Diversity and Inclusion in Dancesport: Tony Nunez

Samantha StoutJuly 20, 2020Ballroom Chat: Episode #14
Ballroom Chat #14: Tony Nunez

In episode #14 of Love.Live.Dance's podcast, Ballroom Chat, we talk with American 9-Dance competitor and instructor Tony Nunez about his dancesport experiences.

Samantha and Tony discuss his experiences as a professional dancer, the challenge of portraying your authentic self on the dance floor, and the importance of making sure that inclusivity and diversity become the norm in the ballroom dance industry. We take on the issues of race, gender, elitism, and ability differences in dance, and what each of us in the industry can do to improve and push towards progress.

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Show Notes

  • Infinite Flow

    Support Infinite Flow and their efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive community

Episode Transcript

SAMANTHA: Welcome back to another episode of ballroom chat. I'm your host, Samantha from Love Live Dance. My guest today is an American nine dance professional finalist, Mambo champion, world salsa champion, and overall just an amazing human being. We discussed the difficult topics of race, gender, and elitism in dancesport, and ways that all of us can make progress to a more diverse and inclusive ballroom community.

Please welcome to the show Tony Nunez.

TONY: Oh, my God. I'm blushing. Thank you for having me on.

SAMANTHA: Thanks for agreeing to be on. So I like to start off with kind of a softball, easy question for all of our guests, which is how in the world did you get into the dance industry?

TONY: Yeah. I grew up in New York, and a couple of dance lessons were definitely cheaper than daycare for my mom. So she sent me to some dance classes. You know, it was like nothing crazy. It was like the local Boys and Girls Club. I'm Puerto Rican, so we started out learning a couple of our folkloric dances. Plena, Bomba, and then Salsa and Merengue. Then, as I got a little bit older, I got a little bit into ballet, jazz, a little bit of tap, definitely modern, definitely hip hop. As a teenager, I started some partner dances because I was like, hey, I love Salsa and Merengue. I love the whole communication of lead and follow and all that jazz. So I saw a thing for group classes. I started taking a couple of group classes and Ballroom dancing, and then I decided, or the studio owner at that time decided, that I should become a teacher. So I became a teacher at 17 and I got certified.

SAMANTHA: Wow. That's awesome. So, I mean, dance has clearly always been a part of your life. At what point did it switch from just focusing on the Latin and rhythm to let's go ahead and try smooth and potentially standard. Was that as a result of wanting to teach or becoming asked to teach at the studio or that already started happening earlier on?

TONY: Yeah. It was a little bit overwhelming as a young kid who was just new to the style, but I was really happy that they did. They kind of made us get certified in all of the styles when we taught, not just American style. You get certified in all the styles and we won. They really just wanted to make sure you were a well rounded teacher. So obviously there were times where you appreciated one or two more styles than the other, but I could never. It's kind of a part of my teaching. It's rare when I have a student that only does one style. So most of my students do two or more styles, and so that was always a part of my professional program in general, as far as teaching goes.

It was easy for me to do rhythm professionally, but I always wanted to find a partner that would also do nine dance with me. My dance partner now, Oxana, which we've been together for a little over three years now, she did 10 dance growing up in Siberia.

So, she was like super stoked to try nine dance here, and she like loves smooth as a style as well. So it was a good fit.

SAMANTHA: So do you feel like, and kind of watching, some of your more recent competitions, I have my own assumptions on the answer to this question. Do you feel that because she has that 10 dance background and you've cross trained, obviously in both international and American, that when it comes to putting together your American routines, you try to have some nods and some homages to that really strict, closed hold, and really have that as a focal point before you break hold, or do you feel like coming from standard now, having the opportunity in smooth that the tendency is like, we need to be open. We need to like embrace the fact that we can do all of this.

TONY: Yeah. So, it's a good balance and blend because I'm very lyrical and very open and all over the place, and she loves standard to her very soul. She loves the closed position. That's where she's home, and she's had an impeccable training with it.

So it's a really good balance and blend for the two of us, because we tried to put in equal parts to that. So, part of our training, for everything that we do, with all of our nine dances, we have a closed version of them. We practice on our technical practices then obviously the open versions are our competitive versions, but we always kind of are always going back to a closed version.

SAMANTHA: I love that as a concept. If we have any new upcoming dancers that are listening to this, that is definitely something that I'm trying to do with more of my students in their practices with their routines in smooth. Break it down and be like, okay, instead of a develope here, we're going to do an oversway just because I need you to feel where your upper body line is and where your balance is and where the alignment and posture should be.

So that when we do break frame and we do break hold, It's locked in and there's not any question about, you know, am I on balance? Are we pushing each other over? It's got that nice foundational structure.

TONY: Absolutely. Yeah, for sure. I've always done it with my students.

First of all, I don't believe in bronze open. Let's just start there as a teacher. I don't believe in Bronze open, but what I do is when I get my students into silver, it really is a very preliminary silver closed routine. It is not a complicated silver routine. When I do that, I always make sure that when they're ready to transition into open, that I'm just merely opening up that silver routine quite honestly, and it's always worked. It's foolproof for the student. It's elements that they're already familiar with, that they've already practiced and rehearsed really, really well.

So when I told Papa Ray -- I call him my dance dad, Ray Rivers -- when he's always yelling at me, he's like, you do it for your students. Why don't you do it for you and your pro partner? And I'm like, okay, okay. So this last time we did it and it has worked out really well for us.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. It has definitely worked out. I mean, you are consistently ending up in the finals at every competition that I see you going to. You're working your way up that leaderboard, which is fantastic and amazing. So, hopefully only success continues for you guys in the competition world.

Actually on that note, when we originally were trying to schedule this, you had planned on going to a competition in Minnesota or Michigan.

TONY: Yeah, Minneapolis,

SAMANTHA: Minneapolis, and decided kind of last minute that you weren't ready to go into that. Was it a function of just taking time off and needing more practice time on the floor? Or was it more from a safety concern of, I don't think we're ready to be around that many people just yet?

TONY: Well, yeah, we're one of the fortunate ones where we're able to practice every day so far, since everything has been shut down, which is great for us because we have great teachers in place that always give us good structure for our practices. So when we have the time, as we're not competing to actually just do the format of our and structure of our practices, it's been yielding some great results. So naturally we want to show that, and we want to get out on the floor. And Twin Cities was such a good competition to us last year. We loved it and we love the organizers. The Andersons are so sweet. They're wonderful people. So we were just like, Oh, we want to go.

