On a recent evening, I watched two surgeons waltz across the basement of a Dupont Circle church as a schmaltzy cover of the Buffy Sainte-Marie song "Until It's Time for You to Go" played over speakers. Alessandro Ghidini, an obstetrician with very sharply cut hair, led the dance, guiding his partner, Craig Louisy, a lanky and graceful general surgeon, through a series of light, sweeping turns.

Louisy was still wearing his clothes from work (he operates at Shady Grove Medical Center): khakis and a button-down with the sleeves pushed up. Ghidini, who works at Inova Alexandria, had gone home first and changed into black pants and a turtleneck. Both men had on nearly identical black lace-up dancing shoes with leather soles, their toes worn white and the heels cracked from use.

Ghidini, who is 61, and Louisy, who is 43, are serious competitors in the relatively new sport of same-gender ballroom dance. The pair competed last summer at the Gay Games in Paris, winning a silver medal for their Latin dance in the C division of the senior category (dancers are ranked from A to D, with A being the highest skilled). On this night, they were rehearsing for the EuroGames, an LGBT sports event in Rome coming up in a few weeks.

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As they began practicing the opening to their rumba routine, their coach, Terry Chasteen — founder of DanceSport Dupont Circle, a dance studio run out of an Episcopal church on P Street NW — followed beside them counting (“two, three, four, ONE!”), then finally cut in with a correction to one of Louisy’s turns. Louisy watched Chasteen demonstrate, head cocked to one side. Then he and Ghidini did the turn again and again and again until finally Chasteen let them move on.

Chasteen, 70, tells me later that this moment would’ve been unimaginable when he first moved to Washington 17 years ago. At the time, there was a lively country-western dance scene at Remington’s, a gay bar on Capitol Hill. (After Remington’s closed in 2014, Chasteen and some of his friends started a country-western dance group called DC Rawhides.) But outside Remington’s friendly walls, the social dance scene was much less welcoming. Sometimes Chasteen and his friends were asked to leave; a man once called Chasteen a “f----t” at a country-western event in the 1990s. He founded DanceSport Dupont about 11 years ago in part to offer a more-welcoming space.

These days, same-gender ballroom dancing is much more commonplace. A male couple recently reached the finals on the Italian “Dancing With the Stars,” and ballroom dancing has been an officially recognized sport at the quadrennial Gay Games since 1998. And yet same-gender couples are still not welcome in the rigidly gendered world of traditional ballroom dancing. They can’t, for instance, compete in competitions organized by USA Dance, the official organization of competitive social dancing in the United States. In Washington, according to Chasteen, Ghidini and Louisy are among just a handful of same-gender ballroom dancers, compared with “hundreds” of same-gender country-western dancers.

Ghidini is still relatively new to ballroom dance. He grew up in a conservative family in Italy — his father cut him off for a couple of years after he came out — and moved to the States for his residency. Five years ago, he joined the Cosmos Club and found a ballroom class there. A natural competitor who once swam and played water polo on a national level in Italy, Ghidini soon outpaced his group and started looking for more-challenging classes. He found them in 2017 with Chasteen at DanceSport Dupont. Seeing his promise, Chasteen began coaching him for competitions. They tried several partners, but none worked out until Chasteen and Ghidini saw Louisy dancing at a DC Rawhides event — “he moved beautifully,” Ghidini said — and asked if he wanted to learn ballroom.

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Louisy danced as a child growing up in a conservative family on St. Lucia. He and a cousin would choreograph calypso routines and perform them at family parties. (“It was very gay,” he told me, laughing.) During college, he moved to the United States. He came out relatively late and started attending Rawhides events to expand his social circle. He wasn’t excited by ballroom at first but found himself increasingly obsessed — practicing his routines during breaks between operations, rehearsing turns in the hospital elevator between floors.

Ghidini and Louisy are not coupled in life — Ghidini is married to his partner of 25 years, and Louisy has a boyfriend of over a year — but they turned out to be very well-matched as dancers. To prepare for this summer’s EuroGames, Chasteen choreographed six routines, three Latin and three international ballroom, each of which they will have to perform twice, since they are entering both the senior and open divisions. With so many couples on the dance floor at a time, judges often see only a few seconds of each couple, so the pressure is on to get every little detail perfect, given that a misstep at the wrong time could mean disaster. Luckily, both men are used to this level of pressure from their day jobs. “We are both very perfectionistic,” Ghidini says.

Traditional ballroom dancing enacts a caricature of socially prescribed gender roles. The male partner is the leader; the female partner, the follower. The male partner’s movements are meant to be sharp and decisive, while the female dancer is meant to be flowy and expressive. Women wear swishy, feathered gowns and exaggerated makeup, while men mostly restrict themselves to a bit of glitter or mesh panels on their black pantsuits.

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Same-gender ballroom dancing challenges these norms while also challenging the dancers themselves, who often learn to both lead and follow. On the night I visited, Louisy and Ghidini were practicing the “switch” moment in their rumba. As the leader, Louisy told me, “you have to have this machismo thing,” and he ducked his head down to approximate a sultry stare. When he switches, though, “you go from the machismo thing to be a little more like a flower,” raising one of his large, strong doctor’s hands in a delicate gesture, as if lifting a teacup. “It’s not being feminine,” Chasteen explained. “It’s just being passive and more elegant.” Ghidini and Louisy are planning to attempt the switch halfway through each routine without losing a beat, something that is extremely difficult and a bit of a showoff move in competition.

Chasteen says that same-gender dancing doesn’t just provide a gorgeous aesthetic experience; it can also help open minds. Watching two men or two women dancing can be a shock at first to audiences more accustomed to the gender roles in traditional dance. But the creative and highly visual way same-gender dance allows partners to be passive and active, macho and flowery, in turn, can feel transformative, and not just on the dance floor. “We are activists,” Chasteen told me.

As Ghidini and Louisy performed their sinuous rumba, another pair of men began dancing in the opposite corner of the room. The couple was learning the very basic moves of a slow swing dance, including a dip and a turn. They were nowhere near Ghidini and Louisy’s level, but they were game and energetic. When I went over to say hi, they waved me away. They needed all the practice time they could get, they said. In a week, they were getting married.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington.

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