In my parents’ day dancing was an essential social skill. People often either met for the first time at a dance and taking your partner dancing was often a chance for intimacy which would not have been acceptable elsewhere. I was packed off to learn to dance with my sister in my early teens, and stumbled into the ballroom dance society at university.
However, particularly for a man, taking too much interest in dancing was seen as a bit suspect. For some reason a man who chooses to spend his time exercising with scantily dressed women had to be gay. Whereas those who ran around kicking a ball with scantily clad men was not. Go figure, as they say in the USA. Nobody dared to think what the women who danced with women due to the lack of men might be feeling for each other or that they might actually prefer it.
Perhaps as a reaction against this, the world of ballroom and latin dance has historically been careful to maintain a very traditional male and female role basis. Despite the fact that many of the participants were and are indeed gay/lesbian, it has remained strangely homophobic.
When I was first coming out in the late eighties I saw a listing for a tea dance at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre. I didn’t really know how to meet other people like me but I could still remember the basics of how to dance. The event turned out to be disappointing in that it was in a dingy basement and was more of a pastiche of ballroom dance. However I did meet some people, and the following year some dance classes were started. In fact I dated one of the teachers for two years.
An open minded space for dance evolved in which it didn’t matter of you were male, female, transsexual or transgender. You could be a leader or a follower in the dance. You could dance with anyone in either role. You could change role from one dance to the next or even during the same dance if it suited you.
After classes had been running for a while I even organised a dance in a working men’s club in Kentish Town, which had a decent hall with a proper floor. We all took food to make a buffet and it was a fantastic evening.
Then I met D, who doesn’t dance. (He tried to learn for my sake, but just didn’t really get it or enjoy it.) As a result I’ve only been on the fringes of same-sex dance for the past 23 years. I’ve remained in contact with some lovely people though and have tracked the gradual spreading of the idea that men can dance with men, women with women, or mixed couples where the woman leads and the man follows. All equally valid combinations along with the traditional configuration. One of the best remains Jacky’s Jukebox at the Rivoli Ballroom.
Last year my friend Sue Katz, who I met through dance, happened to be in the UK around the same time as the UK Same Sex Open dance competition was being held for the first time in the world Mecca of ballroom dance: the seaside town of Blackpool. She extended her stay, we went together and had a wonderful weekend. At the end of the competition organisers “the Sugar Dandies”, Bradley and Soren announced that in 2014 they would be hosting the European Same Sex Open in the enormous Empress Ballroom at the Wintergardens. I knew I had to be there.
Worth noting here is that both events were sponsored heavily by Visit Blackpool: the promotional wing of the town council. A number of major players in the world of dance were also sponsoring. Barry Freed, director of Supadance shoes said that as a company they simply wanted to be associated with the best dancers, and that the standard of dance in these competitions was such that they had no issue with supporting them.
Teams came from, I think 14 countries over Europe. There were events for men and women in both latin and ballroom and in both Open and Senior categories. The entire weekend was an amazing celebration of same-sex dance. Conveniently held on the same weekend as the Blackpool Gay Pride Festival. At the end it was announced that at the “Britain’s Best Grand Finals” to be held in Birmingham this year categories for same sex male couples have now been added. (An all ladies competition has existed for some time.)
One of the best aspects of the same sex dance world is that the atmosphere of friendliness and inclusion persists. During breaks in the competition, when there is social dancing, competing couples swap partners, dance with spectators, and change role. On the Sunday evening there was a fantastic “after-party” at a nightclub in Blackpool. The stage and floor area was crammed all night with couples of all nationalities dancing salsa, jive, disco-fox or whatever fitted to the eclectic selection of music. Each time someone is asked to dance there is a little conversation about who will lead, because of course it’s never a given, and they are off, laughing, chatting, enjoying the music and the pleasure of dance.