D H Kelly considers the heteronormativity of Strictly Come Dancing and explores how to overhaul the gender norms it promotes
Since Susan Calman announced that she would be dancing on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, she has received criticism for failing to insist that, as a lesbian, she should have a female dance partner and be allowed to dress in the tweedy masculine tailoring she would normally wear on stage and screen. Calman has insisted that she wanted to dance with a man and was so happy that she burst into tears when, on the opening show, she was paired with her favourite professional dancer Kevin Clifton.
The ensuing debate has made me consider – not for the first time – quite why I love Strictly so very much, despite itself.
Competitive ballroom dancing must be about the most heteronormative sporting or artistic activity there is. Not only is everyone paired into couples consisting of one man and one woman, but the dances symbolise heterosexual courtship and passion. The man always takes the lead, guiding the woman (who is often dancing backwards) around the floor and the stories these dances relate are often more toe-curling than a misplaced fleckerl. Perhaps most notoriously, in the Paso Doble, the woman plays the role of either the cape or the bull (object or animal) to the man’s matador (a human being), but the dance often looks like a fight between a jealous man and his protesting girlfriend, who almost always ends up being dragged about a bit and thrown to the floor (either discarded or killed) at the climax.
So on some level, I should hate this. Not because I am a feminist killjoy, but because there is symbolism here which makes me feel genuinely uncomfortable in other contexts. The world, especially my world, is not neatly divided into units of two consisting of a man and a woman, with the man in a dominant role. The belief that this is how the world should be – not uncommon even in our enlightened age – is an extremely oppressive one to all kinds of people, most obviously LGBT+ people, but also women in general. Meanwhile, I’m someone who will stop watching a film or TV show where sex is presented as combative; where a heated argument between two people turns violent and then, inexplicably, sexual the next minute. Yet this is the fundamental flavour of the Paso Doble, Tango and Argentine Tango.
Yet honestly, I absolutely love this show. It is as much part of my autumn as the falling leaves and the sparkle of fairy lights in shop windows. It will oil the wheels of casual conversation for the next three months; who is doing well, who might win, who should go next week. My husband and I will hear a piece of music and fall into discussion about what dance could be performed to it.
The gender stuff needs an overhaul, but putting Susan Calman in a trouser suit and having her dance with a woman because she’s a lesbian would not solve this. Currently, Strictly Come Dancing is a show about heteronormativity as a performance, which is, of course, what heteronormativity always is. Men and women, most of whom are not sexually attracted to one another, pretend to be couples. To music.
The way these couples behave, of course, varies according to each different dance (as developed in/ pilfered from various cultures across Europe and the Americas – and a bit further back, from Africa). To learn the Latin dances, British men face the revelation that the hip is a ball and socket joint rather than a hinge in order to move in a manly way which is considered not at all manly in 21st century UK. Modern British women must learn to be “ladylike” for the Foxtrot, sultry for the Tango, serious-sexy for the Rumba, fun-sexy for the Cha Cha, kooky for the Charleston and so on. None of this comes naturally to anyone and nobody but the most consummate actor can achieve all this and make it all look natural.
Susan Calman is the first out lesbian celebrity on Strictly (as far as I’m aware) but she will be by no means the first woman to be dressing and moving in a way alien to her previous experience whilst dancing with someone she could never find attractive. To insist that she should dance with a woman and wear trousers implies that the relationships these dances represent have some bearing on reality (where apparently, even in lesbian relationships, someone has to be ‘the man’).
It fuels that strange homophobic idea that LGBT+ performers should be confined to LGBT+ roles. Likewise, it suggests that it’s somehow commonplace for straight women to dress up in a glittery frock with elaborate make-up and spends her Saturday night floating around like a fairy princess or strutting about like a fiery sex goddess.
Some gay men do exactly that, which brings me on to Strictly Camp. Either masculinity or femininity, when taken to any extreme, becomes camp as a box of baubles. The dancers who make us laugh are not often those who get the steps wrong, but those who dance with joy and enthusiasm but struggle with the required forms of gender expression. When John Sergeant performed his spectacular Paso Doble, he got the right steps in the right order to the correct beat, but maintained the character of a man trying to buy a pint of semi-skimmed at the Co-Op on a Sunday morning, fending off inexplicable attempts to delay him from the beautiful Kristina Rihanoff. When Dave Myers danced the Tango, he bore the expressions of a man grappling with a jar of peanut butter with a particularly stubborn lid. Men who are confident and enjoying themselves but can play no other man but themselves are an equal delight in the required role as Disney prince in the Vienesse Waltz or buttock-wriggling party boy in the Salsa. These performances are not a failure and it is hypermasculinity which is the butt of the joke.
