Coming to Terms with ThE American Smooth
While it sounds like the sort of thing you might read on a billboard for cigarettes (back when that sort of thing was in style), American Smooth, in fact, refers to a genre of competitive ballroom dancing–otherwise known as Dancesport. A four-dance division, American Smooth comprises the American Waltz, the American Tango, the American Foxtrot, and then, by some miracle of American exceptionalism, the American Viennese Waltz. In fact, the American Foxtrot is the only dance among them that actually has an origin story befitting its name–and in true American style, it is a story that is (among other things) about the appropriation and white-washing of Black American cultural capital. But there exist all manner of ways to smooth out a narrative, and this one gets smoothed out as a matter of the daily operations. Because, also in true American style, American Dancesport packages its product for sale to the American consumer. And the American consumer is, generally speaking, adverse to the idea that they would ever take part in cultural appropriation–be it an aversion to the personal indictment, or an aversion to the general idea. And nobody wants to talk about it except for the people that want to talk about it.
Dancer and scholar Juliet McMains writes extensively on the history of American Dancesport, with respect to and for Critical Race Theory as an academic framework. She prefaces her 2006 book, Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry by telling the reader: “I am a Glamour addict, struggling to stay clean. Everyone needs a hobby, maybe even a passion. Mine is competitive ballroom dancing.” The third chapter of Glamour Addiction is based on McMains’ 2001 article, Brownface: Representations of Latin-Ness in Dancesport, which begins: “The overwhelming stench of alcohol hovers in the hotel bathroom as my dance partner lathers a fourth layer of brown body paint onto my belly. ‘You have to learn how to apply your tan properly,’ he admonishes sternly as I squirm under the sting of chemicals burning my skin.” By beginning both works with a personal account, McMains situates herself in the belly of the beast: the “Glamour Machine,” as she calls it: “the entire network of businesses, traditions, images and people that maintain American DanceSport.” She implicates herself in the problem as she has come to view it. For this reason and so many more, I really wish I’d known about Juliet McMains’ scholarship when I first got myself wrapped up in the whole thing in the fall of 2009. For lessons about the body paint alone.
I can’t recall another time in my working life when a hotel room full of white people looked upon me with such shocked concern as the time I emerged from the bathroom after my first pitiful attempt at applying Italian made Stardust brand STARBODY instant no transfer colour cream. That the same, now roughly half-full, can of this chemical sludge still lives rent-free under my bathroom sink nearly fifteen years later, after multiple subsequent uses, is testament to its potency. Which, of course, I wasn’t aware of the first time I tried putting it on, which is why it took three of us half an hour to try and smooth out my brownface, and two others to point and laugh. And yes, five people is way too many people to be staying together in even the roomiest of Marriott’s double rooms. But five dance instructors to a room at a competition is going to cut down on the cost of doing business, and none of those five people at that time had the interest, the wherewithal–the audacity to negotiate a better deal for themselves.