Why Britain’s Abuzz About Same-Sex Ballroom Dancing

The Sugar Dandies, Bradley and Soren Stauffer-Kruse

Courtesy of the Sugar Dandies. All rights reserved.

LONDON—Last Friday, for the first time in many years, a story about British ballroom dancing made national headlines.

The flurry of attention—and outrage—was occasioned by a proposed rule change being considered by the British Dance Council, competitive ballroom dancing’s governing body. The change, which was first discussed in March, would redefine a dance partnership to be “one man and one lady in all adult amateur and professional competitions and championships unless otherwise stated.” The nearly 40 members of the council are expected to vote on the issue on July 21, if the measure is not withdrawn before then.

There is certainly a chance it might be, given reaction to the story. The issue first came to public light on July 10, with a press release from human-rights watchdog the Peter Tatchell Foundation. Since then, LGBTQ rights campaigners and frustrated dancers have spoken out against what they see as an unfair de facto ban on same-sex dancers. On Monday, the UK Same Sex Dance Council started a petition to ask the British Dance Council to throw out the proposed rule change; as of Friday, the petition had more than 1,700 signatures. Meanwhile, op-ed writers from across Britain’s political spectrum have piled on, decrying the proposed rule change as “retrograde,” “out of step,” and “short-sighted, bizarrely anachronistic.” Most wondered how the British Dance Council could be so jaw-droppingly obtuse as to think that a ban on same-sex couples wouldn’t cause outrage.

But the British Dance Council says the proposed rule change isn’t a ban. Bryan Allen, president of the council, says the rule change was intended as a step toward gender equality: “It was held on the basis of natural equality. If there are competitions for same-sex couples only, there ought to also be mixed-sex only,” he told me. Allen says the intention of the proposed rule was not to exclude same sex couples, but rather to create a new category of competition for mixed-sex couples only, in counterpoint to the existing same-sex-only competitions.

Allen also reassured same-sex couples that nothing would change, even if the rule passed: “They would dance in all the general competitions, as they do now. The only thing that they wouldn’t be able to dance in is if somebody ran a mixed competition only,” he explained.

That is precisely the problem, of course. The new rule doesn’t expressly ban same-sex couples from participating, nor does it ban gays or lesbians from dancing with an opposite-gender partner. However, stating that a partnership is between a man and a woman “unless otherwise noted” makes the default status of competitions under the British Dance Council auspices one of exclusivity. It puts the onus on competition promoters to clarify that same-sex couples are welcome. The wording of the rule change might not create a ban, but it does create the possibility of one, and it raises the worrying specter of same-sex couples being ghettoized in lower-profile, necessarily smaller same-sex-only competitions. Allen agreed that the language is awkward, to say the least, and noted that whether it will be accepted by the required council majority is a “debatable issue.”

Even if the rule passes, Allen doesn’t believe that many, if any, promoters will run mixed-sex-only competitions. (In which case, why bother, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) But Diane Willmot, who has danced competitively with her dance partner Sarah Hughes for a decade, isn’t so sure.

“It makes us very vulnerable, because we could register for competition, travel long distances, and then be told we can’t compete,” she explained. “At the moment, we can dance. If they pass this law, we might not be able to, and that’s a very regressive step.”

So why bring this rule change now? Same-sex female couples have long been a part of ballroom dancing, a tradition dating back to the war years, when available male partners were hard to come by. Willmot wonders if it’s because of the recent increase in participation from male couples, especially after the Sugar Dandies, partners in dance and marriage, wowed judges and audiences on Britain’s Got Talent in 2012. (The two men made it to the semi-finals, despite judge Simon Cowell’s dismissive critique, “Well, it was different.”) Willmot also noted that some on the council may see themselves as upholding conservative tradition. “A few of their members are out of touch with current thinking and legislation, which is disappointing in this day and age,” she said, pointing to the would-be-charming-if-it-weren’t-so-antiquated “one man and one lady” language. “The terminology itself says it all, doesn’t it?”

When I asked Allen why it was being suggested now, he responded, “Why not?”

