Same-sex ballroom dancing popular in Bay Area

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- ABC television's "Dancing with the Stars" has helped create the biggest resurgence of ballroom dancing since the 1940's and it's not only limited to traditional couples. Oakland recently hosted the national championship for same-sex dancing, a showcase for partners with pride from all over the country.

The competition, now in its 14th year, is called the April Follies. Organizer Barbara Zoloth says it has grown phenomenally since the early days and is now the largest and longest running same-sex dance competition in North America.

Hundreds of people showed up at the Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland to watch and compete. Champion dancer Robbie Tristan says "same-sex dancing has been around for decades in Europe and every major city holds a dance competition." Tristan runs an organization called Gay Ballroom in New York City. He came to Oakland with three other dancers to compete in the April Follies.

The Oakland event is open to adults of all ages, body types and abilities, with elite dancers vying for national titles.

Tommy Belmontez and Drew Miller won the U.S championship in the men's smooth and rhythm categories. Both are dance teachers in Orange County and also compete in what they call mainstream contests with female partners. "When I dance with a woman I am a leader. When I dance with a man I am a follower," Belmontez said.

In same-sex competition, judges have to learn a new set of rules which includes giving extra points for couples who switch the lead back and forth. According to head judge Lee Fox "if you are judging one for the first time, it takes a little bit of getting used to."

Many Bay Area ballrooms now welcome same-sex couples and offer classes. Katie Savin and Laura Brezel met at a class called Dancing with the Queers. Now, they are dance partners. "I have wanted to be Fred Astaire my whole life, I have been dressing up like Fred Astaire ever since I was like six," Savin said.

Not everyone who participates in same-sex partner dancing is gay. Melissa Saphir is married to a man. Saphir started dancing with women after California voters passed a ban on same-sex marriage. "That made me so mad, it made me want to compete in the same places all my same-sex dancing friends were competing" Saphir said.

Top level professional ballroom contests still don't allow same-sex couples, but dancers at the April Follies told ABC7 News the same-sex dancing community welcomes everyone. That includes another emerging category of partner dancing, known as "reverse roles," that's when a man and woman dance together, but the woman leads and the man follows.

Champion dancer Ron Jenkins echoed the feelings of many April Follies participants. "It doesn't matter who you dance with as long as you have fun dancing," Jenkins said.

Click here for information on the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association.

Click here for information on Vima Partner Dancing.
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Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.
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