I’m a big fan of dancing traditions—teaching a special father-daughter dance, relishing in the ancient art of Odissi, or watching the Charleston scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the 700th time. Yet, for all of the classic dance traditions I know and love (and teach), it’s also exciting to see what’s changing.
I recently returned from a West Coast swing event in Colorado. While I was there I attended two workshops as the leader and then danced socially at night as both the follower and the leader. I lead and followed both female and male partners.
This new trend is actually showing up in many dance styles. It’s now much more acceptable to openly choose to lead or follow. And while I’ve always used the terms “ladies” and “guys” during group class, teachers are now moving toward the words “leaders” and “followers.” It all may seem a little strange, but the traditional paradigm is evolving—and it’s exciting to watch!
A change to the usual
Of course, the rationale behind having a leader and a follower is fairly logical when you think about it. It’s pretty much impossible to have two separate dancers trying to make their own decisions and move independently. It’s all about coordinating and complementing each other, and that’s usually best achieved through those two traditional roles.
But that tradition has also placed women in the follower role the majority of the time, whether they want it or not. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a dance instructor call out to the ladies, “Don’t think, just follow their lead!” But that’s detrimental as well because a successful dance couple include two people working (and thinking) together, not just one dominating and the other submitting.
Stefani Ruper discusses the subtle sexism that runs through many aspects of dance, including the traditional female roles, in a recent blog:
“Followers 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.”
I’m by no means proposing the elimination of a leader and follower role in social dance; rather, maybe there’s something to be gained by everyone learning both roles?
Knowing both sides of the story
The old adage tells us we can never understand another man’s life until we’ve walked a mile in his shoes—or dance shoes in this case. By learning the challenges of a leader, for example, women can learn to be better followers. And the reverse is also true.
Leading is all about communicating subtle messages to your partner, like a shift of your weight or a slight hand signal. And following is all about receiving those signals and acting on them at a moment’s notice. What better way to improve the communication than by knowing both sides? Basketball coaches do this all the time: Each player is required to learn every position, and be able to run the plays from all five points on the floor. Only then can they truly have the whole picture in their mind when it’s game time.
One instructor in Vermont reports that the more gender-neutral language is going over well with his students. Not only does “leader” and “follower” help simplify his instructions, he said, but they also make all of his students feel welcome. And let’s face it: Not everyone even identifies with a particular gender, and the last thing we want to do is create a dance environment that doesn’t feel inclusive to all people.
Women no longer have to wait to be asked to dance, so there’s really no reason they shouldn’t have an opportunity to lead as well. As long as it’s making the dance experience more satisfying, I’m all for it.
As a professional dance instructor and owner of Overland Park Ballroom, Amy Castro has been teaching ballroom dance for more than 25 years. She’s looking forward to the new documentary, “Alive & Kicking,” a new film coming April 7 that gives an “insider’s view into the culture of the current swing dance world while shedding light on issues facing modern society.” Looks like swing is back! Let her know your thoughts by tweeting @OP_Ballroom or by commenting on the Facebook page.