The Silent E: 29 Effeminate Gestures, 24 Years Later

By Selby Schwartz


Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures was first performed in 1987, by Joe Goode himself; it was literally a self-proclamation. It began with a muttered statement, repeated more and more emphatically, mounting to a ringing, stamping, shouted-out rhythm: “Heee’s a-good-guy! Heeeee’s a-good-guy! He’s a good good GOOD GOOD GOOD GOOD GUY!” He looked like a good guy: he was Joe Goode, he was tall and good-looking, he was wearing clean mechanic’s coveralls, he had sincere brown eyes, you would trust him to fix your car. However, he was also purposefully wielding a power chainsaw, and the intensity of its ragged whine brought adjectives other than good to mind. There was something excessive about him, a dangerous exaggeration of possibility. He wasn’t a good guy; he was a Goode. It was as if that extra, silent “e” made all the difference.

With a manic buzz, the chainsaw attacked a cheap brown chair and left it limbless in a pile of sawdust. The coveralls came halfway down, and the general level of piercing noise and crazed unpredictability reached the high decibels. It looked less like a solo dance piece than like a scene from Taxi Driver. “29 Effeminate Gestures!” Goode announced, as if that explained the stomping, the bellowing, the chainsaw, and the sawed-up bits of chair.

What he was demonstrating, though, was that effeminacy required a prologue: a framework of negation against which its signs could visibly emerge. Effeminacy was a suppressed performance in search of a stage–or, perhaps more accurately, a gesture held back inside a body. When Joe Goode finally began the series of 29 effeminate gestures, moving diagonally downstage, there were occasional murmurs of laughter from the audience as they recognized a familiar toss of the hair or a cooing greeting. A whole vocabulary of effeminacy was articulated, from coy nods to fluttered fingers, with little pouts, a sassy out-thrust hip, and, of course, the limp-wristed wave. But why could the audience laugh at these gestures? Didn’t they know–some of them first-hand–that a guy could get beat up for a limp wrist? Moreover, what did their recognition of these gestures mean? Were they recognizing a character perform his comic peculiarities, as if they were watching a Molière play, or did they see refractions of their own identities being enacted in this safely darkened theatrical space, or were they responding to the reassuring familiarity of gay stereotypes–the fabulous, the camp, the queenly?

The dance scholar Ramsay Burt, writing about this piece, suggests that the laughter comes from a collective, knowing appreciation of camp as a strategy that both proclaims and problematizes gay identity. But Joe Goode, who has performed this piece well beyond the borders of the Bay Area–in Egypt and Jordan, for example–has always noticed the audience’s laughter. “People see the humanity in it, and the humor in it,” he explains, “and they allow it to happen in front of them.” He does note that in the early performances, “the gesture of the chainsaw felt pretty confrontational–and to do those effeminate gestures over the top of the chainsaw was a strong statement, maybe even a little bitter.” Still, he says, when the piece was performed this February as part of GUSH, a dance series Goode curated at the Brava Theater, he was “shocked by the number of people who came up to me and said they had seen the original.” Moreover, what they wanted to tell him was that the piece “had meant something to them then, and that it still meant something to them.”

This suggests that the exaggerated, queer, self-mocking, deliberately artificial aesthetic of camp is not the primary reason audiences respond with laughter to the piece. Rather, it seems that members of the audience know what it’s like to be onstage, to feel half-naked as they perform their identities, to negotiate a self-staging somewhere between the personal and the categorical. This makes sense in the framework of gender theory, which proposes that gender is a kind of script we try to read from. It’s a messy, confusing script, and we’re erratic, individual actors; therefore all of our performances are flawed, stumbling, and inconsistent. Judith Butler describes this as “iterability,” meaning that as we perform our genders, we can’t help but cite–again and again, but always imperfectly–the collections of gestures, mannerisms, appearances, and expressions that connote masculinity or femininity.

Effeminate is a funny word, when you begin to think about it: it only describes men. There is a neat pair of antonyms in masculine/feminine to describe gender affect, but there isn’t a complimentary adjective for women that matches effeminate. And effeminate, this word in excess, is more than just the quality of femininity in a man; it’s that extra ef-ness, that swishy, lispy, lavish too-muchness. It’s as if the word is ornamenting itself, showing off its extra letters, flouncing around in language. In fact, while repeating the effeminate gestures, Goode begins to speak: “If you talk too much… if you laugh too much… if you feel too much… if you react too much… if you think too much… if you gesticulate too much.” (At this point it may occur to the audience members–who did, after all, come to watch a dance piece–that dance itself is the practice of gesticulating too much.) Goode goes on: “If you are excited by too much… if you enjoy the aesthetic of too much…” and we realize, at this moment, that it’s not merely that effeminacy is “too much” for gender roles to bear. It’s that the chainsaw, the coveralls, the dismembered chair, and the fluttered fingers, the batted lashes, the swaying hips are all coming from the same body. “It’s that a single body can hold the rage and the beauty, the thick heavy masculinity and the light liquid femininity, that all of that can be contained in one place, and it is,” Joe Goode explains. “And I live it, so I know.”

