Guest Blogger

"I'm Confused": Dance Homophobia, Gender Rigidity, and "So You Think You Can Dance"

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 07, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment, Media
Tags: dancing boys, gender, Greta Christina, homophobic behavior, So You Think You Can Dance

[Greta ChristinaEditors' Note: Guest blogger Greta Christina is editor of the new anthology, "Best Erotic Comics," and "Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients," a book of advice for sex work customers, written by sex workers and former sex workers, published by Greenery Press.]

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?

dance.jpgIngrid and I are fans of the TV show, "So You Think You Can Dance." Yes, it's a cheesy reality competition show; but the cheese factor isn't as bad as it could be, and the level of dancing is quite serious, and quite high. Since I care about dancing, I'm willing to overlook the stupid manufactured drama and the cheese, so I can watch the dancing.... which is very, very good indeed.

A couple weeks ago (I know, I'm behind the times, we Tivoed it and just watched it the other night), they premiered their new season. They started, as always, by showcasing highlights from the audition process. And they 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.

misha_mitchel.jpgAnd 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 from Greta: 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.)

Mary: 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.

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

Mary: I would, too.

Sonya: Me, too.

Nigel: 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.)

dance2.jpgNow, 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.

dance3.jpgIt'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?"

dance4.jpgBut 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.

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

dance5.jpgHave 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 Mark Morris is most famous for -- one of the single most defining features of his choreography -- is gender fluidity.

dance6.jpgMark Morris 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. Mark Morris understands that both 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. Mark Morris is very far from 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.

And yet, despite the fact that every one these judges is absolutely guaranteed to be familiar with Mark Morris's 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.

Mary: 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.

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

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

Nigel: Well, that is what is, that is, that's my hangup.

Misha: How is that feminine?

(crosstalk, can't transcribe)

Sonya: 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.

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

Nigel: Same sex judging! (laughter)

Sonya: 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.

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

Mary: I would, too.

Sonya: Me, too.

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

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Can you believe that was the one and only show I have ever watched and two gay men were getting gay bashed right in front of my eyes! The judges looked foolish. They were speaking from ignorance and in the end demeaned these two men. I hope I never see that kind of insensitive bull again.

Straight lady in California here. I watched SYTYCD with my sister, a fan, that night and also could not believe my ears. Three dance world folks who had trouble with a same sex couple? Are they serious? And worse, the show decided to leave their idiotic reactions in the program. Since the guys didn't make it into the competition, their story wasn't a critical part of the plot. The judges should have been embarassed by their reactions enough to edit it out of the show. I enjoyed watching the guys dance. And the story of the friendship between the straight guy and gay guy was nice - they were brought together by dancing and believed that their skills truly complimented each other. It seemed to be going somewhere good in terms of plot. I was "flummoxed" by the judges. And felt that the show was telling the viewer some f'd up homophobic lesson.

I wanted to make sure you saw this apology from Nigel Lithgoe, the judge and executive director:

“I sincerely regret the fact that I have upset people with the poor word choices and comments I made both during the taping of the ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ audition and on my personal status update. I am not homophobic and it was extremely upsetting for me to be classed as such.

I have been forthright and consistent with my opinion, as a judge, that professional male dancers should move with strength and agility -- like Gene Kelly and Rudolph Nureyev. I now realize how this could be misconstrued.

I have been a dancer, and involved in the dance world, for nearly 50 years. Professionally and personally, I believe the sexual orientation of an auditioner or contestant is irrelevant. All that said, the fact that I have unintentionally upset people is distressing to me and it is obvious I have made mistakes that I must learn from. I trust that my humor will be more sensitive and mindful moving forward.”

I think a lot of us that love the show were shocked by the statements and reactions of the judges. It was simply appalling.

As a former professional dancer, I can say that this type of gender rigidity and homophobia is indeed more rampant than people think in the dance world.

Rick Sours | June 7, 2009 11:04 AM

When I came out in 1973 at the age of 22, I was told
by well intended Lesbians and Gay men the following:
"you are as good as any one else but remember we
have to stay in our place". Things have changed alot
over the years but in some ways we are still not
treated as equals to straight people.

