Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing: Where the Gays Tango, Cha-Cha and Rumba Cheek-to-Cheek

I am watching two women in feathered can-can outfits, who are ballroom dancing to the remixed version of “Lady Marmalade” and they are so flaming hot that I think I see smoke rising off their stilettos! It is the California Dreaming Dance Sport Festival in San Francisco, which is one of the largest same-sex ballroom competitions in the U.S. I’m watching the western-themed concluding exhibition called The Low Hat Saloon. Volunteering for the event, I’ve been helping and observing the festivities from a number of different vantage points. As these female dance partners work the audience into a passionate frenzy, I happen to be watching them through the railing of the second floor balcony. I can’t help but notice the analogy it strikes — such exuberant, unbridled talent juxtaposed behind iron bars.

Corny metaphor? Perhaps, but it is all too real. Jeff Chandler, a ballroom dance champion, and co-creator of the event (along with Jennifer Davis) explained, “Mainstream ballroom dancing organizations in the US never specified in their guidelines the gender of participating couples. Therefore, in the late ’90’s a few same-sex dance partners started showing up to compete.” As a result, in a series of meetings, the National Dance Council of America defined a couple as one male and one female. Lee Fox, who then represented the National Dance Teachers Association, protested several times with little support. “What really upset me was that there were three or four gay men representing other organizations, and they did not back me up. In fact, two of them argued against me.”

It’s hard to imagine that dancing gay boys could ever be in the closet. Yet, fear of being labeled a fag and potentially losing standings in competition had a number of guys doing everything they could to keep up appearances, including marrying their female partners (as if ballroom dancing isn’t dramatic enough).

However, these gender-discriminatory organizations were going to get a run for their money. Chandler, who also opened the legendary Metronome Ballroom in San Francisco, told me, “Same-sex ballroom dancing has always been around. I was teaching classes as far back as 1989. It was when the larger organizations pushed the issue and excluded us, did we have to put our foot down.” Over the past two decades, Dance Sport has been welcomed into the Gay Games, and the World Out Games. The North American Same-sex Partner Dance Association has been formed birthing dozens of competitions across the US.

Adding fuel to the fire, shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance have jet-rocketed ballroom dancing into contemporary pop culture like never before. But it doesn’t end there. Two-time Dancing With the Stars winner Cheryl Burke created her own version of the show, called Dancing With the Drag Stars. Not to be outdone, Bruno Tonioli — the popular judge on Dancing With the Stars — created Show and Tell on, where celebrities are shown different dance steps by Same-Sex World Champion International Latin Ballroom dancers Willem DeVries and Jacob Jason. Once again, like so many other instances, when the mainstream says we’re unwelcome on the dance floor, the LGBT community finds a better venue, and we dance until we have the whole world’s attention.

Back at the Low Hat Saloon, three couples are now dancing — two gay men, two lesbians and two straight dancers. Although each couple has a moment in the spotlight, it’s when the three couples dance synchronized that hushes the crowd. The clear beauty of gender inclusivity is undeniable and it brings the audience to tears — including myself.

“We maintain a standard of excellence in the day’s competition using big names in the business as judges in a number of traditional categories.” Jeff tells me of the California Dreaming Event. “But there’s no reason we can’t break new ground, too. I hope eventually to have an Anything Goes category to affirm the creativity of dancers who just don’t fit into any category.”

Towards the close of the Low Hat Saloon, a set of eight chaps-wearin’ cowboys hit the floor and raise the roof. At times they are line dancing as a whole. Then they subdivide into two groups, then four, and then into couples.

Call me a dreamer, but I anticipate the day when it really doesn’t matter the gender of, or the number of partners a person might have in “life’s dance.” This is what makes diversity fun, and for too long we’ve missed the kind of joy I saw in those brave and skilled, same-sex dancers. Often, the emotional potency of fear and unfounded doom permeate the struggle for marriage and gender equality. Yet, inclusive justice does not spell the demise for anyone. It can celebrates everyone! So when the mainstream presses us into constricting stereotypes and says we are a threat, let’s kick up our heels, take the hand closest to you and holler, “Everybody dance!”

(Photo: Raphael Coffey)