We got an email last week from a teacher suggesting that dance students just be given the choice whether to lead or follow, rather than being taught both roles in the classroom. That’s a great point to address. We’ll post other articles about how learning both roles positively affects learning and the community in a way that choosing one role doesn’t, even if some women choose to lead and some men follow, but today let’s look at how difficult it is to actually give students a meaningful choice about whether to lead or follow.
Let’s imagine a beginner swing dance classroom, with thirty students who have never taken a swing class before, and where the teachers are only going to teach each student one role—either to lead or to follow. At some point before the partner dancing starts, the teachers can tell students to “choose” which role to learn. They could pick the one they enjoy more, the one they are better at, the one they need more help with, or the one that will make more partners available to them at the local social dance. Except, wait, they have to make this choice within the first few minutes of their first class—or maybe they had to make it on a registration form days or weeks earlier. Beginners don’t know whether they prefer leading or following, or which one is easier for them, or which one will get them more dances. We can’t ask them what their preference is, because they do not have the necessary experience to form a meaningful preference.
Now let’s think about how, in the absence of an experience-based preference, these dance students will decide what to do when told they can either lead or follow. They are in a classroom, ready to do what they are told to learn a new skill. They are probably a little nervous and uncomfortable, and they want to give the teacher the “right” answer. If the teacher won’t tell them what they are supposed to do, they will fall back on other resources to figure it out. How will they know whether they are supposed to lead or follow? They’ll rely on popular culture and the other people in the room. They will think about the images and messages they’ve received from Fred and Ginger, Dirty Dancing, and Dancing with the Stars, and they will easily conclude that men are supposed to lead and women are supposed to follow. Maybe the teachers give them non-verbal clues, like a man teaching the leads and a woman teaching the follows. Students put these messages together, and when the teachers say, “Leads, come stand over here,” most of the class will translate that into “Men,” and segregate dutifully along gender lines.
Maybe someone in the class does have enough experience or personal reasons to know that they want to switch, that they don’t want to give the “right” answer. Maybe it’s a woman who identifies as a lesbian, and she wants to learn to lead so she can dance with other women. Maybe it’s a man who doesn’t like having to think so much while he’s dancing and likes closing his eyes and following. If we’re lucky, it’s just an intermediate dancer who already knows one role and wants to learn the other. That person can use their status and confidence as a more experienced dancer to get them through the challenges that follow.
Students who want to switch to the gender-reversed role often report feeling obligated to stick with their stereotyped role because the class isn’t role-balanced. Sometimes, when there are men who want to lead and are having to skip rotations for a lack of partners, their teachers pressure women who wanted to lead to follow so that everyone has a partner. Even if no one says anything, men who want to follow and women who want to lead may pressure themselves to stick to their gender’s part unless there are “extra” spots because the class is unbalanced the other way—women will wait to lead until they are in a class when there are “too many” follows. The culture that women are supposed to follow and men are the “real” leads is strong enough that it is difficult for a woman to feel she has just as much right to take the class as a lead as any man.
Then there are the difficulties inherent in being the one person in a group who is different. As long as most of the class conforms to the gendered pattern of partner dance, the people who want to learn the “other” role will pay social and psychic costs. They will stand out, drawing attention from the other students for their choice, for being different, and small things will constantly remind the nonconforming student that they are not like everyone else, that they are other. Every time the class rotates, the person who switched roles will face the confusion of their next partner, who may get confused in the rotation because their next partner is the “wrong” gender. Rotating follows will skip a female lead or will try to tell her she needs to rotate, thinking she is a lost follow.
As the other students process that this person is breaking the unspoken rule that everyone else is following, they police the person’s choice in various, probably subconscious, ways. They sometimes ask questions like, “Oh, are you doing the guy’s part?” Maybe they speculate about the sexuality of the one deviating, assuming they are gay. Sometimes a man thinks he shouldn’t have to dance with the only man in the room who is following.
The class’s teachers can also unintentionally raise the cost of not conforming. Maybe they forget and use gendered nouns and pronouns while teaching, calling follows “ladies,” and referring to leads as “he,” making their one female lead or male follow feel invisible or mis-gendered. Maybe they seem a little more critical of the one woman leading than the rest of the leads—when you’re teaching, it’s easy to focus on the student who is different.
These issues are all examples of the ways a biased system can continue to operate without the actors realizing that we are part of the problem. Because there is structural and systemic sexism in place in our larger society and in dancing, if we do nothing or pretend we can be neutral, we are actually complicit in perpetuating the injustice. As long as TV, movies, the students, and even the teachers are reflecting gendered stereotypes for partner dance—and it will be a long time until that stops being true—students will be pressured to follow if they are women and lead if they are men. Telling people it is their “choice” whether to lead or follow obscures the pressure they are under to conform and attempts to shift all of the responsibility for improving equality to the final consumer, the new dancer.
If we really want women to have the option to lead, we have to teach them to lead and then let them choose when to use that skill outside the classroom. If we want men to have the free choice to follow, we must teach them to follow and actively create an environment where following is a neutral, normal behavior for men. Ambi classes let us give students the experience to find their strengths and preferences, and the tools to make their own choice in a community where their choice is welcomed.