And we planned on it. Right at the last minute, because we're all the way in California. there's a couple of other elements to this story, but the main one was since we're in California getting on a plane for four and a half hours and getting to someplace, you know. And then, you know, looking at our heat sheet and it's like a semifinal and we were just like, I didn't realize like how it would hit us, where we got nervous about it. You know what I mean? Like being around a lot of people again and dancers again. It's like when you're in the ballroom. I think that the organizers did a beautiful job.

I saw pictures and videos of when you're in the ballroom. Everybody having a mask on, the judges having masks on. That was really an important feature. And that was really great. And I commend the organizers, but just like a semifinal where we're slapping all over each other on the dance floor, just didn't, wasn't really the most appealing thing to us at this moment in time, even though we really, really wanted to do it so bad. So, you know, that's kind of where we were with it.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I think that echoes a lot of concerns from competitors at all levels right now. You have the desire that you want to go back to the dance floor so bad because that's your home. That's your sanctuary. That's your meditation space. But you then look at okay, but I'm traveling, and I don't know who else is going to be on the plane, and I'm going to get to the event, and I don't know who else is going to be at the hotel. It's a contact sport, too. We know that we bump into each other, even at the highest level. So yeah. You have that pro/con analysis for every event and hopefully we will get back to some sense of normalcy soon.

So I wanted to talk a little bit about your work, with Infinite Flow and also just in general, pushing for a more diverse and inclusive dancesport. Obviously during this particular period in American history, it is even more important that we take a critical look at what we are doing as an industry. What our norms are, and should they be changed? Yes, they should. But you've been working with that aspect of dance sport for a while now.

How did you first find this calling for wanting to reach out and bring people into the dance community on a more inclusive and diverse basis?

TONY: That's such a good question and very loaded Samantha.

So first and foremost, I am a little bit of an anomaly. My family hails from the Bronx. So when you have a very limited circumstance -- very, very limited circumstance -- growing up on more than one level, you can't help but be very socially conscious about your place in existence. As a family, my mother and father have like maybe a little bit of color. But my brother and sisters -- I have one sister who's literally as white as you are with freckles, and then I have another sister who's a little bit darker than me, but my brothers are like black, like African American, like chocolate black, and we all have the same parents. So for me growing up, like with multicolored siblings, I could see the clear difference of how each one of us was treated in certain circumstances. So that was really fascinating to me. For my little brother, I was very over-protective of him.

I was very sensitive to a lot of social imbalances in general. Whether we were in an urban environment, a suburban environment, a commercial environment, a Scholastic environment. It really didn't matter. There was always subtle differences, no matter where you went, there were always microaggressions, no matter what happened. Then later on, coming out of the closet. I'm never one to hide who I am ever.

I remember my first boss in my first studio was very funny. Back in the day, when it came to like an old school Arthur Murray or Fred Astaire, we weren't allowed to give our last names. We had to use different last names. It was a very different industry in general. So it was very funny. we just were very hidden with who we were as professionals, and luckily that changed. But when I came into the business, I just never was one to hide, like at all. So that was very interesting for me because even though there are a lot of gay people in the ballroom industry, it was still a little bit taboo to just spout out, here I am, I'm gay. You know? And then have that be a major part of your identity as a dancer, because we still kind of fit into this storyline and narrative in our ballroom industry.

We're very, very much wanting to be, or we're drawn to, a very heteronormative, European descent, romantic couple as the superior story, and that's the story that is consistently acknowledged and supported, and approved of and validated. So for me as a dancer who just wanted to express myself and my relationships with these great partners that I've had, I could never really express myself a hundred percent over the years. That's what I felt.

So a combination of growing up, whether it was in a multi-colored family or whether it was just being Puerto Rican in a neighborhood or a town that just didn't have many of us, or whether it was, just being clearly homosexual in some way, shape or form, whether it's a neighborhood or a school environment or the ballroom world. You are always considered marginalized or put in a category of "other," and those feelings you can't ignore. People can easily say, Oh, you know, there's a lot of gay people. Oh, there's a lot of Latinos in the world. But the reality is not that, aside from Latin dance.

There have been a lot of great, great gay dancers who've been champions or finalists in Latin and Smooth. But American style is a little bit different. American style has been a lot more of a cookie cutter, very Jack and Jill kind of, we want to see that man/woman relationship very clearly.

SAMANTHA: Well, and I think that comes from kind of that Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, old classic Hollywood grounding that I think spawned a lot of the American style and was the influence for a lot of what we're doing right now. It was very much that leading man and leading lady fall in love on a dance floor and tell their story through dance kind of concept.

TONY: Absolutely. And those stories are so beautiful and they set the tone for so many relationships that we see today, but they never set the tone for my relationships. I remember that I had a coaching one time with Luca Baricchi and he said, Tony, what type of relationship is this with your dance partner? I'm like, Oh, well we're best friends. We're like sisters, this is fun. Like, I love her and we do this and we do that together. And he was like, okay, so when you don't show that relationship on the dance floor and you try to pretend to show another relationship or act like you have another type of relationship, you're already lying.

When you step out onto the floor, that lying is an off, it is not authentic, and that comes across in your dancing. I really had to sit with that, you know, because I am a very genuine and authentic -- or I strive to be a very genuine and authentic -- person. So if that was not coming across in my dancing, that was a blow to me.

I was like, something had to change and I was just like, you know what? He's absolutely correct. As dancers, we have a responsibility to dance who we are, otherwise it's a lie, right? Like Baryshnikov says, you're not just seeing the person's technique on the stage when they're dancing, you're seeing their entire history, you know? So if we, as dancers and artists, are not able to really show that, then what are we doing this for? This was a really important thing for me, as far as the ballroom world, whether it had to do with people of color, whether it had to do with gay people, whether it had to do with people of all types of disabilities or abilities.

