Maine GayNet - Shall we dance?

November 27, 1997

Shall we dance?

Gay couples have entered the local world of ballroom dance, but they still can't compete like their straight counterparts

by Jessica Anthony

It's Friday night at Maine Ballroom Dance. The room's pink walls echo with the laughter of 15 couples who are learning how to foxtrot, waltz and tango in style. A few pedestrians linger outside the large glass window that fronts on Congress Street, looking in. Every night, there are a few people standing out there, watching as pairs of women and men whirl across the long hardwood floor inside. And on Fridays - although the spectators might not know it from looking at them - the dancers swinging around the room in same-sex couples are gay.

The backs of the couples are straight, their heads are held high and their arms hold their partners gracefully. In the center of the room stands Sergei Slussky, the instructor. "Quick, slow, quick, quick," he commands. Two lines form. One side practices the follower's part, and one practices the lead.

The owner and proprietor of Maine Ballroom Dance, Mandy Ball, has been offering classes at her studio for 10 years. Ever since she opened for business, Ball has offered classes for gay people who want to dance with same-sex partners. Some of Ball's students have gone on to professional competition, or aspire to. But none of the dancers who have gone pro have done so as same-sex couples. They can't. That would be against the rules.

Ball says that gay couples are allowed to compete in amateur and semi-professional contests, but not at the top professional level. "It wouldn't fly," she says. "Professional ballroom dancing competitions have regulations which have certain stipulations about language and dress and sex."

Recently, the number of dancers in Ball's gay classes who are interested in competition has increased. Most participate in smaller, local competitions, either in a gay section or in a special gay competitive event. But they can't go on to the big time.

Slussky teaches over 30 gay students every Friday, and most of them are women. "I get interest from them about competition," says Slussky, "but I think most of them know that if you compete, you have to follow the regulations."

Annie Knights has been a member of the gay classes at Maine Ballroom Dance for eight years. She would like to compete professionally with her female partner, and she said she will do whatever the rules say she must do, as long as she is allowed the right to compete as an equal. "If they want to uphold the classical image of ballroom dancing, fine," said Knights. "I'll wear a vest."

But it won't be that simple, according to Ball. She believes the biggest stumbling block to same-sex competition is in the language of the rules, which talk about "followers" and "leaders" and "ladies" and "gentlemen." The follower is always a lady, and the leader is always a gentleman.

Ball agrees that a simple language barrier does seem ridiculous. But rules are rules. Her gay students must settle for smaller amateur and semi-pro competitions. "I hold my own gay competitions, and no one from the parent organization seems to care, because we're so small that we don't count," says Ball. "But we have all sorts of divisions in dance, like age, for instance. Why not a gay division?"

Brian McDonald, the president of the National Dance Council of America, says that gays and lesbians don't have to hold separate competitions. He says that, as in any other sport, the judges are concerned with movement, timing and rhythm - not sex. "The judges judge dancing," says McDonald, "and even in [professional] competition, whether the dancer is a man or a woman - it doesn't matter." Even though McDonald has never seen a gay couple at professional competition, he says they are accepted across the country.

That may be the line at the national office, but it doesn't hold true in practice in northern New England. Slussky says that even though top coordinators like McDonald or regional judges of professional competitions may say gays can compete, they don't encourage it. Most don't even announce that gay couples are welcome to participate. Ball has discussed the issue with judges from regional competitions, most of whom are older men who have been in the organization for so long they couldn't imagine the sexes switching roles. One of the judges she spoke with asked, "How could a man compete as a follower, or a woman as a leader?" Ball explains, "What he meant was, 'How can men and women compete in the same category when they move differently?'"

The irony, Slussky says, is that while there may not be gay couples in professional competition, there are plenty of gay men. They're just dancing with women.

"I would say 80 percent of the men in the top-level competitions are gay," Slussky says. "And the women are straight - they just work so well together. There's no rivalry between the women, and the men are really into the grooming and stuff. And as for those older judges," says Slussky with a smile, "they were once performers too, so you make the call."

In Slussky's experience, most gays and lesbians agree to promote and maintain the current, traditional image of ballroom dance. "Most gay men are more than satisfied with this arrangement," says Slussky. "Some even get married conventionally - just for the competitions - so the women have the same last name."

But Slussky said the majority of the students in his gay class wouldn't mind being judged in competition against someone of the opposite sex. Neither would straight students, like Wendy Edwards. She says, "Why not? What's important is the dancing itself."

Maybe. But, like ice skating, ballroom dancing is part sport, part spectacle. "Ballroom dancing is a relationship of a man to a woman," says Slussky, who is gay himself. "And the dancers are playing a part. If you saw the ballet 'Cinderella' and the lead was a man playing a woman, you would view the play quite differently."

And then there are the clothes. Without the fashion, ballroom dancing would be quite a different sport. Anyone who's seen "Strictly Ballroom" knows the lush, colorful, almost kitschy dresses the women wear - not to mention the makeup. Ball believes that even if the rules were to change, the fashion barrier would still be there. "If you're doing Latin," she says, "there are some outfits that have leggings, but as far as the smooth, modern dances go, like the waltz, foxtrot and tango - those are always dresses. And if you've got two men dancing together, I can't imagine that you'd insist that one of them wears a dress."

Of course, some men can imagine wearing dresses without much trouble. Slussky was at an amateur competition in Stamford, Conn., a couple of months ago, where he saw a gay couple compete. He says one of the men in the same-sex couple was wearing a shimmering gown, while the other wore a tuxedo. Slussky says that if he were allowed to compete with another man professionally, he himself would gladly wear a dress - if those were the rules.

But what about the vast majority of gay women in his classes? Knights didn't even know she could compete as part of a lesbian couple in any level of competition until two weeks ago - and she's been taking classes for eight years.

If people like Knights and her partner want to compete professionally partnering each other, they will have a long way to go. Still, there might be some momentum for change. Ball says that even though the number of her gay clientele hasn't increased over the past 10 years, the interest in gay competition definitely has.

"I know," Ball says, "that there will be a day when gay and straight couples are competing together on a regular and accepted basis. But it won't be until we get some new judges who are open to new ideas." Until then, she suggests that gay couples start performing locally, at Maine competitions, and try to work their way up to the big leagues. It's a step, anyway.

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