The problems of heteronormativity could be addressed without turning the world upside down: keep all the same dances, all the same rules except those which apply to gender. Which partner leads could be decided on a dance-by-dance basis (as happens in dance halls across the land where there aren’t enough men to go around). A couple might even choose to alternate the lead within the dance. This is not like playing football and suddenly deciding to pick up the ball. Ballroom and Latin dancing does not hinge heavily on there being a physical difference between two partners, not nearly so much as in something like ballet (where of course, directors have been playing about with gender in traditional pieces for decades).
There may be lesbian women who have a princess fantasy that involves dancing with a handsome prince, far removed from romance or sex. There may be straight women who’d feel unable to dance with a man for religious or other reasons. There may be non-binary people who might find either traditional role deeply uncomfortable. There will be men who don’t have the strength to lift another person and women who do. It may even be possible to tell stories through these dances which are not so overtly romantic or sexual, but rather about other kinds of relationships. As with all inclusively when done properly, abandoning that slim gendered element of the rule book would be bound to have other positive effects.
There are other problems with the show. There are often guest dancers on the Sunday night show, but I cannot recall a single dancer with physical impairments, despite the existence of troupes of wheelchair dancers and other disabled performers (maybe this year, the presence of Paralympian Jonnie Peacock may herald a change). By far the most uncomfortable problem is the occasional “Around the World” episode, which features the kind of fez-wearing cultural appropriation that television hasn’t rarely seen since the 1980s. Given the considerable care and creativity put into these shows, I cannot fathom how this is allowed to pass.
There’s an ongoing tendency for the presenters, judges and celebrities to objectify male dancers, especially the professional dancers, and this can be uncomfortable. There is good humour and flirtation all round, but occasionally remarks about the men’s bodies and sexual suggestions travel a good few feet beyond cringe-worthy. Young lads are watching this show, they may even be encouraged to dance and we don’t want them to imagine they’ll be treated like a prize bull at market the moment they dare to throw a few shapes at their auntie’s wedding.
The UK has lost its mainstream dance culture and this has happened quite recently; my parents’ generation danced together in their early adulthood, men and women alike, but by the time I was a teenager in the mid-90s, boys and men had retreated to the edge of the dance floor. I googled to see if someone had done a historical analysis of this, but despite it happening very recently and only in this and very similar cultures, everything I found resorted to the idea that men are hard-wired to feel a level of performance anxiety which women – with our universal lack of self-consciousness and confidence in our own bodies – do not. However, some of the deepest shades of crimson I have seen on human skin have been upon the faces of grooms enduring the ’first dance’ at their weddings; an entirely competition-free situation where they are nevertheless obliged to move their bodies to music in view of family and friends.
As soon as the boys and men move to the side of the room, the girls and women are aware they have an audience and at least half of us lose our nerve (the wild abandonment of “Dance like no-one is watching!” wouldn’t have made nearly so much sense 50 years ago when almost everyone in the room was dancing too). Activities dominated by girls and women do become quickly dismissed as frivolous and trivial. It is a tragedy for our culture that we have devalued a form of physical and (sometimes) artistic expression which is accessible to most people.
That’s something I really love about Strictly; I have always enjoyed dancing but it has been many years since I could dance in any way another person would recognise as such. When celebrities insist that “If I can do this, anyone can!” I’m living proof to the contrary. Yet I do find it uplifting to watch such a great variety of people – young, old, fat, thin, short, tall, white folk and people of colour and this year, for the first time, an amputee – working hard and learning a physical and artistic skill which brings them so much pleasure, with no weight-loss or other beautification goal and very little focus on competition.
So often, reality TV where people compete at a particular skill do so under the supervision of one or two powerful and well-known figures, while Strictly showcases the talents and hard work of a whole team of professional dancers, workaday artists rather than established celebrities, most of whom are migrants and who demonstrate their considerable skill, not only in dancing (which is, at times, breath-taking) but their ability to teach inexperienced, sometimes difficult strangers and choreograph multiple dances around that person’s strengths and weaknesses. In a country whose immigration system is tightening to a point which will soon strangle our economy and culture, it’s great that one of the most popular shows on TV should feature so many talented and likeable migrant stars for the public to warm to.
Claudia Winkleman and Tess Daly are the first two women to front a prime time weekend TV show together and this pairing is a wonderful thing – most especially as it replaced that old-fashioned dynamic of older male showman and younger female arm candy. Daly has come into her own as a funny charismatic presenter next to the charmingly awkward and self-effacing Winkleman. From this season, the judging panel is half women for the first time.
Such a massive popular prime time show carries a lot of responsibility and there are many issues Strictly needs to address, from its overwhelming whiteness to the often disablist language employed to describe awkward dances. However, Strictly provides a lot of fun, inspiration and at least as much small talk as the local football fixtures and the rotten weather between now and mid-December. I hope to watch it evolve and improve for many years to come.
You can watch Strictly Come Dancing on BBC One and catch up on iPlayer.