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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.

 

While hotel ballrooms most frequently serve as venues for ballroom dance competitions (locus of Glamour), ballroom dance studios generally serve as sites for the daily operations: the hustle, the labor, the grind. Dance instructors provide the sales force. While many ballroom dance studios are independently owned and operated, two major franchises have shaped industry systems and practices since the early-to-mid twentieth century: Arthur Murray Dance Studios (founded in 1925) and Fred Astaire Dance Studios (founded in 1947). While the sale of ballroom dance competition entries can be a significant source of a studio’s annual income, it is the sale of dance lessons that provides the foundation for that income. While some percentage of those new students to ballroom dancing will say that competition is their primary interest and motivation, the majority of new students simply want to feel more confident on the social dance floor. And for a not-insignificant percentage of those people, the very idea of a ballroom dance competition sends them running for the hills. At least, that’s how I remember things from my time at the Fred Astaire Dance Studios, from 2009 to 2016.

For all that feels familiar, when I read Juliet McMains’ account of her time spent navigating the industry, I can also identify clear points of distinction. McMains started ballroom dance classes during high school, and was able to integrate her practice of the form with the evolution of her academic voice. I took a job with Fred Astaire a few years after getting my undergrad from Bennington College–with a dual focus in modern dance and drama, spending most of my time barefoot and stoned. I showed up on Fred Astaire’s doorstep, a warm-blooded, male-presenting human being with a dance degree. (I’ve known studio owners to hire people based on any one of those criteria, nevermind all of them.) McMains got hooked on the Glamour of it all. I really needed a job–and was gradually glamourized as I went along (my boss had to give me my first pair of dance shoes from studio inventory, and bought me my first business suit at Macy’s). This aspect of our respective origin stories has bearing on the competitive categories we were allowed to enter: McMains beginning as an Amateur, and I as a Professional. While McMains focuses both competitively and academically on the International Latin category, I’ve never strayed far from the American Smooth. And in a bizarre twist of similarities and differences, it was our respective-though-mutual commitment to working with male-identifying partners that led McMains to be able to compete against some of the highest level Dancesport stars of her time, and that guided me to the much smaller, scrappier, grass roots & Queer-organized competitive circuit: events sanctioned by the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association (prepare yourself for this acronym, it sounds just the way it looks and looks just the way it sounds: NASSPDA). A subset of a subset of the dance world. 

The Fred Astaire regional and national competitions of my day followed the rulebook of the National Dance Council of America, which was not amended to allow for a more gender expansive approach to dance partnership until 2019. Hence the need for NASSPDA–an alternative sanctioning body, welcoming leadership and followership “without regard to the sex or gender of the dancer.” I didn’t know, back then, that such a thing was possible–that such a world existed. 

A newbie with the company, I was able to enter the “mixed novice” division of Fred Astaire New England regional competitions: whereby every couple competing against each other is comprised of one partner with more competitive dance experience than the other–a sort of mentorship opportunity, a way to get your feet wet. If you lucked out, you could train with a dance partner from Russia or Germany or someplace where they shout at you until you get it right. Even if there were no Russians or Germans working at your studio (ours was an all-american operation at that time), there might be somebody at a nearby location who’d be willing to train and partner with you (a perk of working for the franchise). I found no such Russian nor German to help me out in those earliest days–but rather a handful of benevolent US Americans who tried their level best. But in spite of their efforts, and my own slow improvement, the eighteen months I was allowed to compete in the mixed novice division amounted to little more than a series of low-level public humiliations. I imagine, in retrospect, part of my problem was a lifetime aversion to sports (childhood spent chasing butterflies on the tee-ball field, practicing high kicks on the soccer field, wishing I was anyplace else, but most especially back home watching The Golden Girls). Unlike tee-ball or soccer, for which one referee (maybe a small team of assistants) will assess and confirm the outcome between two competing teams (and usually that outcome is also pretty immediately apparent to the attending spectators), Dancesport relies on a panel of spiffy-looking adjudicators’ subjective opinions on a variety of criteria, applied to a ballroom full of even spiffier-looking competitors: a sea of teams of two, laboring-without-looking-like-they’re-laboring to move as a single, harmonious unit: wearing lycra, possibly rhinestones, occasionally feathers. Adjudicators have to try and see everyone in the span of a couple minutes, whereas spectators can look upon whomever they choose for as long as they like. And there’s a lot to friggin look at. I’ve seen bloody noses during the American Smooth (notably, a category that invites you to fling your limbs around). In my early days, I didn’t understand some of the very fundamentals: try and look like you’re happy to be there, like you think you might win, try not to get so hung up on questions about how your life’s journey has brought you to this point, just for a few minutes try to have a little fun. Then there’s the maxim that I heard in response to my every utterance of self-doubt during those first eighteen months: fake it till you make it. “Fake it till you make it” has a special kind of dual utility in franchised ballroom dancing. “Making it” could mean achieving great heights as a ballroom dance star, or it could (more often will) mean climbing higher in the ranks of a large-scale multi-level-marketing enterprise, named after one long-dead white guy or another. One wonders what Fred Astaire would make of any of it.   

