Bottom line Photography by Henri T Art | Rachel and Rae demonstrating lead swap in ballroom hold
The debate as to whether Strictly Come Dancing should have a same-sex coupling as part of the competition divides us. Some say why mess with tradition? Others think it’s something to do with being politically correct. From my perspective as a Latin and Ballroom dance teacher and member of the LGBTQ+ community, there are two main benefits I want to share.
Let me begin by acknowledging that ‘same-sex’ is a problematic term for some of us - I’d prefer gender neutral partnering or equality dancing where gender doesn’t become a defining aspect. However, baby steps!
The most obvious reason to have a same-sex pairing in Strictly Come Dancing is that LGBTQ+ people may see themselves reflected positively on a Saturday night entertainment show. Since the first pre-watershed* lesbian kiss on Brookside in the 90s, there has been a move to increase the visibility of LGBTQI+ people in TV, films and advertising. Although, it’s been pretty slow progress (probably not helped by Section 28), we now have lesbian and gay couples in adverts for everyday things. We’re seeing trans and non binary people represented in a multidimensional way in TV shows like Butterfly, where their transition isn’t the main storyline. We bisexuals are even getting a look-in with a bisexual dating show!
This all matters because belonging matters. Having a sense of belonging directly impacts on our mental health and well being - when I don’t see myself reflected in the bombardment of media we all experience, then I may question where I belong. Of course, we can gain a sense of belonging in other places and through different aspects of our identity i.e. hobby groups, spirituality etc. However, heterosexual people don’t have to seek out their belonging in relationship terms, because their sexuality is validated everywhere. But this isn’t an ‘us and them’ argument.
So belonging matters. However, a same-sex coupling doesn’t have to represent the sexuality of the individuals. In my experience, the benefit of dancing in a non-traditional pairing is actually to do with having the choice to lead or follow. The tradition of ballroom dancing assumes that a man will lead and woman will follow - so much so that the Latin and Ballroom textbooks have technical instructions that refer to ‘man’s steps’ and the ‘lady’s steps’.
In my experience as a Latin and Ballroom dance teacher, I’ve come to realise that partnering someone well really comes down to the unromantic reality of physics. My femaleness isn’t really relevant. I can generate the appropriate movement quality, posture and intention for leading or following, and it’s mostly what we are doing physically.
We love to associate certain movement qualities with maleness and femaleness. If you like, we can describe the polarity between leading and following as masculine and feminine energy. These days, though, I prefer yin and yang. Examples of yin qualities are receiving, acceptance, allowing, surrender; and yang qualities are giving out, determination, clear boundaries, wilfulness.
I believe we all have the potential to embody both yin and yang qualities to some degree, but we also have a tendency (unconscious or otherwise) towards one or the other based on our personality, life experience, culture, environment etc. Identifying/doing one more than the other can be problematic. For example, a follower that is overtly yin could be a pushover, not give enough feedback and won’t communicate when they’re uncomfortable. A leader that is overtly yang could be aggressive, dominating and unable to listen to the needs of their partner. This is why knowing how to access both yin and yang qualities when dancing with a partner is actually vital. Sometimes that’s as simple as swapping roles occasionally to empathise with the other’s experience.
Polarities not opposites
I got a helpful distinction from my teachers, Francis Briers and Mark Walsh, when I was training on the Embodied Facilitators Course last year. They explained that yin and yang are polarities, not opposites. This means that you cannot have one without the other - just like when you partner in ballroom dancing, you cannot have a leader without the follower and vice versa. Also vital to the healthy engagement in partnership, is that each has a flavour of the other (that’s presented in the dots in the Chinese yin and yang symbol). I see this as empathy. So as long as you are in agreement as to which role you are taking, there can be harmony, and if you want to play then you can always switch roles!
To summarise, I see two significant benefits to featuring same-sex pairings in Strictly. The LGBTQ+ community get another opportunity for a sense of belonging. Maybe some people who are finding the idea of two men dancing together hard to swallow might actually have a change of heart when they see they’re not actually having sex on TV! For all of us, if a celebrity can choose whether they lead or follow, then we see it’s a choice we all have when we partner in dance – and by dance, I also mean life! I see leading and following as two wonderful opportunities to understand ourselves in relation to other people. Both have important qualities, and neither is better or more important than the other, because neither can exist without the other.
Throughout our lives, we have moments of needing to take the lead - for example, in our professions, as parents, in our relationships and in our politics. Equally, we are required to follow, listen and be receptive at appropriate times. You see, partner dancing can be an escape from our realities, or it can be a way of becoming deeply conscious of the choices we have in relation to the world around us. It all comes down to choice.
*FYI it turns out that the very first lesbian kiss on network television was in a 1974 drama called Girl starring Alison Steadman!