Swing Time: Gay Ballroom Dancing
Ballroom dancing is spectacularly gay, but until recently, it seems, it hasn't been nearly gay enough. What with the twirling and the sequins and the arch attitude, not to mention the posture and the claw-your-eyes-out, bitch-I-will-cut-you! figure-skating-style politics, gay ballroom dancing — the idea of it, anyway — is one of those things in the known universe so obvious as to seem, like gravity or taxes, as if it has always existed.
Who's the leader? Beroiz shows his ballroom students a few graceful moves.
But it hasn't. At least not here. This is what ballroom enthusiast Steve Valentine realized one afternoon while walking past the Dance Doctor studio in Santa Monica. Through the window he spotted a beautiful gay man coaching a traditional woman-man couple while they picked their way around a waltz.
"He was so good and so articulate," says Valentine. "I'd danced with women all my life, but I'd always dreamed of dancing with men. When I saw him, I didn't know how to make that dream happen, but I knew I had to."
That beautiful gay man was dance champion Christopher Beroiz, chocolate-brown hair, brown eyes, 6 feet 1 and 170 pounds. You may recognize him from such performances as Swing! the musical, Saturday Night Fever the Germany tour, the Nouveau Chamber Ballet's Nutcracker, the United Kingdom World Invitational Championships (15th place), the British Championship (fourth place), the 2005 Tournament of Roses Parade and the Crystal Symphony cruise, on which he was the ship's guest instructor as it plowed through the Baltic Sea. Beroiz, who is of the opinion that even stalkers deserve a chance, recalls Valentine peeking in at him "with a ringer tee, jeans and fluffy blond hair." The two now hold gay ballroom classes in West Hollywood at the Plummer Park Community Center.
In a run-of-the-mill ballroom class, the instructor calls out, "Men on one side, women on the other." But in a gay ballroom class, that won't work. Even if you are a man, you may feel like a woman. Or perhaps you suspect you are a man trapped in a woman's body. Whatever the case may be, determining who leads in gay ballroom dance gets dicey. Lisa Marie Belsanti, one of Valentine's friends and co-producer of the classes, once took a straight ballroom-dance class with her girlfriend. Trying to be politically correct, instead of "Ladies and gentlemen," the teacher tried, "Leaders on one side, followers on the other."
"Now, hold on a second," said one of the ladies, "Are you calling me a follower?"
It was not, as Belsanti recalls, "an uplifting experience."
For his part, Beroiz tried "tops" and "bottoms" for a while, but that didn't seem quite right. For now, he's settled on the less psychologically and sexually loaded, more descriptive "leads" and "follows."
Beroiz is a choreographer, and he thinks a lot about the physical dynamics of men dancing with men and women dancing with women. When men dance with men, it is about two powers coming together. There is more weight moving around. When he choreographs dances for women to dance with women, on the other hand, Beroiz emphasizes fluidity.
The East German lesbians are kicking everyone else's butts in ballroom dance right now, gay or straight. Beroiz is thankful that Valentine and Valentine's dance partner, Michael Padula, have taken up the torch in the fight against the East German lesbians. Beroiz is training them to compete in the upcoming gay ballroom-dance nationals — Europe has a long tradition of same-sex ballroom, and San Francisco has just started a National Gay Dance Council of America. The lesbians have the upper hand: They have dresses. But Beroiz, short of placing "a screaming queen at the end of a man's arm" (that is something he says he doesn't necessarily need to see), has a small arsenal of secret tricks up his sleeve. He at times will attach silk-chiffon "floats" to the men's costumes to highlight the lines of each movement. The float signifies the cape of the matador. He has even dressed his dancers in real matador pants with an obi around the waist. The pants are loose and flowing, making it easier to do knee walks.
Every now and then, while one of his student couples is foxtrotting or samba-ing or cha-cha-ing, he will hurl a chair at them from across the floor. Not to be mean and bitchy, but to test whether or not they can maintain their poise even if the house is on fire and the walls are crashing around them. Because you never know when Velma and Velma will come barreling straight toward you, ready to mow you down.
Any couple that wishes to compete must endure Beroiz's rigorous precompetition ballroom-dance boot camp. That means cardio workouts, weight training in order to increase strength for doing lifts, ballet lessons for gracefulness, Pilates for flexibility. Beroiz is a "technical hound." He also gives lessons in makeup and costume creation.