I just don't think that the GLAAD approved apology cuts it for me. Nigel has apologized for the off-the-cuff comments, but to me, these were a lot less offensive than the deliberate, packaged homophobia that the producers used in the segment.

This has been covered extensively on - Michael Jensen wrote an outraged entry, a restrained, journalistic piece, and a call to action with a list of SYTYCD advertisers. The last two were produced after the GLAAD-approved "apology."

To me, as I detailed in AfterElton comments, and more on my blog, the off-the-cuff comments I can almost write off. His Twitter messages were largely just repeats of the same thing. But the fact that the producers, and Nigel is Executive Producer, took time to license "It's Raining Men" for the pair's walk to the stage, and once they were dismissed, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" to play as they walked out of the theater are the bigger offenses. Those took time, creativity, and even a license fee for music. And the producers are yet to apologize for that.

Even though mainstream media picked up the initial outrage, once GLAAD said it was all OK, everybody stopped looking at the bigger issue (though the NY Times, to its credit sounded incredulous that GLAAD accepted his "apology").

I know it's just a TV show, but it's targeted at teens, and I have to believe things like this, whether it be the judges horrified faces, the deliberate choice of music to accompany the segment, or the runaway tweeting do harm to questioning and queer youth at large in a way that an incidence of physical violence can't.

Go read some of the extended coverage at AfterElton, or even BuddyTV, which has kept the heat on the show as well. This isn't one that we should let go.

Isn't the dance world the gayest world there is? So, it strikes me that the comments about gender roles were also about policing HOW that gayness can be made apparent to the world. Mark Morris aside, it seems that people like Lithgoe are fine with inhabiting spaces with gay dancers who dance in a simulation of eroticism with female dancers (and maybe he thinks Nureyev was straight) as long as their moves don't, horrors, actually indicate any actual gayness.

Because, then, oh, no gender binaries - the kind implicit in a daft like Mary Murphy's "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" might actually be broken down. And, oh no, we might have to admit that there are homos among us. And then, oh no, we might be perceived as gay! *run screaming in terror*

Why oh why did you type that horror story? I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight!

It's interesting though just how telling Murphy's comments are about the general populace: "It would have been easier for me". Apparently we're supposed to sort ourselves into neat little boxes for the sake of people who can't be bothered to get a better understanding of reality.

Honestly, I heard about this back when it aired (not a viewer) and was beyond disgusted. The twitter updates only made it worse but the cue de grace (yea, I know, messed up at least one word in that) was the reactions of actual gay men. The childish internalized BS that so many of them on the given forum were spewing was disturbing to say the least. Apparently even some of us don't think we should dance together...sounds like a bad joke, doesn't it?

I'm a huge fan of the show and was shocked when the aforementioned comments were made as I was watching it. I was so impressed when, earlier in the show, Nigel commented on how brave it was for the differently abled woman with a fused spinal cord to try out. It was equally brave for those two men to try out together.

I believe that Nigel's apology about his homophobic comments were sincere, though I agree with others who have commented in this thread that the show's producers have yet to apologize for their part in this debacle.

I particularly appreciate this post because it delves beyond the homophobic remarks into the gender issues that were brought up. It's remarkable to me that our country is now able to recognize and discuss homophobia relatively easily but still shies away from discussions about gender.

I missed the first two episodes of SYTYCD this season, so I missed this charming incident. I definitely agree with Ed's comment that deliberate executive decisions, like the song licensing he describes, are more disturbing to me that off the cuff comments that may have just been poorly stated or edited. I have enjoyed SYTYCD (not the audition episodes, which I usually skip entirely or at least use the fast forward button liberally) but the main competition, for several seasons because of the high level of artistry and skill of the performers and choreographers. But the entire time that I have been watching it, I have been bothered by the undercurrent of gender rigidity. Dancers are continually being critiqued on whether the men dance in a way that is sufficiently masculine, or the women dance in a way that is sufficiently feminine. In one other audition episode I did see this season, they came down hard on a really beautiful, moving male dancer for being "too feminine". It seems like they could do so much more creatively if they were less rigid in this respect, and if their choreography was less rigid.

Ugh, I've just made myself mad again.

