Here, queer and dancing

A male pairing on the British tv show Strictly Come Dancing shone a spotlight on the LGBTQ+ dance scene. Emily Garside explores the history and power of queer dance.

Johannes Radebe and John Whaite do the salsa in Strictly Come Dancing. Photo: Guy Levy (BBC)

Sometimes the biggest steps can be taken on the dance floor. When the TV chef John Whaite and his professional partner Johannes Radebe burst onto Strictly Come Dancing in 2021 they showed British television audiences the joy – and skill – of same-sex Latin and ballroom, to an overwhelmingly positive response. The first male same-sex couple on the hit show, they continued through to the final, ending as series runners-up. That audience positivity came from witnessing their brilliant skill as a partnership and Radebe’s inventive, assured choreography – but they also showed anyone who might want to dance with someone of the same gender that they could do just that.

For many of us, such contrasts of scale and same-sex dancing is no new phenomenon. The tango originated around the 1870s in Buenos Aires, often with males dancing together – in part due to an absence of women to practice with. But in the 1920s a rise in balls for LGBTQ+ people created spaces where gay men and women could socialise and indeed dance together. A precursor to the nightclubs that would also use dance as integral to socialising, they were spaces where men and men and women and women might engage in the popular dances of the day. During the ‘Roaring 20s’ and inter-war years, culture became more permissive, moving away from Victorian values. However, from the later 1930s and well into the post-war years, hate crimes against gay men increased and such dances went back underground. Same-sex dancing continued, but in a much more secretive society.

Same-sex ballroom has endured too, and in recent decades enjoyed a resurgence. In Britain, many outspoken advocates paved the way for the scene we see today. Jacky Logan created Jacky’s Jukebox on Saturday nights at Rivoli Ballroom in the 1990s, welcoming all sexualities. She continues to break gender norms by holding classes which help you to decide whether you fit the ‘leader’ or ‘follower’ ballroom dancing role, regardless of gender. Pete Meager launched Equality Dance – a ballroom and Latin dance school based in London – in 2017, which similarly aims to ‘teach people their role of choice’. This generated the UK Equality Open, a competition with categories for same sex and open couples; participants can join regardless of how they identify or whom they dance with. Things have evolved too with Equality Dance UK seeking to change the rules, and educate the broader ballroom community to allow same-sex ballroom couples and mark them fairly.

Francesca Canty. Photo: Daniel Penfold.

One spiritual home for the same-sex dance scene is London’s Bishopsgate Institute, an adult education organisation and cultural centre founded in 1894, and whose archives hold an extensive collection on LGBTQ+ history, politics and culture. Francesca Canty, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Bishopsgate, is particularly passionate about this dance scene, having been part of it for some time – she calls it ‘equality dance’. ‘When I first went to Jacky’s,’ she recalls, ‘I knew nobody at all and now a lot of my closest friends, colleagues and collaborators are people I have met through equality dance. People come as they are, dressed as they like, and are accepted and welcomed – and I have to say I have not experienced that consistently at mainstream social dances.’

This welcoming space is important, particularly for LGBTQ+ dancers to feel they can be themselves. Growing this community has been important for Canty at Bishopsgate. As she says, ‘although I’m proud that Bishopsgate Institute is the home for equality dance in London, and I can see that the community likes to feel they are coming to a familiar and welcoming base, I’d like to see equality dance everywhere, including mainstream events welcoming equality dancers without a second thought.’

This is an extract from Dance Gazette issue 2 – June 2022.

Related content

Celebrating Pride

At the RAD, we are committed to understanding the issues affecting the LGBTQIA2S+ community and we'll be sharing your stories and experiences all year round.…
Read more