CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ballroom dancing has long been symbolic of heterosexual norms – a male-female partnership with the male taking the lead — but that could be changing.
The hit reality competition show Dancing with the Stars broke ground last season when it paired pop star JoJo Siwa with a female pro; and while the International Gay Games features a same-sex ballroom competition, it’s rare to see a same-sex couple compete in the mainstream ballroom world.
Now, for the first time in its 22-year history, Cleveland DanceSport will see a same-sex couple compete tonight – Friday, Sept. 23.
Clevelander Frank Anthony and dance partner Braxton Knowles of Columbus will take the floor to compete against male-female pairings in the American Rhythm category: ChaCha, Rumba, Swing, Bolero and Mambo.
Anthony and Knowles have competed together only twice before – at a Fred Astaire dance event in March, and again at the national Fred Astaire competition in Las Vegas this summer. Both are long-time instructors for Fred Astaire Dance studios – Anthony teaches at the studio in Willoughby, while Knowles teaches in Delaware, Ohio.
They began dancing together in January.
Cleveland DanceSport will be the couple’s first competition outside the Fred Astaire organization.
“We are definitely not the first to do this, but we are a big part of the change that is coming in the ballroom world,” Anthony said. “I have always been very inspired by people in the past who have knocked doors down. Now I can be a part of that.
“Dancing in Vegas was bigger than just being in that ballroom,” he continued. I went from being that only little boy in a dance class full of all girls and getting bullied, to Las Vegas – dancing same-sex – fighting against tradition as an openly gay male. It was liberating and powerful, not just for myself, but for everyone who is trying to break down barriers.”
“They are absolutely opening doors in the world of professional dance,” said Marina Tarsinov, an adjudicator for the World Dance Council (WDC) and the National Dance Council of America (NDCA), as well as a member of the executive committee for the Fred Astaire Company. “Having them at the regional and national events for Fred Astaire was quite revolutionary for the system, but more importantly, they are breaking barriers in the world of professional dance, where the idea of same-sex and neutral couples remains quite a unique thing. “
Anthony and Knowles competed for years with female dance partners. They knew one another through work, but it wasn’t until Tony Dovolani, one of the professional dance coaches on “Dancing with the Stars,” suggested the two pair in competition that they ever considered dancing professionally together. Both dancers had worked with professional dance coach Taliat Tarsinov, who pushed them to pursue Dovolani’s suggestion.
“In professional ballroom dancing, it is a man and a woman, with the man leading and the woman following the choreography, explained Anthony. “We had to be specifically approved to do lead/follow dancing against traditional couples. Tony (Dovolani) did a lot to get the rules opened up so we would compete at Fred Astaire events.”
To do so effectively, the pair had to determine which partner would lead and create choreography that best highlighted their specific skills.
Knowles has chosen to follow since he has “pretty feet,” – a dance term that refers to one’s ability to point their toes and glide effortlessly around the floor.
“I did a lot of jazz and ballet growing up, so pointed toes and pretty lines are pretty much my specialty,” Knowles said. “For years, I struggled with my own sexuality in the ballroom world because they are looking for specific things. They want the man to be ‘the man’ and frame the pretty picture the woman is creating. I didn’t agree with that. I can rotate my hips and tell a beautiful story just like any girl.”
Anthony and Knowles have worked with two choreographers to create routines that allow both partners to show their individual abilities to lead and follow, allowing them to decide who will lead during which performance.
The trickiest part of dancing together has been finding a way to effectively rehearse. The pair switches off traveling between Cleveland and Columbus every weekend to spend hours working through their programs. The rehearsals are videotaped, then each partner practices on their own throughout the week until they can work together again.
Costumes have been another puzzle the dancers have had to solve. Traditional ballroom couples are dressed on complimentary outfits, though the women’s costumes are traditionally showy – festooned with feathers and rhinestones.
“Since we are in the beginning stages of seeing same-sex couples on the floor, we are trying to keep our costumes very clean and not too experimental,” Anthony said. “After all, because we are two men dancing together, that can be experimental enough.”
The pair has settled on black and white costumes with Swarovski crystals “so you can tell we are partners” but “we are definitely talking about including more color and prints for future performances.”
“Choosing costumes has definitely been interesting,” Knowles said. “We have to show our masculine side, even though there is lots of femininity in our movements. They are not as flashy as most couples you will see on the dance floor because we don’t want the audience to be distracted by the bling, we want them to see us.”
The reaction to Anthony and Knowles so far?
“We haven’t seen any negativity around our partnership from other competitors. They have been very accommodating,” Knowles said. “When we walk out on the floor to compete, they are some whispers in the crowd, but then we start dancing and most of the time those whispers go from ‘whisper, whisper to OH WOW!'”
As for the judges, Knowles said “they like what we are doing and the work we are putting in.”
“The world is changing around us. We are still growing as a society and we can see that society is wanting to be more open about allowing everyone to be who they want to be, at all times,” he continued.
“In the end, we are just two guys who are trying to break ceilings inside a very traditional world that has always been based on male-female relationships. As two openly gay men, we can dance at the same high level and tell an amazing story on the dance floor. Dance is not just about femininity or masculinity; it is about beauty. We are just trying to show beautiful dancing when it all comes down to it.
“We are just two guys dancing and expressing ourselves through movement.”