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Swing Theory: Local Dancers Reject Traditional Gender Roles 

Tuesday, Oct 7 2014
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West Coast swing dancers swirl beneath a disco ball to a mix of R&B, country, and classics at a social dance in Emeryville, hosted by the Next Generation Swing Dance Club. Some step-step-ball-change in low-heeled ballroom shoes and full skirts, while others wear sneakers and jeans. A middle-aged woman who had been giving out glittery hair extensions in the parking lot seems responsible for the hairstyles of half the women present; their hair sparkles with strands of tinsel as their dance partners — some male and a few female — spin them around the dancefloor.

Next Generation is one of several clubs across the nation that are working to open the competitive dance circuit to couples who don't want to follow the traditional gender roles of dance, in which a man leads and a woman follows. Although dancers often partner male-male, female-female, or male-follow and female-lead at more informal social dances, many competitions have enforced traditional roles, particularly in a category called Jack & Jill, in which partners are assigned by the luck of the draw.

"Following is a little bit like riding a roller coaster," says Jon Jackson, a Portland-based dancer and the founder of a group called Degendering West Coast Swing, which advocates for gender-neutral roles in dance competitions like the upcoming Boogie By The Bay, an international dance competition presented by Next Generation in Burlingame this weekend. "You're going for a ride and you're just having fun. You just experience the dance."

By comparison, Jackson likens leading, the role in West Coast swing traditionally danced by a man, to playing with LEGOs, "because you get to create a structure." Jackson prefers the freedom of following, but he dances both leading and following roles in West Coast swing competitions. Before he launched a petition in June asking competition organizers to allow competitors to dance in any role, regardless of gender, most competitions would only allow him to dance as a leader.

Now, with nearly 1,700 signatures on the petition, several local competitions are welcoming gender-neutral roles in several categories of competition, including Jack & Jill. At San Jose's Swingtacular in August, five women made the final round dancing as leaders. In a statement posted on its website in June, Boogie By The Bay announced "all dancers may enter our Jack & Jill competitions as a leader and/or follower regardless of gender."

It's a victory for Kelly Casanova, a U.S. Open Swing Dance Championships winner and dance instructor who says she has advocated to de-gender dance roles for 30 years. As a teacher, she finds that her students become better overall dancers when they learn both roles. In 1999, she held a dance competition that allowed dancers of any gender to lead and follow, but recalls, "Some people felt it offensive that men were dancing together and women were dancing together, or women were leading men." She stopped organizing the competition after two years. "I realized I was a little ahead of my time."

So now competitions like Boogie By The Bay allow dancers to perform any role they choose. But there's still a problem: If West Coast swing dancers don't perform the roles typically assigned to their genders, their points aren't published by the World Swing Dance Council, the organization that archives points at competitions worldwide. No points means no moving forward in the rankings, meaning experienced dancers who want to dance a de-gendered role are pitted against first-time competitors in the novice category.

The WSDC charges dancers a dollar to track their points each time they enter a competition. But the WSDC only publishes points based on which role a dancer performed at his or her first competition — once a leader, always a leader; once a follower, always a follower — so dancers who later choose to perform nontraditional roles pay the dollar, but their points aren't published. Casanova and other dancers call these unrecorded points "ghost points."

"We want points to be de-gendered, but that's going to be a long haul," says Shane Gomes, who prefers to dance as a follower. He and his frequent dance partner Ken McAllister say they recently entered a competition together, only to not have their names announced when it was time for them to perform. They stepped onto the dancefloor anyway, but Gomes' points were not recorded.

"At some point, they'll stop being dinosaurs on this issue," says John Quarto-vonTivadar, a volunteer with the WSDC, about the council. Strangely, for all the emphasis placed on gender, the WSDC doesn't actually track it. Quarto-vonTivadar says that, because dance roles have traditionally been gendered (males lead, females follow), the database records only whether you initially dance leading or following roles. If you decide to dance a different role, the WSDC prevents whatever points you receive (those ghost points) from being publicly displayed — although Quarto-vonTivadar says the points are being recorded. They just don't count.

Now, dancers say the WSDC needs to keep up with the times — or give all those dollars back.

By opening Boogie By The Bay to gender-neutral roles, co-director Andy Bouman says he hopes the WSDC will feel pressure to change its policy and start publishing the ghost points. In the meantime, Boogie By The Bay has to review contestants' competition history and calculate the ghost points manually.

"Now's the time. The younger generation is really pushing this," Bouman says. "They want to challenge themselves and compete in both roles, and it's just a justice thing."

Quarto-vonTivadar hopes change is on the horizon for the organization. "Gay marriage made people question why they care," he says of gender roles in the West Coast swing community. The opposition to same-sex couples on the dancefloor may seem rooted in homophobia, but several dancers, including Casanova, argue that sexuality is wrongly projected onto swing dance, which does not have the closed embrace and overt eroticism of other dances like tango.

"A Jack & Jill is to show how you can dance with anybody, no matter what," Casanova explains. To be paired with an unexpected partner, who could be taller, shorter, male, or female, strips away the cover of choreography and puts the spotlight on a dancer's skill as a leader or follower. "In my opinion, that's one of the highest art forms of our dance: to do this with someone you don't even know."

About The Author

Kate Conger

Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.

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