BY: Diaa Hadid
JERUSALEM – Israel is the first country to feature a same-sex duo on its version of the popular television competition ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and the two women have already resolved the toughest question they face: Who will lead?
One, a gay television presenter, and the other, a straight professional dancer, are going to take turns.
“The leader and the follower — we change all the time,” said Dorit Milman, the professional dance partner of TV sportscaster Gili Shem-Tov. “One time I lead her and one time she leads me. But we continue to court.”
The dance partners, who appear on the sixth season of the popular Israeli version of the dancing competition, bring attention to the surprising tolerance of gays in an otherwise homophobic region. Although activists cite dozens of laws that discriminate against them, gays serve openly in Israel’s military and the buzzing seaside metropolis Tel Aviv is one of the gay-friendliest cities in the world.
Shem-Tov said she requested a female dance partner when she was invited onto the show, saying it felt more natural for her as a lesbian.
“I live with my girlfriend and we are raising my 1-year-old son together. It felt natural for me to dance with a woman. That’s my way of life,” Shem-Tov told reporters Tuesday, the day she made her televised dancing debut.
Program producers said they were initially startled by the request, but then embraced it. It’s the first time that a same-sex couple appears on any of the local franchises of the dancing competition, said Cristina Dunn of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the British broadcaster, which distributes the program.
Milman said a same-sex coupling was very different from the strict gender division of roles for men and women in dance. Still she said the nature of the moves wouldn’t change.
“We still show the emotions of love and hate, seducing and rejecting. We still use the movements and language of movement in the same way,” Milman said.
One of the promotional pictures for the couple shows Shem-Tov in a glittery black, partially transparent dress holding Milman. The professional dancer is wearing a scarlet dress, and with one leg raised in the air, she is clutching Shem-Tov’s waist — a typical ballroom dancing pose.
Shem-Tov said she hoped her appearance in a same-sex couple might change people’s attitudes toward gays.
“I heard that there are some people who are saying this is a show for the whole family and there are little children watching that and they don’t want to see a same (sex) couple dancing,” she said. “I have a little son and this is the way he lives with me and my girlfriend and I don’t think it’s a problem.”
It is unlikely that Shem-Tov’s appearance will create the same kind of controversy as Adam Lambert, the runner-up in last year’s U.S. version of “American Idol.”
Lambert came out publicly as gay shortly after the competition and raised eyebrows for his November 2009 performance of his hit song “For Your Entertainment” at the American Music Awards, where he kissed a male musician and pulled off sexually explicit dance moves with two others.
Israeli versions of reality television shows routinely feature a gay character, and audiences are unlikely to be shocked by the sight of a same-sex couple, said Yonatan Gher, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, a gay community center and advocacy group.
But he praised Shem-Tov’s appearance as an important “next step” because she won’t be judged on whether she is gay but on how well she can dance.
“When we see gay representation in the media, it comes with a certain stigma — the predominant thing you can say about them is that they are gay. This is a very different kind of representation, a more equal one,” Gher said.
Milman said she hoped the appearance of a same-sex duo would also show foreigners that there was more to Israel than the Mideast conflict.
“We have some problems with our politics,” she said. But we “show that it can be done differently — that everybody can love everybody, that everybody can dance with everybody.”
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