Can women lead as well as men? Can men follow as well as women?

If you haven’t seen this Ted Talk floating around your dance circuits by now, I’d invite you to watch before reading on.

Writer’s Note: Trevor used to work as a professor in my university’s drama program. He was positively legendary among the students as one of the best acting professors out there. For years, I was in that program and never met him (my bad luck)… until we met accidentally one night at a Salsa club. Awesome person, and the fact that he is a professional actor makes this video even *more* of a pleasure to watch.

Now, there is a lot that I agree with in this talk. A Lot. However, I do think that it is an important disclaimer that this talk is presented in the context of ballroom dancing. Ballroom dancing is (in my opinion) far more rigid in its ‘roles’ than it is in many of the social dance scenes in existence. Yet, despite the fact that many scenes are more flexible, these same ideologies still occasionally permeate into the culture of social dancing. For example, a rigidity of the roles assigned to people in social dancing.

Trevor and Jeff make an interesting statement in this Ted Talk. They encourage the audience to look for what is *not* represented in the social dance scene. The groups that are *not* represented when you look around the room. They go on to encourage the audience to Google ‘professional Latin dancer’ and look for a Latino.

I did. Here’s what I found.



Literally, the “page after page of Russian dancers spray-tanned to the point of mahogany” represented in the video.

Now, racial representation may not be the most illustrative point in the context of social dancing (although, there are still some groups that are poorly represented in areas of dance created in part by their cultural background – i.e. proportionality of African Americans in swing dance communities). The reason that I say this is because social dance scenes are largely founded on principles of inclusiveness for people of all backgrounds. I can go to a Salsa, Zouk, Kizomba, or WCS social and see people of every background and body type imaginable. Some more than others, but always present – and by and large, not rejected. This does, in some ways, differ from things like competitive ballroom and Dancing With The Stars because we are not looking at the same, highly-sterilized view of dancing in which being part of the same mold raises our likelihood of succeeding at competition.

However, the lack of non-traditional roles in most (not all) social dance scenes is definitely telling.  I want to unpack that here.

I have both led and followed almost all of my dance styles for as long as I can remember. I started learning how to lead out of necessity and a desire to not sit down – but it quickly became much more than that. One of my biggest regrets is not simultaneously learning how to lead and follow WCS – which I am now finding a challenge to lead with the same proficiency I am used to.

As someone who does both roles, I can say I actively enjoy leading. It is a different feeling from following, but just as pleasant. Yet, if I choose to lead in a workshop where there are too few women, I get the stinky-eye. If I social dance with another woman, it frequently happens that a man feels the need to ‘rescue’ us from having to dance with each other. If I desire to compete as a lead, I need to scour the rules to see if I am prohibited from doing so.

“Do you have any idea how political that was?” – Trevor Copp

Part of the reasoning here is that non-gender conformity is one of the hot-button issues of our era. This doesn’t only apply to gay marriage, but also transgender rights, washroom usage, boys playing with ‘girl’ toys, girls playing with ‘boy’ toys, cross-dressing, and more. As a culture, we are often less-than-comfortable with non-gender conforming ideas. Men following and women leading fall under this bracket. Additionally, it’s often assumed that if you don’t do the traditional role, you *must* identify as queer or bi in the rest of life (I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve been asked ‘are you a lesbian?’).

It’s like the idea of being a lead means ‘masculine’ and being a follow means ‘feminine’… and it is exactly that. Trevor and Jeff reframe it in a historical context based on the origins of partner dancing:

“You weren’t just learning to dance. You were learning to man, and to woman.” – Trevor Copp

And, indeed, in many ways it still represents itself in this way. It represents itself in the way that the follow is responsible for looking pretty, and the lead is responsible for controlling the dance. It represents itself in the fact that men are usually close to fully-clothed on stage, and women are in revealing outfits. It represents itself through the enforced hetero-normative binary that to lead is male and to follow is female.

And then… Trevor says perhaps one of the only things in the entire talk I don’t fully agree with:

“It’s a relic… it’s history. It doesn’t represent how we think today.”

In my opinion, it is more than a relic. It’s a long-standing tradition with power and influence – and it still represents how many people continue to think today. Therein lies the problem: some people DO continue to think this way. They still subscribe to this idea of man-lead, woman-follow; he-talk, she-respond both inside of dance and in the larger world. Dance becomes a microcosm that reflects the idea of society as a whole in relation to male-female binary. This represents itself in other attitudes as well:

“Even within the […] straight couple only paradigm, she can’t be taller, he can’t be shorter. She can’t be bolder, he can’t be gentler. If you were to take a ballroom dance and translate that into a conversation and drop it into a movie, we as a culture would never stand for this. He dictates, she reacts. No relationship, gay straight or anything that we would regard as remotely healthy or functional looks like that.” – Trevor Copp

Well, there are certainly many people who wouldn’t be OK with this. BUT – there are many people who would praise the idea of women being the gentle, soft protected one and men being the strong, brave, bold one. (OK, this doesn’t necessarily apply to the height thing, but to be fair there are many women – myself included – who like it when the man is taller than us, and men who dislike when the woman exceeds their height… despite not necessarily being a deal-breaker).

