Creating Tolerance in an Intolerant Place


Photo by Julie E Ballard

Pride month means neighborhood street fests, live music, and a public celebration of “it’s ok to be gay” in Chicago.  I, on the other hand, have had a very different kind of Pride month.

Pride in the notoriously intolerant state of Wyoming takes the form of a couple of picnics (two, actually – one in Casper and one in Cheyenne) and monthly potlucks with the “Back Country Bettys”. That’s where I am: Wyoming.

Why spend Chicago’s best month in the Wild West?

Jazz squares, mostly.

No, really!  I’ve been brought into the fold of a rather amazing musical theatre training program for kids age 6-19 in Gillette, Wyoming called PAW (Performing Arts Workshop). The staff includes teaching artists from New York, Chicago, Denver, and more, and we’re all here to teach a bunch of local kids how to sing, act and dance.  It’s an ambitious program – three weeks to cast, create, and close a full-length musical – and most days we all want to pull our hair out.

I ask myself on a daily basis what I’m doing here. Then I look at the cast of kids, and wonder what might have happened if I had been given this kind of opportunity at their age – a diverse group of talented adults congregating literally in the middle of nowhere to teach me how to become a better artist.


Photo by Julie E Ballard

I’m sure there are still plenty of intolerant people here in Wyoming; to be fair, there are plenty of intolerant people everywhere. If bigotry and hate still live in Wyoming, I haven’t experienced it. The people of Gillette are generous and kind.  The baristas at Starbucks (yes, there are two, in fact) knew my order after the third day.  The landscape is raw, and beautiful, and uncomplicated.  Life in Gillette, on the other hand, can be much more complicated then I imagined. We’ve got kids who don’t have permanent residences.  Kids whose parents are on drugs, or don’t pay attention to them, or are just gone entirely.  The more I learn about them, the less I understand how they show up every day, never mind learning twelve songs and dances.

So, it seems like my job is far more than jazz squares after all.

The arts have a tendency to create a space that is safe for all kinds of people. We accept everyone. At PAW, we’ve got freaks and weirdos, geeks and nerds, blondes and brunettes, black people, white people, gay people, straight people, and everything in between.  And we all love each other.  At the beginning of the process we established a judgment-free zone in which respect is the number one-rule.  It is a rule that is strongly enforced.

There’s a strange supply of undiscovered talent here at PAW, and we are giving these kids the opportunity to do more with their futures than working jobs on an oil rigs or Applebee’s. A few of them might “make it” in the arts; most of them won’t. Whether or not that actually happens isn’t entirely the point. I’d like to think that the real job is helping to create future citizens that can change the climate of hate that once (and maybe still) permeates their state.  I’d like to think that as these kids discover their sexuality, gay or straight, they also remember PAW, and remember that we are all a family no matter what.  I’d like to think that as adults they have a broader perception of the LGBT community than what their relatives say or a picnic in Casper.

In a week I’ll be happily back in Andersonville, hanging off the back of my girlfriend’s motorcycle, puttering in my plot at Vedgewater and prepping side dishes for a big post-pride lesbian pot luck.  In the mean time, I’m content to hang in Gillette, Wyoming with the cowboys and the kids of PAW.  Happy Pride!

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About Lauren W

Lauren Warnecke is a Chicago-based dance writer, educator, and freelance dance professional. She holds degrees in Dance (BA, ’03) and Kinesiology (MS, ’09) and is currently a full-time Clinical Instructor for the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at UIC. Created in 2009 as a platform for dance-based discourse, Lauren owns and operates Art Intercepts, a dance blog and online resource actively promoting the use of evidence-based practices in dance training and performance with the goal to improve and elevate artistry, dance education, and dancer health. She is a contributing author/blogger at Dance Advantage, 4dancers, and the Huffington Post, and an arts contributor at The L Stop. Lauren freelances as a production/stage manager, choreographer, media relations specialist, and grant writer, for small arts organizations and is a Certified Personal Trainer. She is a master composter who likes to dig in the dirt and bake scones.


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