Stories from a Queer Femme Leader
Growing up in the mid-2000’s, I loved watching ballroom dancers on TV and in movies. I spent years of my childhood constructing ideas of what a ballroom dancer should be. Dancers should start training seriously at four (or casually at forty), dancers should be pretty and tanned, and dancers should always dance the role that matches their gender.
A year after I went away to college, I decided to dedicate myself to leading Latin as my primary style. It shattered everything I thought I knew about ballroom dancing and gender.
In the early levels, it is comparatively easier to know what to do if you identify as or are passed as a “woman,” “femme,” or “feminine” leader. You compete against multiple peers in your position. You may have a few Bronze- or Silver-level dancers who you can look to for inspiration, and maybe even a Gold dancer if you’re lucky. You aren’t expected to have elaborate, “official” costumes yet, so a plain black shirt and pants, or a dress with a vest over it, does the trick (at least in Latin). You’re so focused on learning the syllabus and cleanly executing steps that you rarely have to think about your own styling.
Note: see here for an explanation of my usage of the word “femme” as a bisexual.
However, by Gold and Open levels, there may only be one or two other non-traditional leaders, if that. With higher levels come higher expectations for not only your dancing, but also your appearance and how you carry yourself. Especially in Latin, leaders are expected to present a commanding, masculine persona. So if you are at all attached to femininity in your dancing or your aesthetic, you have to balance that with the masculinity your coaches, the judges, and your peers expect of you.
There are other compounding issues. High-level instructors, unless they know you well, assume leading is not your true role. High-quality costumers almost never design costumes that reflect the bodies of non-traditional leaders. Even the very same prestigious comps that your peers attend won’t make space for someone like you unless (and sometimes even if) you ask.
On top of all of this, spectators at ballroom events still assume “you are just waiting for the right man to come along.” That’s because many of the non-traditional leaders you’d previously looked up to did find a man.
I understand the motivation to do so — it’s far easier to find opportunities to compete when you are in a traditional “male lead, female follow” partnership, considering the current rules and attitudes in the dance world outside of collegiate competitions. Plus, some people just like to follow more.
But my interest and passion has always been for leading. Through my force of will, and a few twists of fate, I am here, competing and training as an Open-level Latin leader. This is my story.
I fell back in love with ballroom not long after starting college at Tufts. At my first Bronze competition, a TBA partner and I beat our team’s favorite couple by one place. I thought of myself a serious dancer. Unlike almost everyone else, I’d never had to dance with a girl.
However, by the end of the year, there were only three men left on the team and eight women. My partner Jordin felt that he was dragging me down, so he dropped me. I was not alone — another young woman also received the short end of our year’s partner shuffle. We both had to figure out what to do to continue competing. She opted to scout out a neighboring team with more leaders at our level; eventually, she would thrive, but she almost entirely left our team. I had another plan.
As freshmen, the older dancers on our team took us out to a nearby jazz club for a social, a chance to dance with other freshmen who we hadn’t previously danced with before. Since it was just for fun, I wanted to try my hand at leading. I asked a friend of mine, Danielle, to dance with me, and I enjoyed leading a lot.
Then, it occurred to us: we had seen advertisements for a new same-sex and reverse-role competition called the Boston Open, to be held in September 2013. It would be the first of its kind in the area, and many of us decided to compete. Danielle agreed to dance rhythm, Latin, and salsa with me; she would lead rhythm and salsa, and I would lead Latin. By the fall of 2013, I was ready for Bronze.
Finally, the Boston Open arrived. My teammates and I were among the youngest competitors present; we were there both to dance and to support our team mentor, Zachary, and the same-sex male partner he danced open smooth with that semester. I met several older couples, including some who would be featured in an upcoming documentary about same-sex ballroom, called “Hot to Trot.” They supported us, gave us advice, and cheered us on. I didn’t see many of them again after that, but they all had inspired my dancing.
