A group of identically dressed dancers poses frozen on the dance floor. The get up is odd for a west coast swing competition: dark pants below bondage vests over white shirts with period style puffed sleeves. They stand with their arms at their sides, heads tilted towards the floor. One person looks up and nods towards the DJ booth. Cue the music.
In one motion, they look towards the audience and begin their play. Using a mash up of songs, they spin and weave their way around the floor in synchronized patterns. Faces and bodies dramatize each bar of music. The choreography draws the eye this way and that to take in the every changing partnerships and the ever-shifting roles. No one stays in a “role.” Women lead and then follow and then lead again. Men follow then lead then follow again. Everything is shifting as a unit to draw your mind away from the individuals and into the web they create.
This is Role Play, a DC based west coast swing performance team. And there isn’t a performance team out there that so brilliantly subverts expectations and innovates movement for the dancers.
West coast swing a slot dance that developed out of a style of lindy hop danced by sailors on the west coast. It then met with influences from country line dancing and two-step. Twenty years ago, it adapted to suit the influences of pop music. Dancers wanted something they could adapt to their favorite music. The dance continues to adapt and is susceptible to infinite musical and movement influences from Latin zouk to old style lindy to hip hop and dub step. It also responds to changing cultural perspectives like in its shifting stance on gender and gender performance.
That’s where RolePlay comes in. The group is designed to allow both men and women to lead/follow in a diversity of ways rather than maintaining strict gender assignments to the lead/follow roles. The group began in 2010 with choreography by John Lindo & Michael Frank. Since then, the team has evolved under various choreographers into the team I saw give their first competitive performance at Liberty Swing. I wasn’t prepared for the quality of work they produced. It was dynamic and vivid, thwarting my expectations from moments of sheer goofiness to intricate group structures. It was different than anything I had seen in my years in ballroom. And I loved it. I loved how it undercut the gendered terms of partner dance.
In high school, I donned a fake beard to be a lead a wedding polka during a musical production of Fiddler on the Roof. I loved dancing the steps with confidence as a lead. I was a better lead than most of the men. But then an adult expressed concern that if I showed too much enthusiasm for the role that someone would assume that I was gay. It flabbergasted me that someone would draw a conclusion about my sexuality based on which steps I stepped to music or that the gender of the person on the other side would cause a to leap to the Island of Conclusions (Phantom Tollbooth anyone?).
RolePlay confronts these assumptions in choreography that refuses to conform to a viewer’s assessment of the performers’ sexualities. Men and women wear the same corsets, suggestive of an aggressive sexuality that is then equally shared among the performers. No one is master or slave on this dance floor. The result is that nothing feels sexualized in the performance at all. Sexual tension, a staple of cultural partner dance expectations, is dissolved in the blended crowd of dancers wowing the audience with their skill as dancers. When we thwart lead/follow expectations, we relieve the negative sexualization of the human body in dance.
Innovation does not automatically make something “good” and, in fact, often creates work with a little sloppiness, rarely providing the result they aim for. There’s a lot of fine-tuning still possible for the current iteration of the Role Play team from technique to choreography choices but I think they come close and will continue to grow. RolePlay’s work will open up the doors for better team choreography and stronger dancers capable of creative musicality we have not yet even imagined
As an audience member, you don’t have to like the idea of degendering dance roles in order to appreciate what innovation like this can bring to an art form. Innovation opens up an art form to tell more stories than it could previously, stories that might be parallel or contradictory to the current innovative narrative. It opens our bodies and our imaginations to new possibilities. I look forward to seeing what groups like RolePlay will continue to bring in the future.