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.
*Version edited for typos*
There are so many great points in this article! I hope that men, in particular, interested in a healthier and more sustainable social dance scene will challenge themselves to take some of the suggestions above. That said, I can’t help but wonder if a large enough number of men are discontent enough with the current role of women in the scene to do anything differently? If not, I hope that women will empower themselves.
I hope we will vote with our wallet. I hope we will support well-run, women-led classes and festivals, as well as co-ed classes and workshops where our instructional needs are met (no more being props for the men to learn). I hope we will support the socials where we are welcomed and respected as both people and dancers. (The latter to highlight that in addition to basic respect, I would love to encounter more leads who strive to be strong dance partners and understand how their competence contributes to making a dance enjoyable and safe.) I hope that if we have the vision and drive to create — be it choreographies, socials, congresses, etc — we will find the courage and support to make our marks.
I also hope women will vote with their feet. Let’s stop dancing with the leads that are rude, rough, and disrespectful not only to us, but to other women. Let’s stop supporting the teachers, organizers, socials that do not uphold values that foster a healthy, inclusive community. Let’s own our right to have expectations and be willing to walk away (and/or pursue alternatives) when they are not met.
I agree with a lot of things:
* Women and men should not be stuck in the follow/lead roles
* Follow role should not be considered less than the lead role
* We should get rid of gender stereotypes
* Women should not be treated less than men with respect to teaching classes in congresses
That being said, I think leaders tend to get interested in the follow side (steps, timing, etc.) more often than the opposite.
In my opinion it is a natural evolution, at some point the leader really needs to know where the follow should be, what they should do, etc. to perfect their leading and improve the dance experience.
On the other side, some teachers encourage followers to have a passive role, not trying to anticipate anything (fair enough), and focus on the teaching the leader most of the time.
Statistically, a lot of followers in my social circle are not following any classes with the idea that they can just learn during socials.
In my opinion, all these things add up and contribute to what we have today.
In the end, I wish women and men would be taught both roles in classes.
This whole article sounds like someone was just looking for an opportunity to lash out at human beings for being born with white skin and the male gender.
Well, maybe. But when I started dancing, women were specifically instructed on how to defer and be lady-like. We were told never to have our feet in an open stance because that would be like spreading your legs which ladies don’t do. (That same teacher told me I was a MILF-go figure.) No one said leader and follower; everyone said men and “ladies”, or even “girls”. Sometimes they still do. Men were in charge of the dance. If two men danced together it was nearly always with homophobic “elbow jabs”. And the women who did teach had actual dance training. Years of dance training-ballet, jazz, modern, tap. They had training in every kind of dance, teaching experience, and performance experience. And yet they were introduced as __ __ (first and last name) and his partner (insert first name only).Their names weren’t listed or were printed under and smaller and as ______’s partner. Women were expected to wear tight, low cut, sexy, and revealing clothes, and to tolerate being hit on and sexualized. Like the time I was told I’d be alright if only I lightened up, ie laughed at my own oppression, and btw, “show me some cleavage”. Just recently I was told by a man to take off my mask to reveal my cute face-my health be damned. So, I’m with you-this all sounds like so much harsh PC feminism, the dirty word kind. But that’s because I was so schooled in being a second class citizen I didn’t even realize how much it robbed me of, how even being a feminist didn’t protect me, and how much of women’s potential, including my own, was systematically buried. So, you and I will balk a little or a lot at this kind of perspective, but the next generation will take it for granted just a little more that women get to share the stage, you know, of life.
Right on Paul. I couldn’t agree more. Nag,nag,nag on and on it goes…now under the guise of sexism. Maybe women should take a long hard look at themselves, without men their is no protection for women in society etc. no buildings to shelter from the cold etc. One thing women is great at is talking….world champions.
Seems to me the only people nagging on this post are some men 😉
And what part did you perceive as lashing out?
As a 70 year old, white (not that that matters), male (not that matters,either), I have recently been introduced to the LGBTQ+ world in two ways. First, our former son is now in Transition to womanhood. And, this has been a great opportunity to learn some new things about the Trans community and about myself . Second, I am fortunate to be in a class taught by Kelly Casanova. Kelly is a master dancer and teacher. She has been at the forefront in “de-gendering” West Coast Swing in America. She also encourages students to switch roles and learn both leading and following, which she is great at teaching. Practicing both roles makes one a better dancer. I have also learned to become comfortable dancing with other men; initially, it felt strange (even though I knew deeply that it was absolutely fine). Now, it’s almost comical to think that I had any kind of concern.
Anyway, it has been a great experience. I encourage everyone to get past their own “lions at the gate” and take advantage of any opportunity to grow in this way.