Tyler Keith Wilson has danced in many ballroom competitions at Brigham Young University through the years, gliding with his partner over the glossy floors while she turned in a dress that looked like cotton candy.
The decorated dancer, a Utah native, will be there again this year, too, when the school hosts the nation’s top amateur ballroom championship. Except this time — for the first time at the Provo campus — Wilson will be dancing with another man.
The event will be historic for the conservative college, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To host the coveted showcase, which it has every year since at least 1997, BYU was required to lift its ban keeping same-sex couples from competing this spring.
Now, the thousands of collegiate and studio dancers from across the country who come to show their skills will be able to dance with whomever they choose.
For the private school, that was a major concession. The change goes against its strict Honor Code forbidding gay relationships, as well as “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” Even in its own classes, BYU — one of the most renowned schools in the country for ballroom dance — doesn’t allow two men to dance together for practice.
But for Wilson, it represents a chance to finally be himself and choose his partner.
“This is everything,” he said. “For years, I haven’t danced how I’ve wanted to, with who I’ve wanted to. This is an event that will open people’s minds and change people’s concept of what dance looks like.”
It’s something he never thought would happen. Wilson had applied to BYU about 10 years ago, after receiving a scholarship to perform ballroom dance there. But during the required interview beforehand with a church leader, he said, he was told he couldn’t attend because he’s gay — even though he didn’t act on it, in accordance with the faith’s guidelines, and still danced only with female partners.
After that, he left the church and moved to New York to practice ballroom professionally. Now 27, Wilson is excited to return and make history where he was once rejected. Dancing with a man, he said, has just always felt more natural to him.
“And that’s what dance is about at the end of the day — it’s an expression of yourself and life.”
Fighting for inclusion
Ballroom dance has long been about tradition and rules, though. It began among the upper class in the 16th century, and it hasn’t shed much of its aristocratic origins. The community has clung especially tight to rigid gender roles.
“It’s all about the man and the lady,” Wilson said. “He leads and she follows. He wears a tail suit with a white bow tie and she’s in a ballgown.”
While some smaller dance groups have embraced different partnerships, the two largest ballroom organizations in the country have resisted any change — until last year.
Under the threat of a lawsuit and amid growing public pressure, the National Dance Council of America revised its policy in September so that “same-sex/gender neutral couples will be able to compete with opposite-sex couples in all dance genres included in championships, competitions and events sanctioned by the NDCA.” USA Dance, the other large organization, did the same.
And this is where BYU comes in. The Utah school annually hosts the U.S. National Amateur Dancesport Championships, which is sanctioned by the NDCA and crowns the best competitors in the country in Latin, cabaret and rhythm dancing. To hold the March 2020 event, the school would have to abide by the new rules.
It decided not to.
In November — when registration was set to begin — BYU’s ballroom program made a surprise announcement on its competition website that it would forgo having the council officially sanction the event and would host it, instead, as simply “an all-amateur event” for collegiate and studio competitors. That way, it could create its own policies.
With no exceptions, BYU said, “A couple in the traditional Ballroom Dance genre is defined as a male and a female, with the male dancing the part of the lead and the female dancing the part of the follow.”
Crystal Song, a Ph.D. student in performance studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who researches ballroom dance, said that kicked off a monthslong fight over the rules. Many dancers posted online that they were disappointed by the decision. Others threatened to drop out if the NDCA rules weren’t observed.
“The school and the council have been couching all of this in this language of sanctions and regulations," Song said. "It was really, though, about homophobia and how long that has been a large part of the ballroom community.”
Song danced with another woman when she competed as an undergraduate in New York. But, she said, BYU has long been the model and “really definitive for standards in ballroom” across the country.
On the school’s website, it boasts about having “exposed the entire ballroom world to the influence and standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The college has stricter “modesty” rules for costumes and requires women to have 1-inch straps on their dresses — which many competitors have to have specially made for showcases there.
Lee Wakefield was previously the artistic director for BYU’s ballroom team before he retired in 2014; and he still holds his position as ballroom director for the NDCA. When asked by The Salt Lake Tribune for comment this week, he declined and referred questions back to the college.
The NDCA’s president, first vice president and second vice president all did not return calls either, nor did the dance department chair at BYU.
A quiet change
By the end of November, the NDCA was fielding emails from dancers furious about BYU disregarding the rules and still getting to host the event. Several had written publicly about the school, including one anonymous dancer who said the school officials were living in the “dark corners of their fears.”
In a letter posted online, Wakefield said BYU was not required to follow the new NDCA rule allowing gender-neutral partnerships. The council turned off comments on the post.
Then, early this month, Katerina Lu and her dancing partner and husband of 19 years, Xingmin Lu, announced they would sit out the competition. The two are U.S. senior champions and have competed at BYU many times, winning multiple national titles.
Katerina Lu wrote on Facebook that even though she is not gay and dances in a traditional partnership, she believed BYU was discriminating against same-sex couples by not letting them perform. Any title awarded, then, would mean nothing to her if she wasn’t competing against all dancers and the best in the field.
“If you don’t let everybody who has the right to dance, then you’re not truly a national championship,” she told The Tribune this week. “You should be able to dance no matter your background, color or sexual orientation.”
A few days later, in a one-sentence statement posted on its site, the NDCA announced that the decision had been reversed: The event would be officially sanctioned and BYU would abide by the rules.
It’s unclear what changed. The school’s spokeswoman, Carri Jenkins, responded to an email and noted only that, “in consultation with the leadership of the National Dance Council of America, it was determined that the magnitude of the competition at BYU warranted a full sanction, which requires adherence to all NDCA rules and regulations.”
Now, for the first time ever, the school will allow two men or two women to dance together on its floors.
The rule will apply to the competition, overall, and those coming in from out of state, but BYU’s own standards haven’t changed. Students who attend classes there will still not be able to dance in same-sex partnerships.
‘Good dancing is good dancing’
To him, Wilson said, it was clear the decision was first made because of the faith’s policies on gay relationships. The LDS Church teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin but that acting on it is.
“They were making it about religion," he said, “instead of dance.”
Many see the school’s decision as a positive sign, though, including Chicago duo Alex Tecza and Kato Lindholm. They started as a traditional couple and then moved to same-sex dancing after Lindholm, who is transgender, transitioned. As professionals, they won’t qualify for BYU’s amateur competition, but they welcome the change.
“We have been advocating for same-sex inclusion in ballroom dancing for some time,” Tecza said. “It seems like there is a sense of fairness and justice going on around in waves around the dance world.”
Lindholm added: “From our standpoint, we think technique is technique and good dancing is good dancing, regardless of the couple.”
Some have questioned whether having two men compete together is unfair in a sport that merits strength and form. In ballroom, a man is the lead, wearing a tuxedo and no embellishment while a woman follows his directions in a gown and exaggerated makeup. It’s at least partly about machismo and submission to it.
Song, the Ph.D. researcher, said some of that is changing as ballroom welcomes same-sex partners interested in challenging and re-creating the norms.
“It’s definitely an important step,” she said. “Even as more queer people become part of the ballroom space, a lot of it is still defined by that old image. And that’s been hard for people to let go of. I hope it’s part of a bigger conversation in the ballroom community.”
It’s already happening on a worldwide stage.
Jakob Fauerby and Silas Holst made history in winning a TV dance competition in Denmark similar to “Dancing With the Stars.” An Italian couple were in the finals of their country’s televised show, too. And there’s a same-sex ice skating couple on “Dancing on Ice.”
“It also helps to break down some of the really difficult stereotypes — not just in dance, but in society,” said Mark Hakes, who dances with his male partner, Elijah Jensen, in Minnesota.
The two have been doing ballroom together for three years and also applaud BYU for allowing same-sex couples. “It’s fantastic," Hakes added. “It means my partner and I can dance together.”
Hakes and others believe it doesn’t have to be the exception to see same-sex couples flow across the floor together. Benjamin Soencksen, the president of the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association, said it’s not about aesthetic but reinventing who and when dance can be flowery or active or bold or even switch in the middle of a routine.
“It doesn’t come as a surprise that the organizers in Utah grappled with this and ultimately relented,” Soencksen suggested.
For Wilson, he’s never felt comfortable being in the lead position and enjoys being more feminine in his movements. He found a male dance partner in December and is learning now how to follow.
“Not everyone falls into those two boxes,” he said. “To be able to show myself for who I am is just going to be so liberating. I don’t have to be too girly. I can just be Tyler.”
It feels like “full circle,” he noted, for him to return to BYU now, being able to show who he is and dance how he wants. For years, he’s been putting the pain he experienced being rejected by the school and struggling with being gay into his choreography.
“It’s going to be a big shock for the people who are used to seeing classic ballroom,” he added. “I’m excited to see their reactions.”
At the school’s competition in March, there will be 3,000 couples competing. Wilson plans to be there in a tuxedo, standing across from his partner in another tuxedo.
BYU’S LGBTQ POLICIES
The debate over same-sex ballroom dance couples competing at Brigham Young University is not the first time the school has faced pushback for its LGBTQ policies. But it is one of the few times it has changed to be more accommodating.
Most recently, in November, two science societies removed BYU job postings from their sites after they said anyone hired would have to abide by the school’s Honor Code ban on “homosexual behavior.” The university stood by its policy — and it can, as a private and religious institution.
In April 2018, a national political science group apologized for holding its annual conference at BYU, saying it gave “insufficient forethought to matters of diversity.” The school didn’t refund the contract after the organization ended up moving off campus as many of the lectures as it could.
In 2016, a group of national LGBTQ advocacy coalitions — including Athlete Ally and the National Center for Lesbian Rights — advocated for the Big 12 athletic conference to keep BYU out over its policies. The school made no changes.