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Gaining Perspective

Heteronormativity in Partner Dancing

By Kevin Lam

While Joel Torgeson is enjoying anthropological adventures in Kenya, Kevin Lam has been kind enough to write a guest article for "Gaining Perspective."

This past weekend, I went on a trip to visit my ballroom friends and do some planning for the next year. I got to see friends that I haven’t seen for a couple months, and we went out dancing at a dance thrown by our local USA Dance chapter. There were a lot of people there, and they were doing a good job of asking others to dance. Men asked women; women asked men. Overall, my friends and others tried to dance with as many different people as possible. It was a great time! However, it was during this dance that I was reminded again of how straight ballroom is. And by straight, what I mean is that partner dancing fits neatly within a heteronormative culture.

When Joel Torgeson wrote his article about sexism in ballroom, he spoke about heteronormativity, but here’s a refresher for those who may not know what it means: heteronormativity is the idea that we live in a heterosexual-oriented society; within that society, heterosexuality is the only normal way of sexual expression, and all other ways are deviant. In a heteronormative society, there are two distinct genders, and both genders must abide by their culturally constructed gender roles. We see this in partner dance in one major way: when dancing, men are leaders and women are followers. Leaders are dominant and followers are passive. If you’re straight, great; this should make some sense. Just realize that you are coming from a place of privilege.

The thing about privilege is that when you have it, you aren't aware of the things that you have that people in less privileged positions do not. This is because for those with privilege, these things are just a part of normal life and there isn’t any point in questioning it. For example, for straight people, partner dancing can be a way to meet and regularly interact in a fairly intimate way with people they are attracted to. While there doesn’t need to be anything inherently romantic about partner dancing, for a lot of people, there is. This can be as simple as liking to dance because you get to be close to and move with someone you find attractive, up to finding a significant other through a dance club. When you are straight, the little things are easy. Do you want to dance with that cute person? The structure of dance makes it so the two of you are able to comfortably fit within the prescribed roles.

This isn’t to say that people attracted to the same gender can’t dance with each other or can’t form romantic relationships with people they meet in dance. It just isn’t as easy. Nor would both members be able to remain in the heteronormative structure of partner dancing. One would have to take the prescribed role of another gender.

Does partner dancing have to be heteronormative? I don’t think so. There isn’t any real reason why men have to lead and women have to follow, nor is there any reason why partnerships must consist of a man and a woman. We only teach beginners one role based solely on their gender presentation. The main reason we maintain this system is because this is the way it’s always been. That doesn’t seem like a good enough answer to me.

Has it always been this way? Are there places where it isn’t? When I was a freshman in college, I took a class called Music as Culture, and there was a unit about tango music in Argentina. My professor then told us one of the common tales of the creation of tango. In the early 20th century, there was a shortage of immigrant women, so the only way for men to practice dancing was with each other. They would practice moves in order to please a woman once they actually got to dance with her. In this practice, tango was born. When tango was imported to Europe, the original same-gender form of the dance was lost and forbidden at public milongas.

While I’m not quick to believe many dance creation myths and that story is still pretty straight, it has brought out something interesting. The international queer tango movement is built on this story. Also known as open-role tango, the queer tango movement revives the idea that men and women don’t have to only ever dance one role. They can fit in the traditional roles if they choose, but that isn’t the only option. Anyone can dance with anyone and can choose whichever role they want or even switch mid-song.

Argentine tango isn’t the only dance to loosen its gender roles in recent history. West coast swing circles are moving towards non-gendered roles and switching. Even competitive ballroom is opening up more with same-gender competitions.

While this is good progress, I don’t think this is enough. It is rare to see a same-gender partnership at a competition. Roles are more often than not described as men’s parts and women’s parts. People are not taught both roles when they start dancing, so beginners are forced to dance in different-gender partnerships. Even with more more opportunities for same-gender dancing, the standard is for different-gender partnerships. The problem is that if I ever wanted to follow, I could only do it with close friends for fear that I might cause gay panic in men and confuse women.

We need to create a culture that allows everyone to dance with whomever they want in whatever role without fear. I think everyone should learn every part (it will make you a better dancer in your preferred role anyway). I know that it is difficult to change attitudes and cultures, but I believe that it is necessary if we want to make dance something that all people can enjoy.

What do you think?