It is of course unsurprising that the index of Fred Astaire’s autobiography, Steps in Time contains hundreds of people’s names–how could the index of a celebrity-memoir not? It is perhaps slightly less unsurprising that Fred Astaire never mentions his tap dance teacher, John Bubbles; that his only mention of Bill Robinson is the time Robinson schooled him at billiards. One can only wonder what Fred Astaire would say today, about his own 1936 “tribute” to Robinson, “Bojangles of Harlem”: a solo in blackface. The image of Fred Astaire in blackface is, generally speaking, not the first image that comes to mind when pondering his legacy. Neither is this image among those thousands of images that are reproduced to adorn 140 Fred Astaire Dance Studios and counting. For that would be (among other things) a terrible marketing move. Best, it would seem, not to mention anything about Fred Astaire in blackface, to keep it under our hats, to privilege a culture of silence that would smooth out such an inconvenient crinkle in an otherwise fairly propitious narrative. It is important, though, to remember that before he ever got into the business of owning dance schools, Fred Astaire was a movie star. And to imagine that he would be able to escape accountability for his blackface if he were alive at the time of this writing, would be to misunderstand the nature of movie stardom in the year 2023. And who’s to say Fred Astaire wouldn’t be willing to sit with the discomfort of the harm he’d caused? To embrace his own self-reckoning–to use his celebrity to bring justice to the narrative, by whatever means he was able. Perhaps he would hope that anybody representing his namesake would want to be part of this effort also. Though of course, one cannot know. 

Fred Astaire’s was a celluloid sort of glamor. Black and white, top hats and tails, wooing the girl with his inexhaustible smoothness. The glamor of the man bears little resemblance to the Glamour Machine that Juliet McMains describes in her analysis of the ballroom dancing industry–even though it is this very industry that the name Fred Astaire has come to represent. Those who know the name Fred Astaire (a demographic that seems to be diminishing) often have an either/or conception of him: either they know him from his films, or they have some relationship with his studios. The image of Fred Astaire the film star is an image he had a hand in crafting. The Glamour Machine is out of his hands–evolving in proximity to his legacy, and yet also evolving to look in very many ways different from his life’s work. Fred Astaire the man offers an image of success and achievement on which Fred Astaire the Dance Studios endeavors to capitalize–builds infrastructure, systems & practices. The question is whether or not any of this appeals to the american consumer, and to what degree, and whether you think we might be able to change your mind? Is this what success looks like to you?   

 

The trophy that has been looking at me as I have been looking at my computer screen reads “2011 US CHAMPIONS MEN’S SMOOTH.” It is, just as the inscription suggests, an award I got for dancing with a man. It is, of course, an award that was sanctioned by the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association. My dance partner in 2011 was Kalin Mitov. Kalin worked at a Fred Astaire studio about 20 minutes away from mine, and invited me to train with him right around the time I was aging out of the mixed novice division. Kalin introduced me to same-sex and reverse-role dancing. We competed in Philadelphia, Oakland, Sacramento, and Vancouver. We danced in the New York City Pride Parade one year. We spent at least a summer or two street performing on weekends in Provincetown–competitive routines in full costume, under blazing sun and on top of unforgiving pavement–top hat sitting out for tips. (Also a genre of work to which I can safely say I have aged out.) In 2012, Kalin founded the Boston Open, which hosts the annual Boston Open DanceSport Championship (there have been nine championships held over the past eleven years–barring two years due to Covid). It is the longest running NASSPDA sanctioned event in the northeastern United States. At a time when being Queer in the public sphere grows increasingly dangerous, with Queer spaces under threat from the white christian right wing–either in the form of citizen protest, or through legislation proposed by Ron DeSantis and others–the endurance of the Boston Open feels noteworthy. Kalin has cultivated a network and infrastructure to keep the machine running. It is a smaller and scrappier machine, and insofar as it survives, it also succeeds. If it “fails” (by any measure), I’ll still gladly raise a glass to the success that it was. 

