here on this planet doing drag in this vessel. My drag performance is a polished experience with flair and fun to evoke conversation and appeal to people at different levels of their own awareness. My drag can be shiny, fun, and energetic. But if people look into my work, they’re going to see there are layers. I challenge notions academically, socially, culturally, politically, and at the end of the day, I have fun doing it.

SNJV up close, Photo by Christivn Frvncis

Photo by Christivn Frvncis

Image description: SNJV is pictured from the chest up with his elbows lifted to the sides so that his hands drape in front of his face. He is wearing full makeup, a wig cap, and a black lace-like tank top.

What does your process look like?

Drag in the mainstream is personas and caricatures of ideas, and I honor that. I love doing a character, as I’ve spent a lifetime in theater. But the true essence of my drag performance is first connecting with melody. It doesn’t have to come from songs, though often does, especially Punjabi, folk, and pop songs. It comes from my senses receiving rhythm from the universe. That can mean great songs but also people’s voices or even wind or bluebirds chirping. Immediately the wheels start churning. I keep trusting the melody – a tiny nugget – of that bluebird and follow it to blue eye shadow with a snatched wing, or a blue corset. I trust that divine gifting. It can come instantly or take years. There have been pieces I’ve performed that have been in gestation since I was a child. Or there are songs that come instantly, I put the mix together in less than five minutes, and the choreography falls into my body. As a drag performer, I’m my own venue. We perform in all places – bars, closets, parking lots, wherever we get booked. We often have to be our own spotlight, so I love to think about how to highlight my face with low lighting by something like sequins. I’m process-oriented, but it should just be fun. If I’m thinking too much about it, I breathe and walk away.

Can you also share about your Queering Bhangra dance workshops? What does it mean to queer a cultural dance form?

Queering my cultural form means affirming that kid within who was so scared to live outside the gender binary. In the 90s, when I was mixing my own cassette tracks, I used to only do the male parts, but I secretly wanted to do the girl parts. Doing this deeper voice didn’t feel good in my body. As I was doing more festivals, I started sprinkling in the girl parts and did more movements that felt better. When I was doing the boy parts, I was thinking about the steps because I didn’t want to appear too soft and be called names. I’ve been called every name in the book; I’ve been bullied relentlessly. Hearing both cheers and heckles was part of my performance experience growing up, but it never stopped me. As I started to embrace multiplicity, it became easier to express those female parts. I owned that when I started doing drag in the Bay Area.

At the Queering Dance Festival in 2019, that caught the attention of Jill Randall, artistic director at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. She asked if I could teach a workshop, but I said I actually wanted to teach Bhangra, this strong energetic folk dance from Punjab, and I want to teach the queer version. Historically in Bhangra, the men dance the strong parts and women do the softer sassy parts. There’s a lot of misogyny and patriarchy expressed through that. Jill was like, “Great, here are the dates, come and do it.” It was so powerful to teach beyond the binary. It caught the attention of other communities around the world who said thank you for doing this.

Bhangra as a dance form exists a lot in competitions where the gender binary is constantly reinforced. There would be times in high school when I’d go and perform at competitions and do my style, and I would get the cheers, but backstage I’d get comments from other dancers that I was ruining the form. I would have to take that with grace. That experience empowered me to teach these workshops that explore cultural and gender expression. I think about all those beautiful trans, non-binary, and others who live outside the gender construct. I grew up with all this singing and dancing but knew there was never a place for me. These workshops are for those kids and adults who never fit the mold. I know it’s pretty radical, but I’m going to push that envelope and be the provocateur.

SNJV performing as a child

Photo courtesy SNJV

Image description: SNJV is pictured performing at an event as a child. He is intently focused mid-step with his arms near his torso. He is wearing black pants and snearkers, a white shirt, and a white band is tied around his forehead. A table with a blue tablecloth and balloons with people around it are in the background.

Can you share what your involvement with the Inclusive Performance Festival has been?

