Chronicle of Higher Education review
'Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry'
By NINA C. AYOUB
From the issue dated November 17, 2006
This week millions of Americans will tune in for the results of a long-awaited vote: the finals of Dancing With the Stars. The ABC television show, which pairs professional ballroom dancers with B-list or lower celebrities, is a top-rated hit with as many as 20 million viewers per show.
Watching, many who don't know a ballroom pasodoble from a ballet pas de deux have come to enjoy a world of dancing where no limb extension is too extreme or number of rhinestones too great. It's a world that Juliet McMains knows well. "I am a Glamour addict, struggling to stay clean," writes the scholar, an assistant professor in the dance program at the University of Washington.
Her rueful perspective is evident in Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry (Wesleyan University Press). The author uses a capitalized "Glamour" to identify both the engine and the commodity of the industry. In Ms. McMains's study of ballroom's political economy, cap-T theorists such as Judith Butler and Mikhail Bakhtin take a turn. But especially interesting are ethnographic tidbits that draw on her own experiences as a DanceSport professional. (DanceSport, she notes, is the name given to competitive ballroom in the 1980s in a bid to be recognized as a sport in the Olympics.)
What Americans know as ballroom dance was standardized in Britain and stripped of nearly every element of improvisation, notes the author. Exploring that process, she tracks the footprint approach of such impresarios as Arthur Murray. Yet Murray and his ilk also preached ballroom for self-transformation, an idea that continues to sell. Ms. McMains describes how the concept intersects with ballroom's gender, racial, class, and even immigrant politics as a wave of Eastern Europeans have come to dominate.
Spotlighting Latin ballroom, she draws parallels between blackface minstrelsy of the 19th century and "brownface" today. White competitors, she writes, slather on such products as "Profi-Tan-intensive-Latin-Color" to perform dances divorced from their origins. A ballroom rumba, for example, bears little resemblance to the rumbas of a Cuban dance hall, departing in stance, movement, and overall playfulness. Instead, Latin ballroom "borrows some of the passion and sexuality associated with Latin dancing without forfeiting the class and racial privilege by which ballroom dancing is defined."
Another delicate topic is the "pro-am" couple. Most dancers struggle to make a living. One solution is to be paid to be the partner of an amateur in competitions. Ms. McMains describes how studios cultivate such desires by trading on sexuality and fantasy. "The system, relies on students' continual misinterpretation of a teacher's touch."
The Amateur International Standard community, of which I am a part, doesn't have the same characteristics as Latin (the super-dark fake tanner) or of Pro-Am, but I do wonder what she says about it. Certainly I sometimes feel like the ballroom community is very alien and insular, and as a social scientist I can't help but try to deconstruct it.