I wrote a post on the quality of intimacy in west coast swing on my personal facebook page, which you can read here!
(Heads up: I use gender normative language about lead/follow roles in this post because it’s a post about gender normativity.)
I think it’s reasonably fair to say that most partner dances (I know parts of swing are moving well beyond these norms), are gendernormative. In dance, typically, we behave according to antiquated notions. We follow the gender norms for men of being strong, tough, assertive leaders; we follow gender norms for women of being receptive, submissive, pretty objects.
Each dance has a rich history, and in this history, leaders have traditionally been male and followers traditionally female. Men choose the moves; women do the moves. Men create the dance; women make it look pretty. Men watch out for other couples on the dance floor; women acquiesce. Men lead; women follow. I can’t tell you how many leaders have told me “it’s my job to make the dance and help followers feel beautiful.”
There is an idea (and it’s not held by everyone, certainly), that a good lead is someone who creates an interesting, fun, or good-looking dance, and a good follow is one who artfully does what she is told.
When I first began partner dancing, this was pretty all right for me. I come from a background of 20 something odd years of solo dancing, so learning how to strictly follow was a fresh and exciting new skill. I wanted to be able to do anything a lead threw at me, and well. I aspired to be what I have written about here as a pure follow. I thought that if I followed well, then I could convince the men I danced with to love me. I was also going through a tough time, so being able to shut off my brain and just do what I was told was therapeutic for me.
After years of both healing and also observing the dance scene, however, I began to lose my taste for it.
Nowadays, when I go to socials, and particularly in bachata, lambazouk, and kizomba, I stand against the wall and watch men telling women what to do without giving any fucks for what the women might want, PATRIARCHY EVERYWHERE.
Now, for me, of necessity, being told what to do is not a bad thing in and of itself. The pile of various toys and restraints next to my bedside table is pretty strong indication that on occasion I rather enjoy it. But I only like being told what to do under one condition: When I choose to speak, I must be listened to.
This past Saturday at a bachata social, I walked in with the concept of play on my mind. I had been thinking for the last few weeks about why salsa in London appealed to me so much more than any other dance. I thought that it might do with the fact that when I dance salsa, I am often dancing with people who are communicating with me. When I dance salsa, there is laughter and surprise and co-creativity. When I dance salsa, there is play.
I decided, at this bachata social, that I would try to play with my leaders. I would inject more frequent ideas of my own into the dance. Historically, I have always been quite good at integrating my movements within the lead’s chosen movements, and not interrupting. I have been told this by many advanced leaders. And on this night, I still did not interrupt, hardly at all. But I did attempt to put an isolation, an arm movement, a playful hop, a mini lead, into conversations with my leaders. And I got literally nothing back. I got no smiles. I got no laughter. I got no recognition that I said something emotionally with my body that mattered. Mostly confusion, that Stefani Ruper of all people was being a proactive follow. The leads were focused on executing their movements, and had no interest in what I had to say at all.
Now, to be fair, in a traditional lead-follow dynamic, this is all well and good. The men are doing what they have been taught: crafting a dance. And in order to do so they don’t have to listen to what I have to say. They don’t have to be in dialogue with me.
But this is precisely my point: it’s hierarchical and patriarachal and sexist and I more than bored of it. I am disgusted.
I used to hate the idea of ladies styling, especially in sensual bachata. I would go to bachata socials and roll my eyes. I still do. I find the overly dramatic and sexualized movements of sensual bachata to be kind of hysterically ridiculous. But I also used to hate the movements because they were disconnected from their leaders. I saw them as selfish. I saw them as bad following. The women who styled were pushing their own agenda, rather than listening. I hated that. But now I understand that this was literally the only way women could have a voice on the dance floor. There was no means by which they could speak and be listened to, or communicate with leaders. The way in which we teach lead-follow roles simply doesn’t entail that sort of thing. So they voiced their own ideas and movements in a way that was antagonistic to the lead. For this, they have my forgiveness, and maybe even now my respect. It’s not an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination. But with the rigid, deaf lead-follow dynamic that’s been handed to us by history, I understand that it’s hard for followers to find their voices.
Dance, unfortunately in many different styles, is not about communicating. It’s not about suggestions, and responses. It’s not about listening. it’s not about having a conversation with one another. Instead, it’s about glibly acquiescing to rather traditional gender roles. It gives men power to assert and do as they please. Women have the choice of either submitting meekly or shouting back.
People often say that the solution to my disenfranchisement is to learn to lead. Yes, they have a decent point. And I am working on my leading, slowly. But I do not think this actually solves the problem. I don’t care altogether what gender the person with whom I am dancing identifies with, nor do I care if they are leading me or following me. What I do care about is that when two people interact intimately, such as on the dance floor, that they pay attention to and listen to one another. This is not unlike, again, participating in BDSM. Learning to be both submissive and dominant is a great thing that not many people do. But the solution to having great sex is not necessarily to be both. The solution is, no matter which role you are playing, to be cared for, listening to, appreciated at a part of the conversation.
All of which is to say this:
I have spent my entire life resisting being trampled by the male will. It happens in conversations when I am interrupted; it happens in presentations in which I am man-splained; it happens with friends on sofas who want to touch my body; it happens at pre-parties with men who think they’re hot shit; it happens at congresses with friends who have had too much to drink; it happens when a bunch of old white men in suits draft legislation. On the dancefloor, I refuse to be trampled. I refuse to be meek. I refuse to not be heard.
Does this make me bad follow? I don’t think so. To the contrary: many leaders (especially in swing, salsa) confess to me the great joys they experience from communicative dances. And I do still listen very avidly. I almost always follow the leads given me. But I prefer that they are given as suggestions, and that when I have an idea, the leader holds it with respect.
For the time being, I will simply continue to dance salsa in London and across various cities in Europe. I have found that salsa can be an incredibly playful and communicative dance, especially if you’re in the right pockets.
In the long run, however, I would hope that we could come to fuzz the edges between lead and follow roles. I would hope that both leaders and followers see each other as a human being worth listening to, and worth contributing to a dance. I do of course believe that lead-follow dynamics need to be in place for dances and especially fast-paced ones to take place; but it is eminently possible to revise them, as dances such as west coast swing and now somewhat salsa are beginning to demonstrate. All is takes is the courage to be open-ended, vulnerable, and present with another human being.
Introductory caveat 1: People often complain about the appropriation of sensual bachata and the like. I am referring to the whole “sensual bachata isn’t bachata” debate. I think there are merits to both sides of the argument, and I won’t go into them here. I want to be clear that I don’t disparage sensual bachata in and of itself. I enjoy the movements, when executed well. When inclusive with a range of other styles and skillsets, sensual bachata moves can be a really great way to be musical and express different emotions in a dance.
Introductory caveat 2: I love bachata. This article is not a critique of the dance as a whole. From the spiciest traditional to the slowest and most lyrical remix, I enjoy it all. I have a deep love for this dance that I feel, at it’s best, is romantic, is playful, is relaxing, is exciting, is intimate, and is respectful all at the same time.
Unfortunately, I find that bachata is rarely at it’s best, or near it, for me any more.
This is for a lot of reasons, but perhaps most of all that the community has grown rapidly and in specific ways that I find unpleasant.
This rapid growth is associated with several things: the proliferation of congresses and congress culture, the sensationalization of bachata in youtube videos, a focus on performance, and the rise and proliferation of sensual bachata. I do not mean to say that sensual bachata is entirely to blame for this – nor the instructors of sensualism – as it and they are not. But there’s a lot here that’s complexly interwoven. The growth of congresses and performance parts of the culture, for example, are very much related to the rise of sensual bachata.
That being said, this post is about the culture of bachata, how it has changed, and why I’m starting to lose interest in it. Here’s what has happened:
First, there are the movements. Plain and simple – they are often sexual. Of course sensual moves do not have to be executed in a sexual way, or one does not have to choose to do the more sexual variants offered up on YouTube – but they often are. To be clear, I don’t mind sexy moves. And I certainly don’t mind mutually desired intimacy. The leaders I dance with would be happy to attest to both of those things.