It was really important for me, the visibility of the marginalized group or the other category. It's important for me for that to be known, made known, and seen a lot more.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I kind of want to get obviously into the work with, we'll call it outreach because sure, why not? But before we get into that, I want to circle back to that thought of authenticity. If you are putting on a character, if you're putting on a mask, if you're putting on some story that isn't true to you, then it reads as a lie to the audience. I wanna kind of just dive into that a little bit more, because I find that so fascinating.

For me, my kind of breakthrough moment when I was learning how to perform as a ballroom dancer, I was working with my coach at the time, Andrew Pueschel, and he said, find a character. Who do you want to be in your tango? What does a tango read as? Is it slinky? Is it sexy? Is it angry? Figure out a persona to be, and then I don't want to see Samantha when you step on the dance floor, I want to see that version. I want to see that character. So for me, I think that something that I've always relied on is kind of this idea of theater meets ballroom, where I'm sketching out a storyline.

That way, when I step into that role, it's not me the person that they're seeing, it's the dancer that they're seeing. I think it's interesting that you're almost taking the exact opposite approach, which is no, I want you to see me. I want you to see my soul. I want you to see everything that is good and bad about me, the person, when I'm dancing.

I guess for me that would be a terrifying concept to have, for folks to actually see me with all of my flaws on the dance floor. I don't want that. I'm not comfortable with that. Where do you find the strength to just be like, this is who I am and take it or leave it?

TONY: That's such a good question. My grandmother always told me that there was a strength in vulnerability, and I think I just never got it until I really started pursuing my dancing. The reality is that there are so many compartments. There are so many compartments to our character of who we are. We just haven't necessarily tapped into all of the compartments. We're used to every day relying on maybe two to three compartments of our personality and of our character. So when somebody says be you on the floor and you're just relying on the same two or three compartments to pull from, well, there's not really a diversification of character in that.

I feel it's kind of like if you took an acting class and on-camera acting class. I think that this is kind of what makes ballroom dancing for me in general not really authentic. As a person, I needed to really see myself. I wanted to see my personality. I wanted to see my feelings. But I had similar coaches that said the same thing to me that your coach said to you. They wanted to see a character. Then I had one coach finally say, well, you know, you could be a character or a caricature of yourself, or you could actually just feel the feelings, you know?

So if tango is angry, you know, what kind of gets you in that angry mood? I'm like, well, this morning somebody stole my parking spot at work. Okay. So show up and get the feeling of somebody stealing your parking spot. I don't really show that. So then it became Tony being angry as opposed to like a character being angry or disgruntled or aggressive or whatever it was. So the authenticity was still there because it was still me, you know, and I was, you know, it is vulnerable to show your feelings in any circumstance, right? In any circumstance in any way, shape or form, it's super vulnerable to show our feelings and who we are.

But the reality is that if we're not doing that, it just kind of looks very, like you said, you've mentioned the word theatrical and I think ballroom is one of the most on a competitive level, one of the most theatrical arts I've ever kind of experienced. But when I really look at dancers that I love and appreciate and admire, it's the ones who are not overdoing it. It's the ones where you can see it coming from the inside out that they absolutely feel what they're doing at that moment in time. They're not trying to execute a line. They are the line. They're not trying to act angry or act sexy. Like they just are. They are the essence of angry. They are the essence of sexy. They're the essence of carefree and happy or flirty, whatever the character of that dance is because they're honestly feeling those types of emotions as they're doing it.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. And I guess to clarify, I didn't mean like finding a character as in, like, I'm just going to put on like the jazz hands and pretend like I'm happy, but, but using it as a vehicle to, as you said, tune into those emotions and tool into it and figure out, okay, what, what mindset am I supposed to be in this moment? And then let me put on maybe an exaggerated version of that. So you're right. So if I walk in and somebody stole my parking spot that day and I'm angry about it, okay. How can I take that anger, re-narrate it so that I'm not saying I'm angry because somebody stole my parking spot. but I'm angry at the person because the person that I'm dancing with now, my partner is the person that stole my parking spot.

So I'm angry at that. Yeah. I think we're saying the same thing. We just get to in from two very different directions.

TONY: Yeah, you're right. Yeah. Yeah. You're absolutely right. And it's funny because we talk about this concept of kind of, of changing the narrative a lot. that's something I've always had to do, because as you know, as sexy or flirty or as romantic as some of these dances are, those are just feelings that I have never felt for any of my professional partners. You know what I mean? So, you know, I've consistently throughout my career have always had to still project flirty, romantic, sexy, whatever, while I'm not feeling that toward my partner, you know? And so there's a lot of ways to kind of obviously go about it, but still have it look authentic, you know?

SAMANTHA: Definitely. You've got Hope Jackson in the chat. Hi Hope! Thank you for tuning in. She says, Tony, I love you.

Authenticity is so appealing in dance. You both do that so well in your performance. Yeah. So just. I love that. Thank you, Hope. Thanks.

TONY: That's so sweet. She's one of my favorite dancers. I look up to her so much because she does that. She's like one of those people that, like I said before, never over-does anything, but just is what that emotion is. She's a quintessential example of that. I love that. So thank you for, thank you, my honey.

SAMANTHA: So with that, thinking about the importance of authenticity, the authenticity of people's stories. Speaking just to the United States for a second, we are a diverse, multicultural, multi-background country. We have people that are perfectly able in every single way to do everything that they want. And then we have people that have ability differences. When I look at a dance floor, especially in organized sanctioned dance events, I don't see that represented on the dance floor. When we look internationally, we do see wheelchair dancesport as a massive competitive area in other countries. And that's ignoring the wide swath that could be people with other abilities, people with learning differences, people that are deaf, people that are blind. So where do you see dancesport fitting in with those communities? Where do you see an ability for us to open our doors and say, please come in and join us.

TONY: I see infinite ability and possibilities with that. but I've always been that type of a thinker. I don't even want to say dreamer because if I have a plan, I can almost always put it into action. My mind has always been toward that type of a horizon, no matter what our pre-programming is.

It's not just people of all different types of abilities, it's people of all different types of colors. You know, we don't have a lot of black and brown people in our semi-finals let alone our finals at all. Also, with the rule change just happening with same sex couples, it's newer to specifically our NDCA world. So we don't see a ton of that as well.

