Watch: These guys re-imagined ballroom dancing to tackle gender barriers
These dancers have created a form of ballroom dancing where partners take it in turns to lead, to help break down gender roles.
Dance instructors Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox have been obsessed with ballroom for years, and would often train together for lack of a female partner.
Fox explained: “When Trevor and I would get together for training seminars or just for fun, we’d toss each other around, mix it up, take a break from having to lead all the time.”
“We even came up with a system for switching lead and follow while we were dancing, as a way of taking turns and playing fair.”
The pair explained during a TEDx talk in Montreal that they took the inspiration from their own dance training to develop a whole new system of dancing that takes aim directly at gender roles.
Copp explained: “Classic Latin and ballroom dancing isn’t just a system of dancing; it’s a way of thinking, of being, of relating to each other that captured a whole period’s values.
“There’s one thing that stayed consistent, though: the man leads and the woman follows. So street salsa, championship tango, it’s all the same – he leads, she follows.
“This was gender training. You weren’t just learning to dance – you were learning to ‘man’ and to ‘woman. It’s a relic.
“And in the way of relics, you don’t throw it out, but you need to know that this is the past. This isn’t the present.
“It’s like Shakespeare: respect it, revive it – great! But know that this is history. This doesn’t represent how we think today.”
The pair realised that they had to create a new system that would allow dancing to reflect society in 2016 – letting two men or women dance together, letting a woman lead a man, and letting gender be removed from the conversation entirely.
Fox explained: “The core principle of partner dancing is that one person leads, the other one follows. The machine works the same, regardless of who’s playing which role. The physics of movement doesn’t really give a crap about your gender.
“So if we were to update the existing form, we would need to make it more representative of how we interact here, now, in 2016. When you watch ballroom, don’t just watch what’s there. Watch what’s not. The couple is always only a man or a woman. Together. Only. Ever.
“So, same-sex and gender nonconformist couples just disappear. In most mainstream international ballroom competitions, same-sex couples are rarely recognized on the floor, and in many cases, the rules prohibit them completely.”
Remarking on the dominance of white straight stereotypical dance couples in ballroom, Trevor Copp said: “If you were to take a ballroom dance and translate that into a conversation and drop that into a movie, we, as a culture, would never stand for this. He dictates, she reacts.
“No relationship – gay, straight or anything – that we would regard as remotely healthy or functional looks like that, and yet somehow, you put it on prime time, you slap some makeup on it, throw the glitter on, put it out there as movement, not as text, and we, as a culture, tune in and clap. We are applauding our own absence. Too many people have disappeared from partner dancing.”
“We wanted to look at this from a totally different angle. So, what if we could keep the idea of lead and follow but toss the idea that this was connected to gender?
“Further, what if a couple could lead and follow each other and then switch? And then switch back? What if it could be like a conversation, taking turns listening and speaking, just like we do in life? What if we could dance like that? We call it ‘Liquid Lead Dancing’.
“In salsa, there’s a key transitional step, called the cross-body lead. We use it as punctuation to break up the improvisation.
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“If we apply liquid-lead thinking to the transitional step, the cross-body lead becomes a point where the lead and the follow can switch. The person following can elect to take over the lead, or the person leading can choose to surrender it.
“With this simple tweak, the dance moves from being a dictation to a negotiation. Anyone can lead. Anyone can follow. And more importantly, you can change your mind. Now, this is only one example of how this applies, but once the blinkers come off, anything can happen.”
Fox added: “It’s not just the freedom to switch roles, but the freedom from being defined by whichever role you’re playing, the freedom to always remain true to yourself. Forget what a lead is supposed to look like, or a follow. Be a masculine follow or a feminine lead. Just be yourself.
“Obviously, this applies off the dance floor as well, but on the floor, it gives us the perfect opportunity to update an old paradigm, reinvigorate an old relic, and make it more representative of our era and our current way of being.
Copp concluded: Jeff and I dance partner dancing all the time with women and men and we love it. But we dance with a consciousness that this is a historic form that can produce silence and produce invisibility across the spectrum of identity that we enjoy today.
“We invented Liquid Lead as a way of stripping out all the ideas that don’t belong to us and taking partner dancing back to what it really always was: the fine art of taking care of each other.”