Dance dance revolution

Same-sex competitive dancers Kilee Cooper and Camille Wojtasiak introduce Sacramento to a whole other ballroom

Photo By Jill Wagner

Two weeks before San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom legalized gay marriage in his city, and 1,000 marriage-equality activists converged on the state Capitol, a much smaller gay-rights revolution happened on Folsom Boulevard. There were no impassioned speeches by civil-rights activists or protests from the Campaign for California Families to draw the news cameras, but there were sequined costumes, syncopated rhythms and fervent demonstrations of the cha-cha.

Sacramento DanceSport Project, the area’s first same-sex-partner dance school, sponsored a ballroom-dance tournament open to heterosexual and same-sex pairs. On February 1, dancers of all orientations from various Sacramento studios converged to show off their dance dexterity at an afternoon competition at The Ballroom, sharing the floor and the prizes.

Same-sex dance competitions are rare in America. “The actual governing bodies of ballroom dancing do not allow same-sex dancing,” explained Camille Wojtasiak, co-founder of Sacramento DanceSport Project. “When a competition is not officially sanctioned, [the hosts] can open it up. There are very few of those, though.”

Same-sex ballroom dancing has enjoyed increasing popularity in Europe since 1998, when “equality dance” was introduced as a competitive event in Amsterdam at the Gay Games (an Olympics-style athletic and cultural event held every four years in a different city). Equality-dance competitions take place in Europe at least once a month and are attended by hundreds of spectators. However, the art form is virtually unheard of in the United States, outside of localized dance scenes in a few cities, such as New York City, San Francisco and Sacramento.

Even more unusual are competitions like the one at The Ballroom, in which heterosexual and gay couples compete together. “There’s a lot of opposition from the traditional dance world. You know, ‘It must be a man and a woman,’ and blah, blah,” Wojtasiak said. “And in the same-sex community, when we talk about competing in heterosexual comps, people aren’t real thrilled. They don’t see it as logical. It’s like, ‘Why would you go do that when we’ve got this?’”

Still, Wojtasiak, along with her dance partner and Sacramento DanceSport Project co-founder Kilee Cooper, is committed to competing in such contests whenever possible. “I love dancing in the same-sex comps,” Wojtasiak said, “but I think it would be way cool if everyone could just dance everywhere.” Though the dancers at the Sacramento DanceSport Project-sponsored competition seemed more focused on keeping the rhythm and impressing the judges than they did in making a sociopolitical statement, the event—simply by existing—was a stand for equal rights in competitive dance.

Politics aside, ballroom dancing is simply beautiful to watch. Applause broke out the moment Cooper and Wojtasiak stepped onto the floor to dance in the last round of that day’s competition—a five-dance medley of high-energy styles like pasodoble and jive.

Cooper embodied vivaciousness with her tousled blond bob, metallic-gold heels and tight red dress that glittered like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. In contrast, Wojtasiak dressed in tight black pants and a black dress shirt open at the throat. Her short black hair was combed back to complete the image of a suave nightclub player. As their dance began, it was immediately clear that this was a whole other ballroom.

Though the previous competitors had striven to demonstrate their mastery of ballroom-dance steps, Cooper and Wojtasiak wove a story that made the audience forget the steps entirely. When Wojtasiak spun Cooper away from her and toward the crowd, Cooper undulated her body and made eye contact with the spectators, as if daring them to dance with her. Seemingly jealous, Wojtasiak would surround the flirtatious Cooper with her dance, demanding her attention. The sexual tension hung heavy in the air, as the pair maintained a connection not only with their bodies but also their gazes. Wojtasiak led Cooper by her hands or her neck, or forehead to forehead, repeatedly setting her free only to drag her back into an embrace. Their dance conveyed a timeless story of desire and denial that thrilled the audience.

There was no trace of that sultry dance energy the next evening, when the two women met for an interview at Faces. At 5 p.m., the shadowy nightclub dance floor was empty of the usual mingling club-goers, but Cooper and Wojtasiak looked right at home at a table under the DJ booth. After all, they teach partner dancing to Sacramento DanceSport Project students in this room three nights a week.

In the brief hour after the workday had ended and before dance classes would begin, Cooper and Wojtasiak were ready to discuss their dance aspirations. As if the interview were just another mambo, Wojtasiak took the lead, answering the questions quickly and professionally. A much shyer version of the previous day’s wild cha-cha queen, Cooper offered smiles and interjections only periodically.

The women spoke enthusiastically about the London Open Championship for Same Sex Couples on February 21, at which they were one of three American couples scheduled to compete against more than 75 European dance teams. The duo’s performance at The Ballroom had been a practice run for this international effort.

Once ranked third in the world for same-sex dancing, Cooper and Wojtasiak hope to surpass that title in 2004. They practice together nine hours a week, training with The Ballroom’s Danny Lerer (who choreographs their routines). Wojtasiak also studies body action with another instructor four hours a week. Each woman practices on her own, as well. “We have huge ambitions for this year,” Wojtasiak enthused. “Our dancing has changed tremendously.”

Ironically, their goal may be hampered by a de facto restriction in the rules of equality dance. Though not required for competition, it is expected by judges that dancers in same-sex European competitions trade off leading and following during a performance. This approach is problematic for Cooper and Wojtasiak’s unique style.

Still life with dynamic dancers. If only we could show you a video.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“If you look at our choreography,” Wojtasiak explained, “there’s always a story. ‘I want you.’ ‘Well, I don’t want you.’ ‘Come here!’ ‘No!’ It’s the same feeling you might experience in a nightclub.”

“Or a bullring,” Cooper said, laughing.

“To me, if you’re switching back and forth, it’s hard to tell a story,” Wojtasiak continued. “Is the story schizophrenia? The way we interact is very clear. I’m aggressive and pursuing, and Kilee is teasing and avoiding. We have a problem with equality dance, not because we can’t switch back and forth but because, when I watch it, I can’t see the story.”

Despite their aesthetic convictions, the two did share the leading and following parts during their first international competition in London two years ago. “We switched back and forth in a cha-cha,” Wojtasiak recalled. “My girlfriend watched the tape and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ I looked silly.”

“It really lowered the energy,” Cooper concurred.

Seeing the tape solidified the women’s resolve to dance as they see fit—with Wojtasiak as the leader and Cooper in the follower part—even if it puts them at a disadvantage competitively. “It’s about the kind of art we want to create and how we feel when we dance,” Wojtasiak said. “It’s strange that there’s something called ‘equality dance,’ and now it can only be done one way. That’s weird to us. So, we dance how we feel.”

It was this determination to throw convention aside and dance as she wished that first led Wojtasiak to enter Carmichael’s Arthur Murray Dance Studio years ago with an unusual request. Even though she was female, she wanted to learn to lead.

“It was not easy,” Wojtasiak remembered of her first trip to the studio. “Initially, it was horrifying. It was more my stuff than anybody else’s. I was always treated very nicely, but I had this feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be leading.”

Luckily, her dance instructor was Cooper, a woman sympathetic to her concerns. “You wanted to dance strong,” Cooper affirmed.

“I didn’t really like dancing as a young woman because I couldn’t dance how I felt,” Wojtasiak continued. “Now, when I dance the lead in that aggressive fashion, I feel very sexy. When I dance from my heart, that’s what it feels like.”

Cooper and Wojtasiak’s relationship grew from student and teacher to competitive dance partners and, eventually, to co-instructors at Sacramento DanceSport Project. Contrary to the assumption made by nearly everyone who’s witnessed their seductive dance routines, the two are not in a romantic relationship. “I’ve had to argue with people,” Wojtasiak laughed. “I’ve had to say, ‘She’s not my girlfriend!’”

Sacramento DanceSport Project, originally conceived as a way to offset the expenses of their own dance lessons, costumes and travel for competitions, now provides same-sex dance instruction to more than 70 male and female students. The school also hosts quarterly performance showcases.

On February 28, Cooper and Wojtasiak will perform in just such an event, with award-winning same-sex dancers from Germany as well as Sacramento DanceSport Project students. “These people have beautiful bodies, and they’re beautiful dancers,” Wojtasiak said excitedly, adding that she hopes everyone interested in dance will attend. “We want to make the dance community more encompassing. Even though we’re bringing in same-sex dancers, it’s beautiful dancing, and everyone should see it.”

As the time neared 6 p.m., students began to gather around the stage at the end of the room. “You know,” Wojtasiak confided, “if I lift Kilee up over my head and drop her into the splits, and she spins 800 times, people say, ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ But I think it’s more amazing when women 45 and 55 years old start telling their stories through dance. That’s far more brave than what we do. Our student performances are the coolest thing.”

“They really are,” Cooper concurred. “All our students are studs.” She excused herself to set up the sound system, while Wojtasiak finished the interview.

“Now these women in Sacramento have a place to learn to lead, and it’s liberating for them. Now I dance anywhere, and I’m always well-received, and our students are, too.” Dancing is so much easier on a level playing field.