Ecstatic Affect in Ballroom and My Experiences

April 10th, 2017

Content Warning(s): Rape Culture, Dance Culture

Day ten! April is Sexual Assault Survivor Month! This post will contain sensitive material; please exercise caution if you see a topic that could be upsetting to you. A final caveat: these are written from my limited perspective as a bi woman who was raped. I don't have all the answers and I'm still working through my own journey. There are many other kinds of sexual assault and abuse that are relevant this month. Take time to consider the needs of your diverse fellow survivors. Speak up for them when they can't speak up for themselves, but don't speak over them. Thank you!

I'm back from an excellent time at Tekko and still recovering, but hoping to get more material out soon!

Growing up, I went to a mostly all-girls dance studio. It had the usual problems of cliques and body image negativity, elitism and favoritism; typical dance school elements, and only body image issues ever truly affected me. When I entered the world of ballroom, I noticed that the dynamics were no longer limited to slightly stereotypical "catty" habits - now there were BOYS involved. And with those boys often came arguments over who would be their partner, both in the literal dance partner sense as well as the dating sense. There were "ballroom power couples" who dominated the dance floor and seemed to us the Jay Zs and Beyonces of our little club. There were also quite gendered roles; leaders are male, followers female. But when the men were few and women stepped up to lead, they received little recognition for the task of learning both sets of figures.

When I worked in a studio environment after college, I was encouraged to be more of a salesman than a teacher when it came to lessons. At first, I mostly taught children, beginner groups, and couples preparing for weddings. But occasionally, I'd get a single male in for lessons. When I look back, most of those lessons were taught in an enclosed room with little to no monitoring. Most of the time it was a man older than me, but not so old that he could be a widower-type. In the studio, there was a sign somewhat dubiously displayed that read, "No fraternization with instructors." This was supposed to mean, "Don't ask your teacher out on a date," but as it was very vague and unenforced, I received more than a few awkward invitations from men at the studio. There were also some men who either cornered me to talk for too long, or kept me as their partner for too many dances in a row. On particularly rough nights, I'd arrive at the studio wearing my mother's old wedding ring, hoping the partners who held my hand would feel it and realize I'm there to teach and not date. But nobody ever talked about how this went on aside from how some men "seemed creepy" because all my coworkers were either married or not in an age range where this was a worry.

During a short stint as a salsa instruction assistant, I found myself even more in danger of being hit on while trying to be a professional. There was often more alcohol involved in that job, but not on my part because I don't do well drinking and dancing. Things men said sometimes got bolder. When I complained to a friend that certain men were kinda bothering me with their comments, I was told to say I was a lesbian (which, again, not right, and even though I'm bisexual, I should NEVER have to use that as an excuse for someone to stop talking to me), not even to say "I have a boyfriend" because "it wouldn't stop them." I wore the ring again every weekend after that.

Even when watching pro ballroom, you'll notice the disparity of how women and men are treated. Female dancers tend to be a dime-a-dozen to the industry, just as they were in my college club. But male dancers are often treasured - even in choreography, you'll see a focus on the woman being enamored by the man and presenting ecstatic facial expressions as though she's in bed rather than on the dance floor. She's also much more scantily clad in Latin dancewear. In paso doble, the man is a bullfighter; the woman is either an object, a cape, or an animal, the bull. All signs lead to the woman being inferior and subservient to the man. The more I talk about it, the more I see this particular brand of partner dance as being a power imbalance; even social dance without choreography is a more equal give and response of signals. I have no idea how to "fix" such a long-standing cultural staple as ballroom and its inherent culture of male superiority and female objectification, but I have a feeling I'd have to change culture at large first.

Thanks for reading! Tomorrow's topic will be about how in the U.S., institutions teach "how not to be raped" rather "how not to rape."


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