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Here to Stay

Making a Substantive Difference in the Ballroom Community

By Mary Beth Beckman

I feel I perpetually exist at an odd intersection in the ballroom dance community. I value dancing but only do it rarely. I give but don't buy. I'm the editor of this publication but also perhaps its most dedicated reader. (Okay, there's no perhaps about it.) So when Joel Torgeson's "Gaining Perspective" hit the editing table last month, I was caught yet again in hard-to-navigate territory, because the topic is something I feel very strongly about as a dancer and most especially as a woman, but I don't want to make vast, sweeping statements in my role as editor. I don't want to be silenced by my position of power, so I'd prefer to leave that power behind long enough for me to talk about something that is desperately important to me. So if we can pretend that I'm just some female-identifying person in the partner-dancing community for the duration of this editorial—basically, if we can pretend this isn't an editorial at all—I would appreciate it.

Few people know this, but I almost cut ballroom dancing out of my life because I couldn't reconcile ballroom with feminism. As a caveat for any readers who have been misled about the meaning of the word feminism, I have to define that term as egalitarianism that focuses on gender equality. Feminism isn't misandry; it's equality. Why continue using the word feminism? Because treating it like a dirty word is part of the problem egalitarianism is trying to solve.

That aside, a little over a year ago, I had a serious crisis of conscience. How could I continue dedicating thousands of hours to a sport that constantly dismisses and downplays my worth as a woman? The worth of my friends and colleagues and nieces? Even the worth of my nephew, who will grow up in a world that expects him to exhibit supposedly masculine traits and that will make him feel inferior if he doesn't live up to the standard? My time might be better spent working for any number of organizations that are trying to lift us out of these damaging gender schemas, the empirically harmful behaviors they encourage.

After a lot of thought, I decided that ballroom dancing isn't the problem. It's active, social, and fun, and all of those things are good for the world when handled responsibly. The problem is the culture surrounding partner dancing, and since dancing per se isn't problematic, eventually I decided I'd stick around and do what good I can for equality in this forum.

In the competitions I run, the publications I edit, the conversations I have, I use lead/follow language, not gentleman/lady. I welcome nontraditional couples in the heats I oversee. I encourage women to speak up when they feel uncomfortable with the way someone is touching them or talking to or about them. I encourage dancing above all else. Same-sex couples, reverse-role couples, people of color, low- or no-income people, people with disabilities—I want all of them to dance, because I think dance is an excellent vehicle for change if we drive it to be so.

But for anyone who's looking, it's obvious there's still a problem, and try as I might, I haven't figured out an easy solution. How do we change decades of destructive ideas of what it means to lead and follow? How do we change the sexist, heterosexist, homophobic lexicon of the partner-dancing community? The obvious, cliché answer is one step at a time, one person at a time, one decision at a time.

It takes mindfulness, which is a lot to ask, especially amongst the privileged—and all of us are privileged in varying ways, to varying degrees. It also takes a willingness and perhaps even dedication to making people uncomfortable, which is so un-Midwestern that even more mindfulness becomes necessary for those of us raised in this so-called culture of nice.

For me, it takes finding allies to work with me, because no one wants to listen to a woman talk about sexism. But if we can find a person of powerful privilege—a middle-class, American, white, heterosexual, outgoing, good-looking, cisgender male—to talk about these issues sensitively and conscientiously? Well, in the words of one of my heroes (and incidentally one of the people my aforementioned nephew is named after), Captain Malcolm Reynolds, "We've done the impossible, and that makes us mighty."

All of this ends on a simple idea: Joel Torgeson, in using your privilege to help make the ballroom community a less destructive place, you have renewed my commitment to doing the same.

I'm not going anywhere, so don't get too comfortable.