Permission to Follow: Interview with Juliet McMains

Admit it: even if you’re not a woman under 35, you still remember how obsessed America was with Dirty Dancing. The star-crossed lovers, the energized Mambo scenes, the moment in which watermelon-toting Baby is seduced by the working class world of soulful gyrating — it’s an irresistible story driven by its sexually charged dance scenes.

So the next time you hear that ABC’s Dancing with the Stars‘ season finale pulled in 27 million viewers a few weeks ago, don’t act so surprised. In a world where gender roles and racial categories are constantly up for debate, America has re-embraced the most tried-and-true form of courtship: ballroom dancing. Juliet McMains, in her new book Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry, studies this subculture-cum-national fascination in light of ABC’s celebreality surprise hit.

Every week on the show, the viewer-watched stars — loveable D-list ones like Mario Lopez or Joey Lawrence — learn and perform dance numbers with professional competitive ballroom dancers. Then, in true American Idol form, the fan dialed the number they see on their screen and vote for their favorite couple. Once they unglued their eyes from the TV set, this viewer may have grabbed the latest issue of US Weekly to find out which couple is starting a hot-and-heavy romance behind the scenes. And after watching a juicy episode, couples and singles were often motivated to sign up for salsa or waltz lessons, participating in the 40 percent spike in ballroom dance school enrollment since Dancing‘s premiere in the summer of 2005.

America has gone through a handful of dance booms in the 20th century, and evidently, we are in the midst of another one. At once writing a social history and an empathetic exposé, Juliet McMains grapples with the pleasures and addictions of ballroom dance from the perspective of an insider. She is not only a dance historian at the University of Washington, but a dancer in the world of professional competitive ballroom dance — rechristened in the 1980s as “DanceSport” in a successful attempt to be accepted as an official Olympic sport.

PopMatters spoke with McMains by phone about how the forces driving DanceSport mirror our national identity: our desire for both passionate abandon and steadfast rules, our obsession with self-improvement and comfortable gender roles, and our craving for a little thing called Glamour.

You describe the appeal of the ballroom dance industry as Glamour Addiction. Can you explain what that is? Is that why people are so drawn to a reality show about ballroom dancing?

Glamour is the central element to competitive ballroom dancing, both in doing it and the thrill of watching it. The Glamour system promises a transformation of personal identity, on any level. If you are not popular and you want to be popular, it promises that transformation. If you feel like you’re not sexually desirable, you’re too old, if you’re gay and you want acceptance in a heterosexual world, it fixes all of that. The machine does this through dangling objects and ideas really close so that you can touch them, but always keeping them at distance. So the promise is actually never fulfilled. Glamour doesn’t work unless it’s a fantasy. It has to continually taunt you with this fantasy that you’re going to fulfill it.

So I think that show just finally hit the right formula for capturing the interest of the American public. This whole sensibility — constantly desiring more and more, and craving fantasy — is very much part of American culture. Hollywood is a really big part of it, and Dancing with the Stars capitalizes on it as well. Viewers can feel this vicariously through the dancers and celebrities. It’s the combination of that viewer saying, “Wow, this person’s only had a week to learn this, so I could do it too,” with a celebrity — a professional performer — being good enough so that it’s actually entertaining to watch. And, of course, Americans really like competition. It’s the mode of our entire culture. It’s how capitalism works, it’s how our kids are raised in school — we’re constantly taught to compete.

So is the rise in enrollment in ballroom dancing schools driven by this Glamour they see enacted in the show?

Yes, partly. Even the next day after a particular show airs, people will call the studios all hyped to learn whatever dance they saw on the show the night before. Obviously the dances on the show can’t be learned in real life in a week. It’s impossible. But suddenly people have all these fantasies that they’re going to be able to do that, and want to enter this kind of seductive fantasy world.

But ballroom dancing seems so arcane — why are people so into it now?

There’s a lot of anxiety in our culture about dating and increased STDs — especially 10 or 15 years ago with AIDS — and ballroom dancing is a safe, non-threatening way to interact with the opposite sex. Lately there has been an enormous fluidity of gender roles and people not knowing how to relate to the opposite sex. People talk about returning to traditional gender roles and family values, and for some people, this is increasingly becoming a way to do that, because it’s so structured for them. The gender roles are so clearly laid out, literally even taught in books — “here’s how to be a successful man, here’s how to be a desirable woman.” How comforting is that? I’m always shocked — and I guess it was true for me, too — that even my students in college who seem to identify strongly as feminists and independent seem to find a comfort in playing this feminine role, having permission to follow for three minutes.

The tabloids have been all over the “real-life romances” of some of the stars on the show. In your book, you often talk about overlapping personal lives of partners and the sexually charged environment of ballroom dancing. Is it common for partners to turn into couples, or is that aspect romanticized for reality TV?

Oh, no it’s not romanticized … it’s incredibly common in real life for the boundaries to get crossed. It’s almost guaranteed that a student will think they’re in love with their teacher, especially when it’s a professional-amateur pairing, like on Dancing with the Stars. The teacher is showing them how to move in a way that they’ve never moved before. They’re feeling amazing physical sensations they’ve never felt before, and they’re looking into the eyes of this usually very attractive, physically and socially adept, suave individual. It’s easy to confuse the love of dance with the love of the dance teacher.

But the situation with Dancing with the Stars, where the student is also a celebrity, there’s some sort of mutual fascination between teacher and student. A real-life romance between a dancer and a celebrity makes for a great tabloid story, and creates an even more glamorous world for the audience of Dancing with the Stars.

Is this promise of sexual tension intentional — to keep the student coming back?

Yes, the dance teachers know they have to foster that false association, because that’s part of what keeps the student hooked and paying for more lessons. DanceSport is incredibly expensive. The lessons can be anywhere from 50, 100, even 200 dollars an hour. But the teacher doesn’t always want the student to get too involved and cross that line. Most studios have a strict rule about no dating between students and teachers. But this is broken all the time.

You discuss in your book that many of the male dance competitors are gay, even though they are in a hyper-heterosexual role. Is this something that is in the forefront and readily accepted in the industry?

Everyone knows who’s gay; it is really part of the landscape. People are completely open about it, although they won’t put it in print. We just can’t write about it.

A don’t ask, don’t tell sort of thing?

It’s not even that, because it’s common knowledge, there’s not anyone to tell. I guess I probably shouldn’t “out” who’s gay on Dancing with the Stars — but I know. Everyone knows in the ballroom dance industry. It’s accepted and acknowledged. But for some reason it’s never plainly written about.

What kind of people attend DanceSport competitions? Is there a subculture based around going to these shows?

Not in the US, except maybe in Utah. Utah has a really large participation by youth and it’s part of the culture there. But the rest of the country, people who attend are other competitors, so the audience is just other students or teachers. It’s just too expensive for the general public.

Juliet McMains with Sonny Perry
Photo by Dave Head

Utah? Why would DanceSport be so popular in Utah?

The Mormon Church fully supports ballroom dancing. They fund the ballroom dance program at Brigham Young University, the biggest ballroom dance program of any university in the country, by a long shot. They support dancing as a way for their young people to meet each other. It’s sort of a courting mechanism. It’s surprising because of how overtly sexual ballroom dancing can be … but they do practice it slightly differently. They have more stringent dress codes in the costumes, things like that.

Do you think these competitions could eventually become a mainstream event in the United States?

Maybe. It’s not yet something that people are willing to pay a lot for. Like with football, for instance, people will pay a lot to go watch a football game, because it is part of the American culture. People do pay to see the ballet, because it’s associated with a high-class position. Ballroom dance competition doesn’t have that status, but maybe that’ll change. I mean, even though ballroom dancing is a performance of class, it sort of hovers between class and trash. The costumes are classy but also Vegas-style showgirl. Ballroom dancing in general has had this class tension for a while — having elements of high society and low society.

As a Harvard graduate, in what ways did you experience this class tension?

Early on when I first made the leap from amateur to professional ballroom dancer, I didn’t fit in with other DanceSport professionals. Ballroom dance teachers in the US rarely have a college education. Most of them come from a working class family background. My colleagues didn’t understand why I would want to use my Harvard degree to pursue a career in ballroom dancing. I remember one friend noting, “We’re all trying to get out of this business and you’re trying to get in.” I’m sure she thought I was terribly naive about the harsh realities of life as a DanceSport professional. And I probably was. But I did eventually learn how to become fluent in that social setting and made friends in time.

What do you mean by “harsh realities”?

Sometimes, being a professional ballroom dancer feels like being a prostitute. You are selling your body in a sexual way. You’re a servant to the person who’s hiring you, even when you’re the teacher. A teacher has power as being the source of knowledge but they’re getting directly paid. That feels particularly so if you’re a professional being hired to escort your amateur student to a competition. It just didn’t feel like a high-class job. It was weird for me, from where I came from. There’s not a broad support system.

I experienced the Glamour Machine from the two ends of the spectrum. On one hand, I had enough money to go from amateur to pro, so that made it easier. On the other hand, the way I looked and was raised violated the norms of the Glamour Machine, these sexual dynamics, so it was even more apparent to me than others that this Machine can’t deliver what it promises. It was frustrating.

So is the dynamic between students and teachers often tense because one is from a working class background and one is usually wealthy?

Well, no, it’s more like the students and teachers use each other to fulfill parts which each are missing. The teacher’s got a beautiful body and dance movement, more socially adept because they’ve learned all these social codes through their training. There’s a culture where you greet the students with a kiss on the cheek and there’s this performance of a social behavior where everyone must be polite. There is some sort of mutual fascination and dependence. The industry needs to be financed, and it is financed if there are glamorous bodies to desire. Of course, with Dancing with the Stars, the dynamic is different — they’re not paying the teachers. They’re all paid by ABC. That’s a really important aspect taken out of the teacher-student relationship.

You have a chapter in your book about brownface, about how bronzers and skin darkeners are a performance of Latin-ness. Can you explain that?

I draw parallels between painting light skin darker for these competitions and blackface minstrelsy. Painting the skin darker than it naturally is implies that I am “performing” Latin-ness. This is primarily done in the Latin dances, because there’s the most skin exposed. I was blown away in Dancing with the Stars when Monique, who is an African-American woman, said that even she did the skin darkening. It’s so much part of the culture that even if your skin is already dark, you gotta do it more.

But the thing is, there is no DanceSport in Latin America, so the idea of performing Latin dances is just misleading. These dances bear very little resemblance to social dancing in Latin America. So I don’t object to the process of brownface itself, so much as what it’s wrapped up in. Of course any culture is going to grow and change, and when a dance moves from one country to another it’s going to adapt, and I don’t think that’s inherently bad. The problem is when the American dance industry becomes the superior authority on what is Latin dance. I performed DanceSport on television in Nicaragua, and people thought it was beautiful, but they had no idea what it was.

But at the same time, you write that some people refer to DanceSport as a racial utopia, where all races can come together through their common love of dance. Some say that the bronzer is just stage makeup; it’s not a racial thing. What would you say to those people?

I think that ballroom dancing, and the entertainment industry in general, is about glossing over all unpleasantness in life — that’s part of the glamour. Of course the industry is going to downplay the negative. Race is a really touchy subject in the US. So to even suggest that DanceSport has any racist aspects at all is so offensive to people that they don’t want to even consider it. I think Monique, on Dancing with the Stars, said she thought it was funny, but people are scared to talk about race.

But I know Latinos wonder, “Why are these people dressed up this way and dancing like this when these dances aren’t the dances that we do?” And African-Americans wonder, “Why are there no black people doing this?” Although Dancing with the Stars makes a huge effort to include African-Americans, at least the stars on the show. But there are almost no African-Americans participating in DanceSport in the US.

You write that the persistent appeal of Glamour reveals America’s fundamental optimism for a better future, but that its seduction can be destructive. Is this your comment on the entertainment industry in general?

I do think that what I write about is applicable to much of American culture. People want to be carried away by something that offers an escapist route to the drudgeries and realities of life. Both the dance shows on TV and the dance lessons offer this. I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing — sometimes it’s necessary for survival. But I think we’ve gotten so obsessed with the glamour that people are really missing something. If people are more interested — and they are — in Dancing with the Stars than the upcoming election or in the war in Iraq, I think there could be some dangerous consequences.