Jeffrey Taylor | June 7, 2009 2:18 PM

My partner and I were watching the show for the first time ever when this incident aired. We changed the channel immediately, haven't watched again and tell everyone who mentions the show why.

The dance community, of all communities, should be more evolved on these issues than other communities. I do hold them and Lythgoe to a higher standard. This was exploitative, humiliating and inexcusable.

While I appreciate Lythgoe's apology, which sounds like it was written by a PR agency's account executive more than by Lythgoe himself, that does not mean he should be excused from consequences and that does not mean that he's going to have to put his money where his mouth is.

Too bad this sort of gender policing is going on in the dance world... but why doesn't it surprise me? Gender binary roles are firmly entrenched everywhere else.

I love Mark Morris!

gregorybrown | June 8, 2009 10:41 AM

It's an odd thing to see how, in so many ways, whatever we think is happening in terms of "acceptance" is expected to be bought at the price of de-gaying our behavior. Much of the talk about SSM is as much about how "we're just like str8 people" as it is about rights to legal equality. More people are coming out into whatever role realities they perceive for themselves, but many seem to be willing to make those personal realities conform to traditional and oppressive patterns.

And the rich irony is lost on one of the enforcing female judges, since she has a fucking shaved head. Hmmm, is she a man, or a woman? So confusing!

But this should be no surprise. Dancing, ice skating, the French, and all-male schools have one thing in common: the homoerotic stereotype. So they have far more homophobic anxiety pent up that leads them to compensate more in homophobic behavior than the average institutions.

Vince in LA | June 8, 2009 12:58 PM

I want to give credit to the producers for even showing us that such a thing as competitive same-sex ballroom dancing even exists. I've been same-sex country western dancing for 18 years, but I had no idea that same-sex competitive ballroom dancing even existed. And the fact that a declared STRAIGHT man participates in this style of dance was even more eye-opening for me. (By the way, I just read that a new same-sex dance studio just opened in the heart of WeHo!)

I want to also give credit to the judges for sending both dancers to the choreography round of auditions, in spite of the horrible fall on their lift (and what I thought was a very clumsy-looking audition).

I really don't think that the producers are homophobic at all (remember, Tyce Diorio and Adam Shankman are both openly gay!). I think some people are too quick to label someone's comments as "homophobic" when those comments really have nothing to do with fear or hatred of gay people. I think that the judges may have been guilty of "gender role" bias, but that's it. Even I, as a gay viewer, found it difficult to watch and appreciate the constant switching of leader and follower. Generally, in same-sex two-stepping, we rarely switch lead and follow positions DURING a song.

As I recall, Nigel has ALWAYS had the position that guys should dance like guys. In the auditions for two previous seasons, he commented to Anthony Bryant - a very talented Juilliard-trained contemporary dancer - that his style was too effeminate (remember the ribbon dancing that he did in the Season 1 auditions?). So, if you must attack the show, attack it for "gender role" bias, rather than homophobia. Please!

I think that the word "Homophobic" is too strong for the judges reactions. As an AA lesbian, when I first saw these two dancerss presenting themselves as a same sex partnership, all I thought was,"This is awesome!". However, as I watched them, I was disappointed. Though they were O.K. dancers, the movement was not cohesive.
I think the judges were mistaken using "male"-"female", and "girl"-"boy". However, it is relatively understandable considering most people don't know the difference between gender and sex.
Latin dances are close and intimate which
require a certain finesse that I just don't think these individuals had. Many "M/F" couples cannot even accomplish promising performances. Although the problems were blamed on them being two males (and MM's statements regarding men being men in past seasons...), I believe the judges were seeing something deeper.
Considering that the judges are experts and have been involved in the dance world for decades, I'm pretty sure they weren't being homophobic. It honestly seemed like a poor choice of words, which we have to remember was cut to make T.V..
Honestly, I was more disappointed in the dance couple than I was in the judges reactions.

This is just sad! I don't like the judges anyway on that show... but this is just quite embarrassing for them. It makes them look uncultured in the art of dance (which they are). many of the most respected contemporary companies in existence do extensive work with the pairing of same sex couples. the judges on that show are a joke. i just watch for the dancers, and some of the choreographers.