J. Ellen Gainor, professor of theater and associate dean of the graduate school at Cornell, asked an audience of mostly graduate students and faculty to consider the "broad cultural repercussions" of same-sex ballroom dancing during her talk Friday in Lyman Hall.
Gainor's talk — "So You Think You Can Dance Straight? Same-Sex Ballroom and Reality Television" — was part of the Graduate Colloquium Series for the Theater Arts and Performance Studies department.
Same-sex ballroom, Gainor said, is a form of dance that "defies historical convention," as popular culture and media have depicted ballroom as a representation of heterosexual passion. While romance is implicit in mixed-sex dance, same-sex pairs more frequently represent "broad physical comedy" and elicit "raucous audience laughter," Gainor said.
This disparity, she said, is not intrinsic to the dance form itself. Though formal dance vocabulary identifies roles as "man" and "lady," the techniques demonstrated do not have inherent male or female designation. There is "no reason other than social convention why ballroom must be heteronormative," Gainor said.
In fact, it is a "professional necessity" for dance teachers involved in reality TV programs such as Dancing with the Stars to learn both the steps of the lead and follower in order to teach the moves to amateur dancers, Gainor noted.
In recent years, Gainor suggested, same-sex ballroom has made progress by featuring same-sex dancers such as Willem de Vries and Jacob Jason on the reality television program "So You Think You Can Dance." This progression is a much-needed step forward in the ballroom dance world, she said.
Gainor said she believes the choreography of mixed-sex dance has been exhausted. She suggested that the "infinitely more creative" form of same-sex ballroom could be a means of transcending the parameters of mixed-sex dance.
The stakes are still "quite high" for professional or semi-professional same-sex dancers, Gainor said, as some countries prohibit dancers from participating in same-sex competitions and World DanceSport Federation-sanctioned events. There may be hesitation to include these dancers due to the possible difficulty of acquiring sponsors for televised events that feature same-sex ballroom, Gainor said.
After the talk, graduate students and faculty participated in an open forum discussion with Gainor, raising points for further thought in a question-and-answer format.
Eng-Beng Lim, assistant professor of theater arts and performance studies, asked whether discussion should be directed towards the "inherently queer" nature of ballroom dancing — which Gainor identified in the talk as a form "fraught with homosexual anxiety."
Gainor's talk suggested a bright future for same-sex ballroom, both in reality television and society at large. Overcoming the association of masculinity or femininity with the non-gendered moves of ballroom dance has been a step in the right direction and has allowed traditional Western associations with ballroom to evolve, she said.