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TEDxMontreal

Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox: Ballroom dance that breaks gender roles

November 7, 2015

Tango, waltz, foxtrot ... these classic ballroom dances quietly perpetuate an outdated idea: that the man always leads and the woman always follows. That's an idea worth changing, say Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox, as they demonstrate their "Liquid Lead" dance technique along with fellow dancer Alida Esmail. Watch as Copp and Fox captivate and command the stage while boldly deconstructing and transforming the art of ballroom dance.

Jeff Fox - Dancer
Jeff Fox is a professional dancer, competitor, choreographer who has won professional titles in American Smooth, Rhythm, Theatre Arts and Showdance. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
(Music)
00:18
(Applause)
01:45
Trevor Copp: When "Dancing With the Stars"
first hit the airwaves,
01:56
that is not what it looked like.
01:59
(Laughter)
02:01
Jeff and I were full-time
ballroom dance instructors
02:02
when the big TV ballroom revival hit,
02:05
and this was incredible.
02:09
I mean, one day we would say "foxtrot,"
02:12
and people were like "Foxes trotting."
02:15
(Laughter)
02:18
And the next day they were telling us
02:20
the finer points of a good feather step.
02:22
And this blew our minds.
02:24
I mean, all of the ballroom dance
geeking out that we had always done
02:27
on why salsa worked differently
than the competitive rumba
02:32
and why tango traveled unlike the waltz,
02:36
all of that just hit
the public consciousness,
02:38
and it changed everything.
02:43
But running parallel to this excitement,
02:45
the excitement that suddenly,
somehow, we were cool --
02:48
(Laughter)
02:52
there was also this reservation.
02:54
Why this and why now?
02:57
Jeff Fox: When Trevor and I
would get together for training seminars
03:01
or just for fun,
03:04
we'd toss each other around, mix it up,
03:05
take a break from having
to lead all the time.
03:07
We even came up with a system
for switching lead and follow
03:09
while we were dancing,
03:12
as a way of taking turns and playing fair.
03:13
It wasn't until we used that system
as part of a performance
03:15
in a small festival
03:18
that we got an important tap
on the shoulder.
03:20
Lisa O'Connell, a dramaturge
and director of a playwright center,
03:22
pulled us aside after the show and said,
03:25
"Do you have any idea
how political that was?"
03:27
(Laughter)
03:30
So that began an eight-year
collaboration to create a play
03:32
which not only further developed
our system for switching
03:35
but also explored the impact
of being locked into a single role,
03:38
and what's worse,
03:42
being defined by that single role.
03:43
TC: Because, of course,
03:45
classic Latin and ballroom dancing
isn't just a system of dancing;
03:47
it's a way of thinking, of being,
03:52
of relating to each other
03:55
that captured a whole period's values.
03:57
There's one thing that stayed
consistent, though:
04:00
the man leads
04:02
and the woman follows.
04:04
So street salsa, championship tango,
it's all the same --
04:05
he leads, she follows.
04:08
So this was gender training.
04:11
You weren't just learning to dance --
04:13
you were learning to "man" and to "woman."
04:15
It's a relic.
04:19
And in the way of relics,
you don't throw it out,
04:21
but you need to know
that this is the past.
04:23
This isn't the present.
04:26
It's like Shakespeare:
respect it, revive it -- great!
04:28
But know that this is history.
04:31
This doesn't represent how we think today.
04:33
So we asked ourselves:
04:36
If you strip it all down,
04:38
what is at the core of partner dancing?
04:40
JF: Well, the core principle
of partner dancing
04:43
is that one person leads,
the other one follows.
04:46
The machine works the same,
regardless of who's playing which role.
04:48
The physics of movement doesn't really
give a crap about your gender.
04:52
(Laughter)
04:55
So if we were to update the existing form,
04:56
we would need to make it
more representative
04:58
of how we interact here, now, in 2015.
05:00
When you watch ballroom,
don't just watch what's there.
05:03
Watch what's not.
05:07
The couple is always
only a man or a woman.
05:08
Together.
05:11
Only.
05:13
Ever.
05:14
So, same-sex and gender nonconformist
couples just disappear.
05:15
In most mainstream international
ballroom competitions,
05:19
same-sex couples are rarely
recognized on the floor,
05:22
and in many cases,
05:25
the rules prohibit them completely.
05:26
TC: Try this: Google-image,
"professional Latin dancer,"
05:27
and then look for an actual Latino person.
05:33
(Laughter)
05:35
You'll be there for days.
05:36
What you will get is page after page
of white, straight Russian couples
05:38
spray-tanned the point of mahogany.
05:43
(Laughter)
05:45
There are no black people,
there are no Asians,
05:46
no mixed-race couples,
05:49
so basically, non-white people
just disappeared.
05:50
Even within the white-straight-
couple-only paradigm --
05:54
she can't be taller,
05:59
he can't be shorter.
06:01
She can't be bolder,
06:02
he can't be gentler.
06:04
If you were to take a ballroom dance
06:07
and translate that into a conversation
06:09
and drop that into a movie,
06:11
we, as a culture,
would never stand for this.
06:13
He dictates, she reacts.
06:16
No relationship -- gay,
straight or anything --
06:20
that we would regard as remotely healthy
or functional looks like that,
06:23
and yet somehow,
06:27
you put it on prime time,
you slap some makeup on it,
06:29