However, when my former leader Jordin dumped me, Danielle took my place as his partner, leaving me without one. I chose to continue leading to increase my chances of finding a TBA partner for the next semester of competitions. For one competition, I danced with a short young woman who took one look at my old partners and told me I was a better match for Danielle than Jordin was. I took her word for it, talked to Danielle, and she agreed to dance with me again. We timed out of Bronze, entering the Silver level as a partnership.
Meanwhile, my life was changing in other ways too. I came out as bisexual shortly after the Boston Open. Between the emotional circumstances surrounding that discovery, my increasing workload in a major I didn’t enjoy, and my mental illnesses, I left Tufts for a while. Danielle and I managed to compete at our first two Silver competitions, even doing well with the paso doble routine that our team mentor Zachary had choreographed specifically for us, but I left Tufts by early April 2014. I would not return until the following January.
After leaving Tufts temporarily, I was graciously taken in for a semester by the Cal Ballroom Team while I completed a program in the Bay Area. The team and I attended the Cal State competition in 2014. It was my first (and so far only) USA Dance National Qualifying Event. My interim partner Yibing and I boarded the bus with the Cal Ballroom team, and we were on our way to the City National Civic in San Jose.
I had spent the previous week stressing over what to wear. While this was my only chance to compete that semester, USA Dance only allowed “one-man-one-woman” couples, and therefore only had costume regulations for male leaders and female followers. I had to think hard about which pieces of each costuming regulation to keep and which to ignore, but I knew it wouldn’t matter, because I would be disqualified anyway. I settled on a red button-down shirt and black leggings.
While we were on deck at the event, an official for USA Dance came up to me and my partner. “You know what will happen to you, right?” he said, matter-of-factly and without sadness, as if he knew it would happen but thought it fair. We walked onto the floor. The MC announced that our number wasn’t on the floor. We danced anyway, and we were invigilated for putting time steps in Bronze. Of course, we were not called back.
While the situation was predictable, I was disappointed. Luckily, I had made a few friends on the team who were not competing, and my partner and I hopped on the next bus with them to go shopping at a nearby mall, spending the afternoon trying on fancy hats and smelling elaborate blends of tea. We came back to our teammates, who had made callbacks and finals. Though I was sad not to be among them, I rode the bus back to Berkeley having made happy memories. I knew that the dance world had a ways to go before it would take me seriously, although I learned a few months later that USA Dance would add same-sex events, albeit often with only one or two couples per event, in coming seasons.
After California, I took a semester internship close to home in Pennsylvania. While I was not yet studying at Tufts again, I was close enough to be able to travel on some weekends. My partner, back from a semester in China, agreed to dance with me again, so I traveled twice a month or so (through the infamous Snowmageddon of 2015) to practice and compete with her.
Our second comp of the semester was Harvard Invitational, in March 2015. The Harvard team had invited a top-tier amateur show couple for its evening gala. They danced beautifully, but shared the same sentiments as most of the dance world, evident when the MC told his audience that the couple believed the heart of Latin dance was “a man and a woman.” I seethed, quietly, in the audience.
However, just a month or so later at the MIT Open, I was pleased to find that a reverse-role couple was on the floor right next to my teammates in advanced Latin. A tall woman in a crop top led a short man in a red shirt. They became a crowd favorite and did pretty well. However, we, the petite couple with a long distance partnership and subdued costumes, didn’t do so hot. We simply didn’t stand out.
My first thought was that our look needed an upgrade. Danielle agreed, and let me and my friend from back home design and make a new dress for her — one in a color that would stand out. Taking a cue from teammates, I suggested neon green to Danielle. My friend stitched the dress together in her basement, and I acted as mannequin while we watched the Blackpool Pro Latin live stream, angry-laughing at how old-fashioned the commentators sounded when they talked about how their favorite couples demonstrated masculinity and femininity to their liking. I stoned the dress later in the summer.
I opted for a leotard and a pair of spandex jazz pants from a local dance store back home. I found a wonderful pair of black practice shoes as well, a model and make I still wear to this day. I decided I’d complete my look (and my personal branding) with a hair bow to match whatever my partner was wearing that day. Not difficult, considering I own one in nearly every color.
