Twinkle Toes? Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing Hits Boston With a Fury
The sport and art of ballroom dance has been around for centuries. A meticulous and flamboyant display of emotion through movement, it began as a means of entertainment and expression for the wealthy and elite. But after a pair of same-sex dance partners from Plymouth, Mass, won last week's U.S. National Championship in Sacramento, they hope to bring the activity to the masses in time for the Boston Open DanceSport same-sex ballroom dance competition this September.
Ballroom dance has evolved over the years, and with that, a refreshed and more inclusive light has illuminated the sport. And while same-sex ballroom dance remains a separate entity from "mainstream" ballroom dance, it has been slowly gaining popularity among LGBTs in America and around the world.
"It's more fun than mainstream," said Kalin Mitov, a professional ballroom dancer living in Plymouth, Mass. He and his dance partner Michael Winward were named the 2013 U.S. Champions in the American style of ballroom dance at last week's U.S. National Championship in Sacramento. They hope to raise the profile of this refined sport, and let same-sex couples know that there is a place for them to compete.
Born and raised in Bulgaria, Mitov got involved with dance at age 7 when he was captivated by the feathers and sparkles and people spinning around. He began his dance career in mainstream ballroom dance, training and competing with female partners, and honed his skills to win several prestigious awards. In 1994, he made the switch to same-sex partner ballroom dance and has been very happy with this decision.
"I've danced with women, but I prefer same-sex partner dance," Mitov told EDGE. "It's more social, there's more community and more friends than in mainstream."
This is one of the more common sentiments expressed by dancers and people in the biz.
"People want to go to a ballroom filled with gays and lesbians dancing together and having a great time," said Lee Fox, a professional ballroom dancer, adjudicate, and board member of North American Same Sex Partner Dance Association (NASSPDA).
"There is a fabulous energy," echoed Gail Freedman, documentary filmmaker and President of Parrot Productions. "People are competitors, make no mistake about that. But they also show so much camaraderie and support for one another at the competitions."
Freedman is working on a film focused on the phenomenon of same-sex ballroom dance called "Hot to Trot." The film follows several same-sex dance pairs on and off the dance floor, from last week’s U.S. National Championship in Sacramento, all the way through to the 2014 Gay Games, which will be held in Cleveland.
"Because ballroom dance is becoming more popular now and because LGBT issues are at the forefront, it seemed a uniquely good time to make this film," Freedman said.
And while she said that she did not go into the making of this film with a political agenda, one can undoubtedly see the emergence of same-sex partner dance as intrinsically political.
"They’re using dance as an assertion, in a different way than lobbying or protesting," continued Freedman. "It was an unexpected expression of political muscle that has been very intriguing to me."
She expects that the film will have a broad audience and that by giving a glimpse into the lives of these LGBT dancers, people will be able to relate to their characters and gain insight into the ups and downs that are unique to dancers and gay people, but that ultimately are humanly common at the core.
"Film can be a catalyst for social change and for new perspectives," she noted.
While Freedman sees the silver lining in the expansion of same-sex ballroom dance, both Fox and Mitov contend that there is still much work to be done in raising awareness and increasing popularity throughout the U.S, where most same-sex ballroom dance is concentrated in California.
"Being gay, I would rather dance with a man in my arms," said Fox, who has danced in mainstream as well as same-sex arenas throughout his career. "But the gay community is going to have trouble getting the popularity up."
One reason for the lag in this trend catching on in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago is the lack of facilities and trainers who regularly focus on same-sex dance. And the fact that ballroom dance is a two-person sport adds the challenge of finding a dedicated partner to work with and coordinating schedules; a difficult prospect indeed.
"If you don’t have a place to go and if you don’t have a partner, it is hard to get people interested and to get them to stay interested," Fox said.
Music may be another factor.
"People don’t want to listen to traditional ballroom dance music. They want to listen to what’s popular now," he said, adding that this was one of the reasons swing and Western dancing remain widespread.
Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing, A Last Bastion of Intolerance?
Fox notes also that there tends to be less ostracism in the realm of swing dance and line dance than in the traditional ballroom dance setting. He and others have experienced this kind of isolation.
"People get upset when they see a same-sex couple dancing the Salsa or the Argentine Tango," Fox said.
Perhaps it is because of the traditional nature of the style of dance and the people who partake. Or perhaps it goes beyond that.
"Right now Americans are still not ready to see same-sex couples, whether it’s competing in dance or simply holding hands," Fox said.
Many gay dance instructors maintain their place in mainstream ballroom dance as a financial decision. Rather than making the switch to same-sex dance, they train and compete with female partners.
"That’s where the money is made," Fox said. "Taking students to competitions."
And where most mainstream competitive pairs consist of a professional instructor and an amateur student (pro-am), more often in same-sex ballroom dancing the pairs are on the same skill level, dancing not for pay but for love of the sport.
"It’s a small circuit," Mitov conceded. But he is hoping that can change.
This September, Boston will host its first same-sex ballroom dance competition, The Boston Open DanceSport. Mitov, one of the organizers, hoped that this event will raise awareness and get people excited about same-sex ballroom dance enough to bolster and energize the scene in Boston.
"I really want to see Boston do well," Fox said. "Because it’s the first year, it will probably start off small. But if they keep it consistent it can grow and be another great place for people to go to dance."
The Boston Open DanceSport will be held on Sept. 21 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. For more info or to register, visit bostonopendancesport.com And those in the Boston area can visit gaysforpatsy.org to find out local same-sex dance events, including the upcoming Feb. 16 Valentine’s dance.