The reason why we don't have that type of inclusion is because ballroom dancing kind of came about in the 1920s. So we have a hundred years of pre-programming of this is what the narrative is, and that is it. It's this heteronormative, white, European descendant, romantic relationship, and that is it. That's what we are focused on as valid and valued, but the reality is that we have to acknowledge that number one, it is a pre-programming vacuum. We can reprogram ourselves, you know, even me as a gay man of color, if I see a semifinal or a quarterfinal. There is actually a really interesting thing that happened. I was watching the New York Dance Festival and I was watching the professional rhythm because New York Dance Festival is like a great competition and it's me and my dance partners. We have the same birthday, so it's on the weekend of our birthday. So we like love that competition so much whether we get to go or we don't get to go. We always try to catch it. But I'm watching the rhythm and I'm seeing this really stunningly cool and awesome artistic gender neutral couple. And it's still a guy/girl couple, my friends, Abdiel and Kristine. but they're both dressed very androgynously and they switch leads.

SAMANTHA: Did they go on to Ohio star ball? Did they compete at Ohio this year?

TONY: No, I don't believe so. They come from the hustle world. Well, they both had ballroom experience years ago, but then they were in the hustle world. The hustle world is very open. Tt doesn't matter. Gay, straight, white, black, older, younger age does not matter. People are dancing with everybody, everybody dances with everybody. And you just ask do you want to lead, or do you want to follow? And sometimes people just go back and forth and switch. So that skillset is really phenomenal and fun and entertaining to watch.

So they decided they were winning all these hustle titles, and they decided to do it in ballroom. So they come in and they're doing it in American rhythm and Emmanuel, he was so excited, Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine. He called me and he was like, Oh Tony, I'm working with this couple, and this is going to be really cool and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Because he was doing a lot of their routines.

So they get on the floor and they're doing this really artistic, bang-up awesome job. It is just super fun, super engaging. I loved watching it. They had a great solo as well, but as I'm watching it, I'm like, Oh, okay, I know this is not a normal thing for judges to watch, so I'm pretty sure they're not going to make it out of this quarter final. So I'm just going to move on and just kind of start watching the other couples. But then I caught myself and I was just like, no, no, no, no. I forced myself to go back to something that I really enjoyed to begin with. You know what I mean? It was unique. It was fresh, it was entertaining. It was artistic. It was a different story. And so I was just like, here I am a gay man of color, who's still pre-programmed, like many of us, to just accept a very narrow narrative on the dance floor. And this is kind of our issue in general.

We have to recognize that as a society, we're programmed in certain ways. As a dance society, we're very programmed in certain ways. And for us to get beyond that, whether it's being judging differently or watching differently, we have to start to cross program ourselves in different ways.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I appreciate the fact that you brought up that same-sex or non-gendered partnerships are very new for the US audience. Very, very new for the NDCA as far as it is part of competition. If you look at the social communities, I was talking with Anthony Chen last week about Lindy. We talked with James Cook about West coast swing. Those are two communities that have embraced it. And at least in the West coast community, you have same-sex partnerships that are winning. that have titles. and I think that's a huge step. It's not just enough to open your doors and say, okay, you can come on in, if you aren't then also going to allow and celebrate and reward those individuals that are doing it at a very high level and deserve to win. You can't just say, okay, you can enter and then not watch it and not grade it the same way that you would everyone else.

TONY: Right. By no means would I ever, and it's not my intention to ever tell a judge how to judge, because you know, that's their job and I respect what they do. But I do hear a lot, the term, it's like judging apples and oranges. But the reality is we judge apples and oranges all the time in our industry. With Pro-Am. Theatre arts is a perfect example category. You know, you might have like this big masculine man and this tiny little petite girl, and he can spin her like a pizza above his head 20 times. Right? So you compare that degree of difficulty with a couple who's maybe more similar size, but like maybe they can't do those tricks in theater arts, but maybe they can pirouette simultaneously in-sync on one foot together and you know, five in a row. There are different skill sets that each couple is bringing to the table in the regular category. We compare apples and oranges all the time, but because they're male/female couples, we just do it anyways. We might think or say, Oh, that was a difficult thing to judge, but we just do it anyways because it's already an accepted thing. When it comes to same sex or when it comes to other couples as well.

I will say this, even when it comes to couples or people of color in classic dances or dance styles, like smooth or standard, I'm happy to see more people of color like brown and black people in smooth as a style, but when was the last time you saw a black person in a semi or a final in ballroom? That just doesn't happen.


TONY: Right. Or a brown person. Right. I mean, it's very difficult. It's very difficult for us to, this is kind of my other kind of. thing about, about, the inclusivity of our dance world. It's very easy for, this is going to sound a little bit harsh, but it's kind of the truth. And I don't mean it in a harsh way.

It's very easy for white cultures or European descent cultures to really appropriate cultures of color. So yes, I can see an English person or a Russian person dancing Samba or Mambo right? But the second you take a Brazilian or a Cuban and you put them in a tail suit, why is that not as equally as accepted, even if they've had similar training in a similar background, right?

SAMANTHA: Yep. Absolutely. To further that, I think the eye of the audience and the eye of the judge is not shocked or offended or sees any wrongness to seeing a person of color on a Latin or rhythm dance floor because we're like, Oh, well it was, that was their culture to begin with anyway. We have Cuban action in American rhythm. So why can't we see a Cuban person dancing it? Sure we get it right, but you're right. I think there is a little bit of cognitive dissonance when we see someone of color dancing in a tail suit and doing the Viennese waltz, and part of me, unfortunately the part of me that has been talking to itself very loudly over the last several months, says, maybe it's just because we don't have access in those communities to those dance styles. We don't see it because we don't have people coming up in it. We don't have people competing in it. So what's the root cause of that. And why aren't we giving access to those communities?

The other part is, and this is the really nasty part that I think I fully expect people to shout down and I support you for shouting it down, is do you have the same level of interest when it comes to a waltz versus a smooth, if you have a cultural background that leads more towards the ear and the aesthetic of Latin. I don't think that's right. I think people are people, and you're drawn to what you're drawn to, and it doesn't matter the color of your skin or your sexual orientation. You like what you like, and you want to express yourself in the way that you want to express yourself, whether that's Waltz or Samba. but I also wonder if it's just like an awareness and an access to those dance styles that, that we're missing the link for.

