By Stacy Wheeler ‘13
Although she’s a member of the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company (CCBDC), you won’t ever see Emily Fujimoto (HMC ‘11) dancing in three-inch heels and a skirt. That’s because Fujimoto is a lead, meaning she dances the traditionally male role in ballroom dance. In previous years, the CCBDC team had only ever had one other female lead in the history of the company. This year’s team has five.
“When we take people into the company we take them either as leads or follows because we have to balance our lead-follow ratio. People can try out for either position, regardless of gender,” said Paul Roach, director of CCBDC.
The tryout process is very competitive for follows, but this does not mean that female leads audition as such simply to improve their odds. “I like leading better than following,” said Fujimoto. “The fact that I’m female doesn’t affect that at all.”
Liz Sarapata (HMC ‘13) sought her role as a lead for a similar reason. Starting mostly as a choreographer, Sarapata “never really learned how to follow,” she said. “It is hard for me to perform confidently unless I feel that I am in a very nonjudgmental environment. Being a lead allows me to create this sort of environment for myself and my follows.”
Ballroom dance has very uniform gender roles. Traditionally speaking, leads are males who portray masculine characteristics, while follows are females with the embodiment of grace, sexiness and femininity.
Do such gender roles present problems for female leads? Sometimes, said Fujimoto. “There are some moves I simply cannot do as a female…since they would be inappropriate or just would not work properly with a female body.”
Sarah Roh (PO ‘12) gave an example of such a move, in which a follow puts her hand on the lead’s chest. This move, given female anatomy, can prove problematic to perform with grace.
Surprisingly, though, none of the female leads have noticed any prejudice or discrimination against their roles. “[No one is] going to be like, ‘Oh, well, she’s not going to be as good of a lead as a guy.’ I don’t think there is that stigma here. It’s a very welcoming and accepting community,” said Roh.
Instead of facing disapproval from other people, Fujimoto sometimes has to work on her own self-confidence. “[In my first ballroom lesson] I actually followed even though I knew I wanted to lead,” she said. “I was worried that it would be weird [to volunteer to lead].”
Fujimoto and Roh both said that being a female lead can be intimidating outside of Claremont. “I don’t know how they’re going to respond to me [elsewhere],” said Fujimoto. “Will they try to tell me that I’m a girl and therefore can’t lead?”
DanceSport, competitive ballroom dance, drives most trends in the dance form. Although there are now categories of competition for same-sex ballroom couples, the biggest competitions are dominated by male-female couples that stylize their dancing with exaggerated gender roles. According to Roach, the gender roles in ballroom dance are deeply entrenched in pre-1800s social dancing.
Challenges of having female leads on the company, Roach said, are limited to choreography restrictions and getting leads to “look the part.” This problem of looking the part, however, is not unique to female leads.
“In the traditional partnerships with a female follow and a male lead, we still have problems with people not looking the part. Those problems exist regardless of gender,” said Roach.
In the end, Roach said that having female leads in the company is a positive thing. “I think one of the things people tend to get nervous about when they dance is the boxed-in gender roles. If you feel boxed in, there are all these other people who are not being boxed in, in very obvious ways,” he said. “That’s really nice for me to point and say, ‘Look, if you don’t want to be feminine, you can be masculine instead.’ And I tell the leads the same thing.”