The book Gay Propaganda, edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, provides a platform from which LGBT Russian voices can be heard. Gay Propaganda includes stories form gay couples raising their children, people living in exile to escape the anti-LGBT climate, advocates who have been arrested, and LGBT people from all walks of life.
The following excerpt from Gay Propaganda tells the story of Anya and Nata. They recounted their story to Maria Knyazher.
Anya lives with her parents, who often go abroad. Their trips provide her and Natasha with the opportunity to live together for short bursts. Anya’s mother is suspicious of the fact that she doesn’t introduce any of her suitors to her parents. However, she refuses to come to terms with the fact that she will never have a son-in-law. Natasha lives with her grandmother, who is kind to Anya but does not suspect that she and her granddaughter are more than just friends. Anya and Natasha met through a fan fiction community on Livejournal. They used to work together at a children’s café, and they’re in the process of making a book together, but their most important project is partner dancing, with a specialty in “West Coast Swing.”
ANYA: Natasha is a great artist. She also loves sweets and is capable of eating a whole cake by herself.
ANYA: I don’t like sweets. Nata cooks for me and I bake for her. We really like to eat.
NATA: And then we go on a diet together. Recently before a festival, Anya says to me: “So, Natasha, we’re supposed to dance in a week and we’re going to have to fit into our costumes. We have to lose some weight.” Anya and I met at a Surganova concert, seven years ago. I was part of a dance collective and I invited Anya to join. That’s where it all went down.
ANYA: Once we’d settled into our relationship, we decided to take up partner dancing.
NATA: We saw these two girls dancing together at a party and got really excited about it.
ANYA: Once, we were walking by the Frunzensky Bridge, where every day they play music for anyone who wants to dance. We got next to these people who were doing “Swing Hustle” and started dancing along. Then we found a dance studio for women where they were enrolling new students. We danced there as a couple for a whole year.
NATA: We got into the dance community, where no one cares who you are, where you’re from, or who you’re sleeping with. They only care that you’re on the same wavelength as they are, that you’re dancing.
ANYA: They taught us to dance about everything. You can dance about love or about the weather. Whatever you want to dance about, you can do it. It’s a free world. This studio was open for another three years, but then there were problems with the space, and enrollment, and then with the law about whatever propaganda, since this was partner dancing for women.
We switched from “Swing Hustle” to “West Coast Swing.” It’s very fluid, like the sea. It stretches out like a wave.
NATA: It doesn’t have end points; it always keeps going. We’re not professional dancers for one simple reason: because we don’t have the right to compete as a pair.
ANYA: Nata can dance in competitions with other partners, but I can’t. I don’t exactly remember how I ended up taking the man’s part. I probably just wanted the experience.
NATA: Anya likes the male partner’s function: he decides what the pair does. The female half can improvise, but she always follows the male.
ANYA: The male partner structures the dance. He has to think five steps ahead. It’s very complicated: you have to consider technique, the music, and the shape of the dance.
NATA: It was very hard for me in the beginning because I was not used to obediently following someone. We even had conflicts, but we’ve learned to understand one another.
ANYA: Nata follows me. When I see that she’s started improvising, I wait and give her time, complementing her movements with my own. It’s an art. The tipping point was when I was able to ask another girl who wasn’t Nata to dance with me at a club. For a dancer, this is a very important step. You can’t always dance with the same partner because it’ll make you worse. You won’t notice your mistakes. I remember sitting there, afraid. How will I ask another girl to dance with me? What will the girl think of me? But then I saw my teacher and asked her. Since then, I’ve known that I can dance with anyone. This is a new level for someone who wants to dance professionally.
NATA: Then came the next important stage.
ANYA: I got lucky last year. Nata and I were supposed to perform at a festival. We registered and prepared a new number. Suddenly, Nata ended up in the hospital. I was about to quit, but Natasha convinced me to participate without her.
NATA: Important people come to the festival, such as professional trainers from America and Europe, and give master classes. It’s great experience, like studying with a native speaker.
ANYA: I went but I was upset and unsure of myself. I don’t remember what got into me, but after a lesson, I decided to go talk to the head judge. I went up to him and asked, “Excuse me, why can’t I compete in the man’s role?” He looked at me, amazed: “Why not?” Suddenly, a festival volunteer runs up to me and says, “The head judge has allowed you to compete, hurry up and get your number.” Slowly, it dawns on me that they’re letting me participate despite all the rules against it! I was in such shock, and so euphoric, that I called Nata in the hospital, screaming, “Nata, I’m going to compete!” I changed in a panic. They stick a number on my back. I go out onto the floor. Around me, I see the judges, and the people looking at me—it’s all like a dream. I am the only woman in a crowd of male partners. Suddenly, they’re announcing the people who made it to the semi-finals, and I hear my name. I call Nata screaming again. The semi-final happens. I think, “OK, I can relax now.” Suddenly, a woman I met at the competition flies at me: “Anya, did you see the results? You’re in the finals.” I slowly realize that I’m in the finals, in a men’s competition. The final shock of the day was that I made it into the top ten in the finals.
NATA: In the top ten on her first try.
ANYA: It’s been a year and we haven’t been allowed to participate in any other competitions since. In the rules, it says a pair consists of a male and a female partner. But at least they decided in our favor once, and that set an important precedent.
NATA: When you make it to the finals in a prestigious competition, you get an international dance ranking. Your rank is proof of your professional level. Anya should have been ranked, but they didn’t do it.
ANYA: Whoever was doing the ranking saw my last name, understood that I was a woman, and didn’t take into account that I was a finalist.
NATA: Since then, we’ve been looking for every opportunity to participate in a competition. We keep growing as dancers no matter what. We go to master classes, learn new dances, but we want professional achievements, too.
ANYA: I’ve even tried dancing the women’s part. However, ever since I’ve started developing my skills, I’ve become more interested in leading.
NATA: Last year we tried to learn how to switch roles. It was a very interesting experience. It’s good to switch roles because it helps you understand how your partner thinks. We know some male partners and we’ve started having fun with them. We lead them like they’re women, and it helps them pick up important technical habits. I feel very bad for Russian men. They don’t even get to be free in the world of dance. If a man dances the woman’s part, he immediately falls under a lot of criticism.
ANYA: Incidentally, American men can dance the women’s part so well that our girls are jealous of them. They spin and do the kind of pirouettes that not every kind of ballerina could pull off. They’re more open.
NATA: Anya and I deal with our problems and live through dance. The majority of fights we’ve had over the past seven years have been at rehearsals. There was a time when I was ahead of her in technique. It’s a difficult moment for many dancers when one person in a couple starts developing faster than the other, and the other one has to catch up. We were always fighting.
ANYA: But it’s like a parallel life for us where we resolve our problems.
NATA: We often think about the future. It’s hard to live in Russia when you’re like us. We can’t get married or have kids or dance together. We can’t do anything.
ANYA: When they passed the law on gay propaganda, there were jokes going around on the Internet, like, if a child is raised by a mother and grandmother, does that also count as a same-sex family?
NATA: We laugh, but it’s a serious problem. But our society is probably not ready for any of this. We understand that.