Inside the Beautiful World of Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing

Mainstream competitive ballroom dance contests still don't allow same-sex competitors. A new documentary explores the LGBTQ scene that formed as the result of that ban.

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Aug 23 2018, 9:48pm

Images courtesy of Hot to Trot Productions

“Dancing is going to be one of the last bastions of homophobia to fall because it is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire,” says Barbara Zoloth, founding member and President of the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association, in the documentary Hot to Trot, which comes out tomorrow in New York and September 14th in Los Angeles.

In mainstream competitive ballroom dance, same-sex partnerships are not allowed. Director Gail Freedman’s film follows the lives of dancers in a community that sought an alternative. Over a four-year period, the film goes from the April Follies, North America’s largest same-sex ballroom dance competition, to the Gay Games, where it’s a featured sport, and beyond.

The dancing in the film is beautiful, but the real focus is the struggles and triumphs experienced by members of the LGBTQ community, ones which Freedman hopes also relate to a larger audience. “We say at the end of the original trailer that it’s a film about living your passion, breaking boundaries, and personal power and political muscle,” Freedman told me. “I wanted it to be something where by the end of the film you really cared about these people and that their struggles were recognizable to any of us.”

I spoke to Freedman about the process of making the film, her hopes for its impact, and the power and politics of same-sex competitive ballroom dance. Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

VICE: How did you first come upon same-sex competitive ballroom dancing? What made you decide to make a documentary about it?
Gail Freedman: It was serendipity, as so many things are. I had just finished making a remarkably different film about the making of the 9/11 Memorial in New York for The History Channel. I was casting about for another project . I was batting around ideas with my lead cameraman, Joel Shapiro. He said he grew up with this woman, Barbara, who runs a same-sex dance group on the West Coast. Something in the back of my brain exploded. I said, “Tell Barbara I’m going to call her.” That’s how this world introduced itself to me. [I thought] it could be a film on the most simplistic level about dance but on another level about the intersection of art, politics, affirmation of self in identity, and the whole notion of normed gender roles, which same-sex dancing completely throws out the window.

Did you anticipate filming for four years?
Originally when I started in 2012, I probably had a more conventional, simplistic arc in mind. We would go through the Gay Games and that would be the end, which still would have been two years. If you care about dance then obviously you might be very interested in this film and if you have a strong feeling for LGBTQ issues then you’re probably our core audience. But I really always saw the film as hopefully interesting to people who don’t know either one of those groups. I was looking for something that was going to be more character-based, more humanistic. That meant I had to spend time with my characters on and off the dance floor. When I got to the Gay Games, I felt like the film wasn’t complete. It takes a long time sometimes to get it from inside your head to up on the screen. Now here we are. We spent the past year on the festival circuit. We’re finally hitting theaters and streaming.

How did you avoid othering your subjects?
I was very sensitive to absolutely not wanting to do that. They weren’t creatures on display. If anything, I think it was the universality, their complex humanity, that shone through to me. I think my outsider status—I’m not a dancer, I’m not LGBTQ—was an asset because I went on a discovery voyage and hopefully the audience goes on the same voyage of discovery that I did. People are used to seeing women dance together but people aren’t as accustomed to seeing men dance together even though there’s a long history of that. It’s more shocking to American eyes. To me that’s a secondary message of the film, that things we see as "other" are often seen that way because of lack of exposure. What’s threatening about a couple of guys dancing together, really?

How do you think current struggles in LGBTQ politics manifest themselves in same-sex competitive ballroom dancing?
In mainstream dance competitions, a couple is a man and a woman. A man leads, a woman follows and those are the rules. Which is part of the reason this whole alternative competition circuit developed. The American edition of Dancing with the Stars has not and does not have same-sex pairings. That seems, frankly, astonishing to me. That certainly is reflected and talked about in the film and I’d love to see if it could have an impact that way also. The dancers told me that same-sex competitive ballroom dancing really is an affirmation of identity, community, and pride and they’re very cognizant of that. Yes, they’re athletes and artists and the dance itself is important to them, but there is this whole other level on which they’re extremely conscious [that] they’re doing something political.

How do you hope the film can open the eyes of people who are unfamiliar with both communities?
I think LGBTQ issues are one of the civil rights issues of our time. So many things are so threatened now. It seems that we’re so polarized and people are almost desperate for some hope, positivity, or optimism. I hope the film is an idiosyncratic attack on bigotry. Without being preachy-preachy or beating you over the head with it, it exposes the absurdity of prejudice. I think there’s an opportunity to get a lot more eyeballs and open hearts and minds in our own little way. We didn’t make an earth-shatteringly large film here, it’s a small indie film, but change comes in sometimes small and unforeseen ways so that’s all I can hope for.

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