(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.