Do LGBT+ Dancers Feel Welcome in Your Dance Scene?

Gay Men Chorus of Washington (GMCW) perform at the 37th Capital Pride Festival in 2012. Credit: Elvert Barnes Photography via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2012
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In a British seaside town, a flamboyant, camp dancer from out of town turns up. When I finish my whirling, laughter-filled salsa with him, I head to the bar only to hear men making fun of his “styling”. But we all know it isn’t his styling they have a problem with.

In a Spanish city, two women walk into a beginner’s kizomba class. They stand too close for friends, their bodies turned to each other at every moment. As we all partner up, one takes the lead’s position; the teacher pauses and suggests that she follows instead. She says she’d prefer not to; he persists; she insists. He shrugs and mutters “raro” – strange. The couple leave after the class and never return.

A trans woman turns up to a dance event. Most people welcome her, but afterwards, the two organisers have an argument. One believes the woman should have been barred from participating because men “won’t be comfortable” dancing with her.

“But why are you learning to lead?” a man asks a woman. Someone else quickly jokes: “Because she prefers women!” The whole group erupts into loud laughter, with the exception of the female lead – who, yes, really does prefer women.

In London, a man confesses that he’s given up zouk lambada. The gay dance nights got too expensive. “And the straight ones?” I ask – and he makes a face. Too uncomfortable.

Do I need to keep going?

Isn’t This All a Bit “Too Sensitive”?

In 2018, it’s easy to dismiss complaints about these stories as being thin-skinned. LGBT+ social dancers have reason to feel optimistic, especially if they live in places like Europe or Canada. In many cities, queer partnered social dancing is more visible, more accepted, and more celebrated than it has been for decades or even centuries.

Popular Facebook groups such as Bachata Spain occasionally share videos of same-sex couples to mostly positive comments. In many places, two women can dance together on a social night without comment. Even ballroom competitions accept same-sex dancers, although it’s still considered newsworthy.

But this isn’t always true. Depending on where and what you’re dancing, you might come across anything from snide comments to outright resistance.

And snide comments are enough to drive dancers away from your clubs and classes. These microaggressions may not be illegal. Many people may not even feel that they’re worthy of complaint. But they have an impact.

The thing is, we all lose out when LGBT+ dancers are made to feel uncomfortable. It creates an awkward atmosphere, it pushes good dancers to quit, and it harms the tight-knit nature of our communities. (Not to mention that it contributes to the lead-follow misbalance you find at most dance events.)

But There Are LGBT+ Dance Nights, So What’s The Problem?

There are places around the world where we can choose to attend same-sex or LGBT+ dance nights, yes.

But not all of us have that luxury, especially if we live in a conservative country, smaller city, or rural location. What’s more, some people may not wish to attend an LGBT+ dance night. They might not feel attached to the label and would prefer to integrate or even pass.

And finally, our dance scene is made poorer when it’s segregated.

We benefit from dancing together and learning together. Different styles push us to improve our core skills, be more creative, and in turn inject our own personality into our dancing. The best teachers and performers draw inspiration from each other. New styles are often fusions of different dance traditions.

The more dancing we are exposed to, the better we are – and the more fun we have.

Gay Men Chorus of Washington (GMCW) perform at the 37th Capital Pride Festival in 2012. Credit: Elvert Barnes Photography via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2012

But I Never See Any Discrimination…

Go dancing in a place like London, and you’re almost guaranteed a great night, regardless of your sexuality or gender. In fact, Mariusz Rafał Stankiewicz of MR Ballroom, which runs straight and LGBT+ dance courses in the city, tells me that he has “never heard of such situations” where dancers feel uncomfortable in events with same-sex dancing or mixed sexualities.

But it’s not so easy everywhere. Priscila Barkmann used to run Salameros Salsa LGBT in Curitiba, Brazil. She tells me, “I started because I like LGBT people and I see they are not very comfortable about dancing in regular schools. The dancing schools are not prepared to talk to them and the old methods don’t include each other leading. The old way of teaching only sees a man who leads and a woman who answers.”

When I ask her if salsa socials are LGBT+-friendly, she says, “In Brazil, no. But I see in Europe a lot of places which are very good for LGBT dancers, including competition categories in salsa championships.”

Men also have different experiences from women, especially if they belong to a more conservative culture. The founder of Exilio, London’s LGBT+ Latin night, tells me, “[Before starting Exilio], the only places that I could enjoy our music and culture was in other Latin clubs that had too much macho attitude, not allowing same-sex partners to dance… Same-sex is more accepted now, especially between ladies, but not so accepted between men.”

Different dances may also lend themselves to different values. The person behind Norwich Same-Sex Dance says, “I do believe standard dance events can be hetero-normative, although there is an increased tendency for men to learn lead and follow roles and to dance together, especially at Swing dance events. The Swing/Vintage dance scene is generally more playful than the conservative atmosphere often encouraged at old-school Ballroom Dance schools.”

And while nobody felt comfortable answering my questions about these aspects, certain facts tend to remain true across the LGBT+ scene:

  • Trans and gender non-conforming people experience more discrimination than cis lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. (“Cisgender” or “cis” means that you were born with a body that matches your gender identity, i.e. you are not trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming, or genderqueer.)
  • White people experience less discrimination and less pressure to conform.
  • Traditionally attractive, slim, healthy LGBT+ people are more accepted (and I suspect, in the dance world, we could add “good dancers” to that list of attributes).

Microaggressions and discrimination might not always be immediately visible in a dance scene, but that doesn’t mean that everyone experiences the same treatment.

But What’s Wrong With Straight Partnered Dancing?

Nothing.

Being able to celebrate your gender and sexuality on the dance floor, if both partners wish to, is a good thingwhether you’re straight, gay, bisexual, trans, asexual, or identify as any other sex, gender, or type of sexuality.

Straight social dancing? This is great! Straight, gender-normative social dancing where both partners express their femininity and masculinity in a way that makes them feel good about themselves? Fantastic!

But we should work to build a dance scene where people don’t feel that they are only able to express straight, gender-normative sexuality. We need a culture where dancing can be asexual, where it can express LGBT+ sexuality, trans/genderqueer identities, and more.

Let’s work to make our dance culture a little more open. Less heteronormative, more hetero-friendly, more LGBT+-friendly, more friendly to everyone.

Made your way to the end of this article? Thank you for sticking with me and being open-minded to the fact that some dance scenes may not be as LGBT+-friendly as you’d thought. Check back next month to read my advice on how to achieve a more LGBT+-inclusive, welcoming dance culture.

Feature photo: A woman dances in Stockholm Pride Parade 2013. Credit: Frankie F via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

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