Yet sexy has a time and a place. It’s not appropriate 100% of the time. During Pablo Alboran’s Perdoname (this is arguably one of the sweetest and most romantic bachata songs), for example, I was once led in a move that required me to squat down to the ground and then stand up ass first with my leader standing behind me. Like, what?
What’s more, popular couples must look a particularly sexy way in order to be popular. This bothers me so much. Think of all the famous couples you know of. Are any of them not sexy, or do any of them not sexualize their dancing and their videos? (You could make similar arguments of salsa, lambazouk and kizomba [though not swing] – but I would argue that bachata has accelerated its demand for sexiness in recent years).
Promoters in the scene are not necessarily to blame for this. They’re trying to make it. Sex sells. It’s just unfortunate that it’s such a predominant component of selling bachata these days. Watching famous sensual bachata videos online is simultaneously for me super boring and pretty off putting. Yeah, I get it, you’re going to do a body roll and do one of those dramatic hand gestures and look at your leader like you want to eat him. You’re “sexy.” I know.
While we’re talking about sex – and I will throughout the entirety of this post – let’s talk about the way women’s bodies are used.
Consider perhaps that move that I discussed above, in which I had to ass stand up in front of my leader, while he just stood there and watched.
Consider perhaps dipping a woman and staring at her tits while she can’t see you do it.
Consider perhaps going to a workshop by Andrea and Silvia, in which the workshop is basically objectifying sex joke after objectifying sex joke.
Objectification is super real in this dance.
The current bachata culture is one of self-aggrandizement if I’ve ever seen one. Obviously, of course, as an instructor or a couple trying to make it in the bachata scene, you have to promote yourself. I respect the effort this takes immensely. I really do.
Nevertheless, I find the atmosphere that competitions bring to bachata in general to be kind of toxic. It encourages people to focus on building up their image before building up the quality of their dancing. People often begin training to perform without being good social dancers, develop egos about their dancing without having social dancing skills, and walk around like male peacocks – proud of their flashy feathers but having more awkward movement because of them.
–Focus on appearances over communication
Bachata looks pretty cool to a lot of people. This is certainly the case for sensual bachata, though performance teams and couples typically integrate more “traditional” music and dance into the second half of their performances.
When dancers compete as a couple or join a performance team – which a huge number of people interested in bachata do – they often focus on the way a dance looks or the moves it has as opposed to how it feels.
I wrote about this problem for performance teams at great length in this blog post, so I won’t belabor the point too much here. I will say this: the majority of “famous” bachata leaders I have danced with are atrociously rough. The vast majority of bachata leaders who focus on performance but aren’t famous yet are even worse. The thing is, with all the focus on looking and being cool, often the literal best parts of a dance (connection, communication, togetherness) are left in the dust.
I readily acknowledge that all dance scenes have parties. Lots of parties. But I would argue that there’s something particularly party-centric about bachata today.
This has to do with growth of the scene, for one.
I also think it has to do with the fact that the new bachata crowd – the sensual crowd – is by and large a fair bit younger than other dance crowds.
The youthful, kind of reckless enthusiasm of bachata parties feels a lot like a frat house to me. This was always the case, but now that the scene has grown so much, and become so young and full of people eager to show off or be sexy, it’s simply multiplied. I wish to be clear that we find egregious drunkenness and after parties in all the scenes. But bachata dancers often like to party so much they organize enormous pre- and after- parties even months before the event. In fact, I think this is a pretty big draw of bachata. Many people enjoy it simply for the burgeoning congress culture of going to a new city and being super lit all weekend. This is fine, I guess, I’m just not into it, and too old (emotionally) to be bothered.
The other night I was at a bachata social. I stood by the wall a lot and watched. I found myself growing increasingly agitated and disappointed by what I was seeing.
Elbows were flying, leaders were leading big moves without looking behind themselves, people were walking through the dancefloor disrupting various couples’ dances without seeming to care in the slightest.
Of course – again – you can find this in any dance scene, and especially if you go to the more clubby venues or congresses.
But I will say that I think that more experienced dancers tend to develop a more considerate ethos. Sensual bachata has simply brought in an influx of people who haven’t been around that long, so they don’t know better. I also think that people who are drawn to the more party-oriented or sex-chasing components of this developing scene have a bit less consideration than those who join dance for different reasons. There is a small difference between bachata and other dances in this regard (people are self-absorbed everywhere), but I think the difference is real.
–More disrespectful men
Unfortunately, I think the image of bachata nowadays and the potential for physical intimacy, sensuality, and sexuality of it all draws more men who are interested in specifically sexual connection and hooking up than some of the other dances.
Of course – we find this in all dance communities. And if it’s done respectfully (not altogether often, at least in my experience), I’m cool with it. I have plenty of my own experience experimenting with it. But I find that the more intimate dances, and the more sensual they become over time, the more people it attracts who are in it for the sensuality alone.
The proportion of men in the bachata scene who have obnoxiously propositioned me (out of the blue, without any understanding or seeming care for who I am as a person, with their own pleasure or conquest in mind), is a fair bit higher than in, say, salsa, or swing.
-Lack of clear understanding of boundaries, or willingness to communicate about them
Given that sensual bachata is a more intimate and sensual dance, I think it causes many people, and particularly men, to presume that they can initiate more intimate contact without any real grounds on which to do so.
In other words, many people think that just because someone is having a sexy dance with them, that they can take sexual liberties with this person.
I cannot remember the last time I went to a bachata event and was not kissed on the lips, entirely uninvited, by at least one leader. I cannot remember. It’s a regular occurrence, and often more than one guy a night.
-Less active communication and playfulness from leaders
In a culture in which people are a bit more moves-oriented than others, in terms of its emphasis on competitions and performance teams, it’s sort of a given that there will be less freedom and flexibility in terms of which moves are executed. That is, in bachata today, people don’t seem to care much about connection and communication. They seem to care more about sexiness and looking cool.
I do not mean to disparage bacahta specifically (or sensual bachata) in this regard (though I will say traditional bachata often has a playfulness that sensual bachata does not).
Instead, I would like to elevate other dances that I think do the creative-communicating better than bachata: lambada is pretty good at it; salsa can be extraordinary at it (if you find the right dancers); west coast swing is almost always extraordinary at it.
I have found over time that I thrive off of this sort of communication. I find it intellectually stimulating. I find it emotionally compelling. I find it fun. I find that I get to be listened to and heard, and danced with rather than danced at. I call people who lead and follow in this style “co-creators.” A very small number of leaders in bachata find ways to actively invite this kind of communication. But the number who do compared to other dances is vanishingly small. Because of the focus on executing cool sensual moves, bachata is nowadays a dance in which you have certain moves you lead and follow, without much space for play and creativity.
What this all means
This doesn’t mean much. I know very well that I am just talking quietly into the void. Bachata will be what bachata will be, whether I protest certain elements of it or not. I think that over time some of these hiccups will settle themselves, others may need some work, and others will probably be the same for a long time.
There are some incredibly talented leaders, instructors, promoters, performers, men, women, genders of all varieties in bachata, with extraordinary respect, care, integrity, and dignity in their dancing. They will continue to exist. I hope their representation grows in number.
I have also written a post about sexism in dance communities. This applies to all dance communities, and I think it’s highly relevant to discussions like this one.
All of which is to say, these are the reasons I’m not really into bachata much these days. It’s a shame, because I love the dance. Fortunately, the London salseros have picked up the slack, and then some.
I would, as always, be eminently excited by and grateful for your thoughts.
There are many different kinds of social dancers. I like to categorize them into different groups.
One of my favorite categorizations concerns the amount of listening, freedom, and cooperation that goes into a dance.This applies primarily to leaders, but it can also apply to followers, as different followers will react to and prioritize these types of leads differently. I simplify the concept by breaking it down into two different categories, though in reality it is more of a spectrum.
The two types of leaders I want to talk about today are 1) Partnerwork Technicians (thank Toan Hoang for the term) and 2) what I’ll be calling for now Co-creators.
