Faith is not a synonym for religion. In speaking with Arielle Juliette (she/he), I learned that faith is too delightful to ever be exclusive to religion. Arielle is a teacher and the person who developed Dance Life Studio. She expresses faith as a form of joyous, queer, body-celebratory ministry that is completely separate from religion or any particular need to express a belief in a divine creator. Instead for Arielle, his faith is in finding her way—and teaching others to find their way—to radical delight in our full physicality in this world.
In this column, you are invited to stretch both your understandings of what defines faith and your understandings of body and gender. Arielle is bigender and uses she and he pronouns. For this article, I will alternate pronouns when referring to Arielle. Arielle also goes by Julian, but in her role as a faithful person in the teaching of dance and body, we will refer to him mostly by Arielle, while never dismissing Julian as also a real part of her transgender identity.
When Arielle was young, she could see little of any future for herself. He names religion, even at a distance, as a core of the pain he felt, saying, “My parents were both raised very Catholic,” and “my dad was even in seminary. They both broke away from that religion in their 20s.” Though Arielle was raised in a post-Christian household that was, “very New Age,” she sees that “Catholicism still heavily influenced their outlook on life.” Arielle says that “both my parents came from a culture of sexual shame, and that shame was passed down to me without even talking about it.”
Arielle did not find liberation in any organized religion. For Arielle, the path out came over time, from dance. “When I came to dance, I was a junior in high school, and that was kind of the peak of sexual violence in my childhood. Dance was what saved me.” Before he found his calling in dance, “I didn’t really want to live, because I didn’t feel like my body was my own anymore.” She recounts an incident when she told a teacher “about this group of boys who were just putting their hands all over me in any way they felt at any time” and asking the teacher for help, saying, ‘I need you to stop this. You’re the adult,’ and her just being like, ‘Oh that’s just what it is to be a girl.’” This moment, far too common for so many girls, compounded by incident after incident in Arielle’s life, is not an only moment in which Arielle’s body was stolen from him, it is simply a crystallization of the truth that “there were lots of times where I was failed by individuals and also just society.”
Arielle shares that, “When I started dance, I was self mutilating, and I had cut a streak across my stomach. It was pretty deep. For the first nine months of belly dance class I didn’t tuck my shirt up because I didn’t want anybody to see.” Arielle describes himself as a young woman, “17 and so insecure.” But in dance, she was finding her people and her body. Arielle says, “I distinctly recall this moment of standing in class and being like, ‘I just want to be able to tuck up my shirt.’ That was the moment of me really coming out of the black hole of high school and adolescence.” In this desire, she “moved away from my body as a prison and a source of constant pain, a piece that I was always at war with, and I moved into, ‘OK! There’s some pretty cool things that my body can do and that I actually like.’” Arielle found that she didn’t “care as much about how it looks. I’m caring more about how it’s functioning, and how it’s working, and I have to take care of it.” Arielle’s belly healed. But all was not rosy. Even when he later started her own dance studio, Arielle says, “I was not at a peaceful place. It was like a ceasefire.” Arielle still labored under the teachings of the world that if she could “get thin enough, you’ll accept yourself and everybody else will accept you. And yeah, I got that societal validation but I hated myself even more.”
Entering into the world of dance, Arielle didn’t at first perceive any call to teaching or the creation of safe spaces for others to grow into themselves as he was beginning to grow. In fact, in those early days, Arielle thought he would follow in his mother’s footsteps and “enrolled in nursing school because she was a nurse.” But her parents “didn’t do the whole, ‘you have to do something practical.’ I think they knew that wasn’t for me.” Her mother asked her, ‘Do you actually want to do this? I don’t think you do,’ and I was like, ‘No, you’re right! I want to dance!’”
As she began to learn, Arielle says, “I was a reluctant teacher. I wanted to travel the world and be a diva and, you know, headline workshops and all of that. But my teacher was like, ‘I don’t want to teach the beginning class anymore, so you’re going to do it.” Of course, it wasn’t as simple as his teacher telling him to teach a class, and Arielle suddenly knowing everything was right. The move from reluctant teacher of a class, to greater and greater responsibilities in her teacher’s studio, to opening her own studio in 2010, was a process. But even as she began that work, Arielle was feeling in performance “a masking and looking for gratification externally.” But in teaching, she found that “watching people grow and accept themselves in the same way that I had found was what stuck with me.” He says, “It started out as seeing the dancers grow as dancers and seeing, ‘Okay you couldn’t do this move a year ago, and a year later, look! You can do this and so much more that you would have never thought you’d have been able to do a year ago!’”
As she has developed Dance Life Studio over the years, she feels that the creation of a healing space “is a big part of why people come in here. They can feel the spirituality of the place.” How often do we think of dance as spirituality? How often do we understand dance as prayer to however you define the divine? In her work at Dance Life, Arielle has noted that there is “so much healing to be had here. There are so few sanctuaries in the world where you can just be embodied, and be comfortable in your body, and be comfortable with the people who are being embodied with you, and I think that’s a big part of the power.” Arielle sees now that, “I definitely attract people who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives in a lot of the same ways that I have.”
As Dance Life Studio developed, Arielle notes that the first students who joined her in her studio “became the staff of Dance Life, and that is when it became a bigger thing. It wasn’t just me anymore, it was me and a community of people who believed in the studio honestly more than I ever did at the beginning.” This group of women, including Arielle’s mom, “became the power of the group. That’s what sustains it now is we’ve got people who have been on staff for years, and I think it’s because of believing in the studio as a greater whole. It’s more than just a dance studio.”
Arielle tells of many who were transformed: “There’s one student in particular I remember. Her very first day, this would have been close to 10 years ago, I remember looking at her and she was so shy! She was painfully reserved. You could tell she really wanted to dance, and she had it in her heart, but society had told her to never take up space in any way, ever. I could see her fighting to break out and remember looking at her and saying, ‘I want you to love this. I want you to feel like you are in community here.’” This student did find her way, and “to this day, she still comes every now and again and she’s active on our social media.” This student was just one of many that Arielle has seen. In teaching, “I started to get a keener awareness. I can feel when somebody walks in and I’m like, ‘Ah you’re one of us. You found your place.’ Because a lot of us who come in here and find a home here couldn’t really find a home elsewhere or struggle to fit in in other places. The people who really resonate with this as the church of Dance Life are the people who come in and are like ‘I’m home.’”
At Dance Life Studio, Arielle Juliette, in the company of women and non-binary people, has created a space of laughter and dance and something queerly holy, existing in its own space, separate from religion but wonderfully powerful. Arielle says that dance and teaching is “part of what, in my version of God, has inspired in me to give. The more I was able to fill up that cup, the more I was able to give that to other people.” In this space, the language on repeat is a language of uplift: “Every body is a dance body. If you are dancing and having fun, and you aren’t running into anyone, you’re doing it right.”
Vica-Etta Steel is a Vicar at St. John’s Lutheran where she preaches and does outreach. She also serves as a public chaplain at the Madison Farmers’ Market, at coffee shops, and on Tik-Tok. It is her joy to work with people across the spiritual spectrum who have returned to their queer family, Jewish, Pagan, Christian, to name a few, and the many atheist and agnostic people who taught her how to believe deeply in love, in community.