There’s been some discussion among people at various studios I have been at the past couple of weeks related to a couple of big announcements that went out in the past month or so about changes to the world of competitive ballroom in this country. If you are a competitive dancer, you’ve probably either seen or heard about the change. If you’re not, maybe I’ll be the one who informs you about this change, and it probably won’t affect your life in any way other than as a passing topic of conversation about the world of competitive ballroom dancing that you can tell all your dance friends about.
The two big dance clubs that organize competitions across the country both released a similar change in their policies about who can be in their competitions. Up until the release of the change, all competitive couples dancing in events (whether Amateur or Pro/Am) were usually a male dancing the Lead part, and a Female dancing the Follow part. There were some competitions I know of that offered ‘Same Sex’ events where a couple could have a Lead and Follow who were both male or female, but these events were kept separate from the normal events so that those same sex couples wouldn’t be dancing against the traditional couples. As you can imagine, not many people signed up to be in these events.
Now that the change in policy has been released, both of these large organizations in the country are moving to what they call ‘gender neutral’ competitions. All competitive couples who sign up to dance in any event are still required to have one person who dances the Lead and one that dances the Follow, but now they don’t care whether it is a male or female performing either of those roles. And all couples signed up now have to dance against one another – no more segregation of non-traditional gender dancers from the traditionally gendered couples. The only segregation that remain for events are based on age categories and proficiency levels.
If you’ve hung around the world of ballroom dancing for as long as I have, this announcement of change in policy probably just makes you shrug and ask “What took you so long to allow this?” Many dancers have already spent time learning both Lead and Follow for one reason or another, and have learned that it isn’t all that weird to dance with someone of the same gender as you. I myself have been to a bunch of classes over the years where I was shown the Follower’s side of figures, even asked to dance the Follower’s part so I would better understand what my partner is going through when I lead them. I’ve also worked with male instructors for a long time, so if I had issues dancing with another male that would make things awkward for me.
A humorous note about that particular point – a couple weeks ago I was in a discussion about this change with a few people before Standard Technique class started. Lord Junior joined into our conversation and said that he had actually thought that he needed to get in some practice to improve his ability to do the Follow part, and then he laughed and said that if he was going to put in the effort then it would be great if he could also compete as a Follow. I picked up on his joke and told him that I knew a guy who danced Lead that had some free time to practice with him since his normal partner was still recovering from an injury.
He looked at me for a second, and then it dawned on him that I was talking about myself. That made him laugh, and he said that the two of us could do it and then compete together as Amateurs for a while until Sparkledancer was cleared to start serious training again. We would have a very distinct look on the floor, Lord Junior said, because I’m muscular and he’s a few inches taller than me. The judges would definitely take notice of us!
I thought that was funny.
Anyway… none of the discussions that I have been a part of about this policy change have centered around the equality aspects. In fact, everyone I have heard from or spoken with is glad that everyone is now considered equal on the competition floor. I have heard a couple of cynics state that this change in policy actually occurring because competition organizers have noticed a significant drop in the number of dancers at competitions over the last few years, so those cynics thought that this change was actually a way to try and make more money by opening up the field for more dancers… but we’re not going to get into the realm of the conspiracy here.
No, the biggest issue that seems to come up in the discussions I’ve been around has to do with shoes believe it or not. This item may not have come up anytime you have discussed this recent rule change if you don’t dance International Standard, but since I solely compete in Standard (and hang around with a lot of people who also do Standard instead of American Smooth), I have heard this item come up a few times. The question that arises is: does a male dancing the Follower’s part have an inherent advantage when competing in Standard because Heel Turns are easier when you have wide, flat heels?
Any guy who has danced Standard for any length of time (like me) has had to work on doing Heel Turns, just like any lady who dances Standard does. The first time a male usually sees one is in Pre-Bronze Foxtrot when they do the Closed Impetus with Feather Finish, or else it comes up in Bronze Waltz where they also do the Closed Impetus. I’ve been around a lot of people and watched their Bronze Foxtrot routines, and their routines are usually built the same as mine was – at the end of the first short wall you will do a Three Step into a Natural Turn and then use a Closed Impetus with Feather Finish to change walls. When first starting out dancing Standard Foxtrot, this is a hard figure for a guy to master. Trust me, I had to spend a lot of practice time to make mine look even halfway decent!
But looking at the issue from the outside, it can be said that I have had an advantage here over all the partners I have danced with while I learned how to do that Heel Turn. My shoes are normal build for Standard, which means that I have only a one-inch rise to my heel, and that heel covers the whole back of my foot. Look at a lady’s Standard Shoe – the basic heel they come with, from my understanding, starts at two inches, and obviously is capped with a much smaller surface. Even when a lady puts a heel protector over the end it doesn’t give it a whole lot more surface against the floor.
Because I have so much more surface area to work with on my heel, when I drag my heel toward the other foot as I do a Heel Turn, I don’t have to worry about wobbling and losing my balance. That’s never been a thing I’ve had to practice to make my Closed Impetus look good – usually for me it was issues with the position of my upper body as I turned. I can’t even imagine what it’s like trying to do that same action with only a small point on the floor supporting my weight!
