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Putting the "Gay" in Merengue -- Reflections on Dance
by John Olski
Posted 10/28/03

Tango is an intricate dance of empathy and response, not to be confused with lines cut by Gomez and Morticia Addams across their macabre sitcom living room. Developed in late 1800's Argentina, tango was a passion for working-class men in an era when live music ruled and brothels were busy (visit www.history-of-tango.com). Buenos Aires bustled with light-footed European expatriates, mostly men seeking financial opportunity in an aging New World. There was an overabundance of men, in fact; and to tango well with the ladies, men had to practice with other men. The arrangement carried less homophobic baggage in a time before gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights marches.

PBS documentary footage of two men dancing the Tango may have influenced my decision to take a Salsa Dance Fitness class at the Y. I cherish the image of two average guys attuned to each other's bodies, not for competitive sport, and not in the heterocentric depiction of tango as a battle of the sexes. Popular gay movies present male intimacy with stilted banter, chase and embrace, while adult videos reduce human movement to a dominant-submissive pumping. Sometimes a cherished ideal is the best a gay man can get.

My first partnered dance came at the end of sixth grade with a girl who shared my stand in the band's flute section. It was afternoon, in full daylight outside of our classroom, before the watchful eyes of peers and at least two teachers. We weren't the only ones cutting the asphalt, so we relaxed and giggled at the notion of hula-hip action. sway-step, sway-step. Considering feelings I already had about a few male classmates, it was probably best for comfort in the trousers to not be pressed against one.

In seventh and eighth grades the dances were in darkened gyms, though memory runs more to gym class, where dance was offered as a unit. The majority of boys stoically accepted failing grades, butts on bleachers, backs to concrete block. It wasn't as though they had purchased dance cards in order to partner with sweet, buxom beauties, while the early-bloomed girls of junior high also weren't paid, and could easily ignore the immature wallflowers. Tango was absent: ours was a heritage of waltzes, polkas and schottisches. Girls danced with girls, never a sign of lesbianism, and I danced with girls, a good sign of homosexuality; one that raised my grade average for the quarter.

[According to history-of-tango.com, two dances preceded the tango in establishing the posture we tend to associate with partnered dance -- hand in hand on one side, hands to shoulder and waist on the other. The polka was one of those dances; the other was the waltz.]

Slow dancing in high school brought a sense of acceptance, of being seen as physically okay in the eyes of a girl or two. The drawback was sweat, a by-product of solo fast dancing that pulled more young men onto the dance floor, most often in groups. How did people deal with sweat in the swing era, with its jackets and ties? If hair was slicked, was cologne also used in large doses?

The highlight of high school dancing was show choir and the annual musicals. Why are there so many gay men on Broadway? Aside from the fun of it, my answer would be choreography. Imagine being part of a culture where the men are expected to dance and are offered relevant guidance in accepting and using their bodies. In show choir, one was given moves that were moderately transferable to social occasions. In gym class, on the other hand, one was given moves that were totally irrelevant to the music of Homecoming or Prom. I was fortunate, for a few years, to have a choir director who not only choreographed, but also expected a lot from his dancers; flinging a musical score across the room if he thought that action and a curse would stimulate our energy. He guided us through The Wiz, Jacques Brel and various Manhattan Transfer numbers. He left in my junior year and was replaced by a woman who viewed choreography as a series of box steps to Simon & Garfunkle tunes -- gym class in spirit, if not in name.

College brought real same-sex dancing, though in a fast-dance blur. Sweat wasn't much of a concern without the slow numbers, while guys with fewer inhibitions (or smaller pores) rubbed bodies in gyrating, three-person sandwiches. As an option, shirts were removed to lower some body temperatures and raise others. The governing board of our campus GLBT group received objections upon deciding not to bar 16-year-old high schoolers from our dances. The hottest gay stud complained by e-mail that he'd be removing his shirt and gyrating sexually in front of minors. I replied that he could leave his shirt on and give the teens an opportunity for same-sex dancing we never had. He wrote back that he "hadn't thought of it that way."

I wasn't sexually attracted to the one college guy I remember slow dancing with, though he was a good friend. Another guy I did ask for a slow dance at the gay bar declined, even though he had pursued me months beforehand and we were having a sexual relationship. That's my experience with men — never a tango. At the gay bar, I was asked to dance more often by inebriated straight women than by men. The only time I recall declining was for a gay man who was clearly on drugs, or at least a couple gallons of coffee. Fast dancing brought some closeness at the student union, one night: a cuter version of Johnboy Walton in a knee-length dress, swinging me square-dance style to an upbeat country number; and a Mexican man grooving just inches away, though within my outstretched arms. Hot, Latin dancing?

My class at the Y has taught me some steps that are transferable to the commercial dance floor. The Club Majestic in Madison played some moderate-tempo numbers that worked well for a Salsa step, particularly as the crowd grew tighter and forced footwork to be more contained. For the most part, though, dance clubs (and gay dance clubs in particular) play music that is most conducive to a lot of jumping around. Gay men dance together like they wait for concert tickets together: each by himself, maybe facing the guy in front or behind. Put a stage or riser in the dance bar and a lineup of men will gyrate at its lip, each alone, some with shirts removed.

I'm the only man in my Salsa Dance class at the Y, though a few husbands join their wives in the night class. I don't mind the arrangement, and unless there are closet lesbians in the class, we're all in the same boat when partnering up -- all except for the one straight woman who gets to dance with me, and then I'm sweating enough from the workout that I can't imagine it's much of a treat for her.

My male body is the only one I get to see in the floor-length mirror at dance class, and I like catching glimpses of it in motion. There are times, though, when our instructor reminds us of the division of labor in partner dancing. Women, we are told, rotate their hips or raise their arms; the men keep movement in the legs, maybe with hands clasped behind their backs. Suddenly I'm back in junior high gym class, reminded by heterosexual tradition that I'm guilty, in some vague sense, for simply moving freely and enjoying it. I don't mind refraining from hand swivels when the instructor throws in a middle-eastern dance step, but I just can't restrain my hips for the Latin numbers.

That's where I put the gay in Merengue.

Where would you expect to find more information about Salsa and Merengue? Why, in Sheffield, England, of course. Visit the web site for the Salsa & Merengue Society at www.salsa-merengue.co.uk .


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