Gender roles in social dances

(I speak from a man’s perspective but welcome a female counterpart to this)

Dancing is a great way to connect to people and to music. When any person decides to learn a partner dance, they have to decide which of the roles they want to begin with: leader or follower. For most, the choice is already determined, male=leader/female=follower.

Some dance classes in the LGBTQIA+ community are sensitive enough to this issue and allow you to choose what you prefer. This can be quite liberating for those who don’t want the regular, culturally assigned roles to begin with. Gender deduced roles might have been grounded through cultural ideology (particularly in the Victorian era) which suggested that women adopt a more submissive role and allow the men to lead and take charge. This habit of male leaders and female followers is so ingrained in our minds that when I offer a dance to another guy, he often ask: “As a guy or girl?” To which the regular response is: “As a follower. I am not planning a sex change any time soon.” Thankfully, we are past the patriarchal dominance point in our history and are more open to different genders and expressions. The typical role of males and females is being constantly questioned.

This division between male leaders and female followers is obvious and seen every night on the heterosexual dance floor. 99% of the dancers follow the designated roles assigned to them by their gender. While the formula clearly works, the dancer’s capacity to understand the other role is put into question. If a dancer just understands the motorics but not the reason for the movement, how can they manipulate it to form their own style? Would you then not just be repeating what the teacher has shown? Understanding what your actions feel like and what they cause on the other side are crucial for improvement. Besides that, no matter how good a dancer you are, if you know only one role you know just 50% of the dance. I believe it is vitally important that a social leader/follower understands the other’s position so that their dancing may improve beyond the regular “routines” taught by teachers. Not to mention that instructors MUST know both roles, if not at least the basics, to the level of social dancing. Learning the other role adds, informs and compliments the one you know and dance, because it demands you listen to the other side and understand the challenges the other faces.

This open dialogue of learning is inhibited mainly by our state of mind. Though there are many examples throughout history of non-sexual, same-sex partner dancing (the most famous being Argentine tango), in modern times dancing took on an intimate form, thereby creating sexual connotations. As a result, same-sex dancing might be labelled in ways that straight men would not like to be called. Furthermore, the habit of defining lead/follow roles by gender goes to show that guys consider girls to be followers, and therefore a man can never fill that position for them just because of the gender difference. A guy will be hesitant about considering to learn the role themselves because it is a female role and they fear/worry about being perceived as feminine and ridiculed for it. This is my assumption as I had the same issue with myself when I started learning to follow.

If and when a brave guy decides to take up the follower challenge, he will have to overcome the rejection obstacle once more. As the majority of leaders are male, he will have to turn to them to ask to dance. Most male leaders simply refuse by saying, “I don’t dance with men” (which in itself raises many questions which shan’t be addressed here). Refusal is an integral part of social dancing and they have every right to refuse to dance. After all, it is a social evening and if they do not feel comfortable doing it, it is hardly worth spending the night convincing them. There are plenty of other good dancers waiting. Though, by refusing they are contributing to the gender bias and setting yet another stone on the overburdened pedestal.

While there are those who flat out refuse to dance, there are others who willingly accept. These leaders will generally be more attentive and sensitive. A male leader who is not afraid to hold another man’s hand and dance uncompromisingly with him, has a multitude of benefits, including being open to change, attentiveness and level of self-confidence. Gay, straight and everything around it, on the dance floor, it does not matter. By expanding and opening up, we are creating a more hospitable and inviting place that is more inclusive. Every person is entitled to act as is comfortable for themselves. By this, not all male leaders are comfortable dancing as followers, which is acceptable. These leaders should not go out rushing to take classes as followers, but if a man asks you for a dance, before you say no, think about why you are refusing.

Be the change you want to see.

By Yoav Oved.

Follow dancer and opera singer Yoav Oved on his YouTube channel

Photograph by Yonit Yona

One thought on “Gender roles in social dances

  • May 10, 2016 at 10:52 am

    It’s strange how Latin dance has this leading/following=men/women. It’s like no one has the choice to decide whether they want to try leading or following, and like Yoav says we end up learning half the dance only. It’s all very strange. I’m a female and I want to try to lead sometimes but I have 2 problems: 1. I don’t know how as I never had the chance to learn in classes (when all men take the leaders roles and all ladies the following roles in the class, it’s hard to step out of the box and break the pattern, and teachers never suggest a switch in roles) and 2. in social dancing, the pattern is even more strong as it’s so rare to see girls leading anyone (either other girls or guys), same thing with guys – we rarely see them following. I’d love to see a dance floor where it’s ok for a girl to ask a man to follow. why not??


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