TONY: Absolutely. I think the fundamental issue that you raised is one of the most pertinent. Why don't communities of color have better access to quality ballroom instruction and education. The way that white descendant or European descendant cultures do. Right? So, you know, whether you grew up in Utah and you could do it from childhood or whether you grew up in Siberia and you did it from childhood, that's not happening from the Bronx boy from the Bronx.

I had other dances from childhood, you know, and I didn't have access to, ballroom dancing until I was a teenager. And so even as a teenager, as a person of color that was extraordinarily young to be involved in ballroom dancing, But still, I still had a lot to catch up on because of me starting that late and not being able to have access to it as early as some of my white counterparts had access to it.

That's a big part of this. Like you had mentioned how much, how much access do communities of color have to quality ballroom instruction. You know what I mean? And that's like your 100%. The other part of that, that you mentioned is that if you're a dancer, you're a dancer. You know what I mean?

When you see somebody who's passionate and authentic about something, like you just can't help but be excited about it. Right? I remember it's not my culture, but I definitely, you know, remember like, just from old movies, one of my, that my grandmother made me used to watch one of my biggest like kind of bucket list, things that I want to do at some point, I'm going to go to Vienna during Waltz season, you know?

And I definitely want to do that. But another bucket list of mine is I do want to go to a real Brazilian carnival in Rio. You know what I mean? That's another bucket list of mine because dancing and authenticity of dance is so beautiful no matter what the culture is. And when you're a dancer, like I said, you're just a dancer, you appreciate it. You want to engage it. And, and, and that's just any the dancer from any cultural background, I believe. You know what I mean? Yes. I do feel like when you grow up in things like, yeah, I didn't really have to practice Mambo too hard. I didn't really have to practice salsa too hard because I've heard that music since I was born and, you know, I was doing that with my body since I was born. But what was interesting about this was when we did a Mambo show last year and we did a Salsa show and Oxana she's like an undercover Latina. She's really like, she feels it, she feels it.

And I love that's what I love about her. One of the best, best things about her. So in the beginning of our, of our show dance, we had this, it was very African percussion in the beginning of the show. And so I was like, Oxana, this first part is very Plena in feel.

So Plena is one of the folkloric dances in Puerto Rico that I grew up with. I said, I want to teach you some Plena and I want to do Plena. And we'll be Pleneros in the beginning of this. And then when the Mambo starts, then we'll start Mambo, you know? And she was absolutely. So, you know, I had her in the big white linen skirt and the turbine and the flower, and it was beautiful. She looked amazing. And I was in the white linen pants and the white shirt and the hat and everything like that. It was very authentic. It was very good. And we did really well with that routine. We won a lot of different competitions with it, and we did really, really well with that show.

We fast forward to Ohio star ball and we're watching a final, the rhythm final and they always show the dances. and in Ohio star ball, one of the couples who was originally from Russia, who was in the rhythm final, they decided to do kind of like a folkloric, Russian dance and mix in some chacha and swing with it. And I was just like, Oh my God, that is the coolest thing. Like, I love that. And Oxana was like, yeah, this is from this. And she's explaining to me all of the things about this Russian dance and, and this is when they do this, I know that. And I was like, Oh my God, I want to do it. I want to try it. And, you know, cause me as a dancer, I just love stuff like that.

And I want to try it, you know? Then she stops, and she looks at me, and she says, it never occurred to me that as a Russian dancer, nobody would blink an eye for me to put on that big white skirt and dance with you your folkloric dance, but if you came out and did my folkloric dance with me, it would ruffle a lot of feathers. She said as a Russian person, she says I know that for sure. And she says it never occurred to her until that moment. And I said, yeah, I said, so this is one of the things in our industry that we have to acknowledge. The first step is acknowledging it. We have to understand that we, as a dance industry are just inherently one way. You know, and it's not that it's not that it's not that there's not beautiful parts to it, you know, but there's a lot of parts to it that are painful for a lot of dancers coming into this. And we have to acknowledge that. And we have to, as a society, what have wants to have the desire to reprogram ourselves, reprogram our thoughts and really start to make dance for everybody.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I'm going to ask again, slightly a loaded question that you can absolutely decide that you want to just pass on. we've kind of established that part of the ultimate issue. The root of the issue is access to quality dance instruction. So if we know that that is a major factor in not seeing representation on the dance floor, is dance sport in the US inherently racist or classist? Because I tend to lean, I lean more towards its classist and its classist because we've built a country in a system based on racism.

TONY: yes, you're absolutely right. I always say that our dancesport industry is kind of like a microcosm of the United States. like in general, you know what I mean?

No matter how much progression we have in the United States, you're still gonna have racism. You're still gonna have classism. And that's going to be something that is, is, is a norm that we expect. We have accepted, especially people are dancers of color. We've accepted for many, many years in the dance sport industry is that it is inherently racist.

It is inherently classist. Does that mean that it is, does that mean that it is a. Terrible art form. Absolutely not like I've devoted my life to it. Does that mean that there is, it's not beautiful? Absolutely not. There's so many beautiful parts to it. You know what I mean? I wouldn't, I, I believe in the therapeutic part of it, I believe in the, there's so many parts of it that I believe in. But we definitely, as a society, as a dance forward society, we definitely have to acknowledge it is classist. You know, my, my, my, my boss used to say, We are a luxury hobby, you know, like golf, you know? And we, when we would sell it to our students, it would be like, Oh, join us a part of the elite life.

You know, like enjoy this luxury of caviar and champagne and ballroom dancing, you know, like it's all in that, it's all in that category, you know? And so inherently when you do have economic disparities within the country that we do. Inherently, we're not going to have, we're not going to be able to give kids of color access to the same, that, to that luxury hobby.

So again, that's another pre-programming, that we have to change about our ourselves, you know?

SAMANTHA: So what would a potential solution to that be? Because we've kind of created a system for ourselves where. A lot of us are professionals, right? This is, this is our nine to five job. This is what we do for a living.

We definitely discovered, unfortunately with the fall of some pretty massive studios in the last couple of months, that rent is not cheap for dance studios. So the quick answer would be well, just make it cheaper. Well, we can't charge less than what we're charging in a lot of cases per hour for the lessons. So is that something where, nonprofit comes in, where we create outreach or, or like donation days?

