Is Misogyny Inherent in the Language of Partner Dance?

“Don’t think, just follow”. many times  have I heard a dance instructor say that? How many times have I said it as an instructor? It’s time to recognize this language for what it is (misogyny), and to eliminate it from our vocabulary in partner dance.

The vast majority of women are raised to feel that they must work on being “less than”. Less vocal, less opinionated, less powerful, less intimidating, less [fill in the blank], less, less less than a man. We should have fewer ideas, make fewer contributions, have fewer lovers, make fewer dollars than men.

I feel fortunate to have been raised surrounded by strong women, and men who saw and treated women as equals. But when I entered university, and then the workforce, things changed. Then began the barrage of messages that I needed to be less than in many ways. It can be a process of erosion, of whittling away. Sometimes it’s almost imperceptible until one day you don’t recognize what’s left of you anymore. I fought to keep “me” whole through it all, and was thankfully able to do that because of how I was raised.

Partner dancing was another story.

Partner dancing carries an inherent inequality (or so it would seem). Lead versus Follow. Leaders (usually men) decide what’s going to happen. Followers (usually women) obey and “decorate” along the way. Leaders think, Followers agree. Leaders act, Followers respond.

That’s the language we have developed in partner dance — but it’s insufficient, and it’s inaccurate. As teachers and professionals, we can do better.

Following: the Great Void

No one ever taught me to follow. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently because I’ve had to develop my own approach and vocabulary and tools in order to help my Follower students be effective, express themselves, and enjoy partner dance as whole people. I’ve also had to find ways to communicate to Leaders about partnering, about how the expectations of “lead” and “follow” may need to be re-understood, and am finding that a new vocabulary is required.

Leaders are taught incessantly that they are supposed to “take care of the Follower” — which implies that Followers do not or should not take care of themselves. Leaders are given very mixed messages about leading: “You’re the leader, you define what happens in the dance”, but at the same time, “Wait for the follower to finish, listen to her.”

Following is an art and a science. It is not the opposite of leading; rather, it is a kind of leadership in itself. It is not a black hole of vacuity. Following requires a great deal of thought, mental acuity, intuitiveness, creativity, and thinking on the spot. Unfortunately, since it’s rarely taught — and certainly almost never taught independently of the Lead — following is a void (in my experience) in the teaching of partner dance.

Literally a void — as in, missing.

More often than not, Followers are taught their footwork and then left to figure out the rest for themselves. Or they are not taught at all and simply told, “just follow”. I can’t count the number of times have I heard this, including from top FEMALE instructors: “I’m not going to teach the followers their footwork because if they just follow the lead their bodies will know what to do.”

What a crock! It’s not magic and it’s not luck. It’s a skill set.

“The Leader is a frame, the Follower is a picture” — that’s another common statement made in partner dancing. And I agree with it. But Leaders aren’t taught how to make space for the picture, or how space much to make; and, Followers aren’t taught that they have a responsibility to communicate what space they need to paint the picture. So often it’s a battle of wills with Followers feeling restricted and Leaders feeling overruled.

I’m not a follower in life, and was not taught anything useful about what Following is in dance, so I’ve had to work hard to figure it out for myself. I don’t resent it, to be honest — it’s made me one of the few instructors I’m aware of who actually have specific skills to teach related to following. I now have a vocabulary, methodology, and concrete tools to develop space management, axis management, and even the psyche of following. I’m endlessly proud to witness my male teaching partner use those tools with students, as well.

When I think back on my process of learning West Coast Swing (which is the first partner dance I invested anything in learning), I learned mostly from men, and mostly their message to me was, “don’t do that”, “don’t contribute so much”, “use less power”, etc. No positive messages there. It did get the better of me and it did cause erosion. The “me” in dance disappeared for a while and I’ve had to find and rebuild her. Again, I don’t resent it, because it’s made me a better teacher. Now, my teaching is developing in a way that is focused on building on what a person has or naturally brings to the table rather than trying to change them or strip away personality.

I am thankful to have found a (male) WCS coach who does the same, and I’m truly enjoying my dance — all of my dances — more than ever before. I feel able to express myself fully in partner dances more than ever before.

But it’s been a long haul, and one that I’d like to help other Followers avoid.

Following is Leading, back to my first point: sometimes I have been guilty of telling followers not to think, and I have committed to eradicate that kind of language from my vocabulary — instead, I will be more precise. What I have meant by “don’t think” is, “don’t think FOR THE LEADER”. I weary of Followers “teaching” leaders in class about everything the Leader is doing wrong. But WHY do Followers so often do that? Why are they so focused on the Leader and his failings rather than focusing on themselves?

I think it’s because of the void. If a Follower is not taught to Follow then what’s left for her do? If she is not supposed to “think”, then why is she even needed in class? Leaders could dance with broomsticks, blow-up dolls, or imaginary Followers just as well. If her job is “nothing” then everything must be the Leader’s fault.

Oh yeah … we have that idea hard-coded in our language, too! “If something goes wrong, it’s the leader’s fault”; or, “the Follower is always right.” Sound familiar?

For me, Following is about leading oneself in the space available. It’s also about learning to ask for or simply to take the space one needs to move. Followers have a Hell of a lot to think about. We must be attentive to the music while also being attentive to the lead. Our attention is constantly shifting from one message to another, from one connection point to another. Leaders aren’t often taught how those messages are received, and so Followers spend a great deal of energy deciphering. There is a LOT to learn here, for both Leaders and Followers.

I hope to liberate every Follower AND every Leader whom I teach from the inherent misogyny in partner dance instruction, because it holds us ALL back.