An Open Letter

by Crystal Song

i.

The first woman I ever dance with is the girlfriend I date behind my family’s back in my senior year of high school. My friends sneak her onto our prom bus — we go to different schools — and what should be an incredibly romantic gesture sends my anxiety off the charts for the entire night. It’s hard to even remember dancing, but I think it must have happened because I do remember looking around as we sway in a sea of couples, bracing myself to meet a pair of hostile eyes. I remember going to the principal and begging him to make sure that no footage of us ends up in the official prom video, which will be played at the graduation party my parents will be at. I remember erasing myself.

The second woman I ever dance with is a sort-of friend, a senior, an older follow I can’t help but look up to. It’s my second ballroom party ever, and she’s laughing as she tries to lead me in a bachata. Bodies crowd us in on either side in the dark, crowded dorm room. Everyone is laughing, occupied, heads bowed close to their partners’. Isn’t that what they always say ⁠— to dance like no one’s watching? It feels like being free.

ii.

In September 2019, the National Dance Council of America — one of the leading ballroom dance organizations in the country — passed a much-lauded rule change allowing same-gender partnerships to compete for the first time in their history. In November 2019, when registration for their national championships opened, they announced that Brigham Young University, the hosting entity, had given up its NDCA sanction and thus freed itself from having to abide by its rulebook.

Now, BYU is hosting the NDCA U.S. National Amateur Dancesport Championships as an “all-amateur authorized” event. This is the same status as many collegiate competitions — except that to register for Nationals, competitors must purchase an NDCA membership.

As a non-sanctioned event, BYU Nationals has instituted an “exception” to the recent rule change: “A couple in the traditional Ballroom Dance genre is defined as a male and a female, with the male dancing the part of the lead and the female dancing the part of the follow. This rule applies to all competition classifications and events. Exceptions are not allowed.”

In response to a flood of complaints, the NDCA Ballroom Department has issued a statement confirming these facts.

iii.

The fall of my freshman year of college, I sign up to help organize our home competition. I’m sitting at the registration desk on Sunday when the chair of judges bursts through the doors of the ballroom and explodes at our comp chair. There are two boys out there dancing Gold Latin, together, and if we allow this kind of thing to happen, she will never chair our event again. She is a titled former champion who holds her position by dint of her personal connections to each of our adjudicators. I exchange glances with the other students around me. We say nothing. (Three Big Apple Dancesport Challenges later, she sits down with me, the incoming comp chair, and tells me with a disgusted sigh that we can do whatever “gender garbage” we want this year.)

The spring of my junior year of college, I dance Gold Smooth with a friend, another Chinese American woman. At our first comp, I catch a middle-aged woman staring at us as we run through our routines. I don’t have to imagine the hostility in her eyes. Feeling bold in the moment, I point her out to my partner, pitching my voice just loud enough for her to hear. I cry, after, by myself.

Being queer in ballroom is lonely. It was lonelier when I first joined five years ago, and became one of maybe three people who were out on a team of more than a hundred. It became less so as I moved up through levels, making new friends in other cities. Only last year, I met another woman who identifies as both bisexual and Chinese American, like me. Every time I look at her, it still feels like a miracle. Why didn’t people who knew us both introduce us ages ago? we joke. Maybe to them, it didn’t feel so urgent. And why would it?

iv.

I’m disappointed in all the dancers who, in light of the ongoing controversy, still plan to compete at Nationals. But more than them, I’m disappointed in myself for ever expecting anything else.

It wouldn’t make a difference, they tell me. There’s no way we could get enough people to boycott. The NDCA wouldn’t listen anyway. Maybe if we can get public attention on this issue. Maybe if we can put enough pressure on them to remove the exception, change the venue. Maybe if we attend “in protest.”

Of all the couples I know who have been competing at Nationals for years now — Open dancers who I looked up to for so long with stars in my eyes, many of whom I now count among my closest friends — only one, to my knowledge, has decided to pull out.

It’s crazy-making. The gut reluctance I see from straight dancers when they are urged to merely consider not going. It makes me think I must be crazy. That I am asking far too much.

(We’re here now, at the logical endpoint of living in a world where “emotion” and “experience” have to be separated out from “knowledge” and “fact.” I don’t think these dancers have no sense of compassion, or are only taking an intellectual interest in this controversy. I think they understand that homophobia is “wrong,” in some very hollow sense. I think even if every queer person in this community spilled their guts out about this, it wouldn’t move those who refuse to be moved by such insubstantial forces as feeling. I think the notion of empathy is overrated. You shouldn’t have to “understand” another person’s pain to validate it. You should just have to know it exists. More than one well-intentioned person has told me in the last few days that of course these people don’t get it—that’s why have to explain it to them. Except that I don’t exist to perform my own pain, over and over, like I am right now, for other people to get it.)

Another dancer, newer to the New York community, is taken aback when I mention that people are still planning to compete. I thought nobody in this scene was going, they say. I can see why, given the vocal and widespread outrage online, they would think so.

I feel like my imagination of all my dance heroes has been getting destroyed since I entered the non-collegiate ballroom world, they say.

It breaks my fucking heart.

v.

I’ve always believed that what makes collegiate ballroom special is that even though we compete in pairs, we are strongest when we come together as a community. We share our knowledge and resources, we celebrate each other’s successes, and we see each other through the hard times.

But I also have to believe that unfulfilled potential, because we sure don’t fulfill it a lot of the time. We’ve been attending and supporting NDCA events long before this particularly egregious about-face. We’ve allowed sexual assault to happen in our spaces without supporting survivors or holding perpetrators accountable. We’ve maintained structural barriers to access for dancers who are not straight, not white, not Asian, not financially secure, not able-bodied. Each of us is complicit.

Moments like now, then, confront us with the full complexity of this thing we have chosen to love and commit to. They invite us to make conscious choices about what kind of community we want to be.

I’ve heard folks say that a few couples disappearing from the entry list won’t make a difference. That the NDCA will never cave to our demand for equity, so the most we can do is sign up to compete and stage some show of protest. That BYU being the best amateur comp of the year, they have no alternatives.

Okay.

Consider, then, what your continued support of this event—for whatever reasons—says to the people who care about you and your dancing, far more than the NDCA ever will: your fellow dancers. Your teammates. The people who greet you at the studio every night and cheer you on at every comp. The people who’ve been dancing alongside you since day one. Your mentors and mentees. Your best friends. Your biggest fans.

Consider what it says that this one comp is so important to you that, with eyes wide open, you choose to go anyway. To support an organization that has so blatantly shown us its disinterest in equity and inclusion. An organization that cares so little for queer lives that it will capitalize on our progressive politics for an image boost—then immediately bend over backwards to avoid upholding its own rulebook. Consider what it says that you care more about maybe winning a title than you do about the people who love you.

vi.

On that note, if you’re going, know that I’m still loving you. And know that I’m holding you accountable.

I think that’s what partner dance teaches us—that love isn’t love without a sense of accountability. We entrust ourselves to each other every time we invite someone to dance or accept an invitation. We hope that our partners will protect us from unseen obstacles. I’ve seen a dancer cradle his partner’s head with his hand after a collision, holding her away from harm. I’ve seen people hug, sweaty and exuberant, after every song played at a social. I’ve seen all of us grow and change in incredible ways, both on and off the floor. There is so much love here.

In dance we can find freedom. We can also find the same repressive shit we see everywhere else. This is on us. The NDCA, the bigger ballroom world, we may not have control over. In those spaces, as I was recently reminded, we might be nobody. But we’ve made ourselves a home here, in our teams, in our studios, spaces for us where so much love and progress have already taken root. Here, we get to decide.

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