Media

Homophobia on Prime Time: Judges from 'So You Think You Can Dance' Freak Out Over Two Men Dancing Together

They were so freaked out that they were unable to render a verdict on the pair's dancing, and insisted that each man repeat the audition with a woman.

So what does it mean when people in the dance world -- I repeat, the dance world -- are shocked and confused at the sight of two men dancing together?

A couple of weeks ago the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance" premiered its new season. It started, as always, by showcasing highlights from the audition process.

And it showed, for the first time in the show's five-year history, an audition of two men doing ballroom dance together: Misha Belfer and Mitchel Kibel. And the judges were completely flummoxed. They were not just confused -- a word two of the three judges used to describe their reactions. They were visibly upset. They were so freaked out that they were unable to render a verdict on the pair's dancing, and insisted that each man repeat the audition with a woman, so they could accurately judge the men's dancing without the distraction of the same-sexness of it all.

Here, so you can judge for yourself, are a few samples of the judges' comments. (For those who think I might be taking these out of context -- or who just don't feel that their blood pressure is high enough -- a complete transcript of the judging scene is at the end of this piece.)

Nigel Lythgoe: "I'm certainly one of those people that really like to see guys be guys and girls be girls on stage. I don't think I liked it, to be frank."

Mary Murphy: This is the first time, honestly, for me to see it. I'm confused, because I see that sometimes you're both being the female role and sometimes the male, so, like, and then sometimes you'll do the trick and then he does it, too. So it confuses me.

(Quick note: Switching back and forth rapidly between lead and follow in a dance -- what I assume Mary meant by "the male role" and "the female role" -- is unbelievably hard to do. It's even harder to do it gracefully and seamlessly. The fact that these dancers were able to do this should not have been freaking these judges out. It should have been making them give high marks.)

MM: It was hard for me to even kind of focus on that technique, 'cause I was still just trying to figure out ... It would have been easier for me, in other words, if, if one person was playing the female role and one was playing the male role.

Sonya Tayeh: I'm saying that in the genre that I've seen, when I see this approach (gesturing), which, I usually see it from the female perspective. I relate more to it as a female. So I just get confused. You guys are both amazing, and the movement quality, but I was just confused in terms of the, the classical form.

NL: Do you know what? I'd like to see you both dancing with a girl.

MM: I would, too.

ST: Me, too.

NL: You never know. You might enjoy that! (Smirking) All right, see you later.

(And at this point, both dancers were sent on to the group choreography, so they could be judged on their dancing with women.)

Now, to be fair -- for some reason, even though this is making me spitting mad, I still feel compelled to be fair -- I don't think this is homophobia in the strictest sense of the word. I don't think the judges are fearful or hostile towards gay people. These judges are dance people, and I'm sure they've all met and worked with kajillions of gay men before, with no problem. (And in fact, one of these two dancers isn't gay. Mitchel is a straight guy, originally from the straight ballroom dance world, who switched to same-sex ballroom because it didn't work out with his female dance partner, and he wanted an opportunity to keep dancing.)

I think it's what I call "dance homophobia." It's something I've encountered in the dance world before. People are reasonably accepting of LGBT people and our LGBT-ness in our personal lives ... but on the dance floor, it's Heteronormative City. Men are supposed to be men, women are supposed to be women, each is supposed to dance in a certain way, and they're bloody well supposed to dance with each other.

So you think you can dance 2It's the aspect of homophobia that's about a deep attachment to rigid gender roles, and that sees homosexuality as upsetting those roles. (Which, in fact, it is.) It's the aspect of homophobia that sees certain kinds of interactions -- in this case, partner dancing -- as being about one person expressing masculinity and the other person expressing femininity, with the two fitting together in some sort of magically ordained way ... and that gets confused at best, and upset at worst, when people call those roles and assumptions into question.

So it's not like I've never encountered this before.

I was still shocked at the judges' attitude, though. And my first reaction was to say, "You're dance people. Are you really not familiar with same-sex ballroom dancing? Do you really not know that this is a thing? Do you really not know that this is being taught and danced at dance studios around the country and around the world? Do you really not know that it's happening on a competitive level?"

But I decided, for some bizarre reason, to be fair for just one more moment. Maybe they never have seen or heard of same-sex ballroom dancing. It is a subculture, after all, a weird little world of a handful of people obsessed with their hobby.

I do find it a bit shocking that I, with my extremely limited dance experience, am familiar with a dance form that professional choreographers have apparently never seen or heard of ... but hey. Maybe they've never heard of longsword dancing, either. So maybe it's not that appalling that same-sex ballroom would be such a revelation to them.

