There’s been a trend about celebrating people who dance outside of the traditional roles. Whether it’s male follows, female leads, or ambidextrous dancers, it’s a great thing to see so many people stepping outside of the traditional.
I started leading and following my first dance (Salsa) from the very beginning nine years ago. I did the same thing when I started Brazilian Zouk. I worked at both roles, danced in both roles, and (eventually) taught in both roles. I did it in all dances I tried except West Coast Swing and Tango – for which I am forever kicking myself. Therefore, I consider myself a thoroughly ambidextrous dancer.
I do not consider myself a #LadyLead. In fact, I generally don’t like branding female leads as #LadyLeads and male follows as #FellowFollows. Here’s why.
#LadyLeads and #FellowFollows are not exceptionally talented dancers for simply existing
Female leaders and male followers are largely trailblazers in dismantling the traditional segregation between the roles. They deserve kudos and recognition for that. They deserve support. But, the fact that they are a male follow or a female lead does not make them a gifted dancer because of their role.
For example, a guy does not deserve credit as an “awesome Zouk follow” because he can stumble his way through a lateral and has borderline dangerous head movement. Just because a video is tagged #FellowFollow does not make it an example of great dancing. Similarly, a #LadyLead does not deserve skill recognition for arm-leading partners all over the floor. Yet, I see a lot of people holding up examples of videos as “wonderful dancing” just because the person is dancing a non-traditional role.
Recognition as a trailblazer? Maybe, depending on the scene and culture. Something to be encouraged? Absolutely. But, you don’t get a free pass to be untrained just because you’re not in your traditional role. Yet, these tags are often used as a sort of excuse for promotion of weaker dancing just because the dancers are doing a non-traditional role.
Take this example: a beginner student posts the results of their first private lesson. This is great – the student absolutely should be supported and uplifted for working on their dance. “Great job!” and “Looking good!” are completely fair accolades. But, I wouldn’t expect to see the dance promoted as an example of top-notch dancing.
To clarify: I am not saying that people cannot experiment with or dabble in the other role. I’m also not saying you must be good at the role to be allowed to do it (heck, everyone starts as a beginner!). That would be ridiculous. What I am saying is that lower-level dancing should not be praised as great dancing simply because the dancer is non-traditional. That dancing can be encouraged, praised, etc – but it does not make it high-quality dancing solely because of the sex and role of the dancer.
#LadyLeads and #FellowFollows that are skilled get treated like novelties
In contrast, I respect and admire the dance quality of dancers who train heavily in their role(s). That applies whether it is a traditional role, non-traditional role, or both.
There are some kick-ass demos of non-traditional dancers. To me, these people are not #LadyLeads and #FellowFollows. They are #BadAssLeads and #BadAssFollows. Much like I don’t believe in segregating non-traditional dancers into their own special competitions, I don’t believe in setting them apart as “other” in this context.
People who dance well in their non-traditional roles should be recognized for their ability as a good lead or good follow. Not “good for a girl” at leading, and not “good for a guy” at following. To me, the tags #LadyLead and #FellowFollow set it as being a special category for people dabbling, experimenting, