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Life Through Dance

The Middle Ground: Femininity or Feminism? Art or Sport?

By Elizabeth Dickinson

I’m taking the bait and wading into the recent written discussion of whether ballroom dancing promotes damaging gender stereotypes or whether it honors femininity. The simple and unsatisfying answer is that it carries the possibility of both, because it embraces older artistic conceits as well as newer values from sport (and life).

I’ll list what I think is going on. Feel free to disagree.

  1. No male in the social ballroom dancing community probably consciously thinks, as he’s leading or trying to lead a woman on the floor, "I’m going to dominate this woman and promote damaging gender stereotypes."
  2. Privilege and prejudice (of all kinds) usually work unconsciously and underground. It’s not cool in most educated Western societies to be labeled prejudiced, but most psychological studies show that the majority of people who claim to be unprejudiced demonstrate at least some (unconscious) prejudiced behavior when faced with differences (race, gender, etc.).
  3. Ballroom dance evolved with strict gender roles and behaviors that hearken back to an earlier era. (And if you want to look really far back, fertility rites are involved ... not usually known for flexible role-playing.)
  4. The arty part of ballroom dancing is based on story, usually some version of a traditional romance story. Boy chases girl; boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy reunites with girl. Girl alternately says yes, no, or maybe. Occasionally she initiates. However, the arty part of ballroom is not concerned with egalitarianism; it’s concerned with story.
  5. Story values drama and contrast. Because it’s based on such an old story, the contrast is created by old, exaggerated ideas of male and female behavior.
  6. The music reinforces old, exaggerated ideas, since most of the music itself is old.
  7. We still value some of these old ideas in real life (women are beautiful; men are strong), although assigning a particular quality to only one sex or mandating a specific beauty ideal is always debatable. We also roundly reject other old ideas in real life (women need to be led by men to be complete).
  8. Ballroom dancing is also a sport. Modern-day athletes of both genders value power, technique, fitness, etc. It’s very egalitarian in those values, but it’s still relatively rare to see both sexes play sports with each other. And unfortunately (for those of you who’ve followed the recent university controversies with how female hockey coaches are paid relative to the male hockey coaches), there are still inequities and injustice.

So what happens when you unite art and sport and have men and women playing together? You get an alternately enjoyable and uncomfortable mix of outdated gender posturing in an alternately mild or major cardiovascular activity to music that follows prescribed rhythms. We call it ballroom dance.

Personally, I have been bothered by the inherent paternalism and sexism of ballroom dance at the same time as I have embraced the aesthetic qualities and glorification of the female form. And the best ballroom relationships on the floor demonstrate tenderness (waltz), insouciance (foxtrot), passion (tango), and romance (Viennese waltz).

Ultimately, there’s room for both the discomfort and the joy of it all. That’s life. I’m not sure it’s completely resolvable.

One way to change the story is through same-sex ballroom dance, socially, in competition, or in performance (like Beyond Ballroom did so beautifully). However, some feel the lack of gender contrast in same-sex dancing (particularly in competitions) reduces the dramatic quality that story requires. So are there other ways the basic ballroom story could be changed so that it’s informed by newer, more egalitarian ideas?

Next month I’ll talk a little about how humor could inform, illuminate, and change the traditional ballroom story. Feel free to weigh in!

May we pursue our paths, embracing ambiguity and finding new, creative ways to tell our stories.