133 Challenging Compulsory Heterosexuality in Dancing with the Community Stars
Recently, me and my boyfriend went to go see Dancing With the Community Stars at The Flying Monkey, a yearly event which helps raise money for Voices against Violence, a crisis services agency supporting victims of domestic violence, brings together multiple different community “stars” with dancers and puts on performances for the community to see. The couples compete for an audience award and a judge’s award. There were also other performances from dance studios near and around Plymouth.
As a ballroom dancer myself, I can say with absolute certainty that ballroom dancing as an activity tends to enforce heterosexist ideals. The man is the leader, and the woman is the follower, and it is extremely rare and controversial if this is not the case. The men (leaders) are supposed to be strong and masculine, and their main job is to make the woman (follower) look good, whereas the women (followers) are supposed to be more dainty and flamboyant. It is also easier to do more moves when the leader is physically larger than the follower (but not too much, a full foot height difference like my partner and I have is not always beneficial). To perform in traditional ballroom dancing is to buy into rigidly prescribed gender roles and to perform these roles. It heavily relies on a binary of leader and follower that is extremely gendered.
During the Dancing With the Community Stars event, the couples eligible to win ascribed to these gender roles. The women were smaller, the men were larger, the women were more dainty while the men were masculine, etc. However, there was one dance that was performed on the stage– which was, interestingly, not on the event’s program– that was a little bit different than the prior gender role adhering performances. One of the judges, who was a man, and his female partner performed a rather unconventional tango. He wore a dress and heels while she wore a suit. Despite wearing clothing presenting as opposite genders than what they normally presented as, the judge still led while his partner followed. Despite this, their costuming demonstrated a fluidity that is outright scorned in some ballroom dance communities.
According to Rivkin and Ryan, “compulsory heterosexuality” is a regime which banishes all aspects of non-heterosexual gender identities.
“If women were to be compelled to be child-productive wives by the dominant social group of heterosexual men, then women’s friendships would be deemed suspicious, and lesbianism would be enjoined. If men were to behave in accordance with the dictates of compulsory heterosexuality and not engage in sexual practices that placed the reigning code of heterosexual masculinity in question, then their friendships too would be suspect, and male homosexuality would also be forbidden” (Rivkin 885).
Let’s unpack that quote. What Rivkin and Ryan are saying here is that compulsory heterosexuality is born out of the fear of women getting it on with women, and men getting it on with men, and because they are attracted to their own sex, there would be no more baby-making, and the human race would die.
To put this in the context of ballroom dancing, the reason for the extreme gendering of it is that if a man was to dance with a man or a woman was to dance with a woman, or even if a woman was to lead a man, this would throw off the balance of the dance, ruining the aesthetic as well as functionality of the dance itself. One could make the argument that the reasoning behind this is purely physical– men on average tend to be larger than women, and it is easier to lead most moves if the leader is physically larger than the follower. However, men are strongly encouraged to lead and women are strongly encouraged to follow even if the woman is larger than the man, for example, my dance instructor is physically smaller than his wife, yet he always leads when they dance together and they still look fantastic. So, then, the main issue is not a physical size difference but an adherence to gender norms that fits a heteronormative aesthetic.
By performing in a dress and his partner in a suit at the Dancing With the Community Stars event, the judge and his partner were mocking this traditional heteronormative aesthetic by presenting physically as a different gender, while still performing the same roles.