Turn on “Dancing with the Stars” on a typical night, and you’ll see the bodies of a man and a woman gyrating together, her skirt flying, hair braided back from her face or swinging wildly from side to side as he dips and spins her through a tango or cha-cha. The man stands upright, powering the couple and supporting her as she flowers and shapes to the patterns he’s chosen. This is traditional ballroom as it’s been sold and packaged to macho America: itself a relatively new phenomenon as ballroom used to be seen as part of an elite and tight-collared tradition that wouldn’t hold anyone’s interest on primetime. Today’s dancing can be manly as long as its football players leading hot girls in short skirts: dance here is power and love and glittering sweaty lust bundled together and wrapped up. Change one detail, let the woman lead, show her moving her partner, man or woman, through moves and choosing the steps—and suddenly the picture is one you won’t find on television. Perhaps the closest we’ve seen is Laila Ali stepping on the dance floor with the confidence and athleticism that made her powerful presence irresistible to watch—only to have her partner choreograph moves for her on Dancing with the Stars that de-emphasized her strength and tried to squish her back into the same mold as the “traditional” ballroom lady—graceful and delicate.
Normally, I like to leave the controversies of reality television unremarked, as there’s plenty of real issues to fight over in the rest of popular culture. But “Dancing with the Stars” has landed itself in the limelight thanks to their new season of casting, and in doing so they’ve brought out of the woodwork a vicious set of critics and hate groups. Chaz Bono is at the heart of it as his partnership with pro Lacey Schwimmer has put transgender identity on the normally very cisgender floor of the DwtS ballroom. In the recent fallout, there’s been a lot of focus on how dancing is associated with very normative gender roles that ignores how the sport itself has evolved.
ABC News reported on the controversy surrounding their own network: “OneMillionMoms.com, an online activism group geared towards mothers, is calling for the boycott of the show, set to premiere Sept. 19 on ABC. On its website, the group calls Bono’s casting ‘completely unacceptable and Christians should not watch the show, no excuses!’”The arguments that children will be “confused” or that DwtS is “endorsing” transgender identity are depressing to read, but what is perhaps even more disappointing as that the show has been so conservative as to avoid such boycotts in the past.
Chaz himself has pointed out on a Good Morning America interview: “”I’m going to be dancing. I’m not up there talking about anything other than dancing. People who don’t have gender dysphoria aren’t going to catch it by watching me dance on television.” Of course, that’s exactly what these groups are protesting–his appearance on television, dancing with a female partner, is exactly the political action that has fueled the flame. Changing the face of ballroom on such a popular TV program changes perceptions across the board, and I cannot help but expect a targeted voting campaign to eliminate him early in the season.
But as the back and forth continues, the truly disappointing thing is how little DwtS has really risked. As E Online reported, the show’s executive producer Conrad Green “thought about” pairing former “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” star Carson Kressley with a male partner. So why didn’t they? According to Green: “We try to follow what happens in real ballroom competitions. That was the original intention of the show. And while we are aware that there are same-sex couples, the competitions are usually mixed-gendered.”
So apparently, the Gay Games DanceSport and other competitions aren’t “real” ballroom competitions:
And even more embarrassingly—there have *already been* same sex partners on “Dancing with the Stars”—just not here in the US. Instead, Israel hosted the first partnership, Gili Shem Tov & Dorit Milman:
Yet when something comes along that challenges the existing order, it first ends up segregated far away, kept in a corner where it can be comfortably ignored: this fate hits same-sex ballroom in the form of same-sex only competitions, dance studios, and classes. The Gay Games emerged as a great refuge for same-sex dancing; here, the rules are reversed and same-sex dance is the only form permitted in the competitive ballroom and Latin events. But the confinement of same-sex dance to these venues labels it a subculture exclusive to the gay and lesbian community—something other from the larger world of dance. The old-guard still rules supreme at most competitions, and there is no same-sex dancing allowed.
These contradictory forces are fueling the identity crisis within the world of ballroom as the old meets new. Even when the newest season of Dancing with the Stars fills the airwaves mostly with football players spinning models and beauty queens around in a glittery showcase of old fashioned gender roles, Chaz Bono will be one of the faces in the crowd. And off the screen a rising number of dancers are realizing that while it takes two to tango, anyone can fill those dance shoes: dancers don’t have to look like Fred and Ginger anymore, and frankly, most of them don’t. Chaz Bono may not intend to make a political statement, but his presence on the dance floor is still an important step in our pop culture. But this is also a missed opportunity to move even further, particularly as the show continues to embrace the supposed message that dancing is for everyone.