This isn’t the first time I’m writing about the underappreciation of follows – or the sexism that is so entwined with the concept. We’ve come a long way from when I first started writing about it around 2015/16. I wasn’t the only one writing about it, either. There were even research studies about the names of the roles. For example, I hear the term “just follow” much less – though it still happens. I’ve also seen teachers try much harder to include followers in the content of their classes – at least in the styles that I dance.
But, we still have a long way to go.
Conflating “Follower” with “Woman” and “Leader” with “Man”
The issues with follower role underappreciation and sexism experienced by women in dance are entwined – but not the same. In some areas, this may overlap significantly, but it’s important to recognize this nuance.
For example, the amount of male solo artists that are hired – especially in a headline capacity – far exceeds female solo artists hired by events. It is important to recognize, here, that even experienced female leaders – or solo female teachers that are primarily follows – are not given the same deference as these solo men. In contrast, I have seen accomplished male followers that are provided with deference as a solo follower, including teaching heels or styling classes.
(It is important to note that male followers still face more difficulty socially getting dances than female leaders, even if those pro male leaders that also follow have an easier time “making” it than female pro followers that also lead.)
It is absolutely fair to say that some of this stems from an underappreciation of following as a role – but we cannot ignore that the underappreciated follower role is the “traditionally feminine” role, or that women have a harder time breaking out as a known lead than male dancers as a known follow. Because of this, we cannot only attribute these discrepancies as following being undervalued; we must look at it through the lens of sexism.
We need to be absolutely explicit about where these intersections occur. Otherwise, it opens the door to the next issue on this list.
The Man as Expert
When we talk about following as underappreciated without the lens of sexism, a lot of the solutions start to sound like male leads becoming better follows and teachers. This is great – but it does not fix the inequity that female dancers face. (I’ll talk more about what actually does have to change for equity).
If male leads just become more competent followers without paying attention to the sexism experienced by women, it starts to make it even more tempting to keep the status quo. After all, why hire a female follower if the solo male leader can do both roles just fine?
Until women are really, truly recognized as just as capable of expertise as their male counterparts, the Man as Expert solution will fail to resolve the systemic issues that likely contributed to following being the underappreciated role that it is.
The Flip Side: When Women are More Experienced
Many extremely gracious men are great at taking feedback – until it comes from a female peer. There are plenty of accomplished women that know a lot about both leading and following, yet we still see pairings where the most common arrangement is a very experienced male lead and a new but talented young woman (and often, white and “sexy”).
While it is great to talk about the man as an expert at both, I’ve seen many men become defensive if a female dancer they view as a peer (instead of a mentor) critiques an aspect of their dance. This can occur even when the woman is more trained or experienced than the male lead.
I don’t want to discourage male leaders from developing expertise in both roles, but in my opinion it is more important that they start recognizing the already-existing expertise of female follow-dominant individuals who also know and can explain leader theory.
The Man as Saviour
From male leads talking about “protecting their follow” to the assumption that the male lead will be the primary lesson planner, the Man as Saviour issue is fairly frequent. It can come from a very well-meaning place – which is wonderful – but it really needs a closer examination.
What a lot of female dancers need is someone who shares space with them and advocates for that space, both in and out of partnerships. As an organizer, I see a major difference in the external equity of partnerships where the male partner explicitly gives respect to their partner. For example, I see Kadu and Larissa’s partnership as one where his actions and behaviour explicitly and respectfully share space with Larissa as equals. To me, it causes their partnership to be seen as truly equal – as opposed to him “allowing” her to be shining alongside him.
As long as the conversation is about whether a male partner is allowing or giving space, rather than about approaching things with a mentality of sharing the space equally, the conversation remains couched in the idea that men have the power and are benevolently sharing it as opposed to true equality.
A really good way to evaluate whether you view yourself as “giving” or “allowing” space versus “sharing” the space is how you view the expertise of your partner. An example of a good motivation is “my teaching partner may have something important to add here; let’s see,” or “I think it’s important that my partner has a chance to deliver her expertise here; let me be quiet now.” A less-ideal motivation is “My partner is shy, so I’m going to be a good guy by asking her to speak!”
Painting the Female Follow as Shy or Unconfident
Another consideration we have to consider in these conversations is the tendency to label followers as somehow shy or unconfident – particularly when coupled with the idea of a male lead as the saviour.
While it is true that there are many female dancers that suffer from imposter syndrome, looking at it as “helping her out of it” is another aspect of Saviourship. Instead of saving her from these issues, ask her what she needs to feel more comfortable and make it happen. For example, ask her:
- Does she feel like you chose the topic or class strategy together? Or, does she prefer an alternate arrangement?
- Does she want more lesson planning time, or does she already understand and know the content?
- Does she want to introduce the movement, or explain the tweaks?
- Is language proficiency a barrier? Can you help her translate when she struggles with a word?
- Does she feel like you speak over her? Is there a signal she can give you to ask for the floor without feeling she is interrupting?
- Does she not talk because she feels you’re already talking too much and wants to keep the students moving? Can you cut back to better equalize the space?
In all of these aspects, it is her wants and needs (not what you think she wants) that are centred.
What “Doing Something” About the Problem Means
As I’ve already mentioned, the underappreciated role of following is very tied to the sexism that women face. While learning both roles well is great, it doesn’t fix this issue. Neither is finding an assistant – though advocating for their fair treatment is great.
What does fix the issue is getting out of the way.
This may seem harsh, but as long as solo male teachers are dominating circuits without advocating for their partners or fellow solo female teachers, this inequity will remain regardless of how well the men teach follows. Sometimes, that will face these solo teachers with a difficult choice:
Is the equality of my fellow female solo teachers important enough to me to lose some fame or gigs?
If you are hired at an event with a large number of men compared to women on staff, are you:
- Willing to give up your space to spotlight a solo female teacher?
- Asking the organizer to bring a solo female instructor to balance out the ratios?
- Willing to shine your spotlight on an underappreciated female instructor than keep it for yourself?
If you are a social dancer and not a pro, you can also contribute by:
- Spending at least as much time highlighting great women in dance as great men
- Ensuring women following in videos also are recognized – not just the famous lead (thanks Charles Ogar for this idea)
- Ask your organizers to showcase women you admire and want to learn from
- If you can’t think of women you would want to learn from… find some
And this brings me to the final thing that has to change:
Organizers have to commit to looking at equity in their hiring practises. This isn’t only limited to the genders of who teaches at an event – it also includes race and other underrepresented groups.