throw the glitter on, put it out there
as movement, not as text,
06:32
and we, as a culture,
06:36
tune in and clap.
06:38
We are applauding our own absence.
06:41
Too many people have disappeared
from partner dancing.
06:45
(Music)
06:50
(Applause)
07:34
JF: Now, you just saw
two men dancing together.
07:40
(Laughter)
07:43
And you thought it looked ...
07:44
a little strange.
07:46
Interesting -- appealing, even --
07:47
but a little bit odd.
07:50
Even avid followers of the same-sex
ballroom circuit can attest
07:52
that while same-sex partner dancing
can be dynamic and strong and exciting,
07:55
it just doesn't quite seem to fit.
07:59
Aesthetically speaking,
08:02
if Alida and I take the classic
closed ballroom hold ...
08:03
this is considered beautiful.
08:09
(Laughter)
08:14
But why not this?
08:16
(Laughter)
08:17
See, the standard image that the leader
must be larger and masculine
08:19
and the follower smaller and feminine --
08:23
this is a stumbling point.
08:25
TC: So we wanted to look at this
from a totally different angle.
08:27
So, what if we could keep
the idea of lead and follow
08:33
but toss the idea that this
was connected to gender?
08:36
Further, what if a couple
could lead and follow each other
08:40
and then switch?
08:45
And then switch back?
08:47
What if it could be like a conversation,
08:49
taking turns listening and speaking,
just like we do in life?
08:52
What if we could dance like that?
08:55
We call it "Liquid Lead Dancing."
09:00
JF: Let's try this with a Latin dance,
09:04
salsa.
09:06
In salsa, there's a key transitional step,
called the cross-body lead.
09:08
We use it as punctuation
to break up the improvisation.
09:12
It can be a little tricky to spot
if you're not used to looking for it,
09:14
so here it is.
09:18
One more time for the cheap seats.
09:25
(Laughter)
09:26
And here's the action one more time,
09:32
nice and slow.
09:34
Now, if we apply liquid-lead thinking
to this transitional step,
09:40
the cross-body lead becomes a point
09:44
where the lead and the follow can switch.
09:46
The person following can elect
to take over the lead,
09:48
or the person leading can choose
to surrender it,
09:51
essentially making it
a counter-cross-body lead.
09:53
Here's how that looks in slow motion.
09:56
And here's how it looked
when we danced it in the opening dance.
10:05
With this simple tweak,
the dance moves from being a dictation
10:14
to a negotiation.
10:18
Anyone can lead. Anyone can follow.
10:19
And more importantly,
you can change your mind.
10:22
Now, this is only one example
of how this applies,
10:25
but once the blinkers come off,
anything can happen.
10:27
TC: Let's look at how Liquid Lead thinking
could apply to a classic waltz.
10:30
Because, of course,
10:36
it isn't just a system of switching leads;
10:37
it's a way of thinking
10:39
that can actually make
the dance itself more efficient.
10:41
So: the waltz.
10:44
The waltz is a turning dance.
10:46
This means that for the lead,
10:48
you spend half of the dance
traveling backwards,
10:50
completely blind.
10:53
And because of the follower's position,
10:55
basically, no one can see
where they're going.
10:57
(Laughter)
11:00
So you're out here on the floor,
11:01
and then imagine that coming right at you.
11:03
JF: Raaaaaah!
11:06
(Laughter)
11:08
TC: There are actually a lot
of accidents out there
11:09
that happen as a result
of this blind spot.
11:12
But what if the partners
were to just allow for
11:15
a switch of posture for a moment?
11:19
A lot of accidents could be avoided.
11:21
Even if one person led the whole dance
but allowed this switch to happen,
11:24
it would be a lot safer,
11:28
while at the same time,
offering new aesthetics into the waltz.
11:30
Because physics doesn't give a damn
about your gender.
11:34
(Laughter)
11:37
JF: Now, we've danced Liquid Lead
in clubs, convention centers
11:39
and as part of "First Dance,"
the play we created with Lisa,
11:42
on stages in North America and in Europe.
11:45
And it never fails to engage.
11:48
I mean, beyond the unusual sight
of seeing two men dancing together,
11:50
it always evokes and engages.
11:54
But why?
11:56
The secret lies in what made
Lisa see our initial demonstration
11:58
as "political."
12:01
It wasn't just that we were
switching lead and follow;
12:02
it's that we stayed consistent
in our presence, our personality
12:05
and our power, regardless
of which role we were playing.
12:08
We were still us.
12:11
And that's where the true freedom lies --
12:13
not just the freedom to switch roles,
12:15
but the freedom from being defined
by whichever role you're playing,
12:17
the freedom to always remain
true to yourself.
12:21
Forget what a lead is supposed
to look like, or a follow.
12:24
Be a masculine follow
12:27
or a feminine lead.
12:28
Just be yourself.
12:30
Obviously, this applies
off the dance floor as well,
12:32
but on the floor, it gives us
the perfect opportunity
12:35
to update an old paradigm,
reinvigorate an old relic,
12:37
and make it more representative
of our era and our current way of being.
12:41
TC: Jeff and I dance partner dancing
all the time with women and men
12:46
and we love it.
12:49
But we dance with a consciousness
that this is a historic form
12:51
that can produce silence
and produce invisibility
12:55
across the spectrum of identity
that we enjoy today.
13:00
We invented Liquid Lead
13:03
as a way of stripping out
all the ideas that don't belong to us
13:05
and taking partner dancing back
to what it really always was:
13:10
the fine art of taking care of each other.
13:15
(Music)
13:20
(Applause)
15:20