I have made a graph:
First are the partnerwork technicians. The partnerwork technicians are rather quite traditional. In their perspective, leaders play the traditional masculine role: they are dominant, and they are in charge of making the dance proceed apace. Follows simply follow them, and want to be given clear instructions on what to be doing at all times. These leaders have a very specific idea in mind for the moves that will be executed and how the dance will turn out. They focus on learning moves and patterns, and they tend to think that the hallmark of a good leader is figuring out precisely how to get a follower to successfully execute the moves they lead. They can be quite musical and extremely talented and beautiful dancers. The quality of their lead can also feel very nice. They can also sometimes appreciate a good “hijack,” if executed well. It just so happens that these things happen within the context of their more traditional leading style, in which they simply determine the course of the dance.
On the other hand are the co-creators. Co-creators are less traditional. These dancers prioritize turn patterns much less than the partnerwork technicians do. They use turn patterns as a part of their dance, certainly, but the patterns constitute a less significant portion of the dancing. What then takes up the rest of the time? Plenty of things, some of which are: simple movements that give the follower space to play, pauses, moments of suspension, emotionally connected shines. This kind of leading gives space to the follower to play and contribute to the shape of the dance. This doesn’t mean that the follower leads–they don’t. But it means that the follower has time to play, and the leader responds to that play. The leader integrates it into what happens next. This is why this category is called “co-creating.” They can be highly technical or they can be less so. Interestingly enough, you don’t have to be a greatly technical dancer to be a great co-creator. I’ve danced with beginners who are extremely enjoyable because they take this approach. These leaders tend to exert concerted efforts to be “musical” and to interpret the music in a way that joins with their partner, rather than controls them. There is often a lot of communication between the two partners, whether by touch or with simple eye contact.
By now it should be clear that dancers can be great experiences or they can be terrible experiences at either end of the spectrum. It ends up looking something like this:
So what’s the point? Why bother bringing this up?
First, I want to encourage us all to try to understand the other perspective as well as learn from it.
Many people are tempted – as I admittedly sometimes am – to paint the two camps with broad and unfair brush strokes. I sometimes want to call the partnerwork technicians old-fashioned, patriarchal, bad at listening, selfish. It does feel that way to me, sometimes. But as a generalization it is wrong. Often I really enjoy these kinds of dancers. Often, they are very good listeners. Often, they are very present with me on the dancefloor. Often, they have delightful musicality. People who focus on the technique of partnerwork and turn patterns have the capacity to be extraordinary dancers whom I enjoy a lot.
I have, conversely, heard many people accuse the co-creators of being “bad” dancers, messing with the lead-follow dynamic, and hurting the integrity of the dance. I understand this perspective. I can see how someone who really values the electric pace of advanced turn patterns would see co-creation as a possible devaluation of their approach to the dance, or, at the very least, a poor bastardization of it. But they’re, I believe, quite wrong. Leaders do not have to control every aspect of the dance. It’s okay for people to choose to dance differently. It doesn’t mean they’re worse than anyone else.
In fact, I think we would all be served by taking a hard look at ourselves and identifying where we fall on the spectrum. There are things we can definitely learn from the other camp. Co-creators can learn interesting moves, can learn about the physics of dance execution, and can learn technique from partnerwork technicians. Partnerwork technicians, on the other hand, may be well served by taking some moments to more seriously listen their partners and experiment with making their leading more open-ended and reactive. It never hurts to be self-critical or experiment with new styles.
I would like to go on the record and say that Co-creators are brilliant, and not nearly as abundant as they could or should be (except in west coast swing, where it’s practically a given nowadays).
I love co-creators because I value being seen. I value being heard. I value being in conversation about the music, instead of just following my partner’s interpretation of the music. I value having some space. I value being able to play. I value the ways in which my leader and I can constantly be in dialogue, the flirtation and joy and love I can express with my body. With a hard and fast partnerwork technician, and especially one who doesn’t particularly try to listen or be present with me, it’s not always easy to connect in that way. With a co-creator, it is a given, woven into the very fabric of the dance.
I think that many of us, entering the Afro-latin dance space, assume a particular dynamic: leads tell follows what to do. But if that’s not particularly appealing to you, there is another way. You can think about your leading in terms of suggestions. You can pause to get input from your partner. You can pay attention to the way your follower breathes through the music, and integrate it into the steps that you suggest.
This brings me to my quick third point:
We might give most of our money to and spend most of our youtube time ogling performers and many of the world’s famous partnerwork technicians. But the dancers I’ve placed in the upper right hand quadrant, the “less known highly sought” co-creators who focus on conversation and communication, are seriously amazing artists. At congresses, it might not be as obvious that they have fans as for the other artists, but you can tell from the way they never get to sit down that these people are extraordinary. They are certainly the ones that I always keep my eye on, and I believe they should be sought after teachers every bit as much as the often more flashy partnerwork dancers.
And this brings me to the end of the post. In sum, what I have tried to say is this:
a distinction exists, and we should pay attention to it. I really enjoy dancing with dancers on all ends of the spectrum, though the chances you’ll catch me with a shit eating grin on my face are greater with the co-creators than partnerwork technicians. Relatively speaking there aren’t that many co-creators in the world, famous or otherwise, but I hope that we develop more of an appreciation for this style of leading and following over time.
I had salsa in mind while writing the post, but it applies also pretty well to lambada and bachata. It probably applies less well to kizomba, and as I stated, west coast has already moved quite firmly in the direction of co-creation.
As ever, I welcome your thoughts, comments, concerns, and etc.
Most of us, when we enter the dance world, have a starry-eyed view of all the dancers currently in it.
The exclusive, close-knit group of dancers up by the DJ booth are seem to be experts; people in performance groups seem like great leaders and followers; instructors all most certainly seem to be experienced, amazing, and sage bastions of dancing wisdom.
Unfortunately, the longer you dance, the more and more you realize that this simply is not true.
Just because someone is a part of a particular social group, or has been dancing a long time, or behaves like a hot shot, doesn’t mean anything about the quality of their dancing.
Just because someone performs or even looks great when they dance doesn’t mean they feel great.
And just because someone teaches dance doesn’t mean jack shit about how talented of a dancer, leader, or follower that they are.
Here’s the kicker, however:
You are also, at least in some way, that person.
I am that person. My best friend is that person. My favorite dancers are that person. I say this because none of us are truly objective about our dancing. None of us can conduct a truly adequate self-assessment. We really cannot. Even if we think we are popular enough, as social dancers, we don’t know precisely what other social dancers experience when they are with us and why they keep coming back for m0re.
How are we ever supposed to know how talented we are? How are we supposed to know our “level”? How are we supposed to decide when we can teach, and when we cannot?
There are two important kinds of feedback you can get, and they are both crucial. There is solicited feedback, and there is unsolicited feedback.
On Soliciting Feedback
Dancers love to talk about each other, to debate technique, and to give each other feedback. If you want to know what is good or what is bad about your dancing, ask. You can ask friends and you can ask strangers and you can most certainly ask instructors.
Importantly, I advise asking a diverse pool of people. You might be unlucky and stuck asking someone who really doesn’t have a good understanding of the world of dance, and can only give you narrow feedback. If you want to be a good social dancer – someone who is capable of dancing with anybody out there – then you’re going to need to ponder and probe and work on your dancing with as wide variety of people as possible.
Getting unsolicited feedback
In addition to asking for feedback, however, you can pay close attention to the kind of unsolicited feedback that you get.
Dancers do – I promise, this is a real thing – express joy to one another if they like each other’s dancing. Of course not everybody does this all of the time. But if people like you, generally speaking, you will be informed.
After dances, depending on how talented (or fun, or experienced) you are, people at different levels will demonstrate interest in you. “What’s your name?” “How long have you been dancing?” “Where do you teach?”
Generally speaking (again), people within your own “level” and below will be the ones complimenting you. You can gauge your skill by paying attention to who it is precisely who likes you the most.
So pay attention to who gives you feedback. Pay attention both at home and abroad. If no one is telling you that they like your dancing, you should probably take this seriously. If only people who are beginner dancers give you unsolicited positive feedback, and you want to be a pro, take this seriously.
