A Conversation with Daphna Locker, Competition Organizer

When Daphna Locker first began dancing in the 80s, the landscape of ballroom and latin dance competitions looked very different from what many collegiate students would recognize today.

In 1989, Locker began her dance career through a lesbian social group called “Dykes About Town,” who organized a Ballroom and Latin Dance Night at Stepping Out Studios, an event after which Locker considered herself “hooked.” By 1993, she was the co-president of the NY Chapter of USABDA (now known as USA Dance), and began organizing the Manhattan Amateur Classic in 1994. The rest is history.

In the wake of Gateway Dancesport Festival, her new competition which debuted on May 26, Locker discussed with Waltz Tango Foxtrot her thoughts on diversity and her hopes for the future, both for Gateway and the ballroom dancing community itself.

What does diversity mean to you, in the context of the ballroom dancing community?

For many years, ballroom and latin competitions have been very male dominated, cisgendered events. The people on the competition floor were a heterogeneous group and while at one time this may have represented who was primarily competing, with the rise of the collegiate teams and the general change in social norms, this is no longer the case.

It’s about time that ballroom dancing moved forward with the times and became more focused on the actual quality of the dancing and less focused on the make-up of the couple or who is leading and who is following. For me, true diversity would be competitions and organizations that represented everyone: the cisgender, the non-binary, gays and lesbians, and letting any combination of two people dancing on the floor to compete against each other, with only the quality of dancing evaluated, and not the make-up of the couple.

For those who don’t know the history behind the competition’s inception, what lead to the creation of Gateway?

After 25 years of organizing and running the MAC, another group came in to organize it. After that ordeal, I decided that it was time to run a competition according to the principles that I believe in, rather than according to the various rules and regulations of the different ballroom and latin organizations.

The only way to do this was to bite the bullet, go out on my own, and run a totally independent competition that would not be beholden to USA Dance, NDCA, the WDC, or the WDSF. Even the same-sex organization had bylaws that would not fit with my vision of such a competition, since they require that same-sex couples not compete directly against the mixed sex couples and that same sex male couples not compete against same sex female couples.

Thus, Gateway DanceSport Festival was born as a totally inclusive, gender-neutral competition, where two people could compete against other couples, and solely be judged on the quality of their dancing.

How do you hope to draw more collegiate students to the competition in future years?

This is a very good question, and I’m not sure of the answer. There are many collegiate competitions and it’s difficult to get the collegiate teams to go to an independent non-collegiate organized competition.

Other than giving collegiate students an inexpensive base rate that includes registration and entries to the competition, I’m not sure what to do. I welcome any and all suggestions. Send them to me at competingcouples@gmail.com.

As a competition organizer, what steps do you feel need to be taken to make ballroom dancing more accessible to everyone?

  • There needs to be more acceptance of non-traditional couples at both competitions and studios.
  • There needs to be greater acceptance in schools and homes of boys who dance. There is still a stigma for boys who engage in non-traditional pursuits or traditionally female activities and in many cases, they are bullied at school.
  • The cost for private lessons needs to be lower so that more students and couples can afford them.  
  • Ballroom and latin dance classes need to move out of the studios and into the Y’s, church basements, and community centers.
  • So that the general public starts to view ballroom dancing as a viable sport, ideally, someone who judges would not coach and someone who coaches would not judge. There could be a system whereby individual A decides that for the next 2 years they will judge competitions but they won’t engage in any coaching of individual couples, while individual B decides that for the next 2 years, they will coach and not judge at any competition. Due to the fact that most judging jobs don’t pay the bills, this would require some form of stipend for the individuals who decide to judge and not coach.

What is your hope for the growth and future of Gateway Dancesport Festival?

For Gateway 2020, I’d like to double the number of individuals who come and compete, more couples that are non-traditional competing at all levels. Ideally, Gateway will be on the collegiate calendars as an event that team captains will recommend for their teams attend.

One of our goals for Gateway 2020 was to find a space in NYC that is both affordable and large enough to hold a competition, which is easy to get to via public transportation, and where parking will be easy. We are happy to announce that we just found a ballroom in Manhattan who was willing to give us a great price on their hall. We will be holding Gateway 2020 at the Alhambra Ballroom, only two blocks from the 125th Street and the Metro North stations. There are plenty of parking lots right around the hall, and there is a hotel within walking distance.

As our “Assessment” events received very positive feedback at Gateway 2019, they will be continued in 2020. Additionally, I’d like to figure out how to get more spectators from outside the competitive world to come and watch the competition.

The distinction between Professional and Amateur is an arbitrary one. Most high-level “amateur” dancers teach and do shows. Currently the only distinction is that the Professional has declared themselves a “Pro” while the “Am” hasn’t made such a declaration. Why not have a competition where the “Pro” couples compete against the “Am” couples. There are a number of top amateur couples who might beat any number of professional couples. Wouldn’t it be fun for them to go head to head?

Additionally, there are no pre-determined proficiency levels in events that start with a “grading round.” “Grading rounds” are therefore required before the competition rounds of multi-dance categories. The purpose of “grading rounds,” also called “separation rounds” or “classification rounds,” is to group all couples of the same average level and quality in the same class. There are no restrictions in choreography (or syllabus) for lower classes. This is an opportunity to see what the judges consider to be your proficiency level when looking at the entire field of current couples and also for competitors to experiment with open work.

This is how the heats are determined in the same-sex competitions and while a couple knows more or less into which class they will place, it is determined on the actual day of the competition by who else is competing. This provides couples with a chance of dancing against people who may be of a higher rank and allows them to see how they would place against them. It also requires the couples to learn all 5 dances and not leave one of the dances until Gold.

It would be great if the various independent competitions in the Tri-State area joined together to offer deals to competitors for attending all of the comps and also for some way to get sponsorships so that the winners would get meaningful awards.

If our readers have any ideas, suggestions, recommendations, thoughts, or criticisms regarding Gateway Dancesport Festival, contact Daphna Locker at competingcouples@gmail.com.

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