Nobody puts ballroom in the corner: The changing face of the CCBDC

Around 100 people pose for a photo in a ballroom.
The Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company pictured at the 2021 information session for the club. (Courtesy: Denise Machin)

From movies like “Strictly Ballroom” and “Dirty Dancing” to the routines played out on countless talent and TV shows, the world of ballroom dancing has captured hearts for decades. At the 5Cs, the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company is offering students the chance to experience the magic of ballroom in real life.

As the third largest collegiate ballroom dance program in the country — and the largest outside of Utah — the CCBDC is a national force to be reckoned with. They also have some bold ideas about the future of ballroom.

To some, the world of ballroom dancing may seem static — historically, it’s been unwelcoming to those who don’t conform to strictly heteronormative roles or have a certain body type. At the CCBDC, however, they’re throwing out the old playbook and forging their own path.

“Ballroom dance, traditionally, is where a man leads a woman, and many of the competitions are still pretty gendered,” said faculty advisor and Director of the CCBDC Denise Machin. “A lot of places still teach the parts as a man’s part, and as a lady’s part. And we [the CCBDC] just don’t do that.”

The CCBDC is looking to foster an environment where everyone who loves to dance is able to do so in a safe and inclusive space. This is as simple as “changing the language of ballroom,” Machin said. “Don’t say ‘a man’s part,’ or ‘a lady’s part,’ because you don’t need to be a specific gender to do one of the parts, and there are people who might not identify as a man or a lady, and we want to make sure there’s space for them.”

Instead, the club uses the neutral language of ‘leads’ and ‘follows’ to describe each partner’s individual choreography, where the terms have no gendered associations. Moreover, all dancers are encouraged to learn both parts. This is just one example of the club’s ethos of inclusivity, where dance is allowed to exist outside of the confines of any kind of gendered binary.

The club has also taken steps to ensure that all body sizes are welcome at the CCBDC.

“Dance, in general, is not super size-inclusive,” Machin said. “Instead of not allowing people on the team because we didn’t have costumes that would fit them, which I think was unintentionally the practice in the past, we have instead committed to buying costumes that come in a range of sizes.”

The idea that, as Machin said, “Any costume should be able to be worn by any person,” is one that sets the club apart from other collegiate ballroom dancing programs, where costumes are usually bought in standard, non-inclusive sizes.

This outlook is echoed by Rachel Howard PO ’22, who has been involved with the CCBDC since she was a first-year. Howard said the CCBDC was “really trying to make the club a space that’s comfortable for anyone who wants to get involved.”

However, this journey hasn’t been without ups and downs. It is club policy that the CCBDC only participates in “competitions that all members are welcome in,” Howard said. This bars the club from participating in certain competitions, where participants are required to adhere to the standard of strictly heterosexual dance pairs where the man dances the ‘lead’ part and the women dances the ‘follow’ part. This is a clear reminder that in some places, the world of ballroom dancing is still lagging behind.

Nevertheless, the CCBDC is leveraging their power and size to positively influence the institution of ballroom dance.

“I honestly think that some clubs at other schools are not more inclusive simply because they’ve never been given a roadmap on how to do that,” Machin said. “I think it’s important for us to go to these events to see that there’s an alternative to the way it’s been done in the past.”

“We want to be able to create community, and give people a sense of belonging, so that they can dance and perform as their most authentic selves.”—Rachel Lau PO ’22

Howard echoed a similar sentiment.

“We try to advocate and show people that ballroom is possible the way that we do it, that it’s not weird or difficult,” she said. “Since we are quite a large company, we do have some more of that influence.”

This reach extends beyond the world of ballroom to club culture at the 5Cs.

“The sheer size of the company makes it so that in the ecosystem of clubs at the 5Cs, ballroom has a pretty significant impact,” said Rachel Lau PO ’22, another longtime member of the CCBDC. “This goal of inclusivity has really bled into other aspects of club life. For example, I run a climbing team and that’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot more.”

With the CCBDC at the forefront of progressive, inclusive discourse, ballroom dancing appears to be in good hands. Lau spoke to the club’s mission to open the doors of ballroom to all.

“We try to be super supportive and stay super engaged in making ballroom an inclusive space,” Lau said. “We want to be able to create community, and give people a sense of belonging, so that they can dance and perform as their most authentic selves.”

To learn more, follow @claremontballroom on Instagram or Facebook.

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