When a man telling you what to do stops being sexy

(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.

A solution?

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.


5 Comments, RSS

  1. Daniel Collins May 31, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

    I don’t think the whole solution is to learn to lead…you only would really help your own cause there and everyone else would still be stuck in the same position you speak of. Then if everyone were to follow that solution, there would be only leaders in the scene.

    I think you’re part of or otherwise forming a solution simply by making people aware through your voice. If you present it the right way and reach a decent audience size that could help make a difference. You have this platform, and you could also work on teaching in real life. I personally teach some things I’ve learned from you in my own way, and you could present your own thoughts even better if you were to teach them too (without letting the blog thing go, as it’s great!)

    People always look to benefit themselves…some things we have to say flatly, like guys it’s not ok to force your partner into a closed hold. I can say that with a smile and in a positive way to keep the mood light (because if I dwell on things in the wrong way then will people want to come to class, and if nobody comes then I can’t get the point across), but the message has to be super clear.

    However! What if, in this case that’s important but not quite as serious, I said to the leaders in my class how I had these incredible dances this weekend with XYZ follows, and the reason they were the most fun was the ladies were really listening to the music and emphasizing it in their own way too rather than simply following me…? That says to the leads, hey it could be really cool to allow my partner a voice within the dance! It says to the follow, hey this relatively advanced dancer got really excited not about dances where the lead/follow dynamic was good or the technique was there, but the ones where the follow actively added to the dance! Maybe I can do that too!

    As always thank you so much for sharing. Your thoughts are exceptionally valuable. I’m going to incorporate some of the ideas into my next big workshop in 2 weeks 🙂

    Sending love from New Jersey 🙂

  2. Damian September 26, 2017 @ 11:35 pm

    I love when the follow improvises or expands on my leads, the dance feels alive and fun.

    Some problem I’ve noted is that girls usually feel like they made a mistake when they do something I did not lead. This happens at least a few times every social night:

    1. If I’m dancing with a beginner, so I try to lead easier steps
    2. I lead a basic step
    3. They turn, or do something extra cause they suddenly feel confident
    4. They look at me like “Oh sorry, I fucked up”
    5. I tell them (if it’s true) that it went perfectly with the song, or that it was fine.

    The change needs to come from the professors, if those beginners were taught that they could improvise and add to the dance, they would not feel like they made a mistake. Another thing I noted is that girls are not encouraged to do as many bachata shines as man. Depending on the song a shine with some quick steps can perfectly fit in the lead of a basic step, so it adds without conflict.

  3. Katinka November 14, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

    I used to Lindy and east coast, and it seemed there was plenty of room for play, but a lot of that could have been that I had many regular dance partners that encouraged play. Now I am in an area where there is only Salsa and Bachata. I agree there is little area for “communication” in these dances. I miss that. I sometimes dance Argentine Tango which feels like there is so much more back and forth communication. I am uncomfortable with a lot of “styling” because I do feel its sexy, where I am more fun than sexy. I am really loving your blog, I can’t figure out how to follow it though.

  4. lisa July 22, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

    When a guy (who is supposed to give a woman a great time) starts using a woman as exercising “material”, you know that you’re in the Northern Hemisphere! You know, where the man is foolish enough to put -himself- his needs, above the traditional ” be a gentleman & show her a good time”.

    As a spaniard i’m always surprised why northern guys “expect” shines from ladies.
    In Spain, we don’t even have a name for “shines” (because we just don’t use them, except maybe in flamenco which is a solitary dance, heloooo? solitary? yea, that’s when you -need- “shines”)

    All the men end up doing on the dancefloor, is making girls feel incomplete (if they expect shines from her). What if the girl is hot (to you) and you’d like to bring her home with you? well,…. make her feel incomplete, by pausing and ‘expecting shines’ and i can assure you that she’s not going to have a good time at all (and won’t follow you home). Actually not only that:
    – those women? they won’t return to the salsa venue anymore and …..won’t splurge on spending on drinks either
    As a bar owner in Spain, it’s very bad business to make wealthy and (maybe lonely?) women feel ‘incomplete’ during salsa – just think of how much hurdles those women take (aside from strong careers they often have) to go out the door and hit the dance floor?
    Those with money to spend are typically (at least here in Spain) well funded, well respected in their careers, and probably higher earners than most of the males in the entire bar.
    If (semi) prof males start putting ladies down, in non verbal ways (‘show me your shines NOW cs i stopped leading you’)…then all that you can expect from ladies like that…is they’ll leave, and never come back.
    Never lose commercial sense out of your sight. And the same goes for the guys that are looking to win a lady: you don’t win them over by making them feel they’ll need 100 salsa lessons.
    In spain, the classes are much less technical. Which is exactly why the turnover is far lower than in the northern hemisphere. Everyone feels ‘able’. Mistakes are forgiven. Shines are no ‘must’, and its all more fun.
    It’s also bad business to try push for selling classes by telling people off about their dance skills: they won’t sign up for classes to brush up skills. (not the ones with respected careers or plentyful money anyways). Who’s going to pay for classes just to avoid being put down at salsa events? nobody. Well, ….unless the person in question has nothing else going in his life… in which case he might ‘submit’ to taking classes to be better at ‘something’ as opposed to nothing at all.
    But people here? they show up at class to have FUN. Not because they think it’s a ‘necessary skill’. Example: men who are perfect dancers – here in Spain – are looked on suspiciously, because we always wonder ‘ did he even have time to build a decent career???’
    So unless your career is that of running a salsa school, as a guy, you’re going to lose out by pissing away your entire life on the dancefloor trying to be ‘perfect’, and requiring it from (selfsufficient affluent) ladies too.
    Mind you, i refer to affluent ladies, because over here, the younger ladies mostly only show up at bday parties – they are just too busy building a career for themselves to make time for salsa on a weekly basis (or during weekdays when they know they have to get up early to work next morning). The ‘regulars’ in terms of clientele, are mostly affluent men and women who are midcareer (and a bunch of (semi) salsa prof who basically do nothing else but spend time in salsa bars.

  5. lisa July 22, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

    I must say, recently I heard the same from a spanish friend who visited a venue in chicago (alhambra) it was clear that their ‘regular clients’ are mostly midcareer people too and a bunch of (semi) profs who ran all sorts of biz (yoga or dance schools etc).
    so “i wonder why”….. the youth is far less likely to become a ‘regular’ in their bar???
    well, maybe, just too busy making a career. Makes a lot of sense, doesnt it?
    Or, if they finally -do- make time to visit the place….they are expected to do ‘shines’ all the time, while the only reason they even showed up at the bar on their few free AND stress less nights during their careers, was…to have a good time (as a opposed to a stressful night where they are ‘told’ to move a certain way or show the ‘partner’ some shines)
    Its bad business, running both a danceschool or a bar by pressuring customers into a certain expectation mode. In the end, the bar loses out. In our bar, everyone likes (!!!) to come. No pressure. My bar is welcoming, and when girls show up without partner, I even have an old bartender who loves to teach them basics, for them to be able to take part in the salsa dance on a very basic level…and ….have a good night! becs that’s what my bar i about: give them a GOOD night, and they’ll return a SPEND a lot. My bar, is in Granada, Spain.

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