Dancing in the Margins: roles, equality, and the meaning of a “safe space” in same-sex ballroom dancing

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.  ImageNaturally, 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.

Equality

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.   Image

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.

Safe space

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:

  • equality
  • 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.

Advertisements


Categories: Ballroom

9 replies

  1. I was not involved, so cannot say for sure, but I doubt the lack of signage had anything to do with fear. Boston is as much a friendly “bubble” to live in as anywhere. We’ve had same-sex marriage for nine years!

    Oh, and my transgender friends tell me there’s no such word as “transgendered”. You wouldn’t say “gayed” or “straighted”, would you? We’re all learning.

  2. Wonderful blog! I’ve enjoyed reading it,as both a friend and dance colleague,and (sort of) anthropological colleague. I’m going back to read your earlier posts now– from Prague!

  3. I think you are tackling a very interesting and complex issue. I am a middle aged male who is discreetly and selectively “out”. I am out with my family and close friends, but due to reactions throughout the years and warnings, experiences of, and witness to discrimination I tend to keep my sexual orientation to myself. I prefer people to come to know and like me for who I am, not who turns me on. I am a DanceSport competitor (the Am in Pro/Am). Many of your observations of the ProAm world are correct. it is dominated by the older women with money to spend and their usually younger, paid by the hour teacher/partners. Males in the Pro/Am world usually compete for prizes in the Championships and Scholarships against the ladies who have flashier costumes, probably have had more lessons and have a professional leader. The Amateur males are often overlooked or judged among a filed of Professional males and seldom make the finals let alone walk away with a prize for their efforts — that’s a whole other dynamic of gender discrimination within the ballroom world.

    As a gay male the ballroom world is frustrating. As a male who dances well, I am a sought after partner and I could dance 3 hours straight if I didn’t turn partners down to give myself a rest every half hour or so. However as a gay male, the social aspects of ballroom dancing extremely limiting as I am unlikely to meet a “partner” in life off the dance floor. The gays I do know are often younger professionals, the teachers, many are flamboyant (not my style), and those closer to my age are often already in a relationship. I have also found that due to the fact that many of the active ballroom dancers are older there are comments, innuendo often speculations that become gossip fodder. I have confided my situation again to a select few social dance partners that I have become close to and felt I could trust to like me for who I am and not make a topic of conversation.

    I experience with same-sex dancing has been in the gay Country bars and “All Position Square Dancing.” My preference for leading or following depends on the style of dance and the abilities of the partner. Give me a fast Country 2 Step and I want to follow (twirl me daddy), East Coast, West Coast Swing as well. In most other style I prefer to lead because that is where my experience and comfort level lies. I was at one time (a long time ago and for a brief period) a teacher in training, so I have followed in most dance styles, but there is never an opportunity to do so on a regular basis. The Country gay dance scene is made of of those who just take enough group lessons to ‘get by” on the dance floor at the bars — “barroom dancers”, few pursue dancing as a true hobby or sport.

    In the city where I live, same-sex ballroom dancing is rare. There are the gay teachers who are open about their relationship, and given the right circumstances, they will dance together every now and then. There are the single gay teachers and straight male teachers who will dance together ‘just for fun’ on occasion in social settings. I have seen a few lesbian couples who have sought out ballroom lessons and are usually taught during off hours so as to not “disturb” the other students. And then there are a rare few like me who are gay and pursue it as a sport — taking lessons and navigating the straight social dance landscape because we truly enjoy the experience of ballroom dancing. There must be others out there, I just don’t know who they are — after all, according to studies, 10% of the male ballroom dancers must be gay. In my case, from that 10%, eliminate the flamboyant ones, those that are too young for me, the ones in a relationship, the jerks, and who would be left?

    A good friend of mine, who is a teacher, asked if I would be interested in participating in same-sex competitions, but due to our schedules (his busiest times for teaching are in the evenings, which are my available times), and the fact that we were both in relationships at that time, just didn’t provide the opportunity to practice and pursue participation. I am interested in same-sex competitions. I am currently single and would like someone who shares the same passion for ballroom dancing as I do, but I have no idea where to find such a person. Since I do compete in hetero DanceSport competitions, I know how much time you have to dedicate to practicing and developing a comfortable sense of lead and follow. A long-distance dance partnership is out of the question as I struggle financially to keep up with the lessons I have, let alone traveling to practice.

    I don’t know if this helps you in your research, but I know how small the gay population is in the ballroom social scene, DanceSport, etc. so I wanted to share my personal experience with you.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience. This is very informative and helpful. I should mention that, in describing the pro-am relationship or the instructor with a phrase like “paid-by-the-hour,” I in no way meant to denigrate it, him/her, or them or imply anything unsavory. As you know, this is simply the accepted mode of compensation for skilled instruction in the dance world–that, or by the heat in a competition setting. I hope you will continue to follow my posts and share.

  4. After re-reading my post I found it is peppered with typos and grammatical errors… forgive me.

  5. At the age of 11, I enrolled in a local ballroom dance class. There was a shortage of males. As a very tall girl, I was assigned to dance the lead with other girls as the followers. It was terrific and also gave me insight into what the lead role does, making me a better dancer in the follower role. When you have a team, it is good practice for each team member to know all the roles.

  6. So we are, and I thank you for correcting me!

  7. Great blog. And it was great to meet and talk with you at the Boston Comp. Please note that this was the first same-sex competition to be held in New England, but not in the Northeast. There have been several such competitions in the past few years in both Philadelphia and New York. Other than that, you did a great job! I’m looking forward to hearing more of your observations. To see a wider representation of the same-sex partner dance community (as well as other queer sport communities), you might consider coming to the Gay Games in Cleveland next August. Meanwhile, anyone with questions should please feel free to contact us at info@nasspda.org.

Trackbacks

  1. Dancing in the Margins: roles, equality, and the meaning of a “safe space” in same-sex ballroom dancing | anthropology at home

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The Human Evolution Blog

Professor Nathan H. Lents and His Students Discuss Human Origins

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

The Girl With The Tree Tattoo

Keeping It Real About Ballroom

DanceHistorian.com

Raw rantings on dance origins, evolutions, and lost forms

Explorations of Style

A Blog about Academic Writing

Career Linguist

We studied linguistics. What's next?

TIME

Current & Breaking News | National & World Updates

Doug's Archaeology

Investigating the Profession and Research

Organic Torah

A resource for living wisdom in a complex world

Anthropology-News

culture, language, science

Welcome to the AAA Blog

Conversations in Anthropology

Filthy Monkey Men

We did, in fact, evolve from filthy monkey men

Archaeology 3D

Towards a 3D documentation of the archaeological heritage

anthropod

What a cultural anthropologist thinks about.

Ambidancetrous: The Blog

culture, language, science

The Human Evolution Blog

Professor Nathan H. Lents and His Students Discuss Human Origins

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

The Girl With The Tree Tattoo

Keeping It Real About Ballroom

DanceHistorian.com

Raw rantings on dance origins, evolutions, and lost forms

Explorations of Style

A Blog about Academic Writing

Career Linguist

We studied linguistics. What's next?

TIME

Current & Breaking News | National & World Updates

Doug's Archaeology

Investigating the Profession and Research

Organic Torah

A resource for living wisdom in a complex world

Anthropology-News

culture, language, science

Welcome to the AAA Blog

Conversations in Anthropology

Filthy Monkey Men

We did, in fact, evolve from filthy monkey men

Archaeology 3D

Towards a 3D documentation of the archaeological heritage

anthropod

What a cultural anthropologist thinks about.

Ambidancetrous: The Blog

culture, language, science

%d bloggers like this: