Blackpool Same-Sex Dance Festival
The international Same-Sex Dance Festival was held in October in Blackpool, a gritty seaside town in the north of England—think Atlantic City before the casinos arrived mixed with a gay version of Coney Island. Blackpool’s Ferris Wheel by the sea may be rusty and its weather unduly stormy, but competitive Ballroom and Latin dancers around the world think of Blackpool as “hallowed ground.” With its unmatched ornate ballrooms in the Winter Palace and the 1930 Mighty Wurlitzer organ rising out of the stage floor of the opulent Tower Ballroom, Blackpool is, as Mayor Councilor Eddie Collett reminded the Same-Sex Dance Festival crowd in his welcoming remarks, “the Wimbledon of dance.”
National and international Ballroom and Latin competitions have made Blackpool their home for many decades. The first televised dance contests were filmed in Blackpool. For dance lovers, it is the ultimate destination. Beginning competitors visit the town in order to have the thrill of dancing on its sprung wooden floors during tea dances or during intermissions in professional competitions. British seniors who have danced their way through vacation weekends all their lives relocate to Blackpool to twirl away their retirement.
And now onto these floors has come the Same-Sex Dance Festival. With support from the town itself, as well as a couple of major dance sponsors, it was organized by the Sugar Dandies, Soren and Bradley Stauffer-Kruse, the couple who made such a world-wide splash dancing together on “Britain’s Got Talent” last year. (This is Simon Cowell’s original talent show, which spawned “America’s Got Talent”). The Blackpool Festival featured over 100 competitors from 16 countries and a raft of highly rated mainstream judges, including Erin Boag, a former professional dancer from “Strictly Come Dancing” (the UK original version of “Dancing with the Stars”), which is sometimes filmed in Blackpool.
The actual competition, held all day Saturday, was part of a three-day Festival. The Sugar Dandies were committed to ensuring that this event promoted not only same sex dancing, but Blackpool itself. They said, “If we are going to invite people to Blackpool, we should give them as much Blackpool as possible.”
They sandwiched the competition between two days of social activities. On Friday evening, competitors and spectators gathered in a side room at the club Funny Girls for a reception to which dancers from around the UK, Europe, and the U.S. drop by. Soon they’re herded into the main room for the nightly Vegas-style drag show. To promote the Festival, three short demonstrations by same sex dance competitors augment the usual cabaret extravaganza. Blackpool is known as “the gay capital of the North,” so the dancers win great approval from the crowd. The well-known DJ Zoe, in all her drag glitter and Dolly Parton hair, encourages her own fans to attend the dance Festival as spectators the next day.
Saturday is the day of competition. During the morning and afternoon sessions, the judges use the early rounds to assign each pair to one of the four categories: D, C, B, or the highly professional A class. As one goes up the category levels, one is asked to perform an increasing number of dances. The lower levels are required to show three different dances, the B category dances four dances, and the top A group must dance all five dances. The two kinds of competitions—Ballroom and Latin—are also divided by gender, making a total of 16 categories. In addition, there is a Showdance performance contest where the dancers don’t have to adhere to the specific rules of a single dance, but rather tell a story and show off their most dazzling moves. The wonderful thing about having so many categories, each of which (except for Showdance) has three prizes, is that there are many winners. In fact, most of the dancers interviewed here won at some level.
Changes in the World of Competitive Ballroom and Latin Dance
To understand how same sex dance made it into Blackpool’s best ballrooms, it is necessary to go back to 1990. That was when the first LGBT dance classes were taught in London, mostly by gay men who were former competitive winners. For many years these Sunday lessons, followed by popular tea dances, were held in the basement of the now-defunct London Lesbian and Gay Center.
It was an unusual mixture of ages, genders, and sexualities who came together to twirl each other around the floor in all sorts of innovative combinations. Most long-lasting LGBT groups are not so demographically varied. Jo Chilvers (46), an accomplished competitor who had to pull out of the Blackpool Festival due to an injury, recognizes this. “In the outside world,” she explains,” most of my friends are women, whereas in the dancing world, we have a bridge, a shared passion, to build friendship.” That Sunday tradition continues. Jacky Logan (58), together with veteran teacher Ralf Schiller, is the organizer and DJ of the Pink Jukebox Sunday afternoon dance club, and has welcomed new and experienced dancers since 1996.
She is proud of the Jukebox’s longevity, but sees benefits beyond the fact that it is irresistible aerobic fun. “I see people coming along who look miserable, with poor posture, who can’t coordinate their feet. They take up the hobby of Ballroom dancing and within three lessons, they’re laughing their heads off and they begin using their bodies in a prouder way. Their posture is improved, they gain confidence, and make steps in their life in other ways.”
That is not to deny the sensuous aspects. The communication between a leader and a follower is, many have said, akin to sex: physical, emotional, and intimate. In fact, Jacky met her dance and life partner Mary Logan 20 years ago when, as classmates, they decided to enter a tango competition together. “Loads of romances have started…at the Pink Jukebox,” Jacky reports. “Dancing allows people to be physically intimate without any strings attached. But it can turn into more as people become bolder.”
Meanwhile, in most of Europe, LGBT dancing has always focused on competitions, not on social dancing. Jacky and Ralf joined that trend 15 years ago by creating the first UK same sex competition, the Pink Jukebox Trophy, an annual event. Today there are nearly monthly same sex competitions in one European country or another. The London community introduced the more experienced European competitors to the joys of dancing socially with a variety of friends. Mary Logan (58), who competed in Blackpool, says, “I’m so proud of what the London competition has done for same sex dancing in Europe. Basically the European dancers only did routines with their partners, never dancing with others socially. They only saw it as a sport. The Pink Jukebox and Pink Trophy injected the enjoyable social dancing element.” But while the overall change in emphasis from social to competitive dancing seems definitive, not everyone is pleased. Logan says, “If I had to choose between competition or social, I’ll always choose social dancing.” She does welcome the benefits of travel and meeting people from so many countries. Others I spoke to were suspicious of underlying agendas fueling the increased emphasis on competition, since teachers make much more money from giving private lessons to competitors than they do from group lessons and social evenings.
However, no one in London wants to lose the benefits of the queer social dance community. DJ Jacky Logan is not worried about that. “There are at least 400 [LGBT] people who dance in the greater London area, the people I see regularly, and out of those only a small number will be taking part in competitions, roughly 40.”
Defining Same Sex Dance
Some participants remain dissatisfied by this decision. Jo Chilvers, who enters mainstream competitions dancing with her woman partner, admits, “There is something in me that resists the inclusion of all these heterosexual people who compete in same-sex dancing.” Another veteran dancer, who asked to remain anonymous, says he is “puzzled” by the concept of same sex and feels it shows a desperation to be accepted by the establishment.
“Same sex” can be seen as a contradiction. It opens up competitive dance to women who want to dance with women and men who want to dance with men. But it limits other combinations, such as a lesbian leading a gay man or a mixed sex gay pairing which switches between the roles. In the social dance scene, these are common configurations, but there is no place for such a pair in either the same or mixed sex contests.
Same sex dance has become big business, especially as it has long been one of the most popular events at the three big international sports events: the Gay, Euro, and Out Games. However, the number of participants in the D group, the beginners, has been shrinking and this raises concerns. This should be the biggest group, the one feeding competitors up the pyramid of achievement, like any other sport. But the success of LGBT dancers to integrate into the dance world may be part of its own undoing. “Why aren’t people coming in?” asks Vernon Kemp. “The change of the dynamics of sexuality, that is, for the same reason that young people don’t go to gay pubs and bars: they can meet people online or go into a metro-sexual venue. They’re accepted.” When barriers fall, assimilation may follow.
Moreover, the competitive aspect may make dancing less accessible. There is concern about the high cost of competing, which can lead to young people and working class dancers feeling excluded. Mary White (63), a long-time participant in the LGBT dance scene and a competitor at Blackpool, points to multiple barriers: “There is the current economic situation, the difficulty for young people finding jobs, the high cost of housing, and the many expenses involved in competing.”
One pair competing at the Blackpool Festival had to wait years until they could afford to compete. Daria Trayanovich (28) grew up in Belarus in, she said, “a strict family which used dance as a reward.” When she found out about same sex competitions, she “became a mathematician to allow me to pay for lessons.” She met her dance partner Rachel Sparks (27) at a queer tango event. Rachel grew up dancing in the UK, but took a decade-long break at age 15. “After university, when I was working, I could start dancing again because I could afford the weekly commitment for classes, private lessons for competition, dance shoes, costumes, and travel to overseas competitions. The costs are so high that young people don’t even think about it.”
Daria feels like a pioneer. “Same sex dance is new, so we can set the fashion. Even as a child I dreamed of dancing with a woman.” Daria would like to see a varied queer scene. “We prefer the dance floor to be full of all genders and sexualities, like life is.” Rachel agreed. “I like gender-free space where gender doesn’t pigeon-hole you, with room for different sexualities.”
The Question of Dress
Women face a more complex decision. At the Blackpool Same Sex Festival, the women grappled creatively with the intersection of gender and dress, particularly in the lower D, C, and B levels. Some couples wore identical suits, but fashioned elaborate drapes from waistband to wrists to distinguish the followers. One Danish couple wore matching dresses and hairdos—a radical choice to forgo differentiating between leader and follower. Some couples commissioned outfits that cost several thousand dollars. Mary White and Jacky Logan wore all black with matching sparkly bling bibs when they competed in Latin.
At the professional A-level, the dancers were more likely to mimic the mainstream, perhaps because they are apt to be competing together in mainstream competitions as well and had, therefore, spent a great deal on their costumes. Mary White explains, “Increasingly, followers are wearing stereotypical outfits, skimpy for Latin, flowy and fluffy for Ballroom. Perhaps the women competitors perceive that they will be judged better that way.” Smiling, Mary added, “And then some dykes are enjoying exploring these feminine clothes and behaviors.”
Jo Chilvers feels that, “Dance fashions have changed. At first, we said we’ll not do their leader/follower thing—we wore nearly identical costumes. There was a political change, a shift…. Just as lesbians in the wider world no longer wear ‘the uniform,’ women are increasingly expressing their dress options.”
Logan is more critical of the traditions of mixed sex dancing, feeling that as standards rise in the queer scene, there are fewer challenges to the mainstream. “Men are trapped in Ballroom’s 1940s version of masculinity or in over-sexualized macho roles in Latin. Women are trapped in simpering and over-sexualized roles. Same sex dancing needs to bring in the possibility of a variety of roles for everyone.” Martin Arthur (48) and Nigel Bradshaw (49) spend 12 hours a week practicing for same sex competitions. Each one also competes with a woman partner in mixed sex contests. Unlike some other same sex couples, they never compete together in mainstream competitions. Martin explained. “The judges are biased and they struggle. Judges don’t know how to handle it.” But when they are competing in same sex venues, “We try very hard to dance as two men together. We don’t want to be a man and a woman. We are comfortable being men together.”
The Jewel in Blackpool’s Crown
The next day is an opportunity for competitors and spectators—and even Vernon Kemp, the Head Adjudicator and the organizers Soren and Bradley Stauffer-Kruse—to relax at arguably the most famous Sunday Tea Dance in the world, held at the Tower Ballroom This chance to dance socially was one way in which the Sugar Dandies recognized their “roots” as they planned their Festival. “The same sex dance scene evolved from a social dance scene,” they said, “and we wanted to include social… dancing in our event.”
No matter how many times dancers waltz or rumba in the Tower Ballroom, they never forget that it is a legendary place. Known as “the jewel in Blackpool’s crown,” there are few remaining such venues. The lavish Victorian décor is almost camp. The floor itself, made out of 30,602 blocks of mahogany, oak, and walnut, and the 14 chandeliers are polished each Spring. The Tower Ballroom’s magic explains why for many decades British and international amateur dancers have spent their precious weekends and vacations dancing traditional Ballroom and old time Sequence dances to its lush organ music.
In many Sequence dances, which are built on memorized patterns of steps, the followers pass after each stanza to the next leader, as they all repeat the routine. When you inject same sex couples into the circle, they rotate into the waiting arms of the vacationers and the retirees. Fifteen years ago this was unthinkable and many a heterosexual dancer stormed off the floor in horror when gay and lesbian dancers tried to join in. This Sunday, the intermingling is seamless and painless. It is simply not a problem. DJ Jacky Logan describes the phenomenon. “An old gentleman starts off a sequence dance with his wife and all of a sudden he’s got this tall lanky gay man at the end of his arm. He doesn’t bat an eyelid. He just carries on leading him. It’s the language of the dance that has done it. The love of the dance surpasses the prejudice a dancer might have.”
But these entrepreneurs have only just begun. They are looking forward to yet another big first for UK same sex dance. The Sugar Dandies announced at the end of the Festival that they will be hosting the European Same Sex Championships in Blackpool’s magnificent Winter Gardens Empress Ballroom on June 14-15, 2014. Already the dancers are starting to shine up the rhinestones and slather on the hair gel. Z
Sue Katz is an author, journalist, blogger, dancer, and rebel. She was a founding member of the UK queer dance scene and the first woman to qualify for official medals as a leader. She used to be most proud of her martial arts career, but now it’s all about her blog Consenting Adult (www.suekatz.typepad.com) and her upcoming book of short stories about the love lives of older people, Lillian’s Last Affair. Friend her at Facebook.com/sue.katz.