- Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry
In keeping with the title of this book, Glamour Addiction, the front cover depicts an ideal image of slim physiques, a glittering rhinestone dress, precision makeup, gleaming manicures, and the perfect coiffures of a male-female couple locked in a tight ballroom clinch. It is this highly constructed representation of poise and beauty that Juliet McMains draws upon as the basis for her examination and critique of the ballroom dance industry. In the preface McMains positions herself within the research through a frank personal narrative of her aspiration to become a “DanceSport” (competition ballroom) star as a young woman. She provides a detailed and painful account of the financial, emotional, corporeal, and temporal investment ploughed into the desire for “Glamour,” which frequently eluded her through a combination of pragmatics and bad luck. Given that it is only within the last decade or so that scholars within dance studies have seriously begun to address those dance forms that fall within the domain of popular culture, it is a pleasure to see the publication of a book that focuses upon an area of dance practice that has often suffered derision, principally from outside its community of practitioners, for its “fake smiles,” “gaudy costumes,” and “exaggerated posturings.”
McMains commendably privileges ballroom as a movement practice that deserves attention for the way it produces and responds to specific cultural issues within its contexts of production and consumption. It is clearly a rich field of inquiry as, throughout the course of the book, McMains elucidates [End Page 86] how Glamour, as a power mechanism produced through the DanceSport industry, calls into question concepts of desire, class, economy, competition, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, race, and nationality. More importantly, she is specifically concerned with how these phenomena are created, enacted, negotiated, and destabilized through the body.
In spite of the wealth of ideas that emerge within this research, I have some reservations about the methodological approach and the theoretical framing of the volume. In the introduction McMains refers to “participant observation” and “ethnographic data” as key components of her methodology. Although McMains has undoubtedly had a vast amount of performance and teaching experience within competition and social ballroom dance, and thus gained valuable interactions within this dancing community, her research departs from the type of work one might traditionally expect from field-based studies. For instance, while she recounts her own involvement in the ballroom scene, she says very little about the self-reflexive issue of researching “at home” and how that impacts on the research. Although she occasionally draws upon interview data to substantiate an observation, there is a general absence of the participants’ voices constituting this study. She also chooses to draw on filmic representations of ballroom dance to illuminate popular perceptions of the ballroom scene. I appreciate that media texts can offer valuable insight into potential meanings and values rooted in cultural forms and, as McMains acknowledges, this is different from ethnographic data. However, because McMains has not done any audience-reception inquiry, only her readings of these textual fictions are brought to bear on the analysis. The consequence of these strategic methodological choices is that her personal voice comes to dominate the research project.
This is perhaps most problematic in chapter 1, which seeks to provide a contextual overview of how the “Glamour machine” operates in social, economic, pedagogic, and corporeal terms throughout DanceSport competition. In this chapter she creates a series of “composite fictional characters” loosely based on certain people and identities that she has come across in the ballroom scene. Although she suggests the rationale for this is a desire to protect anonymity of real individuals and that no theoretical framework can sum up the complexity of actual people, the use of fictional characters removes the rigor of this work from any kind of grounded reality. Significantly, within the field of cultural studies, which she notes as influential in the direction of her work, over the past couple of...