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Ballroom isn't for sissies. Hours of training and grueling rehearsals are required for a seamless meshing of minds and bodies when the music kicks in. So when Steve Valentine and Robbie Tristan take to the floor at Balliamos Dance Studio in West Hollywood, there isn't a couple that looks more elegant, more in sync or more natural together.
Beyoncé's "I'm a Boy" swells from the boom box. Confident and reed-slim, Tristan assumes lead position. As his hand encircles the gold-belted waist of his buff partner, a powerful surge drives him as he fluidly guides his crackling blond around the floor. It's high-voltage stuff. The moves are razor-sharp. "You have to show your physicality," Tristan says. "I don't want to look like the gay clown. I take pride in my dancing."
These aren't just two guys who like to rhumba around. Valentine and Tristan are the Gay Olympic Ballroom Champions, winning the gold at the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne, Germany. They're poised for a repeat victory in 2014.
Lest anyone think that isn't a big deal, the Gay Games attracts some 10,000 participants from 70 countries; it's one of the world's largest amateur athletic events. The pair also nabbed titles at Northern California's April Follies and are the current Canadian champions.
It all started a couple of years ago, when Valentine, a PR mogul, and Tristan, an indie-film producer and choreographer, teamed up to teach same-sex dance classes at Plummer Park Community Center in WeHo.
"I wanted to make an impact on the community," Valentine says. "It's kind of like trying to get same-sex marriage passed."
They were having so much fun that they decided to enter the world of formal competition. Same-sex regulations are similar to hetero: Competitors must demonstrate mastery in rhumba, cha-cha, jive, samba and paso doble. After that, the sky's the limit, with no rules about who leads, who follows, what to wear — or not.
Beneath the studio's crystal chandeliers, Valentine assumes his place in the follow position. He dramatically elongates his swanlike neck and arches his 6-foot frame back slightly. What is intended to be a physical expression of femininity to honor what he calls "the traditional frame" doesn't subtract a whit of his masculinity. "Women have breasts, so as the submissive partner, I have to lean back as if I'm making room for them," he says. "Even though I am in the submissive role and get to do more turns and flourishes, I want to look masculine. With two men it's ballroom on steroids."
When it comes to aesthetics, the gay factor manages to rear its head. There are tans to spray on, hair to style (Tristan bleached his locks platinum for the Gay Games) and costumes, costumes, costumes, each of which can cost from $800 to $3,000. "It's all about plunging necklines and bling," Valentine says. "We want to freak out the competition. Plus, I want to get my chest as pumped up as it can be."
"It's all about Steve, myself and his boobs," Tristan says. "If costumes were up to him, he'd come out wearing mirrored disco balls."