Dancing with the stars
by Jim Provenzano
Among the hundreds of ballroom dancers participating in this summer's Gay Games VII in Chicago and Outgames in Montreal, dozens of Oakland and San Francisco competitors showed off their terpsichorean skills.
Leading many of them was Zoe Balfour, an accomplished dance instructor and competitor. Balfour and fellow instructors trained a team of about 26 people in pairs and group dancing events, "and they all won medals," she said with pride. "Oakland made its mark on the map."
Balfour was a double silver medal winner at Sydney's Gay Games VI. With three dance partners in a variety of categories, Balfour displayed her diverse style, from dancing the cha-cha in glimmering beaded gown with professional dancer Veronica Combs to donning a black gown with a tuxedoed Citabria Phillips and adding dance hall style in her country western dancing with another dance partner, Chrisnakali Chaudhuri.
For the last six years Balfour produced and taught at Trip the Light Fantastic (formerly named Hot to Trot), a series of weekly women's partner dance classes in Oakland. Prior to that, the native of Wales taught line dancing and ballroom dancing in Britain for five years.
Starting with beginning ballroom classes earlier this year, Balfour and Phillips, who is also a dance teacher at her school, added all the required dance forms over the subsequent months, including the newest addition to both games, country western dancing.
The country western formation team won a silver medal, as did several novice pairs. "We were probably the largest single dance group winning medals," said Balfour. "It was amazing. We were so pleased."
In the A category in same-sex pairs at Gay Games, Balfour and Combs won gold, placing third overall â€“ and in the world. But when they competed in Montreal, pairs from Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia bumped them down to sixth place.
"Veronica and I have only danced together for a few months," said Balfour, who called Combs "an amazing, a charismatic performer. We had only expected to dance in level D. But we got there, they graded competitors and wanted to put us in level B. Since it was her first competition, they let us and we won a gold."
In Montreal, the couple was graded in the A category, where, Balfour said, "We were completely outclassed." Still, they put in a strong showing, and learned an extra form, the passo double, in just a few hours.
"It's called the dance of the bullfight," said Balfour, of the form where dancers play roles of "bull" and "matador." "It has some crescendos you have to hit, and it's highly dramatic, with lots of posing. We grabbed a few gay men who taught us some moves."
In dancesport, Balfour said Montreal was more international, with what she estimated as less than 25 percent American competitors.
"I felt saddened for the people in Chicago who didn't get to dance with as many people," she said. "In Montreal, there were a lot more A-level dancers, but a lot more beginning dancers. Our group would have shown up fantastically."
Having accomplished such successes for herself, her partners, and students, Balfour is starting up a new series of classes at her studio including weekly classes in tango, waltz, swing, and traditional ballroom styles, often with social dance events afterward for the more than 150 students and patrons.
Fire and spirit
Along with talent, sometimes politics plays into the competition. Balfour noted how one judge at Outgames consistently scored she and Combs's routines lower than all others.
With less experience in such competitions, Combs said she focused on her performance. A trained professional dancer, Combs also ran Liquid Fire for eight years. The group brings lesbians artists in the performing arts together to create new empowering performance and multimedia works.
Having taken a hiatus from those directorial duties, Combs said she found the challenge of ballroom dancing exhilarating.
"I had never done this before, so it was pretty exciting," said Combs, who told how her involvement was a bit of a fluke. Balfour's life partner, Roke Noir, had performed with Liquid Fire, and had encouraged Combs to come to social dance events. When Combs asked about borrowing a few of Balfour's lavish costumes for a performance work of her own, Balfour convinced her to take a few classes.
"I didn't know what I was stepping into," said Combs. "I was enthralled by it all, and curious to do something I'd never done before."
Despite her dance training, Combs said she was at first intimidated. "Ballroom is very different."
Combs went through a few partners at first. After Balfour's dance/life partner Noir was injured in a motorcycle accident, Balfour and Combs began working together for what was to be one benefit performance earlier this year.
"We found out we were a good match for each other," said Combs. "We really flowed well together. Her background really helped me to be more confident."
After nearly three months of taking lessons and training 12 hours a week, Combs said technique isn't all there is to ballroom dancing. She also likes "to bring emotion and passion to my performances. Once I got past the intimidation and understood what my body should be doing, I could move to the level of being a performer. I never thought of it as a competition. For me it was all about having fun."
Among the variations from her stage experience was the adjusting couples make â€“ with the lead partner deciding â€“ while moving between other couples. "Whoever's leading in the dance has to navigate and look for open spaces," said Combs. "If somebody's coming, you have to look, or move out of the way. Luckily, we never crashed into anybody."
In Chicago, both Balfour and Combs had a chance to visit with friends and relatives, but mostly stayed focused on dancesport. "We stayed at ballroom to support each other," said Combs. "It was mostly about really focusing in on the ballroom dancing."
In Montreal, Combs said, "There was too much going on! The apartment we rented was 20 steps from the thick of Divers/Cite (Montreal's Pride celebrations) on St. Catherine Street. All the bars and restaurants expanding out into the street. The city was booming."
Vault of talent
Phillips, also an instructor at the Oakland studio, danced in five forms at Gay Games VII.
Having trained at Metronome Dance Studios in San Francisco and Allegro in Emeryville, Phillips started off in country western dancing eight years ago, but didn't compete until this summer.
"I tend to focus on the standard part of competition," said Phillips, who took an architecture tour while in Chicago, but mostly competed and watched dancing.
When not teaching others, Phillips is a professional safecracker. "I knew two really cool experienced safecrackers, and they taught me how to do it," said Phillips of her unusual career. "People inherit safes and never knew the combination. All the grocery stores have safes. They tend to break a lot. Sometimes bank vaults or their ATMs won't open."
Phillips said the job isn't as exotic, as in say, the recent film remake of The Italian Job, in which Charlize Theron plays a safecracker. "Parts of it were realistic," she said, as she knows the safecracker who was a technical consultant on the film.
Having made off with a bronze medal in Chicago, and having placed fourth and seventh in other categories in Montreal, Phillips said she's looking forward to more competitions in the Bay Area.
"The scene is growing," she said. "But it's a much more thriving scene in Europe." Phillips competed in London in 2004, and added that there are more opportunities for same-sex ballroom dancing outside the U.S.
The sport's governing organization, USA Dance, is subject to rules set by the United States Olympic Committee, which prohibits same-sex ballroom dance competition.
The Bay Area, however, offers plenty of same-sex dance classes and events.
New classes with Trip the Light Fantastic start September 10, with Balfour and Phillips among the ballroom instructors. No partner is necessary, nor is experience needed for beginning classes. $12/class or $40/four weeks paid in advance. Lake Merritt Dance Center at 200 Grand Avenue, Oakland. E-mail Citabria@LightOnYourFeet.com or Zoe@TripTheLightFantastic.org. Call (510) 763-1343 or visit www.tripthelightfantastic.org.
Read more columns at www.sportscomplex.org.
Post-Games reception at 'Sporting Life'
Enjoy a special post-Games reception for participating athletes from around the Bay Area and their friends, partners, and fans, Thursday, September 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. See the newest addition to the "Sporting Life" exhibit â€“ medals and memorabilia from Gay Games VII and the first World Outgames.
Wear your medals, team shirts, and jackets. Tours of the archives will also be given. Food, soft drinks, wine, and refreshments will be provided. Admission is free and open to the public. Donations appreciated. GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission Street #300. (415) 777-5455. www.glbthistory.org