raising the bar: gendered roles in dance

Have you ever had one of those dances which raises a bar you didn’t even know was there?

Let me paint a picture. In line with my recent choice to give blues a second shot, I attended Friday Night Blues in San Francisco.*  So there I was, at a new venue, new to the scene, and trying to dance with guys that I’ve never met before. As is the challenge of moderate introverts asking other moderate introverts to dance, I kept making shy eye contact with a few leads in hopes of dancing. There was one lead in particular I kept skirting around asking to dance – waiting for the right opportunity – and then it came. We were both free, standing near each other, the song had just started.

“Would you like to dance?” I asked. (I might be an introvert, but I take my opportunities when they come)

“Sure! What role do you prefer?”

I paused. I was confused – had I led earlier in the night? No. Did I imply earlier that I regularly lead? Not that I could remember. So what gave him the idea that I’d like to lead?

It wasn’t a revolutionary question – but he asked with all the casual sincerity of a five-year-old asking what flavor ice cream I might prefer. It was surprising, and it was refreshing:  there was no pressure, because either way, he was happy.

We’d never met, and I’d never implied that I love leading.  His question was surprising because the only times I’ve ever danced as a lead is when a) I’ve asked a follow with the intention of leading, or b) I’ve asked (or been asked by) a guy  who knows I swing both ways, and he’s up for something different. Most importantly, I’m usually the one who initiates that conversation by volunteering to lead someone who I know follows – and for that matter, it’s only ever come up in Lindy Hop.

At this point, I feel the need to mention that no ground-breaking revelations came of this experience. I’ve said it before: I’m not much of a feminist, and I have no desire to get wrapped up in the lengthy discussion surrounding the gendered roles of dance, albeit an important discussion to have.

This question merely threw me off guard due to its nonchalant openness to either role. He was aware (even though we’d never met and I’d never shown any inclination to leading) that my gender had nothing to do with my desire to lead or follow at that moment in time. And also important, his own gender had nothing to do with the enjoyment he would get out of either role in the dance.

I’ve never considered getting to know a male swing dancer by switching roles for our first dance.  And to think of how many doors this opens! Why don’t I hear this question more often from guys who know I lead? For that matter, when I have the urge to lead, why do I always run to the ladies, rather than ask the fellas if they’d like to switch it up? I’m not necessarily going to my exchange and hoping to switch lead and follow every other song…but I won’t lie. I love leading, and I wouldn’t mind if people asked me to do so more often.

I never would have given it a second thought if he hadn’t asked this question in the first place. Moreover, I’m sure I never would have been offended if he’d never asked at all. But now, I hope to be asked again!


*In case you’re curious about my blues experience at FNB: the venue was really unique, and the dancing was quite satisfying – not something to write home about, but I definitely had a great time. Still not sold on blues, but not writing it off any time soon!


  One thought on “raising the bar: gendered roles in dance

  1. Jon
    25 June 2013 at 12:21 am

    As a guy I follow a bit, but I rarely ask women to lead, because more often than not, it goes something like this:

    – I observe a woman leading.
    – I observe a bit more to try and check that she’s not simply a non-heterosexual who prefers to dance only with women (in this dance scene, this is a real though rare thing).
    – I ask her to lead me
    – She turns me down because I’m too tall/big.

    (I grant there are very real practical issues with someone leading a fairly unskilled follow 14″ taller and 100 lb heavier in a closed-position partnered dance, but it’s by no means impossible).

    • 25 June 2013 at 5:59 am

      That’s really disappointing to me! I mean, I understand that everyone has their preferences – but the whole point is gender equality, right? I will say that I usually choose to lead females because they tend to be more experienced, and I want to know when my lead isn’t working because of a personal mistake.

      However, if a guy asked me to lead, I would absolutely say yes – or I’d at least ask to split the song! I’m not sure who you are – but I hope we dance soon! (And we can trade off!)

  2. Joni Stevens
    23 July 2013 at 1:55 pm

    I hope ya’ll both come to Las Vegas to go dancing and we can all lead and follow to our heart’s content! I’ve been doing both for about 37 years and I don’t even have a preference! I am a dance teacher and I’m quite comfortable in either role – whether I happen to find myself alone and social dancing, or when I’m with a gang! I have been trying to change my “teaching language” to a non-gender-specific style, and it’s not that hard. I do find myself falling back into the old ways of her/him, ladies/gents when I have no female leads in my classes. *sigh* The good news is you CAN teach an old gal new tricks! Love your blog, and I’m sharing it on Face”place”, lol.

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