By DAN RATHBONE
September 10, 2011
I enjoy certain elements of traditional masculinity as much as the next guy; roughhousing with friends, moving heavy stuff, wielding power tools. But I also like dancing. With men.
For almost a year, I have been dancing with Yale Swing & Blues, Yale’s only swing and blues social dance community. Every Sunday night, we gather at 211 Park street to dance with anyone and everyone who walks in the door. New Havenite, grad student, or undergrad, male or female, beginner or advanced, we want to dance with you. And I want you to lead.
In all European-influenced social partner dances that I know of, a leading male is paired with a following female. The man determines the course of the dance—location on the dance floor, rhythm, pace, even foot placement—and the woman follows, with creative control ranging from only a flourish here or there to real, physical suggestions and contributions to the feeling of the dance. It being no longer acceptable to assume that, in all areas of life, men should take on leadership roles and women should passively follow behind, many dance instructors insist that the woman does not strictly “follow” the man, but interprets his signal in a creative expression of her own: her role is not as degrading as it might sound. Personally, I do enjoy the opportunities for creativity and interpretation that following can offer. But still, when the instructor says “leads over here, follows over there,” our cultural norms are such that the students quickly and easily segregate on the basis of gender: men over here, women over there.
Not so at Yale Swing & Blues. At my first “beginner bootcamp,” pairing off was equally simple: we counted around the circle, one, two, one, two. “Ones, take a big step forward. Turn around and find someone in the outside circle. This is your partner.” Find yourself stuck in a traditionally gendered pair? Don’t worry; that will change. Don’t know leading from following? That’s fine; you’ll learn both.
YS&B teaches “ambidancetrously”— each class aims to teach every person to both lead and follow every movement. We are also an ambidancetrous community, and at the Sunday night practicum or monthly dances, men will dance with men, women with women, and dancers will switch off lead and follow halfway through a song.
Why all the role-reversing and same-sex dancing? It’s certainly fun, and by both leading and following and dancing with men and women, I quadruple the number of dance experiences that would be available to me were I in a traditional community. Most of the moves in my repertoire I learned from following others, and knowing both roles helps me understand the movements better. But I believe that an ambidancetrous approach offers more than variety and deeper learning.
It is hard to attribute the historical division of the lead and follow roles to accident . Social dance spaces were mirrors of the social world around them, and the dancers did not shuck off traditional gender expectations with their street shoes. Richard Powers, a dance instructor at Stanford University, notes:
Soon after American women succeeded in getting the vote, dance manuals began to talk about leading and following in a rather manipulative way, with the man controlling the movements of the “girl” (the terms used in most American dance manuals were now man and girl), “getting” her to do the step, making her do the step, controlling her every movement. Now the woman had to adapt her steps to the man’s steps. If she didn’t, the resulting damage was seen as her fault!
Expectations of gender behavior have shifted over the years—from the chivalric protectiveness of the 1800s, to a cavalier attitude captured by a line in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing: “Remember, he’s the boss on the dance floor, if nowhere else”—but the dance roles have not. Beginning female dancers have responded to my question “would you like to lead or follow” with “I’m supposed to follow, right?” as if my query were not an invitation to choose, but rather a trap, set to catch any gender transgressions.
Today, we conspicuously encourage women to take on leadership roles. And while Larry Summers resigned from his Harvard presidency in the wake of an uproar over his comments about women in the higher levels of science and math (among other things), on the dance floor, the implication that leadership is a man’s role—and women should just follow along and look pretty—isn’t given a second thought. When leading, I work hard to provide a novel, interesting dance experience for my partner; it’s fun, rewarding, and, at times, exhausting. I often want to fall into someone else’s arms and let them deal with the creation of a pleasant dance; I just want to follow along. Each time I travel to another dance community, my frustration (or, should I decide to follow, the unshakeable feeling that everyone is glaring at me), remind me of how lucky I am to have the community I do. When everyone leads and follows regularly, the assumptions that men are innately suited to leadership roles and women to subordinate ones are harder to maintain, and the two dance roles lose some of their cultural baggage.
In an ambidancetrous community students do not have a chance to consult their cultural knowledge to determine which role they should take up. Instead, they try both, and always have the option of either. The question of who leads and who follows any given dance can be determined by the dancers themselves, not by chivalric traditions.
When I say I want to dance with you, and I want you to lead, I say it for two reasons. Primarily, I love to dance, and I want to share that joy with anyone who will let me. But partly, I want to prove a point—to show that if you want to follow like a shadow, with no will or agency of your own, you can do it because it feels liberating, not because it is a woman’s role. And if you want to be decisive and creative, you can, but not because that is the job for a man. I want to prove that you and I can just be two humans dancing, engaged in physical conversation, each of us talking at some times, listening at others.
Dan Rathbone is a sophomore in Yale College. He is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.