TONY: yeah, there's a, there's so many ways that we can go about raising funds for underprivileged dancers. And there's actually a lot of there's, there's a lot of, there's several nonprofits in the United States that actually do that.

You know what I mean? But yeah. So what you pose is a very interesting question. Like where do we go and how do we, you know, still make a living at it? You know, I need to think, you know, that's the beauty of specifically about being in an organization like the NDCA is that, you know, we, we have been a lot of us have been able to afford a very nice life, doing what we love based on how that structure is set up. You know what I mean? Yeah. There are dance, other dance organizations, but you're, the way that we're set up in the NDCA, you know, in the Pro-Am industry, we, we are able to afford a decent life. Obviously with Corona, and quarantine, things have obviously changed and blown up in our face, but the reality is, is, there are plenty of professions.

And I say this, honestly, because you, you, if you've had a student who was a lawyer, right. They have a law firm, they have big clients, they make a lot of money, but they also do a fair, a good amount of pro bono work. Right. We have a lot of professions that, we have psychologists and psychiatrists who have a take insurance, and then they take the, you know, they charge a lot per hour per 45 minute session.

But they still have a small percentage of, you know, and just think about that. If we, as professionals cared enough and really sought out specific, group, or, maybe a group of kids or whatever to do this pro bono work with, you know, specifically ones that don't, I have access, normal access to it. I had an, I first learned that from, one of my students had a tennis instructor who like was the main pro that did lessons at her country club. And he was he's, he made a lot of money. The club hired him, and then he did private lessons and all that stuff. He made a lot of money, you know, off of people from this country club.

He also had a good amount of, of, of kids that he just, you know, either taught really cheaply or taught for free. And so for me, you know, when you know how beautiful and amazing this dance sport, process and journey is for people, why wouldn't you want to share it? in a, in a, in, in a very charitable way.

SAMANTHA: No, absolutely. I'm just thinking about that. My, my brain went to a couple of different places, which is, we see a lot of outreach from professionals and from studios being in school systems or part of an afterschool program. Which is great and wonderful and does exactly, I think what we're talking about here, which is reaching out the hand and saying, okay, we know you can't charge.

We know that you are not going to spend $75 an hour per kid, to do you know, an hour lesson. So let's do a summer camp or let's do an afterschool program at way, reduced price, or even for free to get the kids into it. How do we then bridge the gap between okay. We've ignited this interest in students that would otherwise not be able to be in the studio environments. We've got them hooked. We get, we give them, we gave them a taste of what dance sport could be to then, all right, now you want to go somewhere with it. It's $2,000 a competition; it's a $3,000 dress; it's a hundred dollars in spray tan, hair and makeup; and you need $200 in shoes.

TONY: Woo Sammy preach it, preach it preach

SAMANTHA: because, because ultimately it's, if we're doing the right thing and we're saying, okay, we, we, we noticed that there's an issue in our community. We noticed that we could be doing better and we want to do better. So we're going to do all the right things to set it up, but we don't create a middle ground to say, okay, We know you couldn't afford it here. You're definitely not going to be able to afford it over here, but we've now told you that this is achievable.

Don't we have some responsibility on the part of either instructors or an organization or vendors to make that gap easier?

TONY: So clearly everything is easier when instruction comes from the top, right. I'm not going to sit here and, I, I will never ever, you know, the world needs to change. We all need to progress. We all need to change. Great. I get it. Fantastic. but there's a lot of ways to go about solving issues. You know, when you do grassroots from the bottom up, it's a lot more of an uphill battle and a struggle, but very effective, you know, it would be easier if things came from the top down. You know, setting up organizational funding, nonprofit work specifically for, that transitional period that you're talking about.

What's so fascinating about that transitional period is yes, you're right. You hit something that I run into because I used to be a school teacher. So I had an afterschool program of, of kids, mainly for ballroom etiquette. What my, one of my, one of my dance mentors, Did it for, you know, 30 plus years just kind of did it almost like a cotillion situation for kids, but, you know, in disparaged communities.

So it's, it's very near and dear to my heart, but how do you get, your right, how do you get from this? We ignite them. And then all of a sudden we put them in this world of what do they do next with zero funds. Right. So, you're right. Part of this is, you know, it's kind of like it's similar to, the. The pro bono work that I was talking about that each professional, it would be nice if each professional kind of had a little percentage of this and did it, and then look at where the world would be, but that includes every person and every industry within our industry.

So that includes coaches and, and, and, and vendors. That includes competitions. You know what I mean? I know competitions have a lesser dollar amount for kids to compete, which is, you know, fine or whatever. but yeah, that, that we, there has to be a hightened sensibility of everything in our industry, everybody in our industry.

So, obviously we've progressed, you know, there's dress rentals and clothing rentals and shoe and cheaper shoe options. And we progress and, and things will only get better like that. But, you know, it's kind of like, you know, I feel a lot of us specifically, like me having school teacher experience, like, you know, there are just times where you just got to buy your students, pencils and notebooks because they can't afford it.

You know what I mean? And their parents can't afford it. You just gotta do that. And that's equally as wrong in our society as you know, these kids that we ignite and want to bring through. And then all of a sudden, you know, you know, They're they're just their hopes and dreams are crushed because they can't really afford to do what we, you know, so we do, we as a society, as a dancesport society.

It is important for us to take a hard look at ourselves, you know, really an, an, an acknowledge, you know, there is a lot of good out there. Yes, it is progressing. It's just not there yet. Yeah. And we need to keep going.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We're not saying that we've done a terrible job up up until this point, we are climbing that hill, little by little by little, but we still got a long way to go.

Definitely. Hope, says yes. Oh, going back to the couple that you were mentioning, the rhythm couple, that was swapping lead and follow. she said she saw them practice the week of and they were truly phenomenal, and yes, it starts with us. Yes, it does. It starts with every single professional in the industry, figuring out a way to make it better. Yeah,

TONY: Amen, they're a beautiful couple. They're absolutely, they're very talented. And they come with a very established skillset, you know, this is similar to, friends of mine that I just been gotten really close to in the past couple of weeks. Kato and Alex. They are a same sex couple, but they've been dancing together for decades and they were together in Europe and then they give their dance together here or whatever the case may be.

