Competitive ballroom dancing is back!

Published in: November-December 2006 issue.


WHEN I TELL those outside the dance world about my interest in same-sex ballroom, their first question is always the same: “but who leads?” This query never ceases to amaze me—how and why has ballroom become primarily about leading and following, about dominance and submission? Ballroom dance is also, of course, one of pop culture’s favorite symbols of heterosexual desire and romance (as well, less frequently, as a signifier of homosexual panic), a combination that should prompt further speculation on the relationship among these popular perceptions. Pop feminism’s reminder that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, has never quite disrupted the power of these entrenched images. The fortuitous proximity, then, of this summer’s Gay Games VI in Chicago and the first Outgames in Montréal, each of which featured same-sex ballroom dance competitions, provided an unprecedented opportunity for North Americans to become more familiar not only with this burgeoning international dance phenomenon, but also with the challenges it poses to some of our deeply ingrained cultural tropes.

In covering these events and their participants, the mainstream media invariably portray them as “unmistakably, incontrovertibly gay” to quote a recent Chicago Tribune feature. In other words, unlike swimming or track, the ballroom competitions at the games are sexually marked and, as the Tribune also notes, are (therefore?) among “the most popular events for spectators.” As anyone who has paid attention to the coverage of the Ohio Star Ball on PBS or has seen the movie Strictly Ballroom (where parody treads ever-so-close to reality) should realize, male-female competitive ballroom dancing is high camp. Indeed, we might even say that it is already queer, regardless of the sexual orientation of the dancers. This form of dance at its most advanced level demands an externalized, exaggerated performance of gender roles, a mastery of highly stylized sartorial and gestural codes, and an understanding of conventionalized socio-sexual narratives conveyed choreographically. What, then, can the events in Chicago and Montréal reveal about international ballroom as a dance form? What happens to the dance when it is executed by a pair of women or a pair of men?

Ballroom dancing holds an unusual place in world culture as an endeavor that exists simultaneously in multiple forms: social; concert or exhibition (choreographed routines performed for audiences); and competitive, which has recently come to be known as DanceSport. While these three types of ballroom share many elements, only the competitive form has been codified. Over the course of the 20th century, ballroom dancers affiliated with England’s Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing worked to develop “the Ballroom Technique” and “the Technique of Latin American Dancing,” which have since been accepted internationally as the basis for instruction and competition. Each of these two divisions, usually referred to as “Standard” and “Latin,” consists of five dances. Standard includes waltz, foxtrot, tango, Viennese waltz, and quickstep. Latin covers rumba, cha-cha, samba, paso doble, and jive. Each of these dances has its own syllabus, broken down by skill level and comprising a number of steps, many of which are organized into recommended patterns. Dancers’ mastery of these levels and proper execution of the steps in a partnership underlie their evaluation by judges in the competitive arena.

Ballrom Dancing
Official photo from Outgames Montreal 2006

Historically, the social form of ballroom preceded the other two, and the linkage of ballroom dance with male-female couples is an integral part of that history. Yet even a cursory examination of the Imperial Society’s manuals reveals that, despite this gendered tradition, there is nothing biologically essentialist about the dance itself. Many of the steps that comprise the individual dances are executed similarly by both partners, and there is nothing inherent to the figures—other than convention —that precludes their being danced by either sex. The explanation of the “Open Promenade” in the tango illustrates the point. While the steps are assigned to “man” and “lady,” they are nothing more than mirror images of exactly the same movements: facing each other, the partners step to the side, and then face forward to step forward, and then face each other to step to the side once again. The basic dance hold in Latin similarly places the two bodies in a mirrored position: facing each other and standing a bit apart, the partners’ hands on one side clasp together, while on the other side they grasp each other’s upper arms. In both Standard and Latin dances, partners routinely execute similar steps, but at different moments in the sequence, which can mask their equivalence to the untrained eye. In Standard, when the couples are moving around the floor in the counter-clockwise arc known as the “line of dance,” the “lady” often travels backwards; yet the constant re-orientation of the couple through moves in and out of the “promenade” (facing) position or in turns or spins really means that direction is constantly in flux.

Which brings us to that sticky issue of “who leads.” Traditionally, of course, the “man” leads and the “lady” follows. But in the codified arena of international ballroom competition, this notion begins to break down. First, it is critical that each partner, thoroughly and independently, knows his or her own steps. At competitions, one often sees dancers practicing individually, posed in perfect dance position, arms extended to hold an invisible partner who becomes a ghostly presence through the strength and fixity of the dancer’s frame. Partners must work together to coordinate their movements, to present to the judges a perfectly orchestrated and seamless unit. Because partners in the Latin dances move between close body holds and more distant stances, it is true that one dancer must more often “lead” or initiate movement. Neither partner, in either the Latin or the Standard arenas, is “telling” the other what to do, however. Indeed, the dancers must help each other to make lightning-quick adjustments on the dance floor, to avoid collisions or to modify the pre-determined routine when other dancers are in the way. The dancer in the physical position as “man” is more likely to dictate adjustments, but the “lady” must also be alert to potential problems.

Rarely do discussions of ballroom incorporate its relationship to the laws of physics, but fundamental aspects of the dance derive from these rules as well. Primary among them: whoever is moving forward “leads.” Dance is about momentum; the impetus for forward motion drives the steps. Most notably in the Standard dances, where the two bodies should be closely connected, and smooth, continuous motion prevails, the energy flows from one partner to the other as they progress along the “line of dance.” In Latin, even if the dancers are relatively stationary, under-arm turns or spins are often initiated with a step forward by the leading partner, which literally provides a transfer of energy. Laws of centrifugal force similarly account for the angled position in which the Standard dancers hold their heads. (Given frequent turning, the heads’ weight must be offset, so that the dancers don’t throw each other off balance or out of the fixed frame of the dance hold.)

