This post is first of a series on my ethnography of the culture of ballroom dancing, and also constitutes a debriefing exercise after my recent weekend of fieldwork at Boston Open DanceSport, the first annual same-sex ballroom competition ever to be held in the Northeast (Boston). I’ve been doing applied research in the DanceSport* world for about two years now *(“DanceSport,” alternatively “Dancesport” is the trademarked name of the competitive ballroom circuit, as well as an inside term for describing competitive dancing. It is also used as an adjective for describing specialized attire, practices, rules and culture of it, i.e., Dancesport costumes). A few weeks ago I learned of the existence of a same-sex competitive circuit and an upcoming competition in Boston. I contacted the organizer and made arrangements to attend. Naturally, this bit of condensed fieldwork was just the beginning of a broader inquiry. Same-sex ballroom dancing, like the LGBT political movement for Marriage Equality, is of analytical interest to those who study gender because it indexes the conscious un-gendering (at least in theory–more on that later) of an implicitly and explicitly gendered micro-institution–the nuclear, normatively heterosexual household on one hand and the conventional ballroom couple on the other. These two symbols have a metonymic association in which they reciprocally index and reproduce their joint association with societal stability, safety, conservatism and patriarchal ideologies of gender.
The same-sex competitive ballroom circuit was born when gay dancers expressed an interest in participating at mainstream Dancesport events in same-sex partnerships. Same-sex partnerships were explicitly rejected as valid dance “couples,” according to official competition rules. The LGBT community reacted by forming its own competitive circuit under the auspices of an umbrella organization known as nasspda (North American Same-Sex Partner Dancing Association).
Under the rules of nasspda, a “couple” consists of any two people–in any combination of gender (including transgender) or sexual orientation (including straight). If the couple consists of one male and one female, the female must lead (and the male follow) for an observable majority of the dance. They then qualify to participate as a “reverse role” couple.
Coming into this phase of the project, my focus has been on interpretations of gender within same sex partnerships of various kinds and how that relates to the same discourses in their hetetonormative counterparts. I am also interested in talking to dancers at all levels with the same-sex circuit about the relationship between their dancing and their individual coming out process(es)–the personal and the larger (political) concerns of LGBT and Marriage Equality movements. At Boston Open Dancesport some dancers talked in terms of activism and Gay Pride. Others seemed more focused on the particular challenges of cultivating an expensive and challenging passion like Dancesport while managing a career and a home life. Most cited both collective and individual concerns, goals, challenges.
The structure of the same-sex comp differs primarily from conventional comps in that it is not organized around pro-am competition, the bread and butter of the mainstream Dancesport world. Instead, dancers are graded as couples and placed in levels (A-E, with A being the top) according to their skill. They then dance against other couples who have been pre-sorted into the same level. In this way, then, one discerns a leitmotif of Equality. A typical pro-am couple in the mainstream Dancesport circuit consist of a middle-aged to older woman with the ability to spend $12-20,000 a year on lessons, competitions, dresses, shoes and coaching, partnered by her much younger, paid-by-the-hour, professional male instructor. If we factor in the usual salient differences in age, class, gender, authoritative knowledge, and skill, we can project many permutations of inequality.
Not only are couples in same-sex dancing mostly the same sex (by definition), but many of these dancers are proficient at both lead and follow. Indeed they would often switch roles mid-heat (a heat is a particular judged instance of a dance or sequence of dances–a foxtrot for example, or a group of smooth dances like waltz, tango). This was choreographed on a competition floor, but may also happen by mutual agreement during a social dance, according to several informants.
Lead and Follow
On the competition floor, routines were clearly choreographed as they are in mainstream competition. However, it is in a social dance venue that one really gets a sense of what equality implies on the dance floor. My own background in ballroom is strictly as a follower. Of course. I’m a woman. The option of leading was never offered to me when I began my dance learning. As part of a married couple, the first lesson began with instruction for my husband and me in our presumed reciprocal roles as leader and follower.
In same-sex social dancing, there is no default leader or follower. Most dancers had some knowledge of both, and most self-identified as preferring one role over the other. Whereas at a social dance at a conventional ballroom studio, it is usual (though not required) for the man to ask the women, the “lady,” to dance, in the same-sex social dance world, a dancer typically approaches those sitting and chatting in the chairs placed along the wall (a seeming universal of any social dance scene) and says something like “Anybody up for a waltz?” Should someone lean forward or otherwise appear interested, the two will quickly check in about who likes to/is able to lead or follow before they begin to dance. As an exclusive follower, I felt self-conscious about my lack of ability to lead. I felt, I later told a friend, like “half a dancer” in this self-described “ambi-dancetrous” world.
There was a definite lack of signage at this competition–it was on the third floor of a large convention center, with no banners or signs. One would have had to know the competition was there to find it. I had some trouble. Dancers had talked about having a “safe space” (the same-sex comp, studio, and community) in which to express their gender or sexual identity, even their personal wardrobe preferences, without fear of reprisal from judges. This may extend to an overarching unease about physical safety. This having been the first comp of its kind in New England (and New England is not the Bay area, after all) I suspect there may have been some concern about the possibility of protest or demonstration. I have no idea but plan to follow up on this question with organizers and activists.
So, for the moment, I am primarily interested in following up on these two ideas:
- safe space
These are also important ideas that have become central to my inquiry in households. I envision the two projects as involutions of each other insofar as the ballroom couple, embodied romantically by “Fred and Ginger,” she in her feather-trimmed gown and he in his tails, represent a cultural archetype–the hetero-normative nuclear couple.