One reason I’ve never gotten into watching competitive ballroom dancing is the exaggerated and stereotypical gender presentations that seem to be required of the competitors. You can argue that it’s all about preserving tradition, but it’s the 21st century and a little variety would be welcome, including some ironic and playful interpretations of gender. You know, like women leading, or the partners alternating leads, or, God forbid, two men or two women dancing together.
The Gay Games got there before me (as they usually do), and the 2018 Paris Games dancesport competition included categories for male, female, and mixed couples. Before the Gay Games, there were the april follies, which began in 2003 and, as a title card informs us, is “the biggest same-sex dance competition in america” (as the title of this film is presented in all lower case letters, so is the text on the title cards). The first dance performances of hot to trot, a documentary directed by Gail Freedman which explores the world of same-sex ballroom dancing, take place at the 2012 april follies, with more performance clips from different events, including the 2014 Gay Games, to follow.
The performers and their dancing look fabulous, because of course they do, but unfortunately we mostly see only short clips of them dancing, often in shots framed too tightly to show the entire bodies of both dancers. Maybe there was a rights issue, or maybe this is just a directorial choice, but the result is a movie about dancing that teases more than it delivers, never allowing the viewer to become absorbed by the dancers and their performance. There’s a reason Fred Astaire insisted that his dances be shown in long shot and with a minimum of cuts—because it’s about the dance itself, not what some editor might decide to make of it.
On the plus side, Freedman does an excellent job explaining ballroom dance and how it translates to same-sex couples (the roles are called “leader” and “follower” rather than “male” and “female”) and at letting us get to know some of the competitors and what they do when they’re not dancing. Robert Tristan, who competes with Ernesto Palma, teaches dance classes and reflects that in his native Hungary, gay bars were fire bombed and he could not possibly be as open as he is in New York City. Ernesto has his own backstory as well—homophobia in his native Costa Rica, drug addiction as an attempt to fit in to the gay community in New York—but is focused on the future. He describes their relationship as “a marriage…without the fucking” and seeing them work together in the dance studio does highlight what an intimate relationship it is to partner with someone in this sport. When Tristan must return to Hungary for medical treatment, Ernesto pairs up with Nikolai Shpakov, an experienced ballroom dancer and teacher, but who has never partnered with a man before.
Women also compete in same-sex ballroom dancing, and Freedman focuses in particular on Kieren Jameson and Emily Coles, an absolutely adorable and very skilled pair from San Francisco. They have their personal struggles to deal with as well—Emily is diabetic, and Kieran is concerned about her career—and these strains inevitably affect their dance partnership as well.
hot to trot offers an affectionate and intimate look behind the scenes of same-sex ballroom dancing, and lets you get to know the featured performers as individuals whose lives are full of twists and turns. It also states directly what you could already infer—as someone notes in this film, competitive ballroom dancing is considered “a vertical expression of a horizontal desire”—and allowing same-sex couples to compete threatens the assumption that only one type of romantic coupling is valid. | Sarah Boslaugh
hot to trot is distributed on DVD by First Run Features. The only extra on the disc is a biography of director Gail Freedman.