In my opinion, no one should start even contemplating teaching before seasoned professionals begin treating them like one of their own. Because this will happen. If you are qualified to teach (at a particular level), other people who are qualified to teach (at this level) will seek out and express admiration over your dancing.
I personally feel very humble about my dancing and know that I have very far to go. I am so young in the worlds of precision, scope, and skill. Yet as much as I know my weaknesses, I also know my strengths. I know what many dancers think of me. Sometimes this is because I ask. But usually it is just because I pay attention. I know where I fit into the various worlds of social dancing in which I participate.
I really wish more people would do this. So many people — and instructors — blindly assume their dancing is great (smdh. I recently saw an “instructor” leading bachata on four and no it was not a stylistic choice). This wouldn’t happen if this instructor and others would set aside their egos and pay attention to what the people around them think and feel.
These are partner dances. We will never be able to dance with ourselves. The only way to get a reasonably well rounded perspective of ourselves as dancers is to pay attention to the feedback we spontaneously receive, and also to seek out more as much as possible.
Importantly, I want to be clear of course also that there are many other ways to be reflective upon and improve your dancing. These include recording yourself, working alone in a studio or in your kitchen, keeping journal records of your progress, and the like. But what I really wanted to drive home today was the importance of the outsider perspective.
Bachata and zouk over the course of the last couple of years have become competitive in an institutionalized way. People can sign up to compete as couples performing. This happens a lot in European bachata nowadays. People can also now increasingly enroll in social dancing competitions called jack and jills. Jack and jills are not super popular (yet), but the idea is being played with, tested, implemented.
I am nervous.
There are a lot of differences between the Afro-Latin dances and the American swing dances with which I am familiar.
Yet for me the greatest difference is that many American dances (such as west coast swing) have social dancing competitions, and Afro-Latin dances do not.
Obviously this is a debatable point: are competitions really all that impactful? I would argue that they are. Every aspect of the dance, from its social structure to its commodification to its technique, is ineluctably shaped by competitions. In today’s post I simply talk about how.
It will become clear throughout this post that I am not a fan of competitions. It is therefore worth stating at the outset then that I do participate in them from time to time. I can’t condemn something without trying, right? I do have a good time. There is a quite lovely thrill to competing. Even when I don’t do well (which, to be clear, is quite often), I still really enjoy it. I experience the same thrills that I imagine keep others coming back for more. I must cede however, that it’s possible that if I won all of the time I’d feel differently about competitions. I might have a stronger emotional attachment to them, or value them more highly relative to social dancing. I also cede that I am relatively inexperienced. Quite. Nevertheless, the effects that I witness on the west coast swing community I believe are quite real. It doesn’t necessarily matter all that much how I experience, love, or hate competing, because they will regardless have the same effects on dance communities.
Jack and Jills: What are they?
Real quick, for our Afro-Latin readers: Jack and Jills (at least in wcs) are social dancing competitions in which you get randomly paired with leaders or followers and are evaluated for your performance as individuals. If there are many people participating (and usually there are) you can go through a couple rounds of elimination until the final round, in which you get paired with just one individual and then compete as a couple. The two of you compete against other couples for the street cred, financial reward (yep, you pay to participate, and you get paid if you win), and points for advancement. As you collect points you advance in levels. You are judged by the quality of your performance.
Competitions: The Good
Here is the one big plus to having social dancing competitions. The wcs community is highly driven by the need to become better dancers – by and large because it means winning and advancement.
Wcs is often referred to as a ‘dancesport,’ and I would say a significant portion of dancers regularly compete. This means that people learn new moves, work very hard at their musicality, and become better dances in a much more directed and quick fashion (generally speaking, as a group) than in the Afro-Latin dances. People are almost always improving in west coast swing and I have no words for how much I love this fact.
2. It’s fun
Lots of people really enjoy competing. There is definitely an aspect of ‘let’s see what we can do!’ that thrums in your veins and makes you feel alive when you compete. No doubt about that. I don’t wish to understate the importance of this part of competition culture.
3. It rallies people to support each other
The west coast swing community is very supportive. You might think that competitions would tear a community apart but at least in the west coast swing community the opposite happens. People become each other’s greatest cheerleaders, and that’s super awesome.
There are a lot of factors that go into lead/follow dynamics in a dance. What about certain communities makes them approach leading or following in certain ways?
There is a disparity in this regard between west coast swing and the Afro-Latin dances. Afro-latin dances are very much dances in which there is a lead and there is a follow and the lead leads and the follow follows. West coast swing…not so much. West coast swing is much more of what I call co-creative (more on which here). It is a “conversation.” Followers do still follow but there is a lot more flexibility around that role and the ability for followers to contribute to the flow of the dance. Competitions definitely encourage followers to be more pro-active with the flow of a dance.
Competitions: The Bad
1. De-prioritization of social dancing
Competitions pull dancer’s attention away from the social floor and towards their competitive goals.
This is apparent in many different ways. For example, some people only take classes, and rarely social dance. For another, people will often spend much of the potential social dance time sitting out because they need to “get in the zone” or don’t want to mess up their dress, hair, or makeup. For another, people skip out on social dancing in the evening entirely or retire early because they need to rest before competitions.
The more energy any one gives to competition the less, necessarily, they have to give to the social floor. That’s all well and good for competitions but it simply means that many people get lost in their goals, and forget about the basic loving fun that brought us all (most of us) together in the first place.
2. Working against your partner
As much as competitions help encourage co-creation, like I just talked about above, they also can turn the dance floor into a battle for control.
You can see this simultaneously at both higher and lower ranks of dancing. I have heard many higher ranked west coast swing leaders remark on the assertive, steering quality of their followers. They end up fighting for control. I have also heard it encouraged many times (by professional instructors) that lower ranked followers need to fight their leaders to have good timing, to focus on the basics, and to do a dance, basically, that they think the judges will like. Because remember: in the initial rounds of a competition you are not being judged as a couple but rather as individuals who just so happen to be dancing together.
This goes against every single instinct that I have as a dancer. Dance, for me, is a sacred union between two people. It’s an agreement to be in harmony, to listen to one another, to take care of one another. At least this is, I think, what it should be. For competitions to sometimes (though obviously not always) have this combative flavor is for them to downplay the potential empathy and love that can flower between two people.
3. Emphasis on appearance over feel
Competitions are judged based on the way you look. Period. It’s about show. It’s about performance. That’s fine for people who dance in order to shine. It’s not for those of us who dance to connect.
Of course, feeling and connection are not mutually exclusive. I readily cede that you can have a very flashy yet still very well-connected dance. In fact, for a dance to go very well you must be well-connected in at least some ways. But the focus is obviously not on how good you feel for your partner. The judges cannot see that. The audience cannot see that. Only you and your partner can feel it.
I know very many higher ranked who look great but who do not feel great. Their leads are jerky or rough or overly-strong. I know an even greater number of lower ranked dancers who are incredibly fun to dance with and feel amazing, but who do not advance because they don’t look the way they are supposed to look.
Unfortunately, because of competitions, people are encouraged to be more of the former than of the latter. When we focus on the way that we look, on our styling, we draw attention away from the way that we feel and connect with our partners. Certainly you need to communicate well – and should therefore lead or follow well – as a partner who pulls off really badass dances that are fun to watch. Most certainly.
But it remains a hard fact that competition encourages the fancy, the flashy, the aesthetic, more so than the connected, (read my thoughts on the different kinds of connection here), the gentle, the subtle, the silent, the swaying, the slow, the intimate, the invisible.
All dance communities have hierarchies. That’s just the way it is. People organize by power, and in dance, power is given by and large by perceived dance prowess (I talk about this in this post on hierarchy). There’s really no way about it. It’s how we are as a species.
But in west coast swing, due to competitions, we see two big differences.
