My Twitter-mate Caitlin Doran posted a link earlier today to this article in Canada’s National Post. The article reports an incident in which a woman was asked to leave a jive class after trying to switch to the leader’s role and “lead her male partner.” The instructor contends that the student was asked to leave because “she disrupted the class” and that changing roles would “complicate things” for her fellow dancers.
As presented, this story is confusing to me. The instructor quoted in the article is not incorrect when she talks about the traditionally gendered roles in ballroom dancing. As everyone knows, men lead and women follow. Daniel and I have a lot of riffs on this convention, most of which serve the purpose (I’m pretty sure) of adapting it to our more egalitarian age. How do we square this highly conventional practice rooted in centuries-old norms with the fact that most of us no longer live by those norms when we’re not on the dance floor? I genuinely believe it’s difficult for independent career women of the 21st century to relinquish control, even on the dance floor. And although men are the traditional leaders in the ballroom, dancing has been so thoroughly skewered as “effeminate” that most men arrive at the dance studio reluctant and uncertain about being there, much less taking charge. The instructor may have been correct in saying that everyone should stick to and reinforce those conventional positions, since both learning to follow and learning to lead are special skills that don’t come naturally to many of us these days.
At the same time, it’s good for dancers of both genders to learn both roles at some point. I’ve been working on and off on learning to lead, and it is HARD. Not only do I have to do all the steps in reverse, I have to reset my brain to “Plan Ahead” instead of “Wait and Pay Attention” (hey, new “Keep Calm” poster idea: “Keep Calm and Wait for the Lead”). And Daniel has learned to lead a lot of steps better by having Eddie lead him through them while he does the follower’s/woman’s part. (Eddie: “Here, see what it feels like to dance with a real woman”). So I’m more than a little surprised that the instructor made such a big deal out of the matter. If it were a group class with a diversity of levels and this couple felt like they’d thoroughly mastered their own usual parts, why not switch it up and see what else they could learn?
The article also addresses the traditional heteronormativity of ballroom dancing and the ways in which various organizations and governing bodies deal with that fact–broadly, by either enforcing it or throwing it out the window. It’s an interesting window into the possible future(s) of our art/sport.