Jacob's Pillow welcomes the region's LGBTQ+ community in style
BECKET — Ever since Ted Shawn founded Jacob's Pillow in 1931, the historic dance center has served as a haven for the LGBTQ+ community.
"The Pillow's always been a positive environment," said Nathan Hanford, a former Pillow employee who began studying dance at the center at age 14. "At least for me, as a young gay man growing up here, that's where I found my people."
This weekend, the Pillow's Weekend OUT actively celebrates that community. Weekend OUT has been held annually since 2010, although the Pillow had held sporadic, smaller-scale functions with the same goal since the early 2000s. This year, the celebration returns with free events, including a historical tour highlighting Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers and a Saturday night dance party with DJ BFG, hosted by Tyler Ashley.
Hanford said that the idea for Weekend OUT emerged around 2002, when then-general manager Connie Chin sought new ways to overtly welcome different communities at the Pillow. While early incarnations included reduced ticket prices and a small meet-and-greet with staff, the weekend has since expanded. As a result, it has taken on new meanings, coinciding with increased visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in the population at large.
"Before it was kind of the secret that you could get a discount on the tickets," Hanford said. "Now there are pride flags, and it's a real celebration of the LGBTQ+ community in the Berkshires and beyond."
The Saturday night post-show dance party (this year at 9:30) has become a highlight, helping to bring in younger audiences. DJ BFG, or Gabby Squailia, began playing the party a few years ago. She said that the party's setting gives it a unique sensation.
"It's something that I look forward to all year," said Squailia, who DJs other parties at the Pillow and across Berkshire County and beyond. "Of all the elements of that party that I really enjoy, being outdoors under the tent is probably the best. There's just a certain vibe and a certain resonance to the music that comes from being outside And it's just sort of peak summer to me."
Ashley, a New York-based dancer known as The Dauphine of Bushwick, hosted last year's party and returns to host again this year. Squailia said that professional dancers add an additional element to the atmosphere.
"It's always been my favorite dance floor in the Berkshires and probably anywhere I've played," she said. "The real joy of it for me as a DJ is that any direction that I go in, the crowd will follow me. There's no such thing as the wrong music for this crowd because you end up having the dancers and the performers and the staff and the interns all on the dance floor at the same time. The result is that there are these really over-the-top danceoffs and some of the most spectacular scenes on the dance floor that I've ever seen. It's a party that's equally fun if you're in the middle of the dance floor and on the edges as a spectator."
Norton Owen, director of preservation at the Pillow, gives a tour at noon on Sunday regarding the history of Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers at the Pillow. Considered "the father of American dance," Shawn created what was believed to be the first all-male dance company in the United States. Owen said that while Shawn avoided public discussion of sexuality, he played a key role as a pioneer for men in dance at a time when dance was considered to be solely a space for women.
"Shawn was very emphatically not making a case for gay men or anything about sexuality," Owen said. "His fight and the stand that he was making was more about masculinity and about any man's right to dance if they so chose, putting aside any notion about their sexuality or gender identification. Given the general view of homosexuality in society at the time, I think it's pretty much a matter of fact that he wouldn't have gotten out of the starting gate if he were trying to win points for gay men in dance."
One stop on Owen's tour is a cabin built by the Men Dancers in the 1930s.
"I tell people that most of the men dancers chose to put their cabins out in the woods and a little bit removed from the Pillow," he said. "To some extent, this was an expression of the privacy that Shawn afforded them. They each had their own living space, and what they did in that living space or who they were with in that living space was their business and not Ted Shawn's business."
Shawn, who separated from wife and artistic partner Ruth St. Denis in the 1930s, had a long-time relationship with Barton Mumaw, a member of the Men Dancers. Shawn and Mumaw, however, kept their relationship hidden from the public eye.
"Norton is the one who can tell you the stories behind all of these things," Hanford said. "The tour gives some more tidbits and gay history at the Pillow, which not everyone knows about."
As Weekend OUT has grown, it has afforded the LGBTQ+ community greater visibility at the Pillow, according to Hanford.
"I think that the more visible it is, the more other people's lives can be touched who need to know that the opportunity is there to feel included and to experience such rich moments of beauty in our beautiful Berkshire environment," he said. "Rather than sitting at home on social media apps, trying to figure out where you belong, instead you can come up to the Pillow and experience it and live it."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.