Nevertheless, the convention of the “man’s” lead is integral to the form, and one of the key distinctions in same-sex ballroom is the choice that some couples make (and which, in some competitions, is indeed expected) to switch the lead. In the Standard dances, the placement of the hands signals who is in the leader position: the “man” situates his right hand on the “lady’s” back, while the “lady” usually rests her left hand on the “man’s” upper right arm, both of their other hands clasped together in an outstretched hold. In the lead switch, the partners at pre-arranged moments re-situate their hands, exchanging positions in the dance hold to take on the other’s role. This can be a beautifully choreographed moment, as in the waltz, when the dancers assume a pose, their arms lifting up and then floating gracefully down into the new position before resuming the forward motion. Or the switch can be a rapid, staccato change, punctuating the angularity of a dance like the tango. In the Latin dances as well, same-sex partners often switch roles within the choreography, taking turns pulling each other into holds, or facilitating turns. The switch in lead showcases the versatility and technique of the dancers, demonstrating their mastery of both “man’s” and “lady’s” parts, complete with what are often nuanced distinctions of footwork and body posture. But perhaps more importantly, the switching subtly establishes a form of resistance to those cultural codes that inform an understanding of ballroom as a signifier of both prototypical, heterosexual desire or romance and stereotypical gender roles. The changing of lead disrupts any notion we might have of how ballroom represents “masculinity” or “femininity” inhering in a given individual; similarly, the changes of lead reflect a parity between the dancers—the ability to move seamlessly between roles and positions in a partnership of equals.

Perhaps more noticeably in Latin, however, the switching also affects the narrative embedded in the dance. The paso doble, for example, traditionally represents the dynamic relationship of a matador (“man”) and his cape (“lady”). When these roles are maintained throughout the dance, we may see an unfolding story of manipulation and control, but also of dependence for one’s life. Without the fixed roles, there may be no story, or perhaps a different story. In either case, in the absence of set parts, the dance becomes much more about pure movement and style, and again, at the most advanced level, about the dancers’ remarkable strength, dexterity, sense of rhythm, and grace.

Nevertheless, not every couple chooses to switch the lead. Moreover, as one of the judges told me, given all the required elements that must be mastered, dancers may be ill-advised to add this further challenge unless they are very proficient. When the switch of lead is accomplished smoothly, the judges will award extra points, but if it is not effected well, or if the switch negatively impacts other required aspects of technique, they will deduct points. For these and other reasons (for example height difference, which makes lead switching more difficult in Standard), some participants dance only as “man” or as “lady.” This partnership decision may or may not accompany the dancers’ embodiment of traditional gender roles. Same-sex ballroom allows for significant range in terpsichorean style; some dancers clearly choose to embrace those elements, such as the degree of extension in the “lady’s” back arch in Standard, that can be read as traditionally “feminine.” Significantly lacking among both male and female Latin couples at the Gay Games and Outgames this year, however, were the exaggerated smoldering glances and muy macho grimaces that have increasingly transformed male-female ballroom arenas into sites of gender parody. On the whole, most of the couples in Chicago and Montréal appeared to prefer a more gender-neutral interpretation of the manuals’ directives, focusing instead on the execution of required physical technique.

Similarly, while competitive ballroom attire must conform to the regulations of the International DanceSport Federation (which establishes the rules for judging both dual-sex and same-sex competitions), I saw considerably more sartorial variety in the same-sex ballroom arena. While none of the male dancers sported drag, some did choose to signify their dancing primarily or exclusively as “lady” through the addition of swinging fringe to accent a Latin costume, or the attachment of a diaphanous chiffon scarf to the wrists and shoulders of a tuxedo. Some female dancers wore traditional Standard gowns or Latin spandex dresses, partnered with women in tuxes or Latin’s omnipresent form-fitting black pants. In certain cases, the costume choice corresponded to the part danced (the woman in the tux danced as “man”). More often, however, couples of both sexes selected (nearly) identical costumes, distinguishing themselves from other pairs by elements of color, cut, or the placement of rhinestones.

Inevitably, there are some locales where same-sex ballroom thrives more than elsewhere. If someone wanted to pick up stakes and relocate anywhere for the sake of ballroom dancing, I would recommend an immediate move to Germany, specifically Berlin if you’re a man, Cologne if you’re a woman. In the U.S., not surprisingly, many of the best dancers reside in either the New York or San Francisco-Sacramento areas. Increasingly, dance studios are recognizing the interest in same-sex ballroom for both social and competitive dancers, and are promoting special “Fred/Fred Ginger/Ginger” classes, or in some cases serving a primarily same-sex clientele. In addition to the competitions at such venues as the Gay Games and the Outgames, there are growing numbers of stand-alone international same-sex ballroom events, such as the Nordic Open, scheduled for the end of this year in Copenhagen.

The same-sex ballroom competitions at the Gay Games and the Outgames reflect both a joyous sense of community and a vibrant mode of creative self-representation. Yet at the most fundamental level, the competitions reveal the power of ballroom to enthrall dancers and audiences alike. The commitment of the participants is universal, transcending geographical borders or any aspect of individual identity. International ballroom genuinely makes it possible for any two people, from anywhere in the world, to dance together and experience commonality, even at first meeting. The South African playwright Athol Fugard once described ballroom competitions utopically as “a world without collisions,” a place where differences between countries and peoples disappeared in a shared dedication to the beauty of dance and its foundation in partnership.


J. Ellen Gainor teaches in the Department of Theatre, Film & Dance at Cornell University.


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