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Dancing with the Stars ‘groundbreaking’ ‘big change’ is actually embarrassingly behind

Dancing with the Stars ‘groundbreaking’ ‘big change’ is actually embarrassingly behind

Dancing with the Stars season 30 will have a same-sex couple: former Dance Moms star JoJo Siwa, who identifies as gay and queer, will be dancing with a female pro dancer. That will make history—but only for a show that is literally decades behind other reality TV shows.

Before this was announced, host Tyra Banks teased “some big change today” during a virtual Television Critics Association press conference Thursday. “I was the big change last year, and there’s a big change this year. And change must happen,” she said.

“There’s something that is so new and so exciting, and something that [executive producer] Andrew [Llinares] spoke to me about, that I felt like finally: yes, now is the time,” Tyra said, and added a little later, “I am so excited about this. I think a lot of people are going to be excited about this. I think it’s going to save lives. I think it’s going to change lives, and it’s going to make a lot of noise, and the noise that needs to be made.”

Finally, Llinares revealed what that was: “I think Tyra was alluding to that we are doing that is brand new for this season—and so exciting to say we’re doing something brand new on the 30th season of the show—is that, for the first time ever on the show, we’re going to have a same-sex couple.”

Dancing with the Stars executive producer Andrew Llinares (upper-left), host Tyra Banks (upper right), and season 30 cast members JoJo Siwa (lower left) and Suni Lee (lower right) during a virtual press conference at the Television Critics Association summer press tour
Dancing with the Stars executive producer Andrew Llinares (upper-left), host Tyra Banks (upper right), and season 30 cast members JoJo Siwa (lower left) and Suni Lee (lower right) during a virtual press conference at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. (Image via ABC)

Two journalists asking questions referred to this as “groundbreaking,” but it’s only groundbreaking for Dancing with the Stars. That’s because this is 2021, and it’s been:

  • 48 years since television’s first gay character, Lance Loud, appeared on a reality TV show
  • 29 years since The Real World brought us gay, lesbian, and bisexual cast members
  • 20 years since ABC’s The Mole season one cast both an out gay man and an out gay woman
  • 18 years since Tyra’s own show, America’s Next Top Model, premiered, and it’s had LGBTQ representation since its beginning.

In terms of same-sex couples, it’s been:

  • 27 years after Pedro Zamora and Sean Sasser had a commitment ceremony on MTV
  • 21 years since Danny and Paul’s relationship on The Real World: New Orleans
  • 20 years since CBS cast Joe and Bill on The Amazing Race season one

And for dance reality TV, it’s been:

  • more than one year since HBO Max’s voguing competition Legendary premiered (and of course, its ballroom is different than ballroom dancing)
  • 11 years since MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew cast Vogue Evolution, an all-LGBT dance crew that included Legendary host Dashaun Wesley.

Dancing with the Stars is also behind other versions of the show:

  • Vild med dans, the Danish version, had a same-sex couple in 2019, and they ended up winning
  • Courtney Act, who appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race, finished second on Dancing with the Stars Australia, having performed in drag with a same-sex partner during the season but out of drag for the finale.
  • Strictly Come Dancing, the UK version of the show, was similarly hesitant, and in 2015, the BBC pathetically justified its decision not to have same sex couples by saying it “is a family show.” But even that version had its first same-sex pairing last fall.

A decade ago, Carson Kressley and Chaz Bono were on the same season of DWTS, and its then-executive producer, Conrad Green, said the reason they stuck with opposite-sex partners is that “We try to follow what happens in real ballroom competitions. That was the original intention of the show. And while we are aware that there are same-sex couples, the competitions are usually mixed-gendered.”

That is a pathetically weak excuse, considering this is a reality competition, and everything is made for TV. Do they also follow real ballroom competitions with their 1 to 10 scores delivered on glittery paddles? Plus, while certain professional ballroom dancing events may not allow same-sex couples, there is a same-sex ballroom dancing community, and the queer ballroom competition April Follies began in 2003.

Dancing with the Stars has had representation from the LGBTQ+ community throughout its life. But following ballroom dance’s insistence on opposite-sex partners—with a man leading a woman, mirroring outdated, traditional gender roles—just makes it part of a sport that’s “one of the last bastions of homophobia,” as the president of the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association, Barbara Zoloth, said in the documentary Hot to Trot.

I do think ABC and Dancing with the Stars production company BBC Studios are still making the right move, even if they’re doing so far too late, and only now that they show’s ratings are on the upswing (which is rare on broadcast TV these days) instead of freefall. Perhaps they’ve summoned the courage to make this change because they’re no longer afraid of their older viewers—or even their younger ones, since a glance at Twitter reveals at least a few homophobes who are freaking out about this.

Like Tyra said, representation has the potential to “change lives,” and is important on all shows—even creaky, dusty competitions with bad music that airs on an overly-cautious Disney-owned broadcast network.

JoJo Siwa made that point, too: “I’m excited I get to do it. I think it’s cool. I think it breaks something. It breaks a wall that’s never been broken down before. And it’s normal for a girl to dance with a guy, and I think that that’s really cool. But I think that it’s really special that not only now do I get to share with the world that you love who you want to love, but also you get to dance with who you want to dance with. I think it’s really special.”

Again, I’m glad ABC and BBC Studios have made this decision, but I’m not willing to shower the show with adulation and give it medals for something that it’s actively refused to do for more than a decade, especially when they’re so far behind the rest of the reality TV world. The only wall being broken here is the one built by Dancing with the Stars’s and ABC’s frustrating and stubborn timidity.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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