And then I came up with a much, much better example.

OK. Maybe they've never seen same-sex ballroom before.

Mark MorrisHave they ever seen Mark Morris?

For those of you who aren't familiar with the dance world: That was a very snarky question. Mark Morris is one of the most famous, important, influential choreographers of our time. In the dance world, he is as famous and important and influential as Alvin Ailey or Twyla Tharpe. The judges of "So You Think You Can Dance" have absolutely heard of him.

And one of the things Morris is most famous for -- one of the single most defining features of his choreography -- is gender fluidity.

Mark morris the hard nutMorris loves to play with gender. He has men dancing women's roles, women dancing men's roles, dancers switching back and forth between male and female roles throughout a ballet. He has men dancing together, women dancing together, women dancing with men. He has group dances where everyone is doing the same routines and steps, and you can't tell which dancers are the men and which are the women. (And you don't care.) He has dances where it's an important, written-in part of the dance that men dance as women and women dance as men; he has dances where he casts the roles without regard to gender.

Morris understands that men and women all have both masculine and feminine qualities -- not to mention qualities that have bupkis to do with gender -- and he loves to play with bringing all of those qualities out in all of his dancers. Morris is very far from being the only gay choreographer in the world; but he is one of the first to be publicly, proudly, fiercely gay, and to openly weave his gayness, and the way his gayness has informed his playful and fluid perception of gender, into his work.

I repeat: One of the most famous, important, influential choreographers of our time.

Mark morris king arthurAnd yet, despite the fact that every one of these judges is absolutely guaranteed to be familiar with Morris' work, somehow they still found the notion of gender fluidity and same-sex interaction in dance to be not only new, but shocking and confusing and upsetting. They were still so freaked out and distracted by two men dancing ballroom together -- and switching roles, no less -- that they were unable to judge the men's dancing abilities without seeing them dance "the men's part" with women. Despite being professional dance people of many years' standing, they were so fixated on rigid gender roles, so flummoxed at a little same-sexness and gender fluidity, that they were completely unable to see through it and just see the dancing.

Shame on them.

(Full transcript of the judging scene is below.)

Nigel Lythgoe: This is the first time we've had two guys do a samba for us. Um ... I don't really know what to say. It was a bit like watching Will Farrell in Blades of Glory, really. And certainly at the end where you both fell on your asses ... Um ... your styles were good, if I just stick with the dancing. I think you probably alienate a lot of our audience.

I mean, we've always had the guys dance together on the show, but they've never really done it in each other's arms before. I'm certainly one of those people that really like to see guys be guys and girls be girls on stage. I don't think I liked it, to be frank. But if we just keep it down to your dancing rather than you dancing together in this style, I thought you were both -- good. And strong. So thank you for coming and sharing a first with us.

Mary Murphy: This is the first time, honestly, for me to see it. I'm confused, because I see that sometimes you're both being the female role and sometimes the male, so, like, and then sometimes you'll do the trick and then he does it, too. So it confuses me.

Misha (one of the dancers): When we switch back and forth, it makes the whole dance a little bit more difficult, since we go back and forth between lead and follow.

Mitchel (the other dancer): To show the strength of follow and lead.

MM: Right. Which I can see. And you guys did lead and follow really well, I have to say. The technique, actually, still needs a lot of work. It was hard for me to even kind of focus on that technique, 'cause I was still just trying to figure out ... It would have been easier for me, in other words, if, if one person was playing the female role and one was playing the male role.

NL: Well, I don't think you want to see two guys there and think, "Male female."

Sonya Tayeh: OK, but what do you do with the feminine qualities of it?

Nigel: Well, that is what is, that is, that's my hang-up.

Misha: How is that feminine?

(crosstalk, can't transcribe)

ST: I'm saying that in the genre that I've seen, when I see this approach (gesturing), which, I usually see it from the female perspective. Does that make sense?

Misha: Yes.

ST: That's what I'm looking at -- (to Mary) I'm sorry, I keep touching you (laughter) -- I'm seeing this. (Gesturing)

NL: Same-sex judging! (Laughter)

ST: I relate more to it as a female. So I just get confused. You guys are both amazing, and the movement quality, but I was just confused in terms of the, the classical form. That's all.

NL: Do you know what? I'd like to see you both dancing with a girl.

MM: I would, too.

ST: Me, too.

NL: You never know. You might enjoy that! (Smirking) All right, see you later.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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