sun 14/07/2024

Opinion: Too Strictly? Battle in the ballroom | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Too Strictly? Battle in the ballroom

Opinion: Too Strictly? Battle in the ballroom

An ill-conceived new ruling could have disastrous effects on the dance community

Women's A world ballroom champions Caroline Privou (leading) and Petra

Ballroom dancing, that most civilised of pastimes, may seem an unlikely target for controversy, but a proposed rule change by the British Dance Council (BDC) has thrust our nation’s waltzers into a heated debate. This weekend, the BDC will discuss whether or not to approve a suggested amendment declaring that a ballroom partnership be recognised as “one man and one lady in all adult amateur and professional competitions and championships unless otherwise stated”.

That means no BDC-approved event would allow same-sex (male-male or female-female) dance couples to compete unless a competition promoter specifically decided to allow their inclusion.

The ruling, if voted through by the council, would essentially change the norm from all couples being equally welcome to only mixed-sex (male-female) couples being automatically accepted, with same-sex couples reduced to contacting promoters every time they want to enter in order to find out whether they’re eligible on this occasion. The BDC claims its policy shift is the result of some mixed-sex competitors expressing concerns about all-male couples having a physical advantage on the floor, and also argues that there are same-sex competitions which do not welcome mixed-sex competitors, so this amendment essentially redresses the balance. It asserts that it isn’t banning same-sex dancers, but simply excluding them from some categories, which it does not view as remotely problematic.

Same-sex dance is an emerging sub-culture with a relatively young history

This reasoning is at best naïve, at worst dangerously disingenuous. A key misconception, repeatedly stated by BDC president Bryan Allen, is that there are similar numbers of mainstream and same-sex competitions, so denying same-sex dancers access to the former is equivalent to denying mixed-sex dancers access to the latter. That is patently false. There are hundreds of mainstream events in the UK, from weekly local contests to prestigious championships at Blackpool Tower and the Royal Albert Hall, but just two annual same-sex competitions (one of which only began in 2012), originally created to give dancers a safe, friendly space free from discrimination and provocation.

This means that same-sex couples who want to compete more than twice a year must either enter mainstream competitions or devote serious time and money travelling to the few dozen same-sex competitions abroad – still far fewer globally than the numerous mainstream competitions in the UK alone. Same-sex dance is an emerging sub-culture with a relatively young history, and its competitions – though growing constantly in size and prestige – cannot currently be deemed fair equivalents with mainstream competitions, as Allen claims. (Pictured below, Alexandre Lewalle and John Church).

The BDC believes it circumvents discrimination legislation by stating competition promoters can provide same-sex and all-comers categories alongside mixed-sex-only ones – a fair offering for everyone. However, equal opportunities means those events would have to be equivalent in terms of status and competition level, and herein lies the problem. Male-female couples may choose to dance solely in their mixed-sex-only events, not in the all-comers ones, meaning same-sex couples lose the challenge of competing against those dancers, as they’re forcibly separated from them. There are currently only a handful of same-sex couples entering mainstream events, meaning that the all-comers category could be reduced to just one same-sex couple: hardly equivalent to an exciting battle among multiple couples for a coveted title.

Should the BDC proceed with its rule change, and the result is an increase of competitions offering mixed-sex-only and all-comers categories, the only logical solution for the subsequent discriminatory problem would be competition promoters looking at entrant numbers and merging the two events if the all-comers is too sparse. That would ensure same-sex dancers are offered an equal opportunity to compete, but it’s a bizarrely circuitous way of arriving at the system we currently have, and suggests the amendment is ill-conceived and deeply flawed.

As for establishing a separate same-sex event within a mainstream competition, that would likely be just one category, rather than the huge variety of age and skill level categories offered in mixed-sex. This doesn’t just affect the few dancers who have recently migrated from same-sex to mainstream events; because of the dance world’s gender imbalance, university and medallist ballroom competitions already have a vast number of female-female couples (currently accounting for approximately 80 percent of ISTD medallist competition entrants).

If this rule change were approved, thousands of female dancers would have their choices dramatically limited, banned from the main categories and relegated to a few all-ladies events. If they were to stop dancing, as many would in those circumstances, they would stop boosting competitions and paying for lessons, social events, practice spaces and costumes, so the effects would be felt throughout the ballroom world. It’s also interesting to note that the BDC’s wording specifically cites “adult” events, avoiding the outcry from the vast numbers of girls who dance together in juvenile and junior competitions – and, of course, their irate parents.

The rather ironic consequence of this policy might well be an influx of adult female dancers into same-sex competitions, should they be so limited in mainstream ones. (Pictured right: Blackpool Same Sex Open, 2012. Photo by Kevin Cook). I assume this is not what the BDC had in mind; in fact, it seems probable that its specific target was not same-sex couples, but male-male. Allen has repeatedly stated that two men have an unfair physical advantage, which might be true if ballroom were judged on strength, rather than on musicality, technique, style, hold and expression – it’s arguably far more art than sport. Competitive ballroom does not permit lifts, and world champions are often smaller dancers who move at lightning speed. Perhaps more relevant is that an all-female partnership could be the result of a lack of male partners, while two men dancing together is a visible choice to subvert traditional ballroom gender norms, as well as an implied statement of homosexuality.

However, this subversion is – and most likely will remain – a minority; the best dancers begin when they’re very young, and few children insist on challenging set gender roles or are certain of their sexual orientation. Given, therefore, that the inclusion of same-sex couples has very little effect on the ballroom world at large, other than offering a dash of rejuvenating variation and innovation, it’s curious that the BDC is taking a stand at all. Same-sex dancers aren’t seeking insurgency, but acceptance, and the enforced segregation implied in this rule change goes against the simple truth that dance reaches across boundaries and unites us.

If this rule change were approved, thousands of female dancers would have their choices dramatically limited

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This has blown up out of all proportion... at present only 4 couples regularly compete in 'open' competitions - despite some organisers providing same sex events within the full programme - which then get dropped as no-one turns up... use it or lose it !! There are many thousands who are happy to follow the rules laid down... why not you too? The BDC are not trying to ban anyone, just (in their ham fisted way) trying to get a level playing field. Lead and follow - that's one role per person - stay in it, don't swap during a dance just because your rules allow - open comps we can't - so why should you?

Anonymous: It's partly the very small number of same-sex (MM) competitive dancers that mean this rule change will have the effect people are talking about, because organisers won't organise same-sex categories, especially at multiple levels, because there aren't enough dancers to fill them. And they probably won't "specify otherwise" that same-sex dancers are allowed, either because it does't cross their mind, or for other less forgivable reasons. as a result there will be a de-facto discriminatory ban. And the thousands of people who "follow the rules" are happy to do so, because the rules don't discriminate against them. Finally, in respect of lead-swapping - yes, that is allowed in most same-sex competitions, and people do it (in fact it's really useful to improve your technique). But it's not allowed in "mainstream" competitions, and same-sex dancers don't do it those competitions, just in the way that they don't use non-syllabus figures in the lower categories. And as far as I am aware, they're not asking to be able to role-swap. So I don't really see your point here. I know it's unusual to see MM dancers in otherwise mixed competitions, but can't we just get "get over it", and enjoy the dancing?

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