Undressed And Contemplating Dance As Sport Amid Blackjack And Craps At Jupiters (In Which Everyone Who Gets In Line May Be King For a Snap)
2014 Dancesport National Championships; Pavillion Ballroom, Jupiters Casino, Gold Coast; 20/4/14
The woman folds herself right back, saved from toppling only by the man’s grip, as though he were attempting to feed her a spoonful of something that is fatal if ingested.
Report by Nicholas Turner
It’s just before morning-tea time on Easter Sunday and the Gold Coast’s Jupiters Casino is positively teeming. Beneath its infinite ceiling the foyer is jammed; smack in the middle, affecting a sieve of all human traffic, is a ten-foot depiction of Las Vegas with holes where the heads of Elvis and two showgirls would otherwise be. Tourists are queuing to be the King or one of his scantily dressed ladies, and the only way through is via the memory stick of some Chinese woman’s digital SLR, apologising.
Ignorant to the ways and means of national dancesport competition, and dressed still for an early morning dip at the beach that is not a potato-gun’s strike from the casino itself, your correspondent seeks out the little tucked-away room in this glittery, coin-clattering hive where a humble ballroom dancing comp should already be underway. The foyer and its full-chested guards are making his salty hair and shorts and loose t-shirt and sandals seem a little underdone. After inquiring at the box-office, he is directed to the Pavillion Ballroom, the name of which alone is enough to forewarn a monstrous faux pas that is very much nigh, and then well and truly upon him.
It only gets worse. The ‘Ballroom’ is exactly what it sounds like; replete with mirror-ball and black velvet curtained walls and galactic lighting, round tables for the VIPs, elegant table settings, stiff-backed waiters and Champagne. Already a few hundred are in attendance for an event whose finals will go well into the night, and not a male soul – not even the few restless sub ten year old boys about – is without long trousers and a coat. There is, by the looks of it, an unspoken zero-tolerance policy on round-necked t-shirts with team logos on the back. Reminded suddenly of a thick helping of Zinc still smeared across his nose, your correspondent feels approximately as though he has stepped out of a cold shower and – biblically naked – into the sacred chambers of…you get the drift – I feel like an asshole.
Naturally, your correspondent decides to be in and out of this comp like a cat burglar, as they say, focussing on the first decisive dancing contest that the program throws his way; incidentally, the Juvenile Open Latin final, which by the way the schedule is going is probably a couple of hours off. This is time enough to catch some top-flight heat competition and peruse the dancer’s market, an integrated part of the event wherein all manner of dance-specific shoes and jewellery and couture and make-up and sticky tape and stitch-in breast cups and such and such are available for sale. You might think dancing, an ancient ritual of that demands only a wealth of passion, would be a light-on sort of enterprise from a fiscal point of view. I can report, very much on the contrary, that a women’s dress (comprising >0.1m2 of actual material) fetches around $1200. And I don’t want to even guess how much money goes into the make-up and fake tans and teeth-whitening and hairspray and whatever else goes into making these dancing women (and, to a lesser extent but surely, men) look less like painted humans than animated dolls.
Dancesport is curious to new eyes, and I think at least part of the confusion is what seems to be the antithetical strangeness of it as a ‘higher’ form of what we lay folk know to be dancing. By which I mean the bump and grind or hold and sway which is either a precept to or public adjunct to sex, or else just something nice to do with someone you care for enough to share breath. The salient point is that the dancing of social custom is something implicitly and explicitly intimate. But here, formalised as competition, it doesn’t really look like that. The ‘Standard’ dances (Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Slow Foxtrot, and Quickstep), have in common the fact that the man and woman contrast the extreme proximity of their middle torsos with maximum separation of their heads. The woman folds herself right back, saved from toppling only by the man’s grip, as though he were attempting to feed her a spoonful of something that is fatal if ingested. In addition, each dancer, by means a despondent and distant facial expression (likened best to those sideshow clown heads that take ping-pong balls orally), makes it seem as though they don’t notice that they are actually dancing with a partner. In other words, competitive dancing disguises the emotion of the act, or else buries it in the technical prowess and the synchrony of the bodily movements. Which may well be the natural progress of dancing as competition, but it nonetheless leaves your novice viewer with a sense that it’s all a bit cold. That no one out there on the floor is getting any spiritually closer by dancing.
When the two pairs of Juvenile dancers eventually take the floor for the Latin final, a now routine hush floods the whopping room. In purple and black, the soft-faced Asian pair begin with a nightmare stutter; the little lady tumbles down the stage’s final step, face planting before the presenter’s nose. Nerves, one has to guess. Once she’s scooped up, the contending Caucasians in green and white descend without mishap. The latter pair is slightly taller perhaps. All four dancers are under thirteen years of age, and a certain ‘stiffness’ of the older competitors is biologically denied them. Whereas in the adult competition the near-comical frigidity seems to be a virtue of technique, here for obvious reasons the absence of it doesn’t register.
In the first few bars of the Samba, neither pair moves a muscle, and it briefly seems as though stage-fright has struck them all. But soon they count themselves into it and the colourful costumes paint the floor in broad, child-like strokes. The couple in purple are immediately more compelling, full of jittery reflections of the inner rhythms of the music. By contrast, the two in green think through their steps, counting a carefully contrived set of one, two, three, fours. You can almost see the boy mentally mapping a small section of the very big stage. In all four disciplines, this trend continues; the purple combination flow relatively freely, throwing themselves cheerfully into it. By the time the Cha Cha Cha is underway, they’re pretty clearly the superior pair.
What really separates the winners, however, is that undeniable dynamism that results from a strong male lead. The Asian boy, kind-faced, slim and yet solid looking, upright in everything he does, really works his partner around the polished wood. His subtle, pillaresque domination of the dance creates a genuine sense of cat and mouse, of high and low, in and out, a sense of play in which male physicality is not there to squander but to highlight feminine finesse, to give it something to refract against.
Where these two pairs of dancers ultimately diverge is probably the point at which the inter-sexual nature of dancing becomes something truly relevant. The purple pair, clearly, have begun to ‘play’ – indeed, to dance – in a way that is at least a feint sketch of the world of adulthood. A drama exists between them; it’s effect is creative. On the other hand, their competitors still dance as though the purpose of doing so were to perform perfectly as two distinct entities, to strive for excellence in parallel. In an odd sort of way, this exhibition says some compelling stuff about how grown-up couples really do become more than the sum of their parts.
Match Day Burger Rating: Deep-fried (!) burrito in casino bistro, 2/10
MD(D-F)B Price: $9.90
MD(D-F)B Service Atmosphere: 3/10
Results: Lucas Cheng & Ashley Huynh, 4 def Aiden Falzon & Hannah Smart, 8 (lowest score wins)
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