I have watched in awe, and rewatched many times, the 2021 Paso Doble dance of Johannes Radebe and John Whaite, the first ever all-male pair, in Strictly Come Dancing.
It is an interpretation of the Paso Doble, the dance of the matador, and narratives within the dance resemble a bullfight. Traditionally, the leader is the matador and the follower is at once the matador’s cape, the bull and a flamenco dancer. The movements also have origin in the Spanish infantry. Paso Doble gained popularity in the ballroom in the 1930s and it developed as a dance of sharp, quick, staccato movements where the chest is held high and proud. The dancers need to remain in front of each other or parallel to each other at all times. The energy needs to be fierce and intense.
Johannes Radebe, Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer and choreographer, transposed the traditional Paso Doble to the decks of a Pirate ship, so on the dance floor we see two pirates, wearing billowing white shirts, waistcoat (tails resembling the cape), breeches, boots and headscarf. Traditional leader/follower roles are overturned as the lead is swapped between them. With the intensity of swordfight and combat, this isn’t a fight, it is something else.
After mirroring and stepping ferociously one towards the other, there is the moment of first touch; the dancers slot into each other’s hold, hand to hand and hand to upper back, to whirlwind the double-step around the floor. When they come together in that sublime moment, centuries of hurtful and hateful patriarchal conditioning of what men are allowed to do recede into a joyful moment of recognition. This is what men are made of and made for. I realise that I am watching other possibilities of what it means to be a man, than those considered normal. This really is something else.
I’m not the only fan. In the comments section of the video clip:
“I’m going to watch this probably a billion times. OMG. I love them. So proud.”
“There are no words in the English language to do justice to how insanely amazing that dance was. I will be watching 100s of times.”
“The attack and the mirroring so strong. I’ve replayed it so many times. There are no words. I stopped breathing watching it.”
In the rewatching — again and again — something in me is filled. There is enjoyment, but something else comes into my feeling state. This is the feeling of falling in love. Just as, when I reread or rehear a message from someone I am falling in love with, I repeat, I repeat because each time, something is touched in me and something is met. When I am falling in love, the way I see the world changes as my expanding connection with the other infuses my connection with all of life and everything becomes alive with possibility, passion, wonder and magic. When I fall in love, life becomes everything but normal.
In The School of Life: An Emotional Education, Alain de Botton writes “Any idea of the normal currently in circulation is not an accurate map of what is customary for a human to be. We are, each one of us, far more compulsive, anxious, sexual, tender, mean, generous, playful, thoughtful, dazed and at sea than we are encouraged to accept.”
All these things that Alain de Botton writes that we are, are the things that get surfaced and concentrated when we fall in love. When suddenly we experience ourselves being with greater intensity and clarity.
In this dance, I am witnessing two men offering possibilities of being so much more than what they will probably have been encouraged to be though the conditioning they, as indeed all of us in different ways, will have received. Notions of normal are usually restrictive, limiting, heteronormative and lifeless. Suddenly, right in front of my eyes, I am seeing options for doing connection a different way. Men don’t have to fulfil a certain role; they can play with, innovate and overlay roles and histories. This is connection; powerful, passionate, beautiful and exciting, not siloed in romance or sex. Watching this dance, I catch a glimpse of the great possibilities in life; maybe that is why I am re-engaging with the video clip, just as I would with communication from a new lover, at the stage in connection when anything is possible.
Another of the histories that emerge through this interpretation of the dance, is that of the same-sex civil unions of the pirates, known as matelotage.
These relationships manifested variously; sometimes as economic agreements, sometimes as affectionate or mutually supportive friendships, sometimes as sexual and romantic unions. The bonds of matelotage were common and respected on board pirate ships, while at the same time, highly stigmatized on land.
While stigmatising homosexuality, heterosexual male culture is, in fact, deeply man-loving, as Marilyn Frye outlines in The Politics of Reality
“All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, rever, honour, whom they imitate, idolize and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honour reverence and love they desire. Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic, it is man-loving.”
This happens in a way that separates, demotes and marginalises women.
This dance, although masterful, is not first and foremost to be admired, it is to be felt. Through this truly man-loving dance which allows possibility in its fullest, I feel invited into parts of myself that are beyond the treacherous ‘normal’ cultivated in the daily institutions of school, media and production, the parts not normally seen, espoused or written about, the parts often ridiculed, marginalised or suppressed.
I’m 49, and there is conditioning in the ether about what it is to be middle-aged, I can feel it. The dominant messaging about who intimacy, sexuality, sensuality, desirability is available to has the capacity to close doors around and within me. I feel that I have come to the end of the road of being a certain kind of woman and I’m not sure what other road there is to take ahead of me. Nevertheless, I am walking.
This dance offers us all freedom to roar, freedom to dress up, freedom to touch, freedom to hold, freedom to dream, freedom to connect deeply, freedom to create, freedom to shine, and of course freedom to dance,
While writing this piece, I went back to listen to one of my all time favourite songs, The Pet Shop Boys, haunting 1990 song ‘Being Boring’, in which Neil Tennant sings about finding “inspiration in anyone who’s gone and opened up a closing door.” And that, my hearties, is exactly what Johannes and John have done.
If you want to watch the slightly longer video clip, including intro to the dancers, the dance, and Judges comments and scores, watch below