As Zoe Balfour and Citabria Phillips glide across the dance floor of Allegro Ballroom, their chemistry is unmistakable.
Balfour is sultry in head-to-toe black with a cotton skirt clinging to her athletic figure and a sheer top that accentuates her toned arms. Phillips, leading the duo across the ballroom, wears fitted pants and a sweater. She likes to tell people she's as comfortable in a coat and tails as in a ballgown.
Another pair of dancers, an opposite-sex duo, pay no attention to Balfour and Phillips as they practice traditional international ballroom dancing in what is not a traditional partnering.
That's not always the case.
"When we go into a new ballroom," Balfoursays, "they're not sure what to make of us at all."
But at Allegro in Emeryville, the two women have been practicing together so long that they're part of the ballroom dance family.
And they're pretty fantastic on their feet. The duo has a number of awards to prove its dedication to the burgeoning sport of same-sex competitive dance, including the title of 2008 North American Same-Sex Womens' Standard Champions. They are at the top of their game in America and one of the best same-sex dance partnerships in the world.
Their contemporaries say the two women, both Oakland residents and full-time dancers, are the heartbeat of same-sex ballroom dancing in the East Bay. Balfour and Phillips teach nearly every Sunday at the Lake Merritt Dance Center's growing series of classes, Dancing With the Queers, and they informally serve as spokespersons for the same-sex dance community, promoting dance and recruiting for the center's classes.
"There is some same-sex stuff in San Francisco, but not like it is here," says Jennifer Davis, who teaches advanced and intermediate same-sex standard ballroom dancing most Sundays at Dancing with the Queers. "The reason why this program is so great is because of their consistency."
Balfour and Phillips are recruiting beginning- to advanced-level dancers to take a January intensive to prepare students to enter dance competitions at the World Outgames in Copenhagen, Denmark in the summer and the Gay Games in Cologne, Germany in summer 2010.
Watch the couple dance and you'll think they've been doing this for a lifetime. Not true. Balfour started dancing about six years ago, while Phillips is even newer at the sport. They started teaching classes in 2006, helping others so they could compete in the Gay Games in Chicago that year. Balfour and Phillips took home a bronze medal in A-level Women's Standard dancing competition that year; their students also picked up some medals.
"We share an incredible passion for dancing," Balfour says, noting the two spend at least 12 hours a week practicing. "We really put in our hearts and souls."
The pair say they knew one another from country and western women's dance events. Balfour says she was looking for a new dance partner to practice ballroom when she learned Phillips was looking for one also.
One problem. Both women had learned how to dance as follows and in ballroom dancing, there has to be a lead.
"It was a hard start because there is so much to learn." Balfour says. But they did it. Initially, the two wanted to split leading 50-50, but they later learned that Balfour looked better as a follow and Phillips was a more natural lead.
"Citabria likes wearing a tux," Balfour says with a smile. "And I like wearing dresses."
After they won the Chicago Gay Games and were named the top American and British couple (Balfour is originally from England), the couple's reputation started to bloom within their community. Friends and family started raising money to help send them to same-sex dance competitions in Europe. While Dancing with the Queers was started years ago by someone else, Balfour and Phillips took it over and, under their leadership, watched enrollment steadily grow.
The two dancers say they believe same-sex dance is still in its infancy stages and it, too, will blossom once people realize classes and activities are catered to them.
But it's impossible to talk with Balfour and Phillips without seeing their faces drop at the mention of competing outside of homosexual events. The National Dance Council of America, the sole American organization that sanctions events and competitions for the World Dance & Dance Sport Council, does not allow same-sex couples to compete.
"It's a sign where America is," Phillips says. The couple does perform shows for NDCA events, mostly to promote same-sex dancing.
And the duo are welcome at several events. They won accolades at the California Dreaming event at Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland in October. There will be a January dance competition in Sacramento and another in April in Oakland. And Phillips says the two look forward to lighting a passion for dance in other people who prefer same-sex partners.
"We have a very supportive environment," she says. "And everyone is welcome."
Reach writer Laura Casey at 925-952-2697 or e-mail email@example.com.
Dancing With the Queers classes -- including ballroom and Latin -- are most Sundays at the Lake Merritt Dance Center, 200 Grand Ave., Oakland and cost $40 to $72 for several sessions. The 2009 classes begin Jan. 4 and partners are not necessary. Visit www.dancingwiththequeers.com or call 510-763-1343. The intensive classes, which will prepare dancers for the international games, are six-month sessions that include lessons on dancing and costuming.
Check out a video of Citabria Phillips and Zoe Balfour at ContraCosta
Times.com or InsideBayArea.com.
Check out a video of Citabria Phillips and Zoe Balfour at ContraCostaTimes.com. or InsideBayArea.com.