One of these differences is that the hierarchy becomes based on appearance more so than it does on feel. I mentioned above that I know many lower ranked – “novice” – dancers who are super fun and feel amazing but who don’t advance because they don’t look the part. This may be all well and good except for the fact that these people get very little street cred. People might enjoy them well enough on the social floor but no one reveres them or aspires to dance like them. This kind of breaks my heart. In the bachata and kizomba communities especially we often find that people who move the least are desired and valued the most (or at least used to be) because they feel and connect the best. If there is going to be a hierarchy – and, inevitably, there is – then I would rather it based on connection and feeling rather than looks.
The other difference is that the hierachy is formalized. In the Afro-Latin communities hierarchy is pretty loose. It’s there but everyone has a different experience of different dancers and different connections with them, so people’s opinions often vary widely regarding skill. There’s a lot of flexibility.
West coast swing could not be more opposite. Now, to be clear, people at all levels of dance are super nice to each other. Super nice. But that doesn’t change the fact that a hierarchy exists and everybody knows it. How advanced someone is or not is public knowledge. And whether people intend to or not, this matters. Subconsciously, someone’s level alters your perception of them, changes how much you want to be friends with them, and makes you judge yourself relative to them.
This is okay. It really is. But I’d prefer if it weren’t this way. I like people to have better access to their own opinions, without them having been colored so much by a label.
All of which is to say that I am not entirely stoked (to say the least) about the prospect of competitions becoming popular in bachata and zouk. We are already seeing, with the advent of youtube, the popularity of performance teams, and the rapid spread of sensual bachata, a decrease in the intimacy and quality of dancing and an increase in the flashiness of moves people do. I know I am painting a broad stroke here but I am merely paying attention as best I can.
For me, personally, the reason that I love Afro-latin dances so much, and particularly bachata, is precisely the focus on the interpersonal, the felt, the emotionally connected. I have trepidation about what competitions could do to our community. That being said, perhaps being aware of the ways in which competitions affect us – in bachata and other Afro-latin forms as well as west coast swing – can help us to avoid their pitfalls while still delighting in their strengths.
And, to be clear, I am not saying that wcs needs to do away with competitions. WCS is a highly functioning, lovely dancesport full of amazing people who do amazing things. It is simply its own kind of animal, different from the Afro-latin dances. I would simply like to be mindful of those differences.
As ever, I would love love love your feedback.
Survey any group of dancers about why they love to dance, and a good portion of them will inevitably say “connection.”
I have no hard data to back this claim up, but I have been asking people in different dances and communities all over the world about their preferences for years.
Dancers are addicted to connection.
The problem, though, is that we rarely mean the same thing when we say “connection.” I have almost never gotten everybody in a group to give me the same definition, whether there are 40 people in it or just 4. Sometimes, they don’t even know what they mean by it themselves.
“Define connection? Hang on, let me think about it.”
The thing is, we all love connecting, but we don’t necessarily know how, or why. We do it automatically, hungrily, incessantly, passionately. We don’t sit and dissect and ponder it (well, not all of us). We don’t bother to come up with language to describe it. We just do.
Today, for the sake of helping us better understand our dancing and relate to one another, I share the primary ways in which I have discovered people interpreting the word “connection.”
1. Connecting with the ground
Connecting with the ground is a very common idea in the swing family of dances, but not so much in the Afro-Latin communities I am a part of.
So far as I can best tell, swing dancers value when their partners “connect with the ground” because it means that they can better understand their partner’s balance, position, movement, and how to work with them. It means they smoothly transition from one foot and location to another, without disrupting the dance. It means to be sure, to be planted, to be well-balanced. If a leader, it means being sturdy for your followers; if a follower, it means being poised to be guided in whatever way the leader imagines.
Whether or not you connect well with the ground, it is an absolutely crucial element of your dance. To better connect with the ground is to better be able to collaborate with your partner.
2. Connecting with the music
For many dancers, a big part–if not the biggest part–of what motivates them to get on the floor night after night is the music that thrums in their bones.
They also, perhaps more importantly, delight in having a musical partner. This is because music is something beautiful, moving, and transcendent that can be experienced simultaneously. While dancing you can, together, delight in its subtleties, float through its melodies, exalt in its climaxes.
While you experience music together, you are communicating. Musicality is a conversation. Your partner’s musicality is at the same time both similar to and different from your own. By feeling and watching your partner, you notice what your partner hears in the music. Sometimes it is also what you hear, but other times it isn’t. This is a beautiful thing — this tension between similarity and difference. It is by and large what it means to be human.
And dancers love it.
3. Connecting with each other’s dance styles, preferences, and abilities
When you dance, a well-connected partner will pay attention to your body and your dancing.
She will notice your timing, your balance, your frame, your energy.
If she is a leader, she will notice your strengths and preferences: Do you enjoy spinning? Do you like complicated patterns? Do you enjoy subtle rib cage isolations? Do you want to shine, or do you want to be physically connected the whole time? She will listen to you. She will pay attention. And she will help craft a dance that speaks to you in particular.
(I talk about this and the dynamics of lead/follow a bit in this post on sexism).
If a follower, she will attune her energy, frame, balance, and musicality to match yours. She will listen to you, and she will do everything she can to interpret your moves with loyalty and grace, while simultaneously contributing her own flavor. She will carry out your vision. More importantly, she will do so in a way that does not just look but more importantly feels good.
Well-connected partners listen to one another, and attempt to meet each other’s bodies with their own energy and skill.
4. Connecting with each other emotionally
When you’re with a well-connected partner, she will not just meet you where you are at physically, or even musically, but will also meet you where you are at emotionally.
Sometimes when we go out dancing we are bursting at the seams with energy and just need to go, go, go. Other times we are feeling a little morose and melancholic, and just want our partners to hold us and sway.
A great connector will tune in to your mood, and will attempt to meet you where you are at. Of course, it is technically impossible to fully assimilate to your mood. But partners can at least empathize with how you are feeling, and attempt to bridge the gap between their mood and your own.
5. Connecting with each other’s eyes
Eye contact is an extension of the point above, but it has so much of its own power that it bears mentioning on its own.
Eye contact is a basic human form of recognition. It says “I see you.” It says “I am interested in you.” It says “you matter to me.” Good connectors are all about that. And dancers eat it up like candy.
Now, to be fair, there is usually such a thing as too much eye contact. Everybody knows those few leaders or followers who do nothing but stare right at your face throughout the whole dance. It can be a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.
But almost nothing is worse than a dance in which your partner avoids looking at you the whole time. Failing to make eye contact often makes partners feel neglected, ignored, under-valued. Failing to make eye contact can ruin a dance. Making good eye contact can make the same exact dance the best of your whole night.
6. Connecting with each other’s bodies
It’s funny how little we think and talk about this, but partner dancing is by and large very tactile. We look at each other, and followers can take visual cues in their following… but everything else we do for communicating is with touch alone.
You can be rough; or you can be gentle.
You can be quick; or you can be slow.
You can be abrupt; or you can be disarming.
Every single part of your body has the power to connect with your partner in an attentive and loving way: For example, How do you grasp your partners hands? How do you maintain tension between your and your partner’s legs? How do you support a followers arms with your frame? How respectful are you of your partner’s intimacy boundaries?
We may not be cognizant of it, but how lovingly (or not) our partners communicate with their bodies is an important part of how well we feel connected, cared for, and fulfilled on the dance floor.
7. Connecting with one another emotionally, romantically, intimately
Now when I say “emotionally, romantically, intimately” I am being intentionally vague. Dances can range from a simple emotional connection of care and attention, which can be very platonic, on one hand, to a very flirtatious or sexual connection on the other. The point within this spectrum is to participate in a level of care and chemistry with your partner. It is to delight in the appreciation of the other person.
In some dances this is more obvious than others. And it always takes different shape. In west coast swing, there is often a lot of playfulness, not a lot of body contact, and therefore, conversely, a whole lot of eye contact.
There is a spectrum of romance in dance in which you are welcome to participate, or not. It is completely up to you. Dance is a safe way (usually) to step into that space, experience that kind of loving attention, and then step back out and on to the next dance.
And it is, quite often, the stuff of which addicts are made.
All of which is to say that the idea of connecting is nothing but incredibly human, and therefore nothing but incredibly important for our dancing.