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Trevor Copp - Artistic director
Trevor Copp is known for innovative social justice theater that blends physicality, image and narrative.

Why you should listen

Trevor Copp was a full-time ballroom dance instructor and regional Fred Astaire's Canada American Style Latin/Ballroom Champion. He retired from teaching to pursue his love of theater and now runs Tottering Biped Theatre, a professional theater company emphasizing social justice and highly physical work in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Copp has performed in over 30 international cities and theater festivals. The salsa scene keeps him dancing, however. Locally, he coaches the World Salsa Champions, and internationally he's an avid salsa tourist, having danced it in 13 countries so far.

Copp and Jeff Fox met as colleagues during their shared tenure with Fred Astaire's Canada and remained friends after Copp retired from teaching. They would dance at social occasions where they developed their "playing fair" method of sharing the lead, which caught the eye of local dramaturge, Lisa O’Connell. Thus began the theatrical collaboration which led to the creation of a full-length Ballroom Dance/Theatre production, "First Dance," about the development of the first dance for a same sex wedding. Through building the show they formalized their "Liquid Lead" concept and continue to tour the piece at regional professional theaters, festivals and even as part of an international dance festival in Tirana, Albania. In 2015 Alida Esmail, a former student of Copp's, championed the TEDx Montreal proposal and graciously volunteered to help the Fox and Copp demonstrate their work on the TEDx stage.

Jeff Fox - Dancer
Jeff Fox is a professional dancer, competitor, choreographer who has won professional titles in American Smooth, Rhythm, Theatre Arts and Showdance.

Why you should listen

After graduating with an honors degree in psychology, Jeff Fox entered the world of dance in the fall of 2000 almost by accident, investigating an ad out of curiosity, and he hasn't looked back. Working as a full-time instructor, choreographer and competitor, Fox has taught hundreds of students and won professional titles in American Smooth, Rhythm, Theatre Arts and Showdance. In addition to his ballroom work, Fox is a double black belt martial artist and creates lyrical contemporary work focusing on the universal experiences we all share, which has been featured in festivals across southern Ontario, Canada.

Fox and Trevor Copp met as colleagues during their shared tenure with Fred Astaire's Canada and remained friends after Copp retired from teaching. They would dance at social occasions where they developed their "playing fair" method of sharing the lead, which caught the eye of local dramaturge, Lisa O’Connell. Thus began the theatrical collaboration which led to the creation of a full-length Ballroom Dance/Theatre production, "First Dance," about the development of the first dance for a same sex wedding. Through building the show they formalized their "Liquid Lead" concept and continue to tour the piece at regional professional theaters, festivals and even as part of an international dance festival in Tirana, Albania. In 2015 Alida Esmail, a former student of Copp's, championed the TEDx Montreal proposal and graciously volunteered to help the Fox and Copp demonstrate their work on the TEDx stage.

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