The stereotype that gay men are good dancers, along with the idea we’re better dressers, can be alleviated after one night at a gay bar. What gay men are good at is dancing by themselves, swaying and gyrating to get the attention of other guys (that is the purpose of gay fashions as well).
Although I am not a particularly un-awkward person, I can do this kind of dancing adequately, if not spectacularly. My brother and I both have a pretty good sense of rhythm, inherited from we know not where. But I still met the invitation from my co-worker Rain to be her partner for a ‘blues dancing’ workshop with hesitation.
Rain is the coffee roaster at my café. She is knowledgeable about the different beans and coffee-growing regions and can answer inane questions (“Which coffee is the best?”) with a level of professionalism I sometimes fail at. She also pasts Captain Picard stickers by her work station and her uniform’s white shirts and black pants just barely conceal her tattoos.
She wanted to do more fun things in the city, found the ‘blues dancing’ event online and wanted someone to dance with. Wanting to say ‘Yes’ to life, I eventually agreed to go. A gay guy and straight girl going to dancing lessons together seemed like a cute concept from a late 1990’s romantic comedy.
So one evening I ventured east past Dundas Square to a neighbourhood which wouldn’t seem unusual on a CTV crime drama. The dance studio, which was up a flight of stairs, looked exactly how you’d expect a dance studio to look, with large windows on two sides and beautiful hard wood floors. As is my habit, I came twenty minutes early and shyly padded around in my socks watching the others arrived. I was very relieved when Rain showed up.
As we gathered in a circle, I noted that the 15 or so assembled dancers were a good mix of ages and ethnicities. The instructors stood in the middle and introduced allegedly simple steps. ‘Blues dancing’ it turned out was like swing dancing, but slower and sexier. And a lot of it relied on the male leading his female partner.
This was my first problem.
Because there were more men than women present (question mark, exclamation mark) we were told to stand in two circles, males on the outside, females on the inside, and rotate every three minutes. This meant that, when we were trying to learn the moves, we were essentially starting from scratch with a different person every 180 seconds.
‘I wanted to dance with Rain!’ I thought petulantly. ‘That’s what I signed up for.’
Instead, I had a different female partner every couple of minutes, and where I placed my hand on their sides never seemed to be the exact right spot. Whether they were experienced dancers (in which they would help me out, with varying levels of patience) or newbies like myself, all the women expected me to lead.
“Sorry,” I would fluster, trying to brush off my clumsiness with self-effacing charm. “I don’t really know what I’m doing…”
“Well, it’s up to you. You’re leading…” some of the women would say, staring blankly at me.
“Listen,” I felt like snapping back, “I’m gay. I opted out of your heteronormative dancing binaries a long time ago!”
A little bit of history: because it was illegal for men to dance with each other, gay men in the 1950’s and 1960’s developed a form of dancing which upended the couple-based one which had dominated from Jane Austen line-dancing to the waltz to swing. (In some places, it was even illegal for men to go onto the dance floor until at least one woman was on it, so sometimes a brave, lone woman would dance with a gay guy so all the other men could start. I salute these proto-fag hags.)
What’s interesting is that, as lesbians and gays gained wider social acceptance, we didn’t dance more like straight people. Instead, it went the other way around, as straight people danced more and more like us.
A number of factors killed couples dancing, like the change in rock over the 1960’s and the popularity of disco in the 1970’s. But even after the swing revival of recent years, at any given club you’ll see people, particularly women, dancing with themselves or in little circles with their friends.
The days when the proverbial wallflower sat on the sidelines, her wilting corsage reflecting her waning hope, waiting for a man to ask her to dance are long gone. Good riddance.
After what felt like forever, I was reunited with Rain.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“I don’t know what I’m doing!” I whined. “Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I know how to lead. I wanted to dance with you. ”
“Well, now’s our chance.”
“Will you lead?” I asked.
“I would love to,” she answered.