David Gere, another dance scholar, called Goode’s piece a work of “heroic effeminacy,” claiming, “the effeminate pose is a symbol of that unsteadiness” that lies beneath the seemingly stable organization of gender roles. However, Joe Goode didn’t originally intend to make a piece that would unsettle gender or, as Jennifer Dunning wrote in the New York Times in 1990, provide “a coruscating look at stereotypes of masculinity.” He only wanted, he says, to create something “purely kinetic.” Wrestling with the formal problem of creating a piece that was “only gesture,” Goode recalls, “I discovered upon looking in the mirror that the gestures were effeminate. I was appalled for a while… and then I was appalled that I was appalled.” Looking back now, Goode sees the piece as “full of repulsion and fear and a tender nostalgia for a discarded identity, one that I never dreamt I would acknowledge.”

Melecio Estrella, who recently performed the piece as part of GUSH, points out that he was nine years old when 29 Effeminate Gestures premiered. “Being an effeminate little boy, I was able to hide it, to swallow it, for safety,” he remembers. “But I had a lot of friends who didn’t have that luxury–and it was dangerous for them. Now we have so much gaying in mainstream media, but still… I was kind of dancing for them.” Wayne Hazzard, who performed with the Joe Goode Performance Group from 1986-96, sees a cultural shift in our understanding of gender and sexuality over the past quarter of a century. “Joe’s performances of the work captured the complications of internalized homophobia,” Hazzard reflects, “while Melecio’s interpretation in 2011 was for me filtered through the realities of a current queer power that his generation has had the good fortune to live with and embrace, through the benefit of a variety of gay/queer imagery.”

Joe Goode, who is 6’4,” says that while he could “rely on his inner oaf” to convey the lumbering masculinity of the opening section, Melecio Estrella (and Miguel Gutierrez, who has also recently performed the piece) had to find “a way to be male in a hyperbolic way” without using the size of their bodies. The most dramatic change made to the piece, though, came in the movement section that follows the third repetition of the effeminate gestures. Set to a rhythmic drumming that Estrella describes as evoking “the feeling of trance,” this dance section was entirely re-choreographed by each of the new performers. “At first I didn’t realize that Joe wanted me to move it in my own way,” Melecio Estrella says. “But it’s really about luxuriating in an articulate body.” The dance has to be “glorious and ecstatic,” Joe Goode adds, “and both Melecio’s and Miguel’s dances are completely different.”

The fact that the dance section is the moment of individualized movement, and that each performer has created his own dance, is strangely hopeful. Before the “hollow sadness in the end of the piece,” in Goode’s words–when a power drill descends slowly from the ceiling, to be held with alarming tenderness against the performer’s cheek, while he raggedly sings a few lines from Fiddler on the Roof–there is a dance that seems to have all of the best qualities of living in a body. It is sensual, personal, expressive, moving, and, as Goode says, also a little “auto-erotic.” This dance is about enjoying the body that you have, which is necessarily different from all other bodies, and which has its own lovable imperfections and familiar vulnerabilities. Every body has its own “too much-ness,” its painfully awkward physicality, its ways of exceeding the roles it is supposed to play: in other words, all bodies have an extra “e” of their own, and, if we are lucky, in this new millennium, all of these extra “e’s” can be expressed, as Joe Goode would say, “lavishly and effusively.”

Melecio Estrella doesn’t like to assume that he knows what is going on “out there” in the audience while he’s performing 29 Effeminate Gestures. (Also, of course, it’s hard to hear the audience over the piercing drone of the chainsaw. And he’s supposed to be concentrating on the chainsaw: “it’s a very small chainsaw,” he says cheerfully, “but it could still kill me!”) There is one moment in the piece, though, when he does feel the connection to the audience. It is the moment right after the dance section, when he has just been whirling across the stage, moving ecstatically, performing the phrases he has created himself. “I take off the headpiece and just look out the audience. I’m breathing really hard. And we’re here together; it’s a moment of really contacting the audience, a moment of intense engagement,” Estrella says. “And I think: oh, they’re here with me.”

Ramsay Burt. The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities. 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2007: 169.

David Gere, “29 Effeminate Gestures: Choreographer Joe Goode and the Heroism of Effeminacy” in Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities on and off the Stage, Ed. Jane C. Desmond. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001: 373, 371.

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of In Dance.

Selby Wynn Schwartz is the International Tour Manager/ Project Manager at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a Lecturer at UC Berkeley, and a member of the LEAP faculty. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and is currently working on a book about drag and dance.