I spent 21 of the first 23 years of my life solo dancing on stages and the like. I loved it very much. It was fun and empowering and expressive.
But I didn’t become a dance addict until I added another animal to the mix. I didn’t become an addict until there was flesh under my hands, until there was someone I could eye, I could touch, someone I could listen to, I could support, I could love.
Through “connection” we get to experience someone’s attention. We get to be present with one another. We get to care for one another. We get to forget the rest of life exists and get lost in one another.
We get to listen. We get to support. We get to be listened to and supported. We get to focus on each other, delight in both our similarities and differences…. and then walk away from the dance feeling more loved, more light-hearted, and more capable of getting through the tough stuff in life.
Because ultimately what all of these different kinds of connection have in common is a collapsing of barriers. They erode separation. They destroy boundaries. They, instead, facilitate union. They put us in harmony with another being and the world. They assure us that we are not alone. In doing so, they joyfully meeting some of our most basic needs as human beings.
This is what it means to connect, and it’s what brings so many of us — if in our different ways — back out on the dance floor night after night after night.
That being said… so far as I can best tell, the ways I have listed are the most common ways that people define connection in dance. But I am always looking to expand and modify this list. To that end I would love love love your thoughts on it, too.
Fortunately, paralleling great feminist strides in our culture as a whole, that tradition has really begun to collapse. One great example of our progress is the fact that women, once shamed away from asking men to dance, now ask men to dance all of the time. Quite literally all of the time.
This is cause to celebrate! Progress is happening!
However: this progress is by no means complete, nor necessarily as quick or transparent as we would like to believe.
In today’s post I elevate for discussion several ways in which we subconsciously participate in and perpetuate sexism. These habits of ours are all quite different and I am certain that no one will agree with me on all the points. But that is precisely what I am hoping to do with this exercise – I want to bring up some potential ideas, get feedback, and talk about what needs or does not need to be done.
What follows are 9 ways in which I believe we accidentally participate in sexism.
*(For the sake of making some of the points about sexism in this post, I use heteronormative language. We associate leading with men and following with women – so I wrote this post associating leading with men and following with women, something I do NOT do in the rest of my blog posts. You will also note that some of the critiques did not apply to women but to following; however, since by and large following is still associated with women and that which is feminine, I believe the critiques are at least helpful starting points for discussion on gender norms in dance.)
1. “Ladies: don’t think, just follow.”
“Ladies, don’t think, just follow” is a common piece of advice. It might be, in fact, the most common piece of advice given in group classes. It is a piece of advice I have given many times myself, and which I repeated to myself constantly in my initial months and years dancing. “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.”
Yet there are two problems with this piece of advice, and specifically with associating it with women.
First, it is in some sense factually incorrect. Even while it is important as a follower to avoid anticipating moves, thinking is still an incredibly important aspect of following. While I dance I am constantly aware of my surroundings, noting habits in my leader, and attempting to attune my dancing to his. Sometimes I do close my eyes to better follow. I do try to stop actively engaging my conscious mind. But I a) am still concentrating like crazy, just in a different way, and b) do not do this all of the time. I do this as a choice, which I strategically make with my thoughts, based on my active judgment of what’s going on in the dance and the kind of following that is required.
Secondly, this phrase reinforces negative stereotypes. The brilliant London-based salsa instructor Toan Hoang recently asked me: “what do you think that does, time and time again, hearing instructors shout over the music in classes: ‘ladies, don’t think, just follow?'”
This is what it does: it subconsciously reinforces the idea that leading–the “male” role–requires thinking, and following–the “female” role–does not. It tells us that men should think and women should not.
2. Polarizing leading and following
We tend to think of leading as just leading and following as just following, but there are nuances to these roles that are often unfortunately lost on the surface.
As much as leaders choose which moves to do, high level leaders will also spend a significant amount of energy listening to their followers. They will get a feel for what works for the follower, and will be able to pick up on signals in her body regarding what kind of movements would work best on. This, in some senses, is a bit like following.
Followers, in the other role, do by and large follow the movements provided by leaders, but they also suggest. They also subtly guide the course of the dance. They also, at high levels, use specific movements and kinds of tension in their body to indicate to the leader what they would like to do. They sometimes hijack and it is appropriate.
If we taught leading and following like this from the get-go — as a pattern that was more interactional and less polarized than we think of it now — we might be able to help people have dances which are more like communicative exchanges and less like strictly “male”/”female” role play.
3. Forgetting the power of ‘no’ and misconstruing power dynamics
In partner dancing, by and large, yes, leads (men) are “dominant” and follows (women) are “submissive.” Nearly every person who partner dances will tell you that this is a part of why they enjoy the dance.
But it is important to be wise to an important facet of the typical dominant/submissive relationship.
In BDSM communities, it is well known that even though doms appear to have all the power, it is actually the sub that is the most powerful person in the relationship. That’s right. Doms look like they have the power, but they actually don’t.
Why? Because no matter what the dominant person suggests, it is up to the submissive to say if it is off limits or not. The safe word is the key to power dynamics in the bedroom. It enables the submissive to call the shots and to ultimately set the boundaries around what happens.
In partner dancing, we don’t have a safe word. But we don’t need one. The follower can simply deny a move being led. All we need to do is to recognize that right. This means, among other things, getting rid of the follow everything being given to you mindset, and it means not just accepting but being actively glad when followers assert what they are and are not comfortable with. This would enable us to inhabit lead follow roles, and even in a gendered way if we want, without sacrificing the nobility and power of female followers.
4. Ladies Styling
It is often said in partner dancing that men are the support, and women are the beauty.
Or that men are the frame, and women are the painting.
Or that men are invisible, and women are showcased.
This results in classes being, by and large, for men to learn moves and connect, and alternative classes in “ladies styling” being for women to learn how to be pretty.
This is bollocks. Complete fucking bollocks.
Men can be aesthetic, too. Men can move fluidly and beautifully while they lead. Men can shine. Men can dance.
And women are most certainly a part of the power and structure that make a dance look–but more importantly feel–good.
In fact, I would argue that focusing on “ladies styling” actually detracts from the quality of the dancing. However much energy women/followers devote to their styling is exactly the amount of energy they can no longer be spent on listening to and connecting with their leaders.
5. John y Jane couples
Daniel y Desiree. Ataca y Alemana. Sergio y Gaby.
Jordan and Tatiana. Hugo and Stacy. Kyle and Sarah.
There are a small number of teaching and performing couples who go by the female name first, but by my best guess (scanning congress websites and the like) they constitute no more than 10% of performing couples. I am being generous with that number. I’d bet my life savings it’s actually no more than 5%.
This is a norm we inherited from the rest of our culture – to always say Mr. first and Mrs. second. But that doesn’t make it right.
And I want to state here, unequivocally, that I do not blame this entirely on the couples. Sure, they are the ones who choose their names, but we are the ones who consume them. I am 100% positive that we subconsciously admire and patronize male-led partnerships more so than female-led ones. If we want our leaders to step up their game and represent gender equality then we, as their patrons, have to step up ours, too.
6. Teaching moves
Most lessons, especially those offered right before a social, are designed mostly for men. They teach “moves.”
The instructor might say dozens of times in the lesson, “leads do XYZ, and the followers will just know what to do.”
Um, no. The follower won’t automatically know what to do. There is a distinct skill set – a distinct ability to read what a leader is intending – that following requires. Classes very rarely talk about this.
Placing the emphasis in classes on moves gives priority to men’s (leader’s) education in the dance and leaves women in the dust. It also turns the dance into a set of directions the lead gives the follower, instead of a two-way line of communication between them.
If instead of moves we taught “how to be good partners,” classes would be good for both leaders and followers, and we would think of men and women as equitable partners in making a dance go smoothly.
(I talk about these ideas at great length in the post “Is it always the leader’s fault?” Also, for an example of things that I think could be taught in beginner classes, see Maximizing the Purity of Your Connection)
7. Male instructors dominating classes
I have only once personally ever gone to an Afro-latin dance class taught by a couple in which the woman spoke more than 50% of the time.
(In swing dances it happens much more often.)
