Posted December 9, 2011

Temple sociologist examines the allure of intimacy in ballroom dancing

If you're not doing it, you're probably watching.

Ballroom dancing, that is.

Interest in this hobby/art/sport is soaring.  The season finale of "Dancing with the Stars" — the hit TV show that pairs professional dancers with celebrities in an all-out dance competition — drew close to 20 million viewers.

But how can we account for the current rise in popularity of an activity now enjoying its biggest resurgence since the 1940's.

According to Temple sociologist Julia Ericksen, the appeal of ballroom dancing lies in its offer of "instant intimacy."

"In the modern world, many people don't always have time to develop relationships and make long-term commitments, and the thing about dancing is you get all the warmth and intimacy and connection without having to make the commitment," Ericksen said.

Ericksen started taking ballroom dance lessons as a child and later returned to the studio after her children had grown. That's when she realized that she wanted to study dance studios as an academic topic.

"I was fascinated by the ability of dance teachers to be so emotionally accessible — so good at putting people at ease," she said. "In the modern world, that's what we want: intimacy that's not too demanding."

For her book, Dance with Me: Ballroom Dancing and the Appeal of Instant Intimacy (New York University Press, November 2011), Ericksen interviewed 60 dancers from all walks of life to look beneath the surface of the world of competitive ballroom dance.

"Gender and displays of gender" have long been a professional interest of Ericksen's. Her first book, Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 2001), chronicles the history of sex surveys in the United States over a century, revealing how the survey questions themselves help to create the sexual behaviors and issues they purport merely to assess.

In Taking Charge of Breast Cancer (University of California Press, 2008), she looked at how women respond to a diagnosis of breast cancer and to the physical and emotional consequences of breast surgery.

Ballroom dancing, says Ericksen, offers "transgressive" displays of gender.

"On the surface, it's traditional. But underneath, it's more complicated. Male dancers don't just lead, they also nurture. Women teachers have to teach men how to be in charge without seeming to be in charge themselves," she said.

She also found that the warmth and connection that develops between professional partners and between professionals and their students come at a price: It takes a great deal of emotional labor to "purchase" that intimacy. 

And, sometimes it also takes a great deal of money. Not only must students pay for the cost of lessons; they also pay for costumes, shoes, hairstyles, makeup and lodging, etc., if they choose to attend competitions with their instructors/partners.

"While we can see the economic basis of commercialized intimacy, such as sex work, we do not always recognize that close personal relationships, such as courtship and marriage, also depend on a complex set of economic entanglements. The dance world is somewhere between these two — more obviously commercialized than marriage but more genuinely close and personal than sex work," Ericksen said.

According to Ericksen, one of the biggest surprises uncovered during her interviews was what she learned about older women. "I thought that surely they were not comfortable with the physical intimacy, but many told me I was wrong —  that in fact was what they liked about ballroom dance."

As for “Dancing with the Stars,” Ericksen says audience members are drawn to the idea of romance — they buy into the notion that the connection they see on display between partners is real.

“Viewers are constantly speculating about what is happening behind the scenes and imagining real affairs between the couples,” she said. “The dancers understand that part of ballroom dance is portraying that intimacy in a believable fashion.”