Liquid Leading

Breaking Ballroom Traditions By Lori Straus
  • Jeff Fox and Trevor Copp / Photo courtesy of totteringbiped.ca
  • Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox / Photo courtesy of totteringbiped.ca

The rules of ballroom dance have been evolving since day one. But, according to Burlington-based dancer and actor Trevor Copp, they’ve still a ways to go to before reflecting our current contemporary society.

Reflecting on the steps he’s taken to transcend dancers’ roles in ballroom, Copp says, “I’ve been kicking this around for six years, and I’m ready to talk about it.”

Copp’s journey in ballroom started by learning how to teach the partner dance in an attempt to earn a little extra income in between acting gigs. With some ballet and jazz training already behind him, it seemed like a good fit. However, what started as supplemental income became a passion, and Copp found himself in the ballroom twelve hours a day for several years.

Copp has since travelled around the world and experienced ballroom culture in thirteen different countries. (He admits, part jokingly and part seriously, that nothing clears a ballroom floor faster than two men dancing. Although it’s acceptable for two women to dance – because of a usual lack of partners – it’s unacceptable for two men to dance.)

His acting background, though, presented him with the first moral dilemma he’d notice in what he calls “this beautiful, beautiful form” of dance. “I knew that as a theatre professional that everything that you perform is representative. […] But every time I got up [to compete], I always represented a world in which there was so much exclusion.” Not only is the standard couple heterosexual in ballroom, the woman always follows the man. Even in same-sex couples, Copp says, “There are two men, and one of them is playing the woman.”

The concurrent rise of So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars also brought up mixed feelings in Copp. He and his dance partner and fellow teacher, Jeff Fox, who’s based in Kitchener, ON, loved ballroom’s rise in popularity, but these shows continue to demonstrate the very traditional thinking found in ballroom. “You know, we will dance ballroom dancing as a historic form, but that’s not what these shows are about. These shows are not saying, ‘Look at what they used to do. This is nice.’ They’re showing what dance is now.”

And it’s more than just the gender/sex makeup of the couple: “I’m talking about no relationship that anyone regards as remotely healthy looks like one person dictating to the other.” He doesn’t understand why some sparkles and lashes suddenly make this kind of unequal relationship acceptable. Why, he asks, does ballroom still act as a space for this kind of “problematic content”?

“Dance is not a place where this is okay,” Copp says.

Copp didn’t look outside of ballroom to find the solutions to his unease: he found them within it.

“Teacher dancing is always same sex,” Copp explains, and he had difficulty helping women follow – not because of his convictions but simply because, as the man, he had learned how to lead. As Copp and Fox danced together, Copp explains, Fox would teach Copp something; then, in the course of the dance, Copp would take over. “We would keep dancing, and we were teaching each other in the course of a single dance.”

He realized that perhaps he and Fox had discovered something: “People found that really interesting, that we just didn’t stop and we just kept dancing and we ended up making this dance out of it.” In the end, they were switching the lead within the dance.

In 2007, Copp and Fox took their idea of shared leading to a queer theatre festival in Kitchener called The Briefs From the Closet. There, they demonstrated what they had come to call liquid leading, essentially the art of interchanging lead and follow in a ballroom dance. At the festival, Lisa O’Connell, playwright and artistic director of Pat the Dog Theatre Creation, told them that this was more than a dance and that they should write and produce a play about it.

The suggestion took Copp and Fox on a multi-year journey to develop First Dance, a play about a gay man trying to create a first dance for his wedding. First Dance has been well-received all around, and after several performances in southern Ontario, the work travelled to Albania in October 2014. The southeastern European country is considered very conservative, and homosexuality is not widely accepted, though it’s not illegal.

“We performed out there for a contemporary dance festival. But of course, because of the contemporary dance festival, you’re performing for this relatively left-wing segment of the population. They just loved it. They were all over it over there,” Copp says.

Although Copp hasn’t experienced any direct negative comments about First Dance or liquid leading, people have walked out of the show. He believes that people who don’t like the show are perhaps not ready for change. “They’re not ready for things to happen like this. They want to keep things the way they are, so there’s certainly a conservative presence there, but we never really felt it,” he says.

In the fall of 2015, Copp and Fox introduced liquid leading to an audience of 500 people at a TEDxMontréal event. They, with the help of Alida Esmail, a former student of Copp’s, demonstrated ballroom as it’s traditionally done and as Copp and Fox prefer to do it. Seeing a petite woman dip a man who’s over six feet tall can strike the viewer as odd and different, but it breaks the traditional boundaries set by gender roles. It’s clearly possible for anyone to dance what has typically been prescribed for female dancers and male dancers, and it doesn’t matter who leads. In the end, it’s a negotiation.

“Let’s create a dance where it’s just like a conversation,” Copp says. “That’s what we want to move towards.”

Copp and Fox have already pried the door to this conversation wide open. And it’s not looking like it’s going to shut anytime soon.

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