Friday, April 29, 2011

Dancing Around Gender Roles

Those of you who happen to know me in the 3 dimensional space we call the real world probably are aware that I pretty much love social dancing. For those of you don't know this, or even what social dancing is, a social dance is a dance where a lead dances with a follow. It is the leads duty to, safely, determine what moves shall be done and indicate that to the follow through body motion. Then both people make the move happen, then much fun is had. While it is by no means a rule, for the most part males lead and females follow, so it would seem that some analysis of gender roles could be obtained by considering social dancing.

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.


Max said...

While on internship at UC Davis, my roommate and I would go to a Blues club every Sunday night called the Firehouse Five in Sacramento. For those who don't know, Blues is a partners dance (the usual lead-follow relationship as Kenny described it) but very close. It resembles a hug more than anything else and though there is an open position that one should probably use with women they don't know well, the "culture" of Blues seems to dictate that the true dance is danced in what is called 'Closed Embrace.'

This closeness, and the structure of a partnership that the dancers form, lends itself to a sexual interpretation. One is free to make this interpretation or not, but there is evident conflict between those who choose to do so, and those who do not. For those who want to simulate something like affection, it seems vulgar to look over and see people simulating something else entirely.

That said, there are young women who attend who don't ascribe to either of these parties, and can get themselves into uncomfortable situations if they dance with the wrong guys. I recognize that I'm imposing my own opinion by calling these guys "wrong." Further, guys can end up dancing with very friendly women, which is surprising.

Social dance is a delicate dance in itself, with expectations that vary by person, and vary as people themselves change over time. I wish that I could prescribe openly communicating limits with ones partner, but insofar as dance is a microcosm of human interactions, it does not enjoy the same wide means of communication, opting instead for those subtle cues of hands, feet, rhythm.

Kenny said...

Thank you for the interesting comment! I am such a cad that I mentioned how much I liked it to some people with whom I dance and who had read this post without letting you know that I thought it was great. Of course, me being myself, I tend to dance bal(boa) and what "blues" I do in a fairly open connection, thus mainly avoiding this specific problem, although I am sure causing others ;)

Max said...

Yeah, at least in the circles I learned them, Blues and Balboa are not "intended" to be danced open. But I certainly understand the motivation for doing so!

You cad.

Kenny said...

I guess I mean relatively open, not actually open. Because I'm still in a closed position, but I lead via a frame (because I started ballrooming first maybe?) rather than a nice friendly hug.

Max said...

I was taught that what you described is "closed" position, because as you say it is similar to closed position in those nice, civilized, urbane ballroom dances.

Kenny said...

Yes, I just was attempting to differentiate it from the closed position you described, and did so poorly. Don't make me delete my original comment to expunge my error, leaving you looking crazy for responding, and mean for calling me a cad to boot ;)

Kenny said...

I just re-read your original comment and noticed/appreciated that men are "wrong" and women are "friendly." ;) I may message you about this, in case you don't eagerly subscribe to every post on which you comment. But you should.

Max said...

Well, you can't expect to understand the full depth of my comments on your first reading. It takes time to distill and explore the richness of my brain-words.

Kenny said...

Your brain-worlds are as enriching as your word-tapestries!

Max said...

Wait, so did you have a question? I just made a letter-joke because I didn't understand your blag-commentscript.

Kenny said...

I didn't specifically thirst for your thought-nectar, why do you ask?