I’m studying West Coast Swing, or rather I’m trying hard to. I’ve been seriously involved in partner dancing since about 1989, during the birth in London of what would become a world-wide movement of queer dancers. For years I danced as a leader (Ballroom and Latin dances) – often six times a week. To do so, I had to shatter a lot of rainbow ceilings. (photo: with Vicki in the 90s)
Now, 25 years later, I’m being squashed by yet another rainbow ceiling in my dance and I can’t bear it. I don’t want to deal with it. I want it to evaporate. Don’t think I have always shied away from the good fight, though.
Here are some of the dance rainbow ceilings I shattered since 1990. I was the first woman to perform an official UK Showcase as a leader. It was with my teacher Ralf and I believe we did the West Coast Swing (an older version). I danced as leader in the ostensibly straight dance school of two of Europe’s top teachers, Glenn and Heather. Many of the women students did not want me to touch them as we rotated partners in the lessons, but I was saved by one (thanks Diane) who stepped up and filled those gruesome gaps. This was in the very early 90s. I won my International bronze, silver, and gold medals as a leader. On my 45th birthday (22 years ago!) I started a tradition of queer balls by using my birthdays as an excuse to raise money for movement groups I admired. I performed as a leader in the first Scottish Pride and many other events with a brilliant male follower, about a foot taller than me. I might have been the first dyke to lead in social dancing on the floor of the famous Blackpool ballroom – with the exquisite dancer Wonnita who went on to become a top dance teacher and run with her partner a fabulous women’s Ballroom and Latin dance club called Hilda’s in London.
None of this came without a price. I absorbed pushback and insults and homophobia and sexism and nasty remarks and disbelief and outrage every step of the way. Those things didn’t just roll off my back, believe me, but the growth of the safe haven of a LGBTQ dance community with superb teachers to support my obsession with dancing kept my feet moving.
I tell you all of this to show that I’ve paid my dues. Over and over and over. I’ve been in the States for 15 years now without finding a permanent dance partner. There is a miniscule queer dance scene, about an event per month, but with low participation and an unambitious proficiency level. In short, I have not really been dancing seriously since arriving here. However, West Coast Swing (a newer version that is virtually a new dance) is very big in New England and it has several aspects that appeal to me:
1. You don’t need a partner. Everyone dances with everyone. Even the competitions are “Jack & Jill” – that is, you pull a name out of a hat and just spontaneously lead and follow.
2. It is casual. There’s virtually no dress code. The women who follow can even wear flats and pants, and certainly not costumes that cost thousands and ridiculous spray tans and lacquered hair as is now the unfortunate norm even in same-sex Ballroom/Latin competitions.
3. It has no syllabus and so is still evolving.
4. Some of the lessons and dances are affordable.
I have written about my first foray to a West Coast Swing club (with lessons) that is less than a block away from my home. There I was met with aggressive hostility by the teacher of the beginners’ class – who is also the owner of the school. He was insulting and rude, even though I had called him earlier to make sure he had no objection to my learning as a leader.
Luckily I found Monday evening lessons at the welcoming “Ballroom in Boston” studio. Other dancers there, including a fine follower named X-, encouraged me to come along to a big club in Harvard Square that meets weekly, which I have been doing for five months religiously. It is comprised of about 80% undergraduate students – that’s people from 18-22 mostly – and then a few grown-ups.
The first time I came the woman at the door explained that it cost $10 but $5 for students. “What about seniors?” I asked. She did a mental double-take – of course they had never had a senior before I suspect – before agreeing, “Okay, discounts for seniors too.” The teachers are welcoming, the organizers are committed to creating a positive environment, but the young women followers are not happy dancing with me. I can see it on their faces as I approach them to ask them to dance. They’re thinking, “Oh jesus, I didn’t come to the club in order to dance with my grandfather.”
I’m an out dyke and I’m 67. There’s nobody like me on the floor. There’s no woman my age and no other butchy woman. There are plenty of women who lead and men who follow – BUT, it’s their secondary role (except for X-). There’s no other woman who leads exclusively. This self-satisfied Cambridge crowd assures me how cool and open the scene is, but last night five different followers turned me down. Five! This despite an etiquette that explicitly forbids refusing someone who asks you to dance.
I told myself that once I was really good it wouldn’t be a problem. However, I cannot get really skilled without dancing all the time and I can’t dance all the time if people don’t want to dance with me. Of course, there are those who do ask me to dance, but they are mostly guys who want to try out following and probably see me as lower stakes than dancing with another man while they’re feeling their way.
“Ballroom in Boston” isn’t like that. It’s mostly grown-ups and there’s never been an issue. The followers are happy to dance with me. The teacher Kirsten says “follower/leader” as naturally as most of the other instructors (sigh) say “ladies/gentlemen” or “gals/guys.” Some of the students even invited me to a private dance party they had.
There are other West Coast lessons to be had, but mostly those are very small groups with hetero-couples who cannot figure out what my problem is. In fact, I have not infrequently been asked by these women, What’s your problem? Or, What do you think you are doing? Or, Why are you acting like a man? To which I answer, Why are you acting like a woman?
I spoke to one of the hipper young teachers at the Harvard Square venue about all the followers turning me down. It’s time to have a talk about etiquette, he said. But that’s not it at all. Straight people aren’t turning each other down. The most awkward unskilled male leaders ask the most dazzling advanced women followers to dance without getting turned down. It’s not about dancing: it is about homophobia and sexism mixed with ageism among these groovy liberals.
I’m horribly depressed about all of this for I didn’t sign up for another rainbow ceiling. I am reluctant to abandon West Coast Swing. This is my exercise, my hobby, my social activity, and I’ve devoted time and money to it. The thought of giving it up is excruciating, but absorbing insults week after week ain’t a piece of cake either. What should I do?
Here's where I'm trying to go: