from ballroom to DanceSport

Reviewed by Fred Mason, University of New Brunswick

AUGUST 25, 2006       archive

Ballroom dance is enjoying a revival of sorts, finding its way anew into the public eye through its transformation into sport, increasing participation rates, and a resurgence in popular culture with surprise television hits like the UK’s “Strictly Come Dancing” and the US version “Dancing With the Stars” (although the audiences for these shows are probably as or more interested in the celebrities as they are the dance). A book that critically considers the many aspects of this phenomenon is a timely and necessary addition to the literature on both dance and sport. From Ballroom to Dancesport: Aesthetics, Athletics and Body Culture is just such a book, although not without its weaknesses.

The author, Caroline Joan S. Picart, draws upon multiple methods to analyze ballroom dance as a cultural practice appearing in a variety of forms and places, and taking on different meanings depending on the situation and audience. In her approach to the contemporary ballroom dance scene, Picart employs literary and critical theory and auto-ethnographic techniques. She is uniquely positioned for her study, as in addition to being an academic working in literature and law, she competes in DanceSport at the national level and has trained and worked in the ballroom dance studio system. The primary focus of the book is on symbolic and rhetorical constructions of ballroom dancing, both implicit and explicit. Throughout, Picart teases out how ballroom dance becomes a forum for the expression and reproduction of competing forms of nationalism, and ‘appropriate’ forms of gender, race and heterosexuality.

As with many works that employ multiple methods and cover a broad range of related topics, the quality of each chapter varies. The first chapter combines the results of a survey of studio dance clientele with recollections and experiences from the author’s past. In its attempt to cover a broad ground and set up the rest of the book, this chapter sometimes gets a bit messy. The material moves back and forth over personal history, survey participant results on questions of race and gender, and the author’s understandings of the differences in studio culture and social dance environments. It certainly offers good observations, but at times in a chaotic fashion. In addition, the review of other literature on ballroom dance in the first six pages comes across as very argumentative, essentially stressing how this book will be superior to all others on the topic (the author’s background in rhetoric displaying itself here). Readers might do well to read the last page of the chapter (p. 28) first, so as to know where this whole thing is going.

Picart brings an auto-ethnographic approach to her own experiences as a competitive dancer in the second chapter. In an effort to “invite readers to dwell within” (p. 38), the author reflects on the way the body moves and on how dancers communicate “virtual emotions” in different types of dances like swing and smooth. At times, this enables the reader to get inside the author’s head, sharing in the emotion of the moment, which is some of the best that auto-ethnography has to offer as a method. However, the key weakness, as in much of auto-ethnography, is too heavy a focus on storytelling, and not enough on academic analysis (and do not take this as an anti-auto-ethnography diatribe, for the reviewer has taught and employed auto-ethnographic methods for the last two years himself). Part of the problem is that this chapter is a written version of a performance presentation and likely much is lost in the translation from movement to text. This sort of writing brings an enlightening perspective to the work and enables it to be embodied, but it could have gone into more analytical depth.

The third chapter is the most relevant to scholars interested in sport film and literature and is arguably the strongest in the book. Examining the presentation of ballroom dance in movies from the last decade, this chapter is film criticism as it should be. The author dissects a number of films in depth, always situating them in the wider context of the topic, and even managing to keep an eye on cinematographic concerns. The issues that Picart addresses include the legacy of Astaire and Rogers, the racialization of Latin dancers (both white and of Latin descent), and how ballroom dance films enable some play with gender norms, such as in sexualizing men and representing powerful women, but always within the boundaries of heterosexual desire. A short filmography of dance films is also included as an appendix, which not only works as a quick reference guide to many of the themes that Picart discusses, but also stands on it own as a useful resource.

In the chapter entitled “Paving the Road to the Olympics,” the author discusses the move from artistic and recreational dance to competitive DanceSport, and the arguments as to why it should or should not be included on the Olympic program. This chapter effectively reviews the rhetoric put forward by the advocates of DanceSport and the often cynical or misunderstanding viewpoints of sports journalists. An appendix furthers this material by providing more information and contact details for a number of ballroom dance related associations.

The fifth chapter offers the deepest analysis in the book and its most solid scholarly contribution. Picart weaves together an analysis of the representation, reproduction and intersection of race, gender, (hetero)sexuality, nationality and class in ballroom dance. She offers perceptive commentary on the complementarities of smooth and Latin dances in form and image. Picart argues that the smooth dances mirror notions of white aristocracy with flowing dresses, upright bearing, and rigid, heterosexual gender roles, and the Latin dances glorify notions of exoticness, ‘brownness’ and sexuality. As the author notes, “one needs the other in order to mark its place within the overall system” (p. 94). This section of the book is where the insider and outside-observer perspectives that the author brings are most fruitfully combined.

From Ballroom to DanceSport does not really offer a concluding chapter. Instead, Picart finishes with a discussion of noteworthy moments of choreography or stage production that experimentally ruptured the predominant white, patriarchic, heterosexual aesthetic in ballroom dance. In a work such as this, these incidents merit attention. While the author built up to her main points in the preceding section, more of a conclusion seems necessary for a book that ranged so wide and far over the landscape of ballroom dance.

Overall, From Ballroom to DanceSport is a very good contribution to the literature on sport and dance. While at times it strays more into the descriptive than the analytical, the sections of analysis are measured and truly insightful. It will stand as a unique contribution, one that could not be written by anyone else at this point, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the burgeoning popular phenomenon of ballroom dance.

Picart, Caroline Joan S. From Ballroom to DanceSport: Aesthetics, Athletics and Body Culture. Albany: SUNY Press, 2006. 167 pp. $ 21.95. ISBN 0-7914-6630-2

Copyright © 2006 by Fred Mason.

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