Political Partnering

screenshot for Virginia State Dancesport Championship

When I chose to pursue this whole ballroom thing, it was easy enough to say, “Well, it’s just so political,” in casual conversation. Interactions with many seasoned professionals and fellow newcomers have only confirmed this rather trite observation. However, my partner and I competed in salsa before transitioning to ballroom, and with just a year of experience under our belt, managed to become East Coast champions and then place 9th in the world. This is rapid compared to the requisite years (yes, plural) in ballroom before finals become a remote possibility. So when we took on ballroom, our friends were surprised that we weren’t rising as quickly as we had before, and continue to ask us why.

We started competing in January and have yet to make the finals, let alone place. This is not a point of frustration for us, but it does serve to illuminate the stark differences between salsa and ballroom. The primary reason for our (comparatively) slow progression is the political bias at play in this world. Though we were aware that this would be an obstacle, neither my partner nor I had a clear sense of exactly how these political leanings are manifested. To break down what I mean by “politics,” let me provide some specific examples.

Last weekend, we competed in the Virginia State Dance Championships. The Virginia State Dance Championships

Exhibit A: A potential definition of “politics” includes a healthy dose of misogyny.

I had submitted the registration for this event for both my partner and I, as I had done for the previous two competitions. Since I reached the check-in desk before him, I approached the officials and asked for our number (the little 3-digit identifier that I will hastily pin to my partner’s back five minutes before we dance) and registration. The women in charge of processing all the competitors stared at me blankly for a few beats before asking, with genuine concern, “Usually the man does that. Are you sure you want to do that?” This happened at Virginia, Manhattan, and Atlantic City. At three separate competitions where I paid for our registration, my partner received the invoice for payment, and had to forward it to me. At all three of these, female volunteers for the competition expressed bewilderment at my initiative for something as mundane as picking up a folder of paperwork, because of my sex. The consistency of their reactions, both physical and vocal, does a lot to both astound and reassure me. I am astounded for somewhat obvious minimally feminist reasons. I am reassured, though, because it seems to me that if these women react the same way to the same glitch in the system, they are perhaps not aware of their participation in it. I find this reassuring because it seems to afford them some ease in their work, assuming they are rarely confronted with glitches such as a woman doing the work of a man.

I submit this as an example of insidious “politics” at play in ballroom, rather than an acute moment of bias that affected our results directly. However, understanding the sly underpinnings of sexism that allow for those more acute moments to occur has been an eye-opener for me.

Exhibit B: Another potential definition of “politics” could be bribery, in its simplest form.

Before competing, we ran into friends of ours, with whom I had worked on the set of Silver Linings Playbook. These were seasoned ballroom professionals, both originally from Eastern Europe (one from Belarus, the other from Poland) who have been working in the industry for 30 years. We also ran into a coach of ours, who ranked nationally in the top 5 American Rhythm couples until he retired last year. With the help of these friends, we observed the judges as they observed competitors on the floor. Our friends continued to watch for us as we competed to see what the judges were looking for and at. This is where the politics really come into play. Screenshot 2015-08-01 11.46.17

You can see the judges names listed on the right here, correlated to a number. This comes in handy when looking at a score sheet for the event one has competed in:

Screenshot 2015-08-01 11.45.47

In this competition, we were #182 (Jacobsen/Burns). (Though a less productive example, I also will point out here that all couple are listed Male first, Female second, a tradition which goes unquestioned and unbroken.) For ease of view, I’ve only included two out of the five total dances we competed in for American Rhythm Rising Star. You can see that for the ChaCha and Rumba, we received four “recall” checks– meaning, those four judges would like to see us in the finals. You can also see #161 and #162 received thirteen “recall” checks– meaning, every single judge on the floor would like to seem them in the finals.

So, does that mean that #182 danced less than half as well as #s 161 and 162? No. In fact, it has far less to do with dancing than it does to do with money and time. First, money: the two couples who received checks from all 13 had taken private coaching lessons with at least four of the judges on the floor. This amounts to anywhere between $150 – $250/hr for a private lesson with a judge, who will coach you on your dancing, and in return, will recall you for the finals. Second, time: these two couples had been to this competition in particular for the past five consecutive years. In the words of our recently retired coach and friend, “They’ve just been around forever.” The thing about this duration, though, is that it also translates to money; attending this competition five years in a row means paying the registration fees, hotel fees, costume and coaching fees, for five years. Added up, this is equal to about $2500. And this is just two couples in one competition, out of hundreds competing nationally on the same levels of bribery and favoritism.

We have another competition coming up this week, here in Manhattan. This will be a big one; everyone wants to come to NYC to compete just for the experience of being in New York. In fact, there is an event hosted by the competition’s organizers called “Shop til you Drop” in which competitors, both professional and amateur, are sheparded around various shopping destinations for– no kidding– six hours. Even consumerism is competitive.

Again, we do not expect to make the finals in any of the divisions we compete in (which, for this competition will be three– American Rhythm Rising Star, Open, and Showdance). But I’m looking forward to having the chance to continue observing this world that is so dominated by men, and also to perform again. It is still a struggle to square my discomfort with the deeply entrenched misogyny of this culture, and the politics that allow it to continue, with the absolute joy I experience when I’m on the floor.

More on that later.

2 thoughts on “Political Partnering

  1. Hi Kelsey,

    As you have thoroughly mentioned, oftentimes the “politics” that define performance strike not only on institutional fronts but also intimately, close to the heart. Having spent ten years training as a figure skater, I have also encountered similar frustrations with the ethics behind financial privileges (and cultural/racial alienation and discomfort). Do you think it is easier to begin a dialogue about these issues as a dancer or as an academic? Or maybe these two are not mutually exclusive. Is theory made visible on the dance floor? I’m excited to hear about your findings—you are thinking from a passionate place.


  2. Hey Kelsey!
    I am so intrigued by your journey into this world. I think that it is incredible that you are taking these sociological notes from the “inside” of this world, as a dancer, while still doing everything you need to do to compete. Have the politics and misogyny affected your performance? I wonder if it is distracting to be thinking about these complicated issues and still performing to the fullest. I’d love to hear how your competition went a few weeks ago, and whether or not you have any new ideas about how you “square your discomfort,” as you wrote in this post!

    Looking forward to hearing all about this in the fall! Good luck with the remainder of your research.


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