I am currently social (swing, blues, fusion*) dancing on a sprained wrist, and as a result, I caught some of my own bias around role selection and gender. Then I wondered whether all of it was really coming from me. Having discussed the phenomenon with dancers from all over the spectrum, this is my response…
Dear male dancers who follow,
Thank you. Thank you for knowing the value of both roles, thank you for learning the unexpected, thank you for being some of the best dances I’ve had on the social floor and some of the best students in classes. Thank you for starting discussions about gender in social dance and then going out there and practicing for change. Now, let me help you with something.
I’ve noticed that when I’m out social dancing, and I know I’m not the only one who does this, I usually switch/lead women and I follow men. I have a lot of fun with people who don’t fall under that particular binary, but that’s another letter for another day. This isn’t because the men on my scene don’t follow, in fact I’m really proud of how happy the majority of our dancers are in either role, but the pattern still remains. A year ago I was asked by a lovely male switch dancer why I usually ended up in the follow role with him, and I came up with a couple of suggestions. Now I return to the question, I’ve boiled it down into three main ideas of how leads, follows and switches of all genders create, and could help address, these lingering threads of disparity.
State a Clear Preference
Early in my leading career, I remember being asked to dance by several male leads who wanted to show me that I wasn’t as good as they were, so they could play teacher. I was also asked to dance a lot by very nice dancers of all the genders who thought it would be most polite to give me the “lead, follow, or switch?” option, when they really only had one option that worked for them. Side note: it is, really really, ok to have a favourite role that you prefer to dance socially; whether that’s in general, on a particular night, or to a particular song. It’s ok to take only one role in classes. I’d encourage you thinking about why a particular role is your favourite, and what you could get from the other, but human beings have preferences, and dancing is all about enthusiastic consent.
Back to the social floor. What this behaviour leads (hah) to, is a bunch of switches who don’t actually know whether you are really giving them the option to lead/follow/switch, or not, and who will default to offering you the role you are statistically likely to want to assume. If you switch later, all well and good. From the best of intentions, we are trapping ourselves in roles in ways we might not intend.
The obvious answer to this is to state a clear and honest preference for what we want to do. “Would you like to dance?” “Yes, I would love to follow.” Tells me instantly how to make a dance work for you, and means I don’t have to listen so hard for the subtext of “but I meant I wanted to lead.” It also means that if you tell me you want to follow and I don’t have lead energy, I can let you know where I stand too. If you’ve agreed to a switch dance, and you start off leading, take a little but of initiative when it comes to transitioning to a following role. The happier you are with your choice to follow, the happier I will be about leading you!
A general failing of the social dance scene in general, at least in my own experience, is that we don’t spend as much energy teaching follows how to follow as we do teaching leads how to lead. I say energy rather than time because even in those scenes that ask everyone in the class to try every role in every class-section, the information being given to leads is usually clearer, more mechanical, more active and more accessible. Follow information tends to be sense-based, intuitive, passive, and esoteric. I mean I get it: you don’t want a load of follows who anticipate, but it does mean that transitioning from lead to follow is difficult to get the hang of.
The most common issue I notice when leading a male follow is that they don’t know how active a follow has to be in creating the connection. As leads, they feel a follow move in response to their suggestion, but not what the follow did in order for the suggestion to get through in the first place. This is particularly the case in move-based classes, where the work of the follow is not always made explicit.
On the dance floor this tends to go one of two ways: The first option is that you sit and wait for me to move you, which, with me being all of 100lbs, just isn’t going to happen. The second option is that you attempt to relax completely – jelly-limbed and frameless – and drift out from under my attempt at connection.
In case you haven’t been in a class where this has been said: the connection in social dance is created by both dancers. As a lead, you use intention and frame to offer suggestions to your follow. As a follow, you use intention and frame to respond to those suggestions. I call the intensity of that mutual intention tone, and it usually works best if the follow’s tone is under, but only slightly under, the lead’s. Posture/placement of limbs is also important, but varies enough from dance to dance that I’m not going to go into it here. As leads you know this, and you do your part. As follows, you don’t have the information/don’t have the brain space/forget.
This is something much more easily explained in practice rather than words, so if you feel like you love to follow but it’s really just not working for you, go find a dancer you like and ask them to give you some feedback on how you’re creating connection. Acknowledge the work of the follow, and learn to love it.
Balance the Fun Equation
Unless you are dancing with your social doppelgänger, who has been to every class and dance you have, and danced to all the same songs and took all the same breaks you did, one of the dancers in a partnership is going to have more experience leading than the other. One will have more experience following. It might even be the same person who has both! This is all ok and wonderful. What is does impact, however, is something I refer to as the Fun Equation: which dancer needs to go in which role(s)** in order to maximise the enjoyment that both dancers can get out of this dance?
Sometimes the Fun Equation makes a choice of roles seem obvious, but it also creates pressure for people to stay in the role they’re good at, rather than trying something new. We’ve all struggled through being a beginner at some stage of our dancing lives, and we all want to keep that awkward, flailing time to a minimum, especially if we know that in another role we could be having smooth, beautiful dancey fun times.
So my final invitation to all the dancers reading this, is to think about how you can re-balance the fun equation when one, or both of you are in your less-comfortable role. Are you going to talk? Not talk? Keep it slow? Make it silly? Have a spontaneous rock star breakaway session in the middle? These are, of course, all tricks you can employ when one or both of you is an absolute beginner in any role… again, dancing is all about enthusiastic consent, however long you’ve been doing it.
So male dancers who follow, thanks again for all the work you’ve put in to your dancing. Keep dancing! I hope this letter helps you have more, better dances, whichever role you happen to be in at the time.
*There are so many more social dances out there than swing, blues, and fusion, but it’s so much easier just to type “social dance” each time. Forgive me.
**Switching can also be the most fun. The most fun.