It doesn’t make it healthy or functional, but it is still something that is acceptable in many circles. This acceptability in many areas is the reason why we still have discussions about equal rights for all, feminism, and more. These ideals are why we continue to have arguments about allowing role-fluidity in dance.

But what are the arguments against switching lead/follow roles?

“Dancing is Sexual, and I’m not comfortable dancing with someone of the same gender who I’m not attracted to.”

In my opinion, this one is perhaps the most silly arguments out there. If I only dance with people that I’m sexually attracted to, I’d never dance with some of my favourite leads. For example, there are some leads who are old enough to be my grandfather. I certainly don’t have sexual feelings towards them. I also have a long-term partner, but am quite capable of dancing closely with other men – no sexual feelings implied. I’m pretty sure our relationship wouldn’t have survived for this long if every time we danced with another human being there were sexy feelings involved.

I can also virtually guarantee that the gay guys I dance with aren’t thinking about how sexual our dance is – or how sexy their dance is with every other woman in the scene. Yet, somehow, these gay men are still dancing – many in traditional lead/follow roles. Further than that, I dance frequently as a lead (my non-traditional role). I can tell you I don’t have sexy feelings towards all my female friends.

Can you be sexually attracted to someone you’re dancing with? Of course! But to assume that dancing = sexual attraction is bogus. I’m not attracted to every man I dance with, and I’m pretty sure it works the same for gay guys and lesbians. Besides, decent human beings who are interested in someone who isn’t attracted to them back don’t force their sexual intentions on the other individual.

“Men just don’t feel the same as a female follow/Women just don’t feel the same as a male lead”

To that, I answer with Trevor’s statement:

“Physics doesn’t give a damn about your gender.”

No, seriously. The only difference between feeling like you’re ‘natural’ in a role in comparison to others is practice and training. I’ve led men who feel better as a follow than the majority of women I teach who are at a similar level. I’ve led women who tell me I’m a better lead than the majority of male leads in the room – and some have remarked I don’t feel ‘girly’ at all.

Why? Because I effing trained to lead. I now have some male students who follow and female students who lead. They certainly don’t feel like ‘boys trying to be girls’ or ‘girls trying to be boys’ at all. They feel like proper leads and proper follows in whatever their selected role is.

I’ve led female follows who could not be more different than each other. I’ve been led by men who whisper their connection, and those that wrench my arm. They’re all different – and there’s nothing that intrinsically tells me their gender in their lead.

Besides, if it really was a physical issue, wouldn’t it stand that the very petite guy would follow better than the 6ft, 200lb woman, and that she would lead better than that same petite guy? I mean, physics, right?

On that note, why can’t physics of leading and following be divorced from gender?

There is no rule that says ‘to lead’ must be done in a masculine way. I lead in heels and skirts just fine. There is also nothing that says that following must be done in a ‘feminine’ way. If we can learn to separate these two things and make them roles that do not automatically correlate to a specific physicality, we could remove the entire argument around these ideas that stem from the idea of men and women’s roles in dancing.

In other words…

“Forget what lead and follow are supposed to like. Be a masculine follow, or a feminine lead. Just be yourself […] keep the idea of lead and follow, but toss the idea that it’s related to gender” – Trevor and Jeff

This entire discussion is only political because we cannot separate the idea of masculinity and femininity from the roles of dance. But really, at its heart, dance is movement and connection. Ask people why they love social dancing, and you’ll get reactions like “the connection”, “the expression”, “the movement”, and “the people.” What Trevor and Jeff propose in their video about Liquid Lead Dancing takes us right back to the heart of what social dancing is supposed to be: an extension and expression of us.

“It wasn’t just that we were switching lead and follow, it’s that we remained consistent in our presence, our personality, and our power regardless of what role we were playing. We were still us” – Trevor and Jeff

We are all multifaceted. I don’t look identical to any other female or male dancer on this planet – neither do you. We are not singularly ‘smart’ or ‘sexy’ or any other trait – so must we be only situated in one role when it comes to dance? Can we not be ALL of it?

Why is it that we are so open and accepting of so many things – except dancing with certain genders? We will dance with old and young people, fat people, thin people, short people, tall people, black people, white people, asian people, disabled people, abled people, and more – but many will not dance with someone who has the same body parts?

It took years of discussion in WCS to permit non-traditional submissions in Jack and Jill competitions, on the basis that someone should not be ‘forced’ to dance with someone of the same gender. This is despite the fact that a JnJ is random: I could dance with someone I really like, or someone I really don’t. The goal is to make the best of it  (there’s a great discussion of this particular issue here).

Let’s take Jeff and Trevor’s approach: make dance what you want it to be. Let other people make their choices. If you choose to enter a competition with randomness, accept the fact it will be random. If you want to explore the ‘other side’, do it. If you want to switch back and forth in the same dance (a la ‘Liquid Lead Dancing’), do it. Become a more diversified dancer.

But really, we’re in the liberal arts. Can we please let go of these dated ‘relics’ of the old ballroom days, and move away from these constricting ideas of femininity and masculinity in dance?


Photo Credit: SV Photography