And I think a lot of the same issues with same sex couples or gender neutral couples is because the rule change is so recent. Most of, of the judges see the couples as new. Or newer established partnerships that are not maybe as rehearsed as some of the other couples out on the floor, but this particular couple had been dancing together beautiful, smooth routines for a very long time. They have a phenomenally fascinating story, but they still were not able to get, you know, a good placement, accordingly and, and anybody who saw them, you could see, you could see that they were very clearly strong dancers and absolutely top notch. So, it isn't, it is a, it is a, a mind, situation.

I know judges might want to, I know judges would disagree with me when they say, Oh, well, you know, I didn't think they would, you know, cause of the dancing and dah, dah, dah, that I know that. But. and that's a normal part of this process. You know, you're going to say something and people are gonna want to disagree with you. And I get that. The interesting thing about this couple though, and why this it's kind of, kind of throws it in the face is, they weren't always the same sex, couple. Kato transitioned to just recently in the past couple of years to a male, and may they've only been dancing together as a same sex couple for the past couple of years before that. As a as a mainstream guy, girl, couple, they were phenomenal and they actually won rising star smooth at Ohio star ball, and they were doing amazing things with their placement. So now you tell me what's the difference.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. It's, it's, it's hard to argue with that, right. yeah. And, and I think too, again, if you look internationally, we are so not the ones that are like deciding that this is a crazy concept. If you look especially to the UK and other European countries, it is completely normal and accepted that if you cannot find a partner for your teenage girl to dance with a teenage boy, you find another teenage girl and they dance as a same sex pairing. It's normal. I think in the U S work. And I think it's, it's not just the gender of the couples. I think it's. Every single couple. When you look in the finals in the semifinals, there's a battle between, are we a sport? Are we trying to be athletic and technical about it? Or are we an art form? And, and I feel like the pendulum is swinging back and forth and hopefully it lands 50 50, where we have a balance between the two. But, I look at Latin right now and it looks much more like a sport to me. And I look at American smooth and I feel like it looks much more like an art form to me. so when you have that split as a judge and you're trying to balance tact. Am I looking for a technical couple or am I looking for an artistic couple?

I think unfortunately the bias that we're going to see is yes, a same sex couple might be the best technical couple on the floor, but the art aspect is the hanging point that people are getting stuck on. Cause it's it's like you said, it's not the visual that we're used to. And we just have to take that again, each and every professional each and every judge each and every adjudicator has to take an internal look and say, okay, why did I want to turn away from that couple?

Because if I spend the time and they're doing the heel leads and their frame is right and their posture is right, why is my eye drawn to someone else on the floor? And it may be that they're not the best couple on the floor. It might be. I'm not saying that they are, but, but you have to, you have to be willing to ask yourself, why are you feeling the things that you're feeling when you're, when you're watching a same sex couple on the dance floor?

TONY: Yeah. I heard a concept that, I think a lot of judges subscribe to, because we're programmed in the world that we're programmed. I heard a concept that was. That's spoken about. And they said, there are prejudices and there are perceived prejudices. And they talked about it in terms of, you know, not every time, not every time somebody gets, you know, a placement does that mean that it was because they were black or it doesn't mean there because they were saying sex. It doesn't mean that they were, you know, and. The reality is when it comes to a marginalized group, that is that concept of perceived prejudice is inherently wrong and false. there are studies out of Stanford and there are studies out of Harvard that actually show, when it comes to marginalized groups, whether it's groups of color or are, or sexual orientation or whatever the case may be, there. 99% there is a subconscious bias that comes into play when it comes to the activity involved. So whether they're driving down the street in a neighborhood that normally you don't see people like that in, and then they get pulled over, right? Maybe the cop would, is going to be really nice and respectful and nice to them and they can send them on their way.

But why were they pulled over to begin with. Right. If they were doing nothing wrong. So the reality is, is that, you know, yes, yes. I understand. Dancing is a factor. We have to make the dancing a clear factor. Yes. The quality of movement. And the technique is definitely prominent in your decision. However, if this year we have to ask ourselves, if this was a mainstream couple with a very normal narrative, would we judge them differently?

SAMANTHA: Yeah. Yeah.

TONY: It's an honest thing. We have to look at.

SAMANTHA: Definitely. Two comments from chat. Matthew asks how much of that pendulum is being driven by the folks who end up judging? A hundred percent of ti I would say. Judges are gonna pick what they like and if they have a bias towards the sport aspect, the athleticism aspect, aspect of it. You're going to see more athletic couples in the final, which is going to signal to the industry. Okay. We need to be more athletic in our routines. And then on the other hand, if you have a judging panel, that consistently is looking for the story and the narrative and the art and the expression of it, you're going to see people in the final that have that quality.

I always go back to American rhythm because I feel like American rhythm is this great. Example of exactly this pendular swing that we're talking about, which is the, every five-year discussion of, do we want really harsh Cuban action or do we want pretty darn easy Latin, straight leg action and which one is going to make it in the final. And every five years I ended up seeing a shift in who's making the, the, the last six. So I then go back to my students and say, okay, Latin leg is winning. So we're going to straighten out your, your leg action for a couple of years and then five years later. Okay. Harsh Cuban is working, so we're going to work on Cuban for a couple more weeks. it it's the fun of the dance sport industry. but yeah, I would say it's 100%, determined by the judging panel on, on who's gonna place. And that's going to signal to the industry, the direction we're going.

TONY: Well, that's also too uniquely because we have the judging panel that are also our coaches, you know, in our industry. So whatever they're judging, they're going to be coaching us on. And this is what a judge is eye is. How many lectures have you been to? This is what judges are looking for on the dance floor. That is a legitimate, like lecture that we see almost every competition or every workshop we hear, you know, if a judge is involved. So of course they're going to absolutely support what you just said. Yeah,

SAMANTHA: yeah, yeah. That I'll have you back on in a couple of months and we'll talk all about the politics of dance sport. and then we also have, Morgan in the chat. She says, sorry, I'm late. Hi, Tony.

TONY: Hi Morg!.

SAMANTHA: so before we wrap things up for this morning, is there anything else that you wanted to talk to? Any, anything else that you wanted to make sure, we discussed as part of this episode.