Thanks to Eric Kupers and the Department of Theatre and Dance at Cal State East Bay, I was asked to be a part of it in some capacity. I didn’t really have a plan before joining. Our first couple of meetings were fun, and I thought I’d do drag somehow, but I wanted to have a conversation too. The Bay Area drag scene is among the fiercest in the world because of our authenticity. I lived a long time in Los Angeles after grad school, and I was never booked. They’d tell me, “Shave your beard, get a wig, get some padding.” Basically, they told me to do female illusion. In Hollywood, I didn’t fit the mold. The Inclusive Performance Festival allows me to bring all that trauma to a place with love and understanding where I can give a space to other people who have previously not been given access or been overlooked.

In 2020, I got to work closely with Eric Kupers and some of the members of Dandelion Dancetheater for a music video I shot. We did it safely outside and included dancers of all different forms and expressions. The music video came out so fierce because of those dancers. So when I was asked to be a part of the Inclusive Performance Festival, I wanted to replicate that experience. For The Drag Show, I am bringing in drag performers who redefine drag. Drag isn’t just a gender performance; it’s a commentary on society. It’s not just entertainment, but a smart and brilliant art form.

I’m also honored to be presenting Drag: The Lecture, which is where the duality of my professional worlds come together. A large part of my adult life has been in higher education teaching courses on identity and working in administration to help diversify and retain students from different populations. This is where I’m able to bring drag into the classroom and talk about what drag is and how to invoke the drag performer in your everyday life. Throughout the day, we all do drag. I want to invoke a place for people to realize they are incredible performers who flawlessly switch in between drag and fiercely execute performance. Both The Drag Show and Drag: The Lecture celebrate the divine diva who lives within all of us.

Why are spaces like the Inclusive Performance Festival important for people whose work falls outside of mainstream aesthetics or identities?

Spaces like the Inclusive Performance Festival are so important for people who haven’t been or felt included. When we aren’t included, our humanity is hurt, and it shifts our perspective toward a negative place. With the Inclusive Performance Festival, your humanity is affirmed in all aspects. You are beautiful, you are talented, you are booked. People who have been rejected are able to be celebrated.

I think of all those times when I pounded the pavement through Hollywood. I had a blue vintage bag with a fog machine, my music, and a notebook in lieu of business cards that I would carry up and down Santa Monica Blvd going into every gay bar and club, and I would get laughed out. I remember doing this audition for Disney for the role of Aladdin. I went in and nailed the first audition. I got a call back and the only other people in the second audition were white men. In the hope that I was going to get booked, I quit my job, and of course I didn’t get booked.

The Inclusive Performance Festival is a place to celebrate who we are in all capacities and all speeds. We now know there’s a space for us, so hopefully we can also start to be better advocates for ourselves. I build my confidence one performance at a time. Every time I’ve been onstage, I never take it for granted. With that confidence and self-esteem, I have transformed into this person who I am now. I kept feeding myself through performance until I got to a place where my belly was full so now I can nourish others.

SNJV performing, Photo by Audrey Garces

Photo by Audrey Garces

Image description: SNJV is wearing gold pants with a red sari wrapped around his torso and draped over his head. He is standing with one foot in front of the other and smelling a bouquet of flowers with closed eyes. A speaker is in the background.

What’s next for you in terms of your own work?

I’m grateful that the Inclusive Performance Festival is a place where I’m going to be launching The Drag Show. It’s been a long dream of mine. I hope to build it throughout the years.

I’m working on a film that will showcase a deep struggle within the Indian community. I have big plans but I’m being patient and waiting for the world to be a healthy space again and, until then, my projects are filmmaking and continuing to rehearse every day of my life.

Any other thoughts?

I feel truly grateful to be performing and sharing my art. It used to be locked away within my spirit because the way my body and mind made me different. My intention for existing on this planet is to be a messenger of love and kindness, to acknowledge and heal the hurt I’ve been through, and keep moving forward. I am truly fulfilled by this path and hope to ignite that in everyone who comes across everything I do, through the Inclusive Performance Festival, through all the art I create, this is what I’m committed to, this is the performance.

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To learn more about SNJV’s work, visit www.snjv.co.

To learn more about the Inclusive Performance Festival, visit www.dandeliondancetheater.org/inclusive-performance-festival.

2 Responses to “Drag as an Inclusive Space”

  1. stanceondance

    Thank you Vicki! It is always an honor and a pleasure!

  2. Vicki

    Emmaly, you interview some of the strongest, most dedicated people on this earth and they make the world a better place.

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