So while costume requirement changes haven’t been finalized for this new gender-neutral competitive world that we now live in and no one can say for certain, I think that we are pretty safe to say that no organization is going to put in their costume requirements that males dancing the Follow part are going to have to invest in shoes with higher heels and small points at the end. I think that males dancing the Follow part in Standard are probably just going to wear normal male Standard shoes like they already would if they were dancing the Lead part. Do you think that this is going to give males dancing the Follow part an advantage over any ladies dancing the Follow part if they have to compete against each other now?
One answer to this concern that an instructor I know mentioned seems to be the answer that we are all thinking will become reality: it isn’t actually something to worry about. Because of the lack of men who compete in ballroom dancing in general, the times that competitors will likely run into a couple where the male is dancing the Follow part are going to be rare. More often you are probably going to see ladies who are dancing the Lead part instead. As a couple of people brought up, this change in rules is most likely going to be widely adopted first by college ballroom teams where there aren’t a lot of men to go around.
With this change in policy, people I know are foreseeing some of the ladies on college teams learning the Lead part so that they can compete with other ladies on the team rather than hoping one of the men on the team will pick them as a partner, or that the competition offers TBA Leads. This means that those ladies won’t be sitting out waiting for a chance to dance anymore, and any dancing is more fun than not dancing, right? In that situation, most likely the lady dancing the Follow part will be wearing normal Standard shoes, so she will have the same small heel to do Heel Turns with as every other lady on the floor, so there’s no need to worry about that partnership having a competitive edge.
As far as hypothetical situations that may come about due to the policy change, this seems to be more likely. There are a lot more ladies in the ballroom dance community around me, whether competitive or social, than there are men, so if any men wanted to jump into the competitive world they would have no trouble finding a lady who already knows the Follow part who would be willing to try dancing with them. Ladies who want to jump into the competitive world who haven’t already found a partner to dance with usually end up having to go the more expensive Pro/Am route until they can snag an Amateur partner somehow. But now, if you learn to dance Lead on a college ballroom team you have a better chance of being able to compete in Amateur after college if you want to continue dancing, rather than having to go the Pro/Am route to get a partner.
What do you think? Do you think this is a long-overdue policy change that doesn’t really change much about your view of the ballroom world? Do men dancing the Follow part have an advantage because we usually have shorter and more solid heels in our shoes? Is this change going to mean we see a number of ladies pick up dancing Lead so that they can be out on the floor more frequently in competitions?
Let’s talk about some actual dancing before I wrap up this week. Yesterday night I was out at the Electric Dance Hall for Standard Technique class, as usual. This week, since none of us had any strong feelings one way or another on what to do, Lord Junior decided he wanted to work on some American Foxtrot with us, using the side-by-side Grapevine that he does in his competition routines with a couple of his students as the centerpiece of what we would look at that night.
Starting in the corner on one side of the long wall, we did a basic Feather into the first half of an Open Reverse Turn, For the second half, the Lead would do a Progressive Chasse while turning the Follower across our body so that they ended up side-by-side with us on our left. Here we did the side-by-side Grapevine action – two sets with different timing. The first one started off slow, and then the second step was syncopated while the last two were even timing. The second one was done with all steps being quick all the way through.
At the end of the second set both partners would do a check with their right foot to stop. The Leads would shift our weight back to our left leg, which would lead the Follow to shift their weight and then pivot to face us. Next the Leads would bring their feet together while turning the Follower across our body again for one-and-a-half turns so that they ended up perpendicular in front of us. This set us up to do a Same Foot Lunge on the right side.
To close the lunge we would shift our weight to the left side and brush the feet together, doing a sort of Twinkle action, then come out stepping back and slightly to the right, brushing our feet together again in an Open Twinkle to come out moving toward diagonal wall in Promenade Position. Heading into the far corner of the long wall we would do a basic International-style Reverse Turn (with Heel Turn) and then another checking action to change walls, coming out in a Basic Weave going down the short wall to finish up for the evening.
My big problem last night was during the first Open Reverse Turn where I was supposed to lead the Follower through a turn. Moving my arms around just feels weird to me, so for the first ten minutes or so I swear I was either moving my arm too early or too late to turn the Follower properly. I think I got the hang of it by the time the class was over, but for whatever reason I just felt awkward leading that turn last night. I have no idea why.
But I wasn’t the only one having issues – near the end, when Lord Junior was going through the part where we attached the Basic Weave to the checking action, he totally blanked on how to do the footwork for the Follower’s part of the figure for a few minutes. He tried doing it a couple of times and it didn’t feel right, so he would stop and go back. After watching him, I offered to lead him through the figure to see if that helped, but he said he needed to be able to figure it out on his own as a point of pride.
He did manage to get the footwork right after the fifth try and we all felt better about that. However, based on that incident, I would say that if we really ever ended up competing together, then we should probably start back at Bronze. Wouldn’t you agree?