Sometimes even in classes when following is being discussed the male instructor does the talking… even though he is not the resident expert on following.
Men simply dominate the hell out of teaching class. In part this is because the emphasis of the class is on “moves” and men are the ones teaching how to lead them, but this is also because we simply don’t make space for women to talk.
8. “Hijacking” and the language of hijacking
Hijacking is what happens when a follower doesn’t obey the lead, and instead does whatever she feels like doing. This is a serious sin in most dance communities. It is nowadays however much less so in west coast swing.
There are two important issues having to do with the idea of “hijacking.”
First is the act itself. What’s so bad about hijacking? Done tastefully, safely, and occasionally, “hijacking” can be a great way for a follower to be playful and musical with her leader. This might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I do know a lot of advanced leaders in the Afro-Latin dances who are on board with this sort of thing. In swing nowadays, though it didn’t used to be, this kind of behavior is actively expected and even beloved.
Second is the language of hijacking (another great idea of Toan’s). To “hijack” is to do something negative. It might even be to do something violent. It’s to interrupt the natural, good flow of things. It states unequivocally that the lead has the right thing in mind and the follower does not. This kind of language can be especially problematic if the follower “hijacks” in order to protect herself.
The language of hijacking might be less problematic if leading and following weren’t currently so divided along gender lines. But as it stands, it helps create a sense of the woman overstepping her bounds on the floor.
If we change our language around “hijacking” we may be able to shift this kind of moralistic duality. We could also perhaps migrate the act from that of “taboo” to that of “skilled art one engages in smartly once more experienced in the dance.” I suggest using words more like “making a statement,” “being proactive,” “playing,” “exercising agency,” “changing the direction of the dance,” (Toan’s favorite), “contributing to patterns,” or my favorite, “co-creating.”
9. Catcalling, ogling, or giggling at female-female dancing (and male-male dancing)
(This item does not really apply to swing dances, which have by and large normalized same sex dancing)
When two women dance together, we cat-call. It’s a sex show.
This is terrible because it fetishizes female-female coupling.
When two men dance together, we stare and laugh. It’s funny.
This is terrible both because it derides the connection two men can have together (indeed, it makes it laughable that men can connect at all), and also because it finds the idea so funny that a man would stoop to the “female” role of following.
Seriously get over it, everybody. When same sex couples dance together, it’s because they want to dance together, not be a show. And if they happen to want to be a show for the sake of being a show, it shouldn’t (usually) be. For the sake of disrupting our culture’s fetishisization of same-sex dancing, I suggest ignoring attention-seekers.
(If, on the other hand, you’re laughing at your friend because they’re so hysterically bad at the role they are trying to play, then by all means, be my guest.)
From same-sex couples to ladies styling to re-thinking lead/follow dynamics, I have gone through a diverse array of ways in which we subtly promote or at least participate in sexism within our dance communities. (I talk about ways in which we can remediate it here.)
I do not mean to say that we do this on purpose. This is just like when people are casually sexist or casually racist in their day to day lives. No one wants to be the bad guy. None of us necessarily are. It just so happens that the world we inherited was not very nice, and sometimes even doing our best we fail to see the ways in which we oppress one another (and ourselves).
Also, I want to be clear that there are many ways in which we are sexist that I did not talk about. I chose to focus on sexism that is unique to dance and left more of the “standard society stuff” alone. Some “standard society” instances of sexism include, for example, pushing beyond a follower’s comfortable levels of intimacy while dancing, getting drunk and groping/assaulting followers, the often disrespectful hookup culture at congresses, deferring to male promoters in the scene more than female promoters, or considering men more as authorities on how to dance than women.
I will most certainly be discussing those topics in future posts.
Yet for now I would love to hear what you think here. I believe these are some really important issues. And a lot is at stake here, including how we define “leading” and how we define “following.” So it’s a big deal. But change is coming anyway. We may as well be mindful about it and do what we can (such as take steps I talk about in this post) to facilitate thoughtfulness and comfort in our dance spaces.
To stay up to date find us on facebook. 🙂
A friend of mine – a follower – brought up an interesting point at the end of a bachata social last night. Her eyes trailed over me, slanking about in my pleather leggings and lace I’m-not-sure-if-thats-a-bra-or-a-shirt top, with a pair of stilettos slung over my shoulder. She laughed, then gestured around at the crowd of women changing their shoes. She asked me: “how do you deal with other followers?”
“What?” I responded, distractedly. My hair was getting tangled in my stiletto buckles.
She rolled her eyes. She said “how do you deal with having other followers around?” I stilled. “How do you cope with women who are talented dancers, who have clearly been doing this forever, who it’s clear lots of talented leaders enjoy, who are good looking, or who are otherwise slanking about in pleather leggings and lace almost-shirts?”
We laughed. I hugged her. I said, “Fuck if I know.”
But I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
This is a really challenging issue for a lot of people, and has been for me, personally, from the very beginning. My heart swam in self-doubt for a lot of my journey. I have since learned how to overcome the bulk of the weight of that (no small thanks to simply improving as a dancer), but it is still ever present, looming at the peripheries of my vision, ready to pounce should I have an off night or moment, for any reason.
I think also, as a quick aside, that this may be a particularly pressing issue for women, and, generally speaking, followers. I know that men deal with self-esteem issues most definitely. I do. But as women we are encouraged from birth to compete with one another for male attention, to judge our self worth based on what men think of us, to be wary of one another, to backstab one another, to be mean girls. This is exacerbated by the surplus of followers relative to leads in many dance communities. The latent competitive feelings we have become pressurized and magnified by the presence of so many other women, making us feel simultaneously doubtful of our own worth as well as resentful of others.
I am certain that I am not the only woman in salsa who “hates” particular follows because of jealousy, or resentment. “God, I just hate her so much,” I have not infrequently uttered to my closests friends. The tendrils of possessiveness and fear are quick to pounce. I really try not to think and to feel this way, but the impulse is there. And the impulse to doubt myself, especially when I am new to a particular dance, is also there. “God, I just hate myself so much,” is just an easy, if not easier, sentence to fall into the habit of thinking.
So how do we deal? How can we cope with the surplus of amazing dancers and beautiful people around us? How do we still be good people and feel love for everyone on the floor–including ourselves?
I can’t say I have all the answers – but I do have some that work for me:
1. Acknowledge that no one is malicious
Not a single person on the dance floor is out to make you feel bad. Well, come to think of it, it’s possible that some people out there wouldn’t mind if you felt jealous (I have been, horribly, one of them), but the vast majority of people have nothing but love for the dance and for each other in their hearts.
No leaders, or followers, will reject you for a dance because they think you are an unworthy human being. You have no idea why anyone ever says yes or no to a dance – it might have to do with the way that you dance, or it might have absolutely nothing to do with you at all.
No one intends for you to feel bad, ever. In fact I am quite sure they would like for you to feel nothing more than warm and fuzzy… they just may be too caught up in their own lives to go out of their way to help you achieve that. That’s simply human.
2. Acknowledge that all have their own insecurities
You know that woman slanking about in her pleather and stilettos? She is just as human, and she wrestles with just as much insecurity, as anybody else on the floor.
I grant that a degree of confidence does often come with improving one’s dance ability. I grant that some people become cocky and even real assholes about it. But far more often than not, people that you find intimidating are also worried about their dancing, about the way they are dressed, about the way they look, about their reputation, and about how many dancers love them and want to dance with them.
I don’t care how apparently badass someone is… we are all human, and we all feel concern about the approbation and love of others.
3. Cultivate emphathetic joy for others
This is probably the most important and helpful point for me.
We tend to live in egotistical little clouds. I can’t condemn any of us for this–it’s incredibly natural. We simply think about ourselves, our joy, and our pain, much more than we do that of others.
But if we step outside of ourselves… can we experience joy because we are grateful for the joy of the people around us? It really helps me when I see two people do a super badass dance to think “wow, how amazing that they’ve worked so hard to dance so beautifully and can relate to each other so subtley and intimately” instead of “oh god I suck so much.”
When I focus on the positive emotions that other people are feeling, and think about how great it is that joy is being added to the world in any measure, it keeps my own negativity and doubt from creeping in.