"How often are we going to practice?" asks Valentine. We are milling around at the first of the class's six weeks of sessions at the community center, waiting to learn how to rumba and salsa. Beroiz shoots him an appraising look.
"A lot," Beroiz says.
"What's a lot? Can you quantify that? Like an hour a day?"
"Try six. At least as we get near the competition."
"No, seriously. Seriously?"
The social dancers, namely the ones who opt not to enter the competition, will practice for two hours a week. Gays get priority. You don't have to be homosexual to take the classes — "fruit flies" (a.k.a. straights who hang around gays) are welcome — but it does seem to help. At a recent same-sex dance championship competition, a drag queen wore heels higher than Beroiz's and the drag queen was still faster.
"Place your hand on your hip and lean your weight on that leg," Beroiz commands. I'm dancing with a man named Michelle. Neither she/he nor I has ever taken a ballroom class, and the "quick, slow, quick-quick, slow" is rough going at first. But eventually we find our groove, and what we're doing starts to resemble actual dancing rather than the spasms of a dying antelope.
Beroiz insists that steps should be performed so clearly and precisely that someone watching our feet could learn the dance in a matter of minutes. "That swishing motion comes from moving your knees, not your hips," he explains. "Have you ever seen hula dancers wiggling their hips? They're really wiggling their knees. So let's get used to this starting position." He observes Valentine's dance partner. "Good. Exactly like that."
"Huh? Wha ... ?" says Padula, who wasn't paying attention. "Oh, this is just how I stand."
Contrary to what you might think, what with this being one of the gayest cities in the nation, men who want to dance with men in Los Angeles don't have a lot of options. They're stuck grinding up against each other to the same mm-tsk-mm-tsk-mm-tsk, bass-heavy, canned electronic beats at the same few insular clubs, or at the giant circuit parties that sweep through the city. For sure those have their place, but whatever happened to a little traditional, old-fashioned, romantic, man-woos-man, woman-woos-woman courtship? Beroiz finds it tragic that gay couples are more comfortable kissing each other at the mall than dancing in each other's arms at formal events.
To help their cause, Beroiz and Valentine are full of media-ready quotes: "You can keep gay people from getting married, but I'll be damned if you'll keep us from dancing." And: "Humans are the only animal that dances." And: "It's about time we had gay ballroom dancing. All the professional ballroom dancers are gay anyway." And: "West Hollywood will do ballroom, but we'll do it in better shoes. That's what sets us apart."
Good thing, because of course the two are in production talks to turn their gay-ballroom class into a reality-TV show. I imagine, as there was during class, that there will be all kinds of drama: Beroiz egging on Valentine relentlessly; gays talking smack about lesbians and their co-dependent dance issues (Beroiz: "Ahem! You can tell who's co-dependent here. It's the people who crowd their partners"); boys checking each other out; girls dragging other reluctant girls in; couples bitterly envious of their rivals' fancy footwork; everybody railing about the bigotry of mainstream professional-dance organizations and national competitions that won't let same-sex couples compete — even though their skills are just as tight as those of opposite-sex couples. It'll be twinkle-toes and eyes like daggers.
A few nights before our lesson, Valentine invites a bunch of people to the Opera club in Hollywood to watch Beroiz and his spry assistant David dance the rumba. They circle each other warily like lions, eyes locked, muscles taut. Sometimes Beroiz leads, sometimes David. They push and pull apart, embracing and twisting, lifting each other in ways that no man-woman couple could or would do. It is breathtaking, studied, gymnastically (but not crudely) sexy and, even to those in the club who aren't gay, undeniably sensuous. All the elements of good ballroom are accounted for.
"Are you signing up for the class?" I ask one of the guests afterward.
"I'll do it as long as there's booty action. If there isn't, gay men will find a way to put booty action into it," says Lucian. He points to his butt. "This thing's got a mind of its own."
Gay Ballroom with instructor Christopher Beroiz, Plummer Park Community Center, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. Six-week series begins March 1; $200 per couple, $125 for singles; non-same-sex students admitted on limited basis as space allows. For more information: Producer Steve Valentine, email@example.com, www.gayballroom.tv or Plummer Park Community Center, (323) 845-0174.
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