TONY: Yeah, actually, we didn't get to, one of my favorite parts and it's probably partly me because there were so many things I wanted to cover, but, one of my favorite parts of, of what I'm doing right now is working with the beautiful organization of Infinite Flow. Infinite Flow is, run by, one of the founding member of Incident Flow is, Marisa Hamamoto and she is just like killing the game in the nonprofit world and the viral video world and the inclusion. Her concept, and one of she's one of my biggest inspirations for why I pursued dance sport, the way that I pursue it and why I believe the way that I do is because, the hashtag of infinite inclusion.

It's one that resonates with so many people in so many dancers. If any of you guys, please look her up, please look up. Infinite Flow as an organization. I dance with a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful dancer, in, in his wheelchair and his name is Mark. and we just. I have a blast dancing with him and performing with them.

We have videos up on the website. There's so many different types of abilities that are at a professional level of dancing from this organization. There are amputees, you know, there are, people who are deaf, and who, and literally you just, you wouldn't know. It just, I mean, they're, the dancing is so good, you know, and there's an even, and especially the ones, are beautiful dancers, professional dancers in the chairs. and we have a kids division. I just love, I love it. I can't say enough about this organization and they really are one of the biggest things. Like every time we dance together, every time we practice together, there's at least a couple of times where I'm like tearing up because I just see how dancing can be done so well, so beautifully.

So professionally, so artistically, so technically sound, but still coming from a different type of dancer. It just is one of the most incredible experiences of my life, my life. And I love, I love it. I just can't get enough about it. So, definitely, Coming from that, you know, being involved in that organization as, I'm lucky that I was chosen, I was just flabbergasted. As soon as she reached out to me, I was like, yes. I'm in, and so when, and, and because, like I said, it's really driven me into a direction of like, even more activism in terms of wanting to include. And like you said earlier, like, you know, dance sport and wheelchair dancing and all abilities and all types of abilities.

I think it's just so important. I had a deaf student for years that I competed with. And so I was just, this was right up my alley. I think that, you know, we need to. Really fully get to a place of, of being truly welcoming. Not just, I, yeah, sure. Anybody can sign up if they pay their money. We want to be able to really be a truly welcoming as an organization, as an industry. So that way we can really see such beautiful stories, beautiful narratives from all types of dancers.

SAMANTHA: I mean, yes, definitely. If you have, if you are not familiar with Infinite Flow, if this is the first time that you are hearing that name, definitely go on Instagram, on YouTube, on Facebook and follow them and find them. Discovering them, really pushed me, might be two years ago or a year ago at this point, I can't remember, becuase time is funny these days. but it really pushed me to seek out the American Wheelchair Dance Foundation and be certified to teach wheelchair dance. I think what infinite flow is doing in making accessibility across all forms of ability difference is so amazing. And you're right it's such high quality dance and it's compelling dance stories. And it's, it's not just wheelchair dance. I mean, wheelchair dance on its own. Let's make it a thing yesterday, please, because it's so gorgeous. It's so gorgeous when it's done well. but it's also working with the deaf community, it's working with, The, Island Pacificer, Hawaiian culture, they do something with hula. am I correct in thinking that? Just the, the breadth of what they are trying to achieve in bringing people into the fold is so beautiful and so gorgeous. And, you hear the stories of dancers that are part of that.

And a lot of it tends to be, I never was given the opportunity. And now that I have the opportunity, I feel like I'm whole. Right? And that's even as an abled body person, like if you are a dancer, it's because part of your soul was calling you to this, right. You see the, the, the, the, the relief in someone's face when they're creating this really gorgeous line and stretching, you see the joy when you're doing swing or jive, and it's really high energy.

You see, going back to the authenticity, that you were talking at the top of this, you see someone's soul and you see someone's heart and you see someone's story. Why wouldn't we want to hear everybody's story that we could. So,

TONY: absolutely. Yes, amen to that. SAMANTHA. Yeah.

SAMANTHA: And what you are doing is just amazing.

I see the videos from time to time pop up on my feed and you are just doing awesome, awesome work out there.

TONY: Oh, thank you so much honey. Thank you so much.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. well, you and I could, could talk for hours. There's a lot to talk about. But, we will, we will pause the episode here, at least. if you are watching, thank you so much for tuning in, I hope to have many more of these types of conversations as part of ballroom chat, as well as the lighter hearted ones, where we're talking about, tips and tricks to making your dancing better.

But it's nice to dig into the weeds of some of the really important issues from time to time. So thank you, Tony, for being willing to do that with me.

TONY: Oh, my God. Thank you, Samantha, for just making this platform just absolutely. just wonderful and easy and welcoming for so many types of dancers to be on and share their stories and, be heard.

I think that right now in this quarantine, it is so important that we actually get a hypersensitivity and awareness of each other of, of as dancers and you are just making that happen. So thank you so much.

SAMANTHA: Thank you. Thank you. if you want to follow Tony, there will be a link to his Facebook page in the link down below. and then after, this video is published, I will also put links to infinite flow as well as I'll try to find, some links to organizations that are, that are working really hard in the community to increase diversity and inclusion in ballroom dance. So look for those links below, please support where you can.

I'm Samantha. I'm the host of a ballroom chat as well as the owner of love live dance. You can find this and all of our podcast episodes at love. Live dance.com/podcast. You can also follow us. Follow us at ballroom chat. Sorry. I'm getting emotional and I don't know why.

TONY: cause you're doing a great job.

SAMANTHA: Thank you. you can find us across all social media platforms at ballroom chat. If you are not already subscribed to this YouTube plant a YouTube channel. Please do take a moment just to hit the subscribe button. we are at, I think as of this morning, 46 subscribers, it might've changed in the last couple of hours. but we were trying to get to a hundred. I know it's a very small goal, but if we get to a hundred subscribers, we can have a custom URL so it is easier for folks to find us across the web. So do subscribe, share it across, all of your socials so that we can grow this wonderful community. If you want to financially support this podcast, you can do so at patreon.com/ballroomchat.

we are currently not sponsored. We are currently not recieving ad revenue. So, if you can help us, if you are willing to support us, we would love to see you there. And we've got some bonus content for you over on patreon.com/ballroomchat as well. So thank you again, Tony, for an amazing conversation.

TONY: Thank you, my dear. We'll do it again.

SAMANTHA: Definitely. to the rest of you, stay safe, stay positive. And as always, I hope to see you dancing. Bye guys.