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.
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