This is probably going to be a polarizing article.
I’ve tried to write an article like this for a long time – but could never find the words.
I know that there are several individuals who feel that social dance is a bastion of equality, with both women and men being fully recognized as equals. I also know that many (including myself) feel undercurrents of sexism in some facets of social dance.
Before some people get their knickers in a knot, I know that not every dancer (male OR female) is sexist. I’m also aware that the vast majority are not intentionally sexist. But, there is still an insidious undercurrent that is hard to name and hard to pin down.
I also recognize that in the context of a larger society, dance is safer than most places. I trust 90-95% of the people who are out at socials. I’ve never had an issue with a male roommate acting inappropriate, or been worried about something being put in my drink. I largely feel safe and respected 95% of the time.
But, for all this wonderfulness, there is that 5% that directly behaves badly. There’s also a good portion of people who are not *intentionally* doing something wrong, but who are still behaving in sexist ways.
I know there is sexism in dance because I have experienced it. I have felt its sting, and I know I’m not the only one. I also know that there are facets of this sexism that also affect men – such as the great pressure present when the entire onus of the dance is attributed to the lead.
This is my story.
When I started dance classes, I was told I must always say ‘yes’ to dances; to say ‘no’ would be rude. It was also understood that the majority of the time, it would be men asking women for dances. I was also told that I should ‘just follow‘, since the lead was responsible for all the ‘hard stuff’.
When I first started social dancing, I had many dances I wanted to say ‘no‘ to. I had men who licked my ear, ‘accidentally’ grabbed my butt, and who led so roughly that it hurt. When certain men would walk towards me, I would run to the closest bathroom and hide until they had moved on to another partner. I was afraid to say ‘no’, because then I would be rude. I was only 19.
I remember when I would lead my friends, men would swoop in to ‘save’ me from dancing as a lead. I wanted to dance with my friends. Some of these ‘saviors’ called me names when I shooed them away. Some refused to let go of my partner. One had his friend grab me and tear me away from my friend.
A year into social dancing, a man offered to partner me. He would give me the ‘privilege’ of doing a routine with me – if I hit the gym and lost 10 pounds. I was 20, 5’8″, and 130 pounds.
This same man followed me to my hotel room 2 years later at a New Years Eve dance. He forced his way into my room after I repeatedly asked him to leave, and demanded I strip for him. When I declined, he offered me a penny to take off my skirt. I (obviously) declined again.
He then told me it was a ‘generous offer’ because I wasn’t worth that much.
A few weeks later, I brought up the incident to him and told him it made me feel very unsafe and uncomfortable. He responded by calling me an ‘attention seeking b**ch’ who ‘couldn’t get a guy to f**k me’ (stay classy, sir).
At the next social, he still asked me to dance. It was the first time I really remember declining a dance and not feeling terrible about it.
When I started teaching, I remember men who told me they didn’t want me to teach them because I ‘obviously wouldn’t be able to teach a lead’. To them, it was OK for women to learn from male instructors, but not OK for men to learn from female instructors. After all, “leading is the harder role”.
When I blogged about setting limits on what I would follow because I felt it was risky for my safety, I was called a ‘primadonna’ and a ‘b**ch’. I have been told that my arguments in some posts are invalid because ‘women are not the rational sex, and cannot know what they really want from a lead’. I have been told that I ‘need to be taken care of’, because female follows are more fragile and need protection.
I have also seen top international female pro’s told that they were ‘doing it wrong’ by men just starting their teaching journey. I have seen that same professional told that it would be much more constructive ‘if her [male] partner was there’ – despite the fact that she trained that partner.
To this day, I still have to prove that I know what I’m doing. I have had students on week 4 of classes tell me how to do a follow’s Lateral step, and correct me on the lead’s foot placement. Apparently, 4 weeks of Zouk classes as a male lead trumps over 4 years of Zouk classes, training and social dancing as a female follow and lead.
I know sexism exists in the dance scene because I have experienced it personally. I’m not even detailing all of the incidents of sexism that I have experienced or seen – only the most blatant ones. There’s an entire world below the obvious where women are devalued just a little bit. Not a lot, but just enough to reduce our equality – especially when all those incidents are put together.
No, it is not every man – but it is some men.
No, it is not only men – women can be sexist too.
No, it does not only affect women – men also suffer.
Men suffer when we tell them they are responsible for the entire dance – regardless of the follow’s skill. They suffer when we make them solely responsible (in many scenes) for asking for a dance. They suffer when we don’t take ‘creepy’ dance floor women seriously. They suffer when so many people have an intensely negative reaction to two men dancing together.
In the end, dance is a microcosm of our larger society. As long as there is sexism in our world, it will also be present in our dance scene. We can fight to eradicate it – but let’s make it civil. Education, kind words, and an openness to other’s experiences will help to further the dialogue. Defensiveness, denial, and belittling others feelings will not.
Please, leave your (civil) comments on this topic below. I would love to hear other perspectives and stories.
Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios