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Rolling with the Punches

An Interview with Mary Beth Beckman

Mary Beth distributing awards
Sheer Dance: How long have you been volunteering? How did you start?

Mary Beth: About five years. My introduction to ballroom was a bit convoluted, but basically: had a best friend who introduced me to a boy who introduced me to ballroom, and I saw a bunch of stuff that could be done way better, and I said, "Hey! Can I do this stuff instead?" and they were like, "Yes, please," because there's a shortage of volunteers in ballroom. So if you want to do something and you offer to do it, you're it. As for dancing, I started as a complete and utter beginner to ballroom in mixed proficiency at Star of the North DanceSport Classic several years ago. I did my first competition in standard waltz, tango, and quickstep with Nicholas Westlake, who's now a standard championship dancer, but this was back when he was in newcomer and bronze. He taught me everything I know about standard and made me kind of a standard purist. And I took first place in all events!

SD: How did you feel about having taken first?**

MB: I was pleased that I had taken first, and I was a bit surprised, because I had been dancing less than many of the people I was up against. It encouraged me, but I really just wanted to support the guy I was with in his passion, so I continued in ballroom because it was something he cared about a lot, because he was really engaged in it. And it became something I was really engaged in by extension. I didn't really care about it for myself but more for him.

SD: What did you think about those beginning days with dance?

MB: You know, it was really fun at the beginning because I was learning so much so quickly. I would go to a social dance, and people would ask me to dance, and I would say, "I don't really know this one," and they would say, "Hey, it's okay, I'll teach you!" and it would be completely incorrect technique and total garbage, but it was functional. And that people were willing to coach me through it and make it work was great.

SD: You mentioned before that you saw areas for improvement in the ballroom community. Was that first for the newsletter or for the competitive events?

MB: It was first with the newsletter, the Minnesota Dancing Times. I remember looking over Nicholas Westlake's shoulder as he was laying out an issue, and there was a particular article that was either poorly edited or not edited at all, and I asked him, "Did anyone edit this?" to which he replied something along the lines of: he wasn't sure the editor did much editing. So I asked, "Can I be copy editor? I would like to do this because I could do a way better job." And I got the job. And then a few weeks later, there was a meeting for Star of the North seeking volunteers. There was the role of registrar that no one seemed interested in that was all about data collection and data entry and keeping track of stuff—things I'm really good at. I offered myself, and soon I started getting registration checks and entries mailed to my home. One person even brought their check to my door at 9 a.m.!

SD: So for your first Star of the North, you were doing mixed proficiency, and by the next you were already registrar.

MB: Yes.

SD: What was it like, switching from competitor to organizer right away?

MB: You know, it's part of my personality where this felt like the natural progression. "Oh, I've been in this event; now let's make it better."

SD: What was the learning curve like for being registrar?**

MB: I was exhausted the first year. So much was left to the last minute, and the organizer at the time was very inexperienced. We were waiting for them to give us direction, and then we realized, "Oh. We're in this on our own. We have to make decisions. Okay. Let's make this up!" And so we did. A lot of things went wrong between my first Star as a volunteer and the second: venue changed ownership, contract things were violated, but we still put on a really great event. And the competitors didn't see any of the back-office strife that was going on, and that was based a lot on the professionalism of the team and the front desk presentation of: "Everything's great! Everything's fine!"

SD: What were some things that you learned?

MB: I learned that you really just have to roll with the punches. It's all about versatility. It's all about understanding that this role is extremely variable, and that the things you're expected to do can be completely random. Sometimes people will come up and say, "Hey, the water cooler is completely empty," so you have to find the person responsible for that and tell them. After all, I can't leave the desk. I have to stay there in case someone comes and wants to drop or add events, and communicate that to everyone involved. But really, I learned to smile through everything and tell people that everything's okay, that I'll be able to solve all of their problems, even if I really can't. And that's the thing about primarily collegiate competitions: college students are not good at planning ahead. So someone would come up and tell me they can't do all of their events despite having been sent their heat sheets a week in advance, but I would be like, "Okay. I will solve this for you. I will manage this. Tell me all the things you need. I will make this happen. You have a great day. I want you to have the best competition experience of your life, so I will take care of this". And the first Dance Fest was totally that.

SD: So you were a founding member of Dance Fest. How did that differ from Star of the North? Was the vision or planning of the event different?

MB: It was much less confined to previous ideas of what the event should be. It was much freer to be what the current group of organizers thought it should be. We wanted to it be a fun amateur event. Let's have no goals of it being a sanctioned event—I think that was a constant stressor on Star of the North, of "maybe we want to be sanctioned," and Fest was like, no. We want to draw people to dance and create a competitive experience that's fun and isn't tied to all the rigmarole of USA Dance specifications and requirements. So Dance Fest was about introducing as many new people to competitive dancesport as possible. And I think that's what made it really successful, because people were like, "This is just fun!" A person could wear a sparkly dress and not get called out for it. It was good. And the first one was put together in about thirty days and was awesome, because we were all really fired up and pretty damn good at what we did.

SD: How did you grow and change from Star of the North to Fest, in your role, and how did you apply what you learned to future events?

MB: In Star, I really felt like I was tied to someone else's vision of what a competition should be. Fest, I really felt like it was my thing. So I knew that whatever decision I made, it was legit. I felt like I got the shackles taken off. If you want to dance with someone of the same gender, go do it. Go have fun. I want you to love competitive dancing. I want you to make the judges believe you are the best out there. And for me, that's what Dance Fest was. I don't care what it was for anyone else; for me, it was taking off the shackles of someone else's event and making it mine. And for me, challenging that heteronormativity is really important. I would get emails as registrar asking if boys could follow, and would say, "Yes. Yes, please. Do that more!" We need to challenge these things. We need to embody them, make them glamorous, and dare any judge to mark you lower simply because of what gender roles you're performing.

SD: What are some of your favorite moments as registrar being at Fest, Star, or Ballroom Blast?

MB: I really loved watching the college team matches based on the sheer amount of energy at the events. And I use the word sheer, which is incidentally the name of the magazine, because it's always about the energy and enthusiasm people bring to partner dance—the enthusiasm, the love, the dedication. Because without that sense of belonging, there's no reason to continue dancing. Anytime I was able to sense the community, that was really valuable for me, even simple moments at the front desk where I got to see that excitement and feed off of it. The collegiate match really embodied that. Really, I have a lot of fun memories from packet-stuffing parties, where we would prepare the competitor competition packets. There would be a bunch of people together in a room, all stuffing things into envelopes, me and Rosemary O'Connell writing names on folders and insisting that people do things correctly …. It sounds plain, but it was so much fun.

SD: Being registrar, you learned a lot of rolling with the punches and organizing data. How did you bring that into your personal and professional life?

MB: A lot of the information recall has been day-to-day. In my professional life, I remember the name of everyone I ever meet! But really, I now think in spreadsheets. I think about information in its context. People at work are often impressed by the amount of memory recall I have, but it comes from practice as registrar.

SD: So let's talk about your work as editor for the Minnesota Dancing Times and Sheer Dance. When you first got your start, how did those first few months go? How did you become Editor-in-Chief for the Minnesota Dancing Times?

MB: You know, it was really easy to transition into because everyone on the team was really happy to have a qualified copy editor. I transitioned into Editor-in-Chief for the Dancing Times when the editor at the time left after a few months of me coming on. And honestly, nothing changed that much. I started with copy editing, then setting deadlines, then acquiring material. I kept on taking more and more work. And that went on for two years.

SD: What are you most proud of during your time at the Dancing Times?

MB: Honestly, the thing I'm most proud of is the most controversial thing I did while I was there.

SD: What happened from your point of view, and how did you handle it at the time?

MB: The start of everything was that I happened to be intimate at the time with someone who competed at USA Dance Nationals the year it was in LA. And I heard several different narratives of what happened at Nationals and about the judging and how it seemed completely inconsistent and that it looked like judges were marking their students favorably. And I'm in a special position where I'm not a competitor and I have nothing to lose or gain. So I asked, "What are people being judged on? What are the criteria here?" and then I got some really heinous letters to the editor, one of which was not published, and one of which was heavily edited to make the writer look less nasty.

SD: Why did you think this development was good?

MB: Because I don't have any personal investment in ballroom in any way, I was able to draw some attention to some shady stuff that may be happening in judging. If you're marking the couples you coach higher, that's something that needs to be looked at—sorry, it is. And that was not something people wanted to hear. That was something I was attacked personally for, strongly and repeatedly. And the volume and tone of that response was telling; it indicated to me that these were questions no one had asked before, which is problematic and honestly a bit shocking.

SD: So you eventually left the Dancing Times and created Sheer Dance.

MB: Yes, and Sheer is my baby.

SD: What were your ideas for Sheer Dance, and how did your history with the Dancing Times affect Sheer Dance? What were the goals you had in mind when creating Sheer?

MB: Well, my experience with the Dancing Times honestly was that the nonprofit board there had a lot of discomfort with anything controversial ever happening in their publication. But without controversy, how do we ever have growth? How do we ever have change? How do we ever have a useful discussion? I was done with their discomfort, and I started a publication with a very clearly defined structure for how we discuss things respectfully. I wanted a safe space to discuss the issues facing partner dancing in our particular community, and that was not afforded to us in the Dancing Times because of the restrictions of the board.

SD: Do you feel that Sheer Dance has accomplished that goal these past two years?

I feel that in the areas I have encouraged people to discuss, such as gender equality, sexual orientation, and heteronormativity, yes. One month we featured an article written by a queer person of color, and I'm thrilled with that. I hope it happens more in the future. I think we need more diversity. I want more people to say, "Are we really growing? How do we work that?" I want Sheer to be a space where everyone is comfortable saying, "Hey, here is a problem. How do we address this?" and then I want it to be addressed. And that's something I will say: I always want to be available to respond to those questions. I am, in many ways, disassociated from partner dancing at this point—I don't dance anymore—but I will never be disassociated with the issues of partner dancing. So if someone asks a question that someone from the leadership team of Sheer Dance can't answer, I want to be there for that.

SD: What has been your favorite issue of Sheer or your favorite article in Sheer Dance?

MB: Oh, I love Joel's article about sexism in partner dancing. I think that in some ways I encouraged him to write it, but it was really good. And everyone knows this based on my editorial following it, but it's very important for straight, white men to talk about these issues, because people are more likely to listen to them. I mean, as a woman, people will always think that I have an opinion, but I love that Joel helps the cause.

SD: What are some skills you learned as Executive Editor of Sheer Dance?

MB: Management. It's a lot of talking to people, understanding their experience of things, and trying to guide them into what I expect from them. When you first integrate someone into a role, they're not going to fit exactly. You need to use some very precise skills to mold them to become productive.

SD: How do you feel you've grown as a person during your time as a volunteer for dance? How do you think dance has added to your life?

MB: I've learned a lot more about people's motivations, my own and those of the people I manage. Why do people volunteer? Because a lot people don't. What's the difference that makes people volunteer? What motivates me? Analyzing that piece has really helped me grow a lot. In my professional life, understanding what motivates someone in their work, what gets them fired up to come in even when it's stressful, has been helpful. I've learned a lot about versatility and just being able to operate with whatever happens, being able to roll with the punches. It's the little things of making people feel like they're being heard and taken care of, and understanding the value of that. That's what volunteering has given me more than anything else: understanding how important it is for people to feel heard. It's been important for me as a volunteer and in the greater context of my life. I've felt mistreated, unheard, disrespected, and in contrast I've known the joy and peace that comes from being truly seen and heard. And I've spent a lot of time asking myself: how can we all, as people, work together to create an optimal outcome?

SD: Do you have any regrets with volunteering?

MB: I honestly think it was important that I wasn't attached. I don't think I could have accomplished this much had I been tethered to a part of the community. Because I was more attached to my personal values of egalitarianism, feminism—those are my driving factors—I was able to accomplish more and stay truer to myself than if I had social dance or competitive dance aspirations. Because I was removed, I had a purer experience. I don't regret any of my volunteering. It has been such an important component of my growth as a person. It was all a very natural progression of my life. I learned a lot, and I've taught a lot. A lot of people learned from my guidance and my values, and the fact that I've been so unflinching about my values is an important part of my contribution to everything ballroom. I don't regret any of it, and I'm glad I had an effect. I really do believe I've had an effect. I have no question that I have influenced the direction of thought and the way things have progressed in the community.

SD: Choosing to leave the ballroom dance community is a very big decision. As you now work on the last issue of Sheer, what are your thoughts? How did you know that it was time to leave?

MB: I'm not sure if I'll ever be okay letting go 100% of anything. If anyone requests my input, I will be happy to provide it. I don't know if anyone will ask me for it, but it's the truth. My intention isn't to cut myself off entirely. I have many very close friends who are embedded in the partner-dancing community. It's more that I can't be responsible for the quality of the publication anymore, especially in a community I'm not personally invested in. I'm not gone; I'm just taking a few steps back.

SD: What do you plan to do with your newfound free time? What are your new plans and goals?

MB: Ummm, Netflix? But really, my goal is to establish what is important to me. I've been operating based on what has been important to my ex for about a year now, and it didn't occur to me until very recently that that's what I've been doing. I didn't realize I was still attached to this value system that has been outdated. It's time for me to find my own passion.

SD: What sort of contact will you have with the ballroom community from now on?

MB: I'm going to stay in contact with my close ballroom friends. If any of them invites me to a social dance for whatever reason and promises to spend time with me there, I'll probably go. I went to a wedding recently where I ran into a ballroom dance instructor and we danced a fun west coast swing. And that made me realize I missed social ballroom dancing with fun, respectful people. But yeah, I'm going to step back. Invite-only. I'll be around, but I'll be significantly less engaged.

SD: Any parting thoughts you want to tell the ballroom dance community and Sheer Dance?

MB: Honestly? Be true to yourself and your values. If anything about partner dancing feels exclusive to you, talk about it. If you're queer, if you're female but prefer to lead or male but prefer to follow, if you feel like judging was unfair—if anything feels counter to the common grain of partner dancing, talk about it. We need to have these things be public. It's scary and it's difficult, but it's important, because without talking about it, we can never resolve these issues. And what I have tried to create within Sheer Dance is a safe space to talk about all of these issues. Whatever happens, I will always be an advocate for people who want to help their community and themselves. I understand how important that is and how therapeutic it can be. I want whatever you do to be as enriching and true to you as possible. The ultimate goal for Sheer Dance was for it to be a global publication, and it's been growing, but I can't be the one to take it there. I love a huge number of people in the ballroom dance community, but it's not mine. So I've got to let it go.

SD: Well, on behalf of all the people whose lives you've touched, whether they know it or not, thank you for everything you've done for partner dancing and the people who love it. We wish you all the best.

MB: Thank you. See you on the other side. (That's a Battlestar Galactica reference.)