Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox

Ballroom dance that breaks gender roles

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Trevor Copp: When "Dancing With the Stars" first hit the airwaves, that is not what it looked like.




Jeff and I were full-time ballroom dance instructors when the big TV ballroom revival hit, and this was incredible. I mean, one day we would say "foxtrot," and people were like "Foxes trotting."




And the next day they were telling us the finer points of a good feather step. And this blew our minds. I mean, all of the ballroom dance geeking out that we had always done on why salsa worked differently than the competitive rumba and why tango traveled unlike the waltz, all of that just hit the public consciousness, and it changed everything.


But running parallel to this excitement, the excitement that suddenly, somehow, we were cool —




there was also this reservation. Why this and why now?


Jeff Fox: 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. It wasn't until we used that system as part of a performance in a small festival that we got an important tap on the shoulder. Lisa O'Connell, a dramaturge and director of a playwright center, pulled us aside after the show and said, "Do you have any idea how political that was?"




So that began an eight-year collaboration to create a play which not only further developed our system for switching but also explored the impact of being locked into a single role, and what's worse, being defined by that single role.


TC: Because, of course, 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.


So 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.


So we asked ourselves: If you strip it all down, what is at the core of partner dancing?


JF: Well, 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 2015. When you watch ballroom, don't just watch what's there. Watch what's not. The couple is always only a man and 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.


TC: Try this: Google-image, "professional Latin dancer," and then look for an actual Latino person.




You'll be there for days. What you will get is page after page of white, straight Russian couples spray-tanned to the point of mahogany.




There are no black people, there are no Asians, no mixed-race couples, so basically, non-white people just disappeared.


Even within the white-straight- couple-only paradigm — she can't be taller, he can't be shorter. She can't be bolder, he can't be gentler.


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.






JF: Now, you just saw two men dancing together.




And you thought it looked ... a little strange. Interesting — appealing, even — but a little bit odd. Even avid followers of the same-sex ballroom circuit can attest that while same-sex partner dancing can be dynamic and strong and exciting, it just doesn't quite seem to fit. Aesthetically speaking, if Alida and I take the classic closed ballroom hold ... this is considered beautiful.




But why not this?




See, the standard image that the leader must be larger and masculine and the follower smaller and feminine — this is a stumbling point.


TC: So 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."


JF: Let's try this with a Latin dance, salsa. In salsa, there's a key transitional step, called the cross-body lead. We use it as punctuation to break up the improvisation. It can be a little tricky to spot if you're not used to looking for it, so here it is. One more time for the cheap seats.




And here's the action one more time, nice and slow. Now, if we apply liquid-lead thinking to this 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, essentially making it a counter-cross-body lead. Here's how that looks in slow motion. And here's how it looked when we danced it in the opening dance.


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.


TC: Let's look at how Liquid Lead thinking could apply to a classic waltz. Because, of course, it isn't just a system of switching leads; it's a way of thinking that can actually make the dance itself more efficient.


So: the waltz. The waltz is a turning dance. This means that for the lead, you spend half of the dance traveling backwards, completely blind. And because of the follower's position, basically, no one can see where they're going.




So you're out here on the floor, and then imagine that coming right at you.


JF: Raaaaaah!




TC: There are actually a lot of accidents out there that happen as a result of this blind spot. But what if the partners were to just allow for a switch of posture for a moment? A lot of accidents could be avoided. Even if one person led the whole dance but allowed this switch to happen, it would be a lot safer, while at the same time, offering new aesthetics into the waltz. Because physics doesn't give a damn about your gender.




JF: Now, we've danced Liquid Lead in clubs, convention centers and as part of "First Dance," the play we created with Lisa, on stages in North America and in Europe. And it never fails to engage. I mean, beyond the unusual sight of seeing two men dancing together, it always evokes and engages. But why?


The secret lies in what made Lisa see our initial demonstration as "political." It wasn't just that we were switching lead and follow; it's that we stayed consistent in our presence, our personality and our power, regardless of which role we were playing. We were still us.


And that's where the true freedom lies — 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.


TC: 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.





Tango, waltz, foxtrot ... these classic ballroom dances quietly perpetuate an outdated idea: that the man always leads and the woman always follows. That's an idea worth changing, say Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox, as they demonstrate their "Liquid Lead" dance technique along with fellow dancer Alida Esmail. Watch as Copp and Fox captivate and command the stage while boldly deconstructing and transforming the art of ballroom dance.

About the speakers
Trevor Copp · Artistic director

Trevor Copp is known for innovative social justice theater that blends physicality, image and narrative.

Trevor Copp is known for innovative social justice theater that blends physicality, image and narrative.

Jeff Fox · Dancer

Jeff Fox is a professional dancer, competitor, choreographer who has won professional titles in American Smooth, Rhythm, Theatre Arts and Showdance.

Jeff Fox is a professional dancer, competitor, choreographer who has won professional titles in American Smooth, Rhythm, Theatre Arts and Showdance.