To Willmott, the reason “why not” is clear: “People can’t be allowed to think that sort of thinking is acceptable.” Peter Tatchell of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which first alerted the press to the proposed rule change, elaborated. “In Britain we have laws that prohibit discrimination on any grounds. These laws have been framed to help create an inclusive, cohesive society,” said Tatchell. “The British Dance Council’s recommended rule change seems like an attempt to turn the clock back. … While all other social institutions are moving toward greater inclusion and equality, the British Dance Council is going in the opposite direction.”

Which brings us to the big question: Does the proposed rule change violate British law? Many believe that it is, as Tatchell put it, “probably illegal.” Should it pass, Tatchell said it would see a legal challenge from same-sex dancers. But the British Dance Council, having consulted a lawyer, believes it would stand up to scrutiny.

The question hinges on the perceived basis of the discrimination: sex or sexual orientation. I spoke with Robert Wintemut, a professor of human-rights law at King’s College London, who agreed that the proposed rule change represents a legal gray area.

It’s all in how you look at it. Allen and the British Dance Council see the rule change as an issue of sex—after all, said Allen, if you can have a same-sex-only competition, why couldn’t you also have a mixed-sex-only competition? And though Willmot said there are only about two major same-sex competitions held in the U.K. each year, Allen contends that there are dozens of smaller same-sex competitions all the time. (The European Same Sex Dance Association calendar has about two competitions a month, but they are spread out across the globe.) Sport has a long tradition of segregation based on sex, and the Equality Act of 2010 provides an exception for it, on the basis that one sex might have a natural advantage over the other in mixed-gender competitions. Tatchell, Willmot, and others reject this argument as spurious—ballroom dance, they say, isn’t about strength or physicality, but rather poise, presentation, and agility, which means that one sex wouldn’t necessarily have an advantage over another. Still, it’s likely that, given the longstanding precedent of sex segregation in sport, a discrimination claim based on sex would fail.

However, a discrimination claim on the basis of sexual orientation has legs. The rule change indirectly implies that same-sex romantic couples could be prevented from dancing in competition, which is a problem given the nature of ballroom dancing: A significant number of competitors choose their partners because they are also their significant others. To give an example, say the Sugar Dandies, the married couple that performed on Britain’s Got Talent, wanted to participate in a competition that was only open to mixed-sex couples, and they were denied. They could claim that they were being denied entry on the basis of their preferred partner; explained Wintemut. “They would say, ‘If we were of opposite sex, we would be able to participate,’ if they compare themselves with a male-female team that are romantic partners.”

So although the freedom to foxtrot in competition isn’t, one could argue, an inalienable right on the same magnitude as marriage, it answers to the same sort of logic: “It’s just like turning up at the town hall for a marriage certificate—you’re just being told you’re the wrong kind of couple,” said Wintemut.

If the council passes the rule change, it could ultimately be up to the courts to decide if it were an issue of sex or sexual orientation. Still, it represents an interesting question for human rights and equality law: Where do sports like ballroom dancing or ice skating, which both rely on partnerships and often times an artistry beyond physical prowess, fit in?

Whatever its fate, the rule change’s immediate effect has been an alienating one for gay and lesbian ballroom dancers—a fact lamented by both sides of the issue. “It’s too horrible, too awful, in the current climate of acceptance, to feel discriminated against,” said Willmot, noting that she and her dance partner want to work with the council to come up with some kind of compromise. “We’re not activists, we’re not out to be aggressive politically. We just want to be as accepted, as we accept everyone else. We don’t want to change the rules if there’s no reason to. We are not a threat.” Allen, for his part, called it a “shame” and “a great pity” that the rule change had become contentious, though he also blamed what he called “orchestrated misrepresentation” on the part of “people with motives that only they would understand” for the dispute.

There is at least one gratifying result of this whole furor: The widespread acknowledgement that any kind of circumscription of the rights of gays and lesbians is regressive. “We’re overwhelmed by how the media has picked up on it,” said Willmot. “It’s being taken so seriously, and that’s been very rewarding.”