So, my brother, who goes to A&M (Yes, we’re a house divided), really, really loves ballroom dance. And with the advent of a competition he’ll be in, here in Austin, I find myself obliged to go to cheer him on. And all things considered, it will most likely be pretty enjoyable. He is a very talented dancer and I have fun watching him. However, I am also somewhat apprehensive. I used to take ballroom dance lessons with him and a group of other preteens, teens, and young adults, but my experience was quite different from his. I see a lot of sexism and homophobia institutionalized in ballroom dance that bothers me.
For example, as a female-assigned and (at the time) female-presenting and identified person, I was always following in the dance when I probably would have preferred to lead, or at least alternate between the two. There were two or three girls my age who were taught to lead only because they had proved themselves particularly talented at following and because there was a shortage of guys. In order for this to be deemed acceptable, each girl was given a second, “guy name” to use only when they were leading.
This clearly sent the sexist messages to the group. The rules put the guys in a decidedly dominant role, planning and controlling the dance, while the girls responded to directions mostly through bodily intuition and muscle memory. In the rare cases when girls were allowed to lead, it was still strongly implied that it was only temporary and not the ideal situation.
Then, in the dance parties, girls were allowed to dance with each other without much comment, because it was assumed that the only reason they were dancing together is because there were no more male partners. However, the single time when two guys danced together at a party, the dancers played it up as something humorous and everyone laughed. The teacher even made a joke about them over the loudspeaker.
It was the same at the ballroom competition that my brother went to last year. After the competitive male-female couple dances, there was a single dance (not part of the main competition) that allowed same-gender couples. Though the female couples attracted minimal attention, the male couples were the object of ridicule—even by the intention of the dancers themselves, it seemed (who must have been either straight or closeted).
The difference in heterosexist and homophobic treatment between the girls and the guys, I think, also originated from sexism. Because of the widespread societal notion that girls and women are not whole people without a male in their life (also that there cannot be sex without the presence of a penis—which also relates to cissexism), the girls dancing together was not seen as threatening to heterosexuality. However, when guys danced together, people felt the need to mock it in order calm their discomfort and to affirm their own heterosexuality.
Even in popular TV shows, such as So You think You can Dance, and Dancing With the Stars, which feature ballroom dance (and other styles), little progress has been made in integrating same-gender ballroom couples. SYTYCD introduced same-gender dances into the show in season 7, but mostly for Broadway-style and contemporary dances (and strictly non-romantic and non-sexual), and DWTS had their first female couple competing in the year 2010. However, seeing pieces of Dancing the Stars on the TV recently, it still looks like primarily male-female couples, with the men always leading and the women following. I hope this will change one day.