By the Harvard Beginners competition in early October, we had our new look down and I had a new outlook on dance to match. I decided it was time to stop messing around in Silver and really get good at Latin. Danielle did not share the same drive as I did. She told me mid-October that after Brown, she would quit ballroom and dissolve our partnership. So we practiced, going into Brown knowing we’d have to leave it all on the table.
Among the vast changes to our team that had taken place while I was away, there was now a pair of junior women who switched lead and follow between rhythm and Latin. In rhythm at Brown, they made Silver finals, which was pretty awesome. In addition, another same-sex female couple from Brown was rising up the ranks as well. I couldn’t have been prouder. I, too, would make my first final that night, in syllabus paso doble with the routine Zachary had given us. I was a little too emotional to dance my best, knowing this was both my first final and my last event with Danielle. However, of all my old syllabus videos, this is the one I still have saved on my phone.
At the end of 2015, I got the opportunity to explore my own dancing and acting through my friend Max’s senior thesis. Max recruited about eight teammates for this thesis performance. Despite the fact that the other dancers he had chosen were far more successful early on in their dancing careers, it meant the world to me that someone finally noticed my drive, and consequently, my mission as a dancer.
I spent the summer of 2016 fretting over whether I would ever find another partner.
Fate had other plans. I first found a partner in Hannah, my freshman mentor. She was very experienced but not very competitive; she had decided to come out of her dance retirement for one more year to help me get out of Silver.
At the time, I was unsure whether I’d ever make it out of Silver, often comparing my own dancing to that of the male leaders who my peers overwhelmingly told me I could easily outlead. I didn’t realize that, in a year, I would have four open routines and a reputation in the dance community I wasn’t anticipating.
The speed at which my relationship to the dance world changed was baffling. Suddenly, people were noticing my dancing. Younger same-sex couples, including those from other universities, were looking up to me. I felt a heightened sense of responsibility to dance well and take my dancing more seriously, so I could be a good role model for younger couples.
Many people, friends and strangers alike, assumed I was only dancing with women until I could find a male partner. At socials, men would assume I was there to be a follower based on my appearance. Even when I talked to my favorite professional dancer, she suggested that I change roles to increase my competition opportunities, even though she knew I had been training as a leader for nearly four years.
Despite all of this, I was determined to keep learning, improving, and training as a leader at the highest level, but also at a level where my partner and I felt comfortable. I had partners at or above my level who allowed me to do just that. It was easy with Hannah — she had already learned gold routines from her time in Pro-Am. She was patient and willing to teach me, and by the time she retired for good we had become far closer friends than I would have ever imagined.
The next year, Alexandra, a graduate student, showed up to our team’s orientation showcase. We tried out and she agreed to dance with me for the one year she was in Boston.
Alexandra and I were evenly matched. Within months of starting the partnership, we were already placing, even pointing in Gold. A friend told me I was ready for Novice, but I wanted to wait until I had spent at least a year in Gold.
That one-year mark passed over the winter. While Alexandra and I made it a goal to debut in Novice Latin at MIT, one of my closest friends, Katie — whom I had met when I complimented her leader’s outfit two years prior — decided she would help me get accustomed to the Open levels (and evening sessions) early. With the help of my old friend Max, Katie and I pulled together a paso doble routine for the Terrier Dancesport Competition in February and Harvard in March, while Alexandra and I continued preparing for Novice three-dance at MIT, my last competition with her before she moved back home after her grad school program ended.
It was back to square one by the summer. In the meantime, I worked with a local designer to create a custom Latin shirt — one that would strike a balance between my generally feminine expression and femme identity, and the need to look serious and powerful for higher levels. I settled on the “exposed bra” look that Katie and others before her had made popular the past few years. Unfortunately, my exposed chest highlighted a glaring need to start tanning. Welcome to Open!
Finding a partner at the Open level is tough when you’re neither tall nor a man. Many open dancers want to explore non-collegiate competitions which still won’t let me lead, save for a few exceptions. It’s also difficult to TBA Open; you need months of preparation to debut a serious competitive partnership well, especially if you’re still getting the hang of dancing at the Open level. It’s pretty understandable why I’ve been the only female leader at my level for a while.
I tried out with multiple partners, the first of which was about the same height and the same level as me, but eventually turned me down because she didn’t want to dance with a woman. I don’t necessarily blame her for her choice. Both the gender restrictions of latin dancing and the community’s constant revolving door of partners meant I could not compete as often as I wanted to — I only competed twice this entire season, at Tufts in November 2018 and MIT in April 2019 — but I still attended competitions to cheer on friends. I also volunteered at the Eastern United States Dancesport Championships.
A fairly recent addition to Eastern’s programming is a dance camp held the day before the competition. Visiting professional dancers and coaches in the area will take turns leading workshops on a variety of topics: Open-level combinations, connection, and partnership. The workshops are usually full of young championship couples who have flown in from different countries to compete. Sometimes, a few of the higher-level dancers from the collegiate circuit show up, sticking out like sore thumbs amongst champions, but we go anyway and get in way over our heads learning mind-blowing new concepts and steps from the masters themselves.
The lectures were punctuated with the instructors’ assumptions about gender, but other dancers who knew me had my back. The very first class of the day, a warmup, had us split into two separate lines for a 70s-Black-television-style “soul train.” Not wanting to cause a fuss because there was no partner work, I joined the girls’ line, before someone from my studio suggested I join the boys’ line by shooting me a “what-are-you-doing” look. During another lecture on rumba, an instructor was surprised when I volunteered to dance with her to demonstrate part of the rumba routine, but one of my teammates paired up with me so the instructor would know I was a leader. At the very end of the day, during a workshop on connection, I was the only one without a partner. The instructor danced with me, telling me “don’t worry, I’ll be the boy.” This time, it was my turn to set the record straight, so I did.
Shortly after that, I started practicing with a steady partner, Michelle, who remains my partner to this day. One evening, Michelle and I were practicing on campus in the same space where a newcomer lesson was held. Between our practice and theirs, I struck up a conversation with one of the newcomers. She told me her partner is a woman, who was told by an instructor that she would never make Gold or Open as a leader. A month later, I meet her partner. She remembers me from the previous semester, when she learned she could prove that instructor wrong.
There is something profound about Saturdays at the MIT Open. To every dancer who shows up, it means something different. For most of us, it’s the last competition of the season before the summer lull. For some, it is their first foray into the intimidating world of Open. For others, it marks the end of another year in the championship level. It marks the beginning of new partnerships, and the bittersweet parting of others. If you’ve been around for long enough, it’s a reunion. Among the familiar faces we see daily or weekly or monthly, there are faces we only get to see once or twice a year. At the customary after parties, we get to know people we’ve only seen on the floor, or on Facebook, or perhaps have stalked on O2CM. We reflect on how this community and its social landscape has grown and changed over the past year.
This year marked my second Novice three-dance, as well as my first pre-champ four-dance. While I was still the only female leader at my level, there was now a male follower and his partner dancing against me.
I was reminded of my entire dance journey in a single day; from a freshman wishing me luck during my warmup in the practice room, to having lunch with that first MIT female lead from four years ago, to me dancing my debut rounds with Michelle. I was surrounded on all sides by teammates, rivals, coaches, mentors, mentees, friends gained and lost, ex-lovers, and people I have yet to know. To top it off, at the after party, one woman I’d competed against in pre-champ Latin complimented my leading after an impromptu cha-cha to the live music, while another competitor introduced me to multiple people as “the first female leader to make open in five years.” Despite the fact that Michelle and I were a new couple, and our results showed, I knew I had made my mark.
The next morning, only having had a sip of alcohol but feeling somewhat hungover nonetheless, I decided to stay in bed and recover from the previous day’s events. I still wanted to know how my friends in syllabus Latin did, and to my surprise and delight, a number of other same-sex couples did well across nearly all levels.
Something tells me I won’t be alone for much longer.
Emma DiFrancesco has been a competitive ballroom dancer for almost eight years, and has been a leader for seven years. She is affiliated with the Tufts Ballroom Team, and thanks her friend Katie Fiallo for her help with editing this piece.