A while back I found myself taking regular car trips with a bunch of follows to various dances, and one topic of conversation turned to dance safety (not the safety dance) and dance etiquette (again, those who know me might not be surprised to find out I couldn't get "etiquette" close enough for spell checker to fix, I had to use a thesaurus and look up "manners"). One serious complaint was surprise aerials, an aerial is a move where one partner, usually the follow, spends a noticeable amount of time without any feet on the floor, and a surprise aerial is an aerial led by a lead whom the follow didn't know led aerials. Personally, I can only imagine that the experience of being suddenly thrown into the air is moderately disconcerting, to say the least.
In addition to the unpleasant surprise factor, there is also an issue of respect and safety to consider. Safety because the lead is doing what amounts to throwing of the follow into the air when they are unprepared, and dance floors tend to be quite hard. Respect because the fact that a lead feels competent to make this decision without consulting the follow seems to show some amount of disrespect.
Of course, because I am a philosopher in addition to a dancer, I see this as a metaphor for gender relations off of the dance floor. It is quite common in our culture for males to take the lead, so to speak, in inter-gender relations. While there are some things both parties can do to protect themselves, once males are leading a disproportionate amount of injury occurs to females. So, as a Feminist, I have to question the morality of the worldview implicitly contained in social dancing.
Because I love dancing so much, it is of some importance that I find some way to rehabilitate it from this portrayal of a barbaric institution normalizing male dominance. The most obvious tool with which to do so is to claim that, unlike the imperfect world off the dance floor, dancers are actually able to choose which role they choose to embody independently of their gender. Thus women are not forced into the submissive, and somewhat more dangerous, role of follow.
Of course, this assertion is not entirely unproblematic. At first glance one can easily see that dance role and gender are not independent, as one's gender strongly influences, if not determines, the dance role one adopts. Furthermore, the question of how free one actually is to choose exists.
When women outnumber men it is not uncommon for those who are both experienced dancers and quite brave to try to learn the lead moves, in order to get closer to a balanced number of leads and follows. However, it is quite uncommon for women to lead in situations where men and women are in balanced numbers or when more men are present. This suggests the rather disturbing notion that, if there are excess women there is a choice, but primarily women are there to dance with men as follows. On the other hand, when teaching a lesson which was sparsely attended by males, I pretty much told them they had better be leads due to the gender imbalance, so perhaps there is symmetry in the assumption that each gender should conform to their traditional role in times of scarcity, leaving only the problematic issue of inequality inherent in the roles.
Before moving off this topic, I would like to note an interesting asymmetry that I believe exists. As I noted, in lessons when women greatly outnumber men it is not uncommon for women to lead. Additionally, it is also not unheard of for women to choose the lead role and ask another women to dance. However, it seems much less common for a man to explore the follow role. I have followed a few times, both because I wanted to balance the lead/follow ratio of a lesson and also because I believe that familiarity with the follow role translates into increased ability in the lead role. While following when dancing with a friend is quite comfortable, aside from the difficulty I have with the actual following, swapping to follow in a lesson often feels uncomfortable as other men seem reluctant to dance with another man, and occasionally I have received an outright refusal, albeit a polite one. It seems like this reflects a reluctance on the part of men to closely collaborate with each other which is much less common in women.
Anyway, if the defense that each dancer chooses their role is in fact only an illusion of choice for the most part, one must once again attempt to reconcile one's self with the inequity in dance roles. To be sure, there are decided advantages to studying the follow role. Because leads need to initiate the moves, it seems much easier for follows to "learn" new moves, as, ideally, they can simply follow the lead's direction through most moves assuming a degree of experience for both the lead and the follow. On the other hand, since the lead bears responsibility for guiding the follow through the move, an increased amount of technical knowledge of a move is required for the lead to be able to dance it. Furthermore this extends to learning entirely new dance styles. A highly skilled follow can succeed in dancing an unfamiliar style of dance with a quick introduction to the basic idea and a moderately competent lead, this is much less true for a lead.
While there seem to be both advantages and disadvantages to the expectation that follows cede responsibility for move choice to the lead, the disparity between lead and follow roles remains troubling. Perhaps the last recourse is to assert that at least it is the follow's decision to dance with me, although once again it is usually the lead that initiates the interaction by asking a follow to dance. Of course, even the assumption that this decision on the part of the follow is being freely made could be assaulted by dance etiquette that encourages acceptance of dance requests in order to keep leads comfortable making said requests.