Taking the lead: Same-sex competitive dancers seek greater visibility, opportunities
In his 10 years teaching dance, Andy Cabell has seen more same-sex pairings put a new spin on traditional expectations, as they push to perform in more mainstream venues and vie for national honors.
“It’s been a growing movement in the ballroom dance community,” says Cabell, who owns the Danbury Arthur Murray studio. During his 10 years as an instructor, he has seen an increasing number of same-sex couples arrive to learn the moves for their first dance as a married couple.
“Being a leader or follower requires a different skill set. As teachers, we learn both parts because we have to teach both parts,” he says.
Such training helps, given the blurring of gender lines in the greater society The dance world is feeling the effect. Two men may look for a way to move fluidly between follower or leader, a woman may seek to lead her male partner or two women may desire to show off their athleticism.
Several years ago, a same-sex category was added to the August competition of Arthur Murray professional instructors that takes place in Mystic. Each year, a type of dance is chosen, such as the salsa or Lindy, for the couples to perform.
"The students loved to watch it and the teachers loved to participate," Cabell said.
It is this world that drew the attention of filmmaker Gail Freedman some six years ago, as she began filming material for "Hot to Trot," her new documentary that tells the story — on and off the dance floor — of several same-sex competitive ballroom dance couples on the circuit.
“Part of what intrigues me about the subject is that it takes all these notions of norm gender roles and those rigid definitions we have and completely tosses them up in the air,” says Freedman during a phone interview from her New Paltz, N.Y., home last month. “There are some women, for instance, who dance with men, who would be more comfortable leading and some men more comfortable following. It does not necessarily have to do with your sexual identity, but more of who you are in the world. It is really interesting to explore that through dance.”
Freedman, who directed and produced the film, will be in Stamford on Thursday, Sept. 6 for a screening of the film at the Avon Theatre. It has been six years since her first trip out to California to film the April Follies, the largest and longest running same-sex ballroom dance competition in North America. It was there she met Emily Coles and Kieren Jameson, a competitive pair featured in the film. Her quest also took her to the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland, and on location to follow her other lead dancers, Ernesto Palma and Nikolai Shpakov.
All of the dancers in her film have worked to break the barriers of traditional ballroom dancing, in which a man leads and a woman follows. The World DanceSport Federation only allows a couple consisting of a man and woman to compete. It is a requirement echoed by the National Dance Council of America, which governs dance and competitive dance (or dancesport) in the United States.
“The whole reason the circuit of same-sex competitions arose is that there were originally and in some places, still, that excluded same-sex teams from mainstream competitions,” says Freedman, who witnessed a strong and supportive community while filming the same-sex competitions for the film.
About seven years ago, Matthew Ames remembers his friend and fellow competitive ballroom dancer, Eugene Du Plessis, struggling to find a partner for a same-sex competition. Ames stepped in, having recently split with his dance partner, and competed in his first same-sex pairing, eventually earning second place in the 2011 North American Same-Sex Dance Championships in American slow dance and smooth.
Ames, who taught dance at the Fred Astaire studio in Brookfield for many years, has retired from competition and now works at Fred Astaire studios around the state and runs a health and wellness business. Since his competitive days, there have been some changes. The New England studios of Fred Astaire have included an open gender category in their regional competitions and there are more events throughout the country that welcome same-sex dancing partnerships
They include the Boston Open DanceSport, which launched in 2013 and is sanctioned by the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association. It is open to dancers 18 and older, man, woman and transgender. In 2015, the Glitz and Glitter Ball arrived in Ohio. It tells competitors they can “can dance with who you want, in the role you want, in the style you want.”
Jonathan Stangel, a retired competitive dancer who runs Arthur Murray studios in Hartford area and Guilford, worked to open up the Mystic competition to more dancers, who might have been shut out of other competitions. The same-sex category gains in popularity each year.
“With dance, there is an acting dimension to it and it is interpretive,” Freedman says. “A couple of our dancers talk about this. As a gay person, if you are dancing in the mainstream world, you are acting something out. Whether or not you are a romantic partner, when you get to dance with a gender you actually prefer, there is a level of authenticity and the whole political dimension … that was something they said to me. They feel they are doing something that is a real affirmation of their identity … and putting something out into the world.”
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