What we learnt from the first same-sex couple on Strictly
BY CAIT FINDLAY, IMAGE VIA BBC
Nicola Adams is unbeatable in the boxing ring: when she retired in 2019, she had never lost a bout. When she took to the dance floor as one half of Strictly Come Dancing’s first celebrity same-sex couple, however, she was up against 11 other pairings – and a pandemic.
The pandemic won. Nicola and her partner, Katya Jones, were forced to withdraw from the competition last week after Katya tested positive for coronavirus.
Let’s rewind. Ballroom dancing is such a hyperbolic performance of traditional gender roles – the costumes, the power dynamics, the storytelling – and I wanted to see how Nicola and Katya would disrupt that. In the first show, when the pairings were revealed, the couple said they weren’t going to make Nicola take the lead. Just because she’s more stereotypically masculine, doesn’t mean that she should ‘be the man’. First of all – yes, this again – the whole point is that there is no man.
Before their first dance, I was worried that Nicola would be a terrible dancer, thus suggesting to viewers that two women dancing together were doomed to failure. Fortunately, their first two dances were very good, finding them in the top half of the leaderboard. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the first invisible test had been passed.
The couple were a joy to watch. Their quickstep was playful and both dancers’ beaming smiles showed how much fun they were having. Nicola’s boxing background certainly helped with the fast footwork needed for the dance, and the judges’ scores and feedback reflected that. In the second week, Katya’s street commercial choreography was beautiful and the pair showed real chemistry in their storytelling.
As a young lesbian, I have spent my whole life looking for people like me in popular culture. Often, this means spending hours watching a show for five minutes of LGBTQI representation. To be able to tune into a prime-time show and see two women dancing together for the first time in Strictly’s 16-year history was very special. The fact that their dances were so good was just the cherry on top.
In the third week Nicola and Katya were forced into the dance-off after their Grease-themed performance. It may sound odd, but I was glad that they had a rough week. Not because I wanted them to do badly – quite the opposite. By virtue of being a same-sex pairing, Nicola and Katya were carrying the weight of representation, whether they wanted to or not. That brings a lot of pressure not to put a foot wrong, pressure that opposite-sex pairings weren’t feeling for the same reason.
Of course, they didn’t deliberately put in a poor performance. However, it may have focused viewers’ attention on the fact that Strictly is ultimately a dancing show, not a show about same-sex couples – which is important for the people who want LGBTQI people to be seen and not heard. Sometimes we need to be loud and proud, but sometimes LGBTQI is just the quiet backdrop to our lives and personalities.
I would have loved for them to continue. A bad week can motivate dancers to be better next time and it would have been great to see what else they could bring to the dance floor. It was sad for coronavirus to get between them and another week, but of course leaving was the responsible thing to do.
Including a same-sex couple didn’t hurt Strictly’s viewing figures. In fact, the first episode had the best opening ratings for the show in the last three years. 8.6 million people tuned in to watch the couples meet their partners and viewership has peaked at 10.4 million in the weeks since. I’m sure the national lockdown keeping us on our sofas has contributed to that success. Still, around one in six people across the UK were watching a dancing competition that featured a same-sex partnership.
It’s not exactly radical in terms of representation, but that’s important too. For people who don’t get much exposure to the LGBTQI community, something as simple as two women dancing together could give them a new perspective. There might be young people who don’t have access to any other LGBTQI representation, but whose parents tune into Strictly every week. It’s possible that older people who are set in their views will have realised that there’s nothing scandalous or wrong about two women dancing. These are all hypotheticals, but the possibility of changing attitudes is a starting point.
It is important to remember that two women dancing together will only have a small impact on the perception of LGBTQI people. It won’t change the fact that homophobic hate crimes have been increasing in the UK or that coronavirus has forced many young people back into homophobic households.
Nor is Nicola an impeccable representative of the LGBTQI community: earlier this year, she said that transgender athletes should not be allowed to compete in female competitions, but should have separate categories. If we want progress for LGBTQI people, that progress should include our trans and non-binary siblings, too.
Even though Nicola and Katya can no longer take part, the dream of a more inclusive Strictly isn’t over. There are rumours that they will get the chance to dance together once more in the final as a non-competing couple, so we may still get to see them dancing a tango or pasadoble. And now that the ice has been broken for the first same-sex celebrity partnership, there may be more in the future, including partnerships of two men.
On social media, Nicola and Katya were calling themselves ‘team outside the box’, but I think that for Strictly to have a same-sex couple didn’t show outside-the-box thinking. It suggested to the viewing public that the box itself is imaginary, something that LGBTQI people have always known. If we take anything from watching Nicola and Katya dancing together, it should be to look for more imaginary boxes and lift all their lids.