There is a success/failure paradox within the franchised arm of the Glamour Machine. The higher-up stakeholders (studio owners, regional directors, national dance board, the home office) frame the act of quitting the organization as a failure, rendering the lower-down who quits as having made a failed attempt at becoming a professional ballroom dancer. Couldn’t cut it. Of course, the potential failure in question will have been making minimum wage up until the point they do or do not come to understand how to sell dance lessons–after which point they will still likely never be able to make more than one-fifth of the money the studio charges for the lessons. The system has been designed so that other people profit off their labor, and so one could easily consider it a failure to stay. Then again, there’s worse ways to make a living (one inevitably tells oneself). While visions of achievement can be motivating, fear of failure can also be motivating. I believe it must have been some combination of the two that kept me around for as long as I stayed.

Somewhere around my three-year anniversary with the company, the New England regional director complimented me on my “numbers.” I was enrolling new students at a healthy clip, and retaining students who bought competition packages. Earning gradually more money on commission and a slowly increasing hourly rate, I was able to invest more in my look–which mainly consisted of gem-toned button-down shirts and more tightly fitted pants from Express. I got haircuts more often. My stylist convinced me to get highlights–blonde in the summer, and cranberry in the winter. When the regional director asked me if there was a secret to my budding success, I told her that I had been competing on the same-sex dancing circuit, and that this helped me feel more at home in the job. She encouraged me to carry on. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is another maxim that got kicked around with some frequency. 

 

Feeling more at home in my own skin allowed me to attend more closely to the needs of the people around me–in particular my students. I had heard, over and over again, in sales training after sales training, that those people who decide to try out an introductory ballroom dance lesson are less interested in the dancing than they are in filling an emotional void; making a drastic change in their lives. “You only have one opportunity to make a first impression,” and if you waste that opportunity, neglecting to get to know a person and their deeper motivations, droning on and on about the finer technical points of the dancing–that’s going to ruin your chances of selling a beginner package. And if they don’t buy the beginner package–right then and there, at the time you present it–they aren’t coming back. Regardless of what they tell you (“I just need to go home and think about it”), and regardless of whatever last ditch attempt you make to try and convince them (“if you go home to think about it, you’re never coming back–believe me, I know!”) Of course this whole process goes more smoothly if a dance instructor exudes some confidence–in themselves, and also in their ability to meet your particular dancing needs–to teach you just as much or as little as you are actually looking to learn. It’s a fine balance, my understanding of which (as documented in the weekly regional sales reports) guided me into the glamorous position of middle management. 

At this point, the story could be framed a few different ways. I could tell you that my final years with the Fred Astaire Dance Studios were a failure because I stayed so long (or for that matter, that I ever left in the first place). Or I could frame that period of time as a parable of Queer success. I could cite boycotting the Fred Astaire New England regional Professional division until provisions were made for more gender-expansive partnership, and the subsequent roll-out of the Fred Astaire New England Gender-Neutral division, with both Pro and Pro-Am categories. The regional office told us that if we could sell enough Pro-Am entries to prove the division financially viable, that it could become a regular offering. And that the Gender-Neutral division indeed became a regular offering could easily be framed as a success, depending on how you look at it. I did manage to lose a few friends: a handful of gay male-identifying company die-hards who thought the whole thing was a bit much (imagine being accused of seeking attention from grown men wearing fake tanner and rhinestones). For those female-identifying instructors who could now sell entries to female-identifying students, the Gender-Neutral division could help bridge the wide gender pay gap that the rules of the Glamour Machine had perpetuated. That looked like a clear win. Then again, having become a NASSPDA board member by this time, I was privy to counter-arguments around the topic of franchise schools adopting gender-expansive competition rules. Those schools would now be able to capitalize on practices that had been established and developed, intentionally, beyond the walls of mainstream studio and competition spaces. Would judges be trained in the finer points of adjudicating reverse-role dancing? Would there be any credence paid to the lineage of this subset of a subset of a dance form? 

I could say that my decision to leave the ballroom dancing industry when I did marked a failure to engage more deeply with these questions–to fulfill my responsibility to the conversation I’d been poking at. The can of worms I’d been trying to pry open. Then again, I could also offer myself a little grace, to try thinking beyond the success-failure binary. To embrace the nuance of the situation, and my evolving needs with regard to it. The decision to give my boss six months notice, to ease my transition away from the studio; my boss crying through her speech at my goodbye party where she served cake with a picture of my face on it. Leaving on loving terms, as best we could, all around.     

 

In the final chapter of Glamour Addiction…, Juliet McMains proposes various potential “antidotes to glamour”: modes of operation for the practice of American Dancesport to exist beyond the capitalistic confinements of the ballroom dance industry. While McMains discusses “expanding representations of gender and sexuality,” in Glamour Addiction, this discussion does not include the formation of Queer-friendly Dancesport spaces–the existence of which disrupts the very premise of the project, and I argue, deserves consideration as another possible antidote. 

McMains cites two youth programs, both providing increased access to dance education through models that prioritize more ethical dissemination of practice than models reproduced by the Glamour Machine. Additionally and importantly, she notes: 

 

“The efforts of some DanceSport competitors to borrow steps and rhythms from Latin dance practices outside the ballroom industry usually result in further colonization of the forms. A cue might be taken from the salsa dance industry, which enriches its own tradition of Latin fusion by inviting Afro-Cuban rumba artists to perform and give classes beside the salsa dancers at congresses.”

 

And while that cue could have been taken at the time it was proposed in 2006 all the way up to the time of this writing, the Glamour Machine continues chugging along without much consideration for the First Peoples of the dances it dances. To submit that the forms are being colonized could easily lead to questions about whether and how they might be Decolonized. And to those questions, it might serve us (colonizers) to consider the significant and vital scholarship of Eve Tuck (Unangax̂, enrolled member of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska) and K. Wayne Yang. I have come to view American Dancesport as a form of “external colonialism,” as Tuck & Yang describe it, denoting: 

 

“the expropriation of fragments of Indigenous worlds, animals, plants and human beings, extracting them in order to transport them to - and build the wealth, the privilege, or feed the appetites of - the colonizers, who get marked as the first world.” 

 

But as the title of their article tells us explicitly: “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” While the continuing circumstance of colonization can indeed beget extractive behavior on the part of the colonizer–in this case, the extraction of cultural capital–addressing the behavior does not address the fact that the enterprise continues to thrive on stolen land. For as deeply as a white-settler (like myself) may want to consider their position in the colonial project, it may also serve us to consider our deeper motivations–are we seeking absolution? Might our bright ideas about how to take part in decolonial discourse constitute “settler move(s) to innocence,” as Tuck & Yang describe it? Is it even appropriate to think about the ballroom dancing industry in the context of decolonial discourse? What does any of this have to do with the rematriation of Land, for example? At present: not much at all. Not as far as I can tell. 

 

In her final analysis, Juliet McMains states:

 

“DanceSport fans may be indignant that I have focused so much attention on the negative 

aspects of the industry, but my intent is not to bring it down. On the contrary, I hope that by drawing critical attention to the history of ballroom dance as a social practice, artistic activity, and business enterprise, I will increase its status as a subject worthy of serious consideration.”       

 

Toward the end of my time working for the Glamour Machine, I had certainly formulated my critiques, though I wished to offer the subject no more of my consideration, energy, or spirit. I was cooked. Even the glamorous parts started to feel like a grind: the whole thing an ongoing, rhinestone-encrusted fever dream. I once walked out of the ballroom, looked to my left, and laid eyes on an amateur competitor, wearing a neon pink Latin dress, full hair and make up, smoking a butt, transfixed (looking through her readers), at the slot machine she was playing. I could call it a “mirage at the Mirage” but for the fact that I saw it with my own two goddamn eyes (I know I did) and that it happened at Foxwoods. And with some years’ hindsight, it occurs to me that we were, at that time, not only on the land of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation–we were conducting our curious business at their casino. Not that any representative of the Glamour Machine was thinking about that, with any great intentionality. There was, it will shock no one to learn, no stated land acknowledgement, no offering of gratitude to the host. (What a way to confuse the american consumer about the experience they’d been sold.) If the Glamour Machine could actually provide financial benefit to Peoples Indigenous to the land where any of the 524 Tribal Gaming locations currently operate at the time of this writing, through the hosting of dance competitions, that would certainly give rise to interesting questions about the Glamour Machine’s potential utility. And if anyone wants to chat about this more, I’ll attach my email.

But beyond that, I’ll make no great claim about whether and how the practice of american dancesport could ever be Decolonized. Doesn’t really feel like my place to say. Not by myself. Not at this late stage. Not without some fundamental shifts in the landscape of the field. Not without formulating yet another misguided metaphor. And not without, yet again, intentionally or not, working to Smooth out the story. 

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