4. There is plenty for everybody
Even while I have always felt envy for people at higher levels of dancing than me, and even while I was a super beginner, there were still so many people with whom I developed great, loving dance relationships.
These relationships often occurred within a similar level of dancing… we were reasonably compatible in terms of our range of dance abilities. Of course they didn’t, and still don’t, always. I have great connections with people at a whole range of dance abilities.
But my point is this: there’s no need to think that you are deficient, or that you won’t find anyone to “love” you or dance with you, at any level of dancing. You definitely can, and will, and I am sure already do.
You might not dance ten times a night with the local hotshot, but you can certainly do ten a night with someone who values and enjoys you precisely for who you are, in this moment. And there is not a single thing wrong with that. We are all at different places on our journeys and can connect to different people differently.
5. Improve at the dance; be improving and proud of it
Not everybody cares all that much about being a “better” dancer, in terms of technique and the like.
But a lot of people do.
If you do, I advise that you simply accept where you are, enjoy it, and commit yourself to growing as a dancer. When you do so, it can give you a degree of pride in yourself and how far you’ve come, and can even make you excited about how much further you have to go.
I personally find that the more I improve, the more I realize how much more improving I could do. Dance perfection is an ever receding horizon… so I recommend enjoying the journey, more so than focusing on a destination that doesn’t really exist. Improving at dance can be seriously validating and addicting… so I even sometimes find myself being grateful that I have flaws. It means I get to keep working on my dance.
6. Invest yourself in the community
If you are envious of more experienced dancers or worried about your own dancing and worth, you might want to try investing in the community. Engage people off of the floor. Get to know them. Do nice things. Become their friends. See them as equally imperfect and equally lovely human beings.
When you do this, you not only might be able to learn about dancing from your new friends, but you will be able to demonstrate to them–and to yourself–what it is about you that makes you special. You are fun and funny and kind and sweet (or whatever, maybe you’re a dick but in that way people can appreciate) and this is apparent to everyone you interact with.
Perhaps more importantly to you, investing in your community can also mean that you end up dancing more often with people who have been in the scene longer and have more experience than you do.
7.Take pride in everything you have to contribute to the dance and the community
In any given dance you do, you don’t just have your good frame, your muscle control, your knowledge of how salsa rhythms work.
You also have energy, radiance, cheer, charm, and the like. People can love dancing and socializing with you for so many reasons. Your skill as a dancer is just one of them (if an admittedly important one). So if you are feeling self-conscious, just remember that you are a whole package, and any single aspect of you does not define who you are, or how much people enjoy dancing with you.
8. Take pride in your own journey, values, and story
Each of us has a specific background. Some people have been dancing for decades, some even before they could walk. Seriously, this is a thing. Sometimes parents carry infants in slings while they dance.
For better or for worse, that’s not 99% of us.
We are simply not in that position.
But what you might be is a warrior in your own way, having lived through a tough life, discovered dancing, fallen in love, and undertaken your own dance journey.
We all can only be who we are — no more, and no less. And we come from particular locations with particular difficulties. So I recommend giving yourself a pat on the back for everything you have managed to accomplish thus far. I mean this in terms of dance technique but also other things, like personal growth, overcoming tragedy, and the like. And screw anybody who judges you harshly or dismisses you… they simply don’t know your story; they can’t understand what makes you beautiful.
You are totally, remarkably, a badass, and please don’t ever, ever forget it.
So this is how I deal with being surrounded by talented, beautiful followers all of the time. This is how I sooth the nervous, threatened mouse in me, as well as tame the selfish and voraciously competitive tiger.
There is of course the one final option for mitigating your confidence issues – the one many people choose, and which is the most blantant – which is to have patience, work really hard, and get super talented. Improving helps alleviate feelings of being threatened, for sure. It can create confidence. But I want to be clear, and this is why I didn’t address this method above, that it still never does away with doubts completely. That has to come from the inside.
(For more on the hate and competition issue, this is an excellent article.)
I am a prickly creature.
I love easily, but I don’t love easily.
I have been single now for almost a decade.
I work alone; I live alone; I go for coffee alone.
I have friends, don’t get me wrong. At least two, last I checked.
But for a wide variety of reasons that are completely irrelevant, currently, I simply don’t often find myself experiencing affection. Or intimacy.
This is why I dance.
I crave love.
I know this. My friends know this. Everyone I encounter on Facebook knows this. I talk about it so openly and frequently it’s obnoxious. The most obnoxious.
But I do so often talk about what I call my dance addiction in part because I think it’s something very important for us to talk about, as dancers.
How it works is really quite simple:
It isn’t that you want a boyfriend. It’s not that you need a girlfriend, or even a hook-up. You just (I just) need your intimacy-itch scratched.
Dance is a world in which we connect. When you step onto the floor with someone, you are fully with each other. You are present with one another. The music, and the floor, and the flying elbows from the couple next to you play important roles but you are, ideally, all that exists for each other.
You meet eye contact, and you watch out for one another. You pay attention to one another. You tune into each other. Psychologically, you play the role of protector, or maybe even of confidant.
Often, you experience a lot of physical contact. You trace your fingers along your partner’s shoulder blades; you interlock your fingers with theirs; you accidentally bump noses; you inhale against one another’s chests.
Physical contact is arguably an absolute necessity for both physical and psychological wellness. Oxytocin – the “love hormone” released when touching – is thought to modulate the body’s immune response, lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormone levels. It stimulates the release of beta-endorphin, which is the molecule secreted by ‘runner’s high’ and which creates ecstatic feelings of joy. Touch also causes serotonin and dopamine to rise. No wonder that as healing as physical touch – and dance – can be, it can also be powerfully addictive. Truly, powerfully addictive.
When you dance for love, like I have done, dance can become your world. It becomes the place you flirt, the place you are validated, the place you relax, the place you feel at home, the place you feel cared for, the place you feel the most alive. If dance is the best source in your life of affection, intimacy, touch, and the like, then I wouldn’t be surprised if you were like me, absolutely obsessed with dancing at every opportunity possible.
Quite literally seven days a week.
Quite literally disregarding other opportunities and responsibilities, because they seem so dull, like such terrible drags, compared to the power of dance.
But what happens, if you fall in love? Or into something that is intimate, and warm?
Interestingly, when people who dance for love end up meeting people they care about – they slow down their dancing. Often quite a bit. We all have that friend who gets a girlfriend, and then we don’t see them for three months. When they roll back into the club on some arbitrary weekday night, we know the relationships didn’t last.
Time is a factor, obviously. Relationships take time. But I do also really believe, from watching this phenomenon ebb and flow throughout my communities, that people also simply meet their needs for intimacy. They feel less of a desire to dance because they have such good and strong connections elsewhere.
Then they are freed up to do and explore other things, like skydiving, or tattoo artistry, or poetry, or whatever the hell else they like.
Or, they start to scramble, like I have experienced, to remember how wonderful and valuable other aspects of the dance can be, such as friendship, movement, playfulness, and, perhaps most sustainably of all, the music.
Or maybe not.
More on which another day. There are so many reasons to love dance and to stay committed to it, and to weather changes in your relationship with it over time. I can’t wait to write more; this is yet one installment.
There are no real takeaways from this post, except for a few things I think worth mentioning:
1) To my friends who disappear into relationships: that’s cool, I support you and am glad you’re getting your fix. Don’t forget the other amazing things about dance!
2) To my friends who have lived with the same addiction that I have to some degree or another: Enjoy it! It feels good to dance. On the other hand, I feel for you very much, and please know I love you. I will hug you always.
3) To my friends who are lonely but don’t dance: this is good stuff here. really. good. stuff. check it out.
4) To the charitable and wonderful people who have followed this blog: Please forgive my absence. I don’t dance (or write about dance) quite as obsessively as I did a few months ago, as my addiction has lessened into something more sustainable. I have been asked to write more about balance, more about spinning, and more connection, and I promise I will get to them in due time. After I spend some time skydiving, writing poetry, or whatever the hell else I am free to pursue.