How two women made history at BYU by ballroom dancing together

(Photo Courtesy of Yume Honda) Yume Honda, left, stands next to Ayane Matsuda at a ballroom competition at Brigham Young University on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Provo • Before walking out onto the ballroom floor together, Ayane Matsuda tugged at the oversized tuxedo jacket she had borrowed backstage while her partner, Yume Honda, checked that each of the rhinestones on her handmade gown were still in place.

The two women were nervous. They had never competed before as a pair. And now they were trying it for the first time at the national ballroom championships held at Brigham Young University, which had just lifted its longtime ban on same-sex couples performing.

It was already a lot of pressure. And then, just before they were about to go on, they realized a new concern they hadn’t accounted for in practice: If they both tried to waltz wearing their puffy dance dresses, there wouldn’t be enough space to move between them.

“There was just a lot of fabric,” Honda said with a laugh, “way too much.”

So Matsuda decided last-minute to slip into the tail suit of one of her ballroom company teammates — and the two women were able to quickstep their way into the quarterfinals.

In doing so, the event also became historic for BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To continue to host the coveted championships — which it has every year since at least 1997 — the conservative Utah college was required by the national dance council that sanctions the showcase to allow same-sex couples to compete.

It wasn’t a sure thing that any same-sex couples would end up registering for it.

Ballroom has long been about traditional gender roles. The man leads, and the woman follows. Every other couple filling the ballroom at BYU fit that mold. When Matsuda and Honda competed, in each of the 15 other pairs on the floor, there was a woman in a gown of brilliant fuchsia, sparkling orange or deep green standing across from a man in a crisp jacket and pants. They were the only exception.

At BYU, too — one of the most renowned schools in the country for ballroom dance — the change went against its strict Honor Code forbidding gay relationships and any forms of physical intimacy that give expression to that on campus. Even in its own classes, the college doesn’t allow two men to dance together for practice.

With all of that, Matsuda and Honda, international students who compete on Utah Valley University’s team, initially hesitated to put their names in for the March event. They were worried about how the audience and the judges might react. They feared getting booed. They wondered if the other couples on the floor might try to trip them.

“But we wanted to show that is is very natural to dance with a same-sex partner without any sexual thing behind it,” Honda said, joking: “Even in pants.”

Both women grew up in Japan, where they had practiced ballroom since they were kids. Matsuda, now 21, started dancing when she was 5 years old. And Honda, who’s 22, took lessons at her family’s studio in Kagoshima.

There, it’s not unusual for women to waltz together, they said — mostly because few men are interested in the sport.

“We sometimes have to dance with ladies,” Honda said. “It was not even a sensitive issue. We had been trained this way.”

Matsuda added: “I did a same-sex couple competition my whole dance life in Japan.”

To them, the steps are not about gender roles but rather power dynamics. One person leads and the other follows. It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman in charge and a man who listens, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, or a partnership of individuals who don’t identify as either.

Honda and Matsuda said they decided to dance as friends.

But while some smaller dance groups in the United States have embraced those different pairings, the two largest ballroom organizations in the country had largely resisted until last year. Even then, it didn’t go smoothly.

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.

At first, BYU refused to comply. The Utah school annually hosts the U.S. National Amateur Dancesport Championships, which is sanctioned by the NDCA and crowns the best ballroom competitors in the country in Latin, cabaret and rhythm dancing. In November, though — when registration was set to begin — BYU’s ballroom program made a surprise announcement that it would forgo having the council officially sanction the showcase 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 declared, “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.”

That kicked off a monthslong fight in the dance community. Many couples posted online that they were disappointed. Others threatened to drop out if the NDCA rules weren’t observed.

Honda planned not to compete — even though it would be the last competition before she graduated — but decided she would still go and watch. “They weren’t going to allow me to dance as I wanted,” she said.

She had gone online in early January to buy tickets from the school. As she clicked into the event, an alert popped up on her screen. Honda almost closed out of it without reading.

The note said only that the school “determined that the magnitude of the competition at BYU warranted a full sanction.” Meaning: It would uphold the rules.

“I was so excited,” Honda said. “I texted Ayane and signed us up. I knew we wanted to do this. We both just needed a push.”

The women discussed their reservations before ultimately deciding to take the plunge. It was the last day to register without a late fee.

In response to an email from The Salt Lake Tribune sent the week of the championships, spokeswoman Carri Jenkins declined to say why the school reversed course or how many same-sex couples total were approved to participate. “I would have no way of knowing this information or even finding it out,” she said.

The leadership team of the NDCA also did not respond to that question. It’s possible more same-sex pairs would have competed in the weeklong showcase, too, but the last two days of the competition were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Honda and Matsuda’s event came before that.

Tyler Keith Wilson, though, who applied with his male partner, confirmed to The Tribune that he was rejected for being “too professional” to compete in the amateur event. And only the one same-sex entry of the two women could be verified.

Some have questioned whether having two men compete together is unfair in a sport that rewards strength in its point system. And Wilson, a Utah native who currently dances in New York, wonders if that bias played into not allowing him into the championships.

Traditionally 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. So if two men do it, will they win based on muscle?

Wilson said he didn’t get the chance to try to re-create the norms and address concerns. But he hopes things are starting to change in the ballroom community, opening it up and welcoming more people to participate.

Matsuda said she feels lucky to have been able to dance with Honda at the event. No one made any rude comments about the partnership, as she feared. And she feels the couple was judged fairly on technique.

Before coming to Utah, Matsuda always took the lead role in ballroom and had to adjust to being the follow in competitions here. With the BYU showcase, she felt she could really dance how she wanted to, twirling Honda around in her feathery white gown. It didn’t really matter, she added, that she couldn’t wear her own dress.

Matsuda used to proudly put on the tail suit in Japan — where she routinely wore them when dancing with another woman. Only then it fit a little better.

(Photo Courtesy of Yume Honda) Yume Honda, left, stands next to Ayane Matsuda at a ballroom competition at Brigham Young University on Thursday, March 12, 2020.