At Same-Sex Dances, Anyone Can Lead

At a recent dance held by the Big Apple Ranch, a Manhattan LGBTQ country-western dance club, Croft Vaughn, a longtime dancer, called the club his church.

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Queer Love in Color
Jane L. Levere
, New York Times

At a recent dance held by the Big Apple Ranch, a Manhattan LGBTQ country-western dance club, Croft Vaughn, a longtime dancer, called the club his church.

“Every other week I’m reborn on the dance floor. It’s a ritual, it’s a renewal and it’s also community,” said Vaughn, who works in finance.

Big Apple Ranch dances enable Randy Arroyave, an associate scientist for a flavors and fragrance company, to meet “mathematicians, lawyers, scientists, actors, dancers and carpenters. I’ve met a wonderful, beautiful spectrum here, even lovers whom I’ve broken up with."

Arroyave is also a member of the Big Apple Ranch’s official dance team, Manhattan Prairie Dogs, whose performances the club calls “a combination of country-western and high camp, outrageous costumes and fabulous choreography.” He dresses up to dance even when he’s not performing: He recently danced wearing a sleeveless, low-cut red dress, silver headband, red earrings and black cowboy boots, in contrast to his regular work attire, a white lab coat and slacks.

Vaughn and Arroyave’s experiences reflect the many pleasures enjoyed by aficionados of same-sex social dancing, popular mostly in metropolitan areas across the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe and Australia. (Same-sex ballroom dancing traditionally has devotees in Europe.)

Same-sex social dancing has “been around from at least the time that there have been gay clubs, so the 1950s, earlier maybe, or soirees in Paris, etc., in the 1920s and 1930s,” said Zoe Balfour, an Oakland, California-based choreographer who teaches same-sex ballroom, country and social dancing. “When people get together they dance, queer or otherwise.”

The difference now, according to Ingu Yun, founder of the 20-year-old Sundance Saloon, a same-sex country-western dance club in San Francisco, is that same-sex social dancing is no longer hidden, becoming “more popular and open since the 1980s.”

Same-sex couples perform on TV shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars,” while a gay couple, Caroline Privou and Petra Zimmermann, competed at the prestigious Blackpool Dance Festival in England, in May.

“We can dance in our own queer Olympics — the Gay Games is every four years,” Balfour added. “We have same-sex dance competitions; we are a lot more visible. We are more open about our sexuality and our right to be who we are.”

National and international same-sex dance events not only attract a wide following but have also globalized the same-sex dance community, Yun said, adding, “This is why we all know each other, and it’s a wonderful thing.”

There are annual festivals, such as the Gothenburg Queer Lindy Festival, in Sweden, which, according to its website, features swing dancing without regard “to the traditional heteronormative dance roles, and with the option to switch roles while dancing.”

The reference here is to the gender-neutral concept of leaders and followers, roles assumed by dancers and terms that are favored by LGBTQ dancers. These terms replace the more traditional concept and role of a man leading his partner, a woman. In same-sex social dancing, anyone can assume either role, regardless of the gender the dancer identifies with; dancers sometimes even switch roles mid-dance, a difficult skill developed by more experienced participants.

On its website, Motor City Swing, a Detroit-area group, describes the leader and follower concept as “ambidancetrous,” encouraging everyone to learn and dance both roles, lead and follow. “By learning the basics of both parts, you can eventually make a real choice between them, rather than just guessing about which you’ll prefer.” This approach, the group says on the site, “fosters an inclusive, LGBT-friendly environment; helps desexualize dance by reinforcing the idea that anyone can dance with anyone” and “doubles the number of people you can dance with.” And then there is Midsummer Night Swing, an outdoor mainstream social dance party that is held over several weeks every summer at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center and welcomes same-sex dancers. It takes place this year from Tuesday through July 14.

Midsummer Night Swing features a different type of dance each night, offering a lesson and a dance, as well as frequent demonstrations. The Big Apple Ranch in recent years has sent instructors and dancers to demonstrate and teach country-western dance. Last year, the Manhattan Prairie Dogs performed, wearing poodle skirts that converted into wedding dresses.

Same-sex social dancers sometimes encounter homophobia, particularly at straight dance clubs, said Scott Lappin, a professional ballroom dance instructor in Florida. He said that he and his frequent dance partner, Lee Fox, a fellow professional, “sometimes get cockeyed looks and under-the-breath comments at straight clubs. But because we’re good dancers, they watch us and start to really like it. It looks great, it’s a transformational thing. It’s not a magic bullet. However, it is helpful to see it, because it does transcend normal gender-identity views.”

But for same-sex dance aficionados, what matters most is getting out on the dance floor to celebrate their passion. The Sundance Saloon community greatly appeals to Dan Goldes, a San Francisco-based meeting and board retreat facilitator and active country-western dancer, because, he said, “I know people going to Sundance Saloon would not have been in my life in any other way.”

And dancing there, he added, lets him follow. “In my work life, I’m a director when I run retreats and help people get through programs. When I go to dance, it’s much more relaxing to be a follower.”

Balfour said same-sex social dancing could also improve posture, circulation and general well-being, and create bonds of intimacy and trust.

“I love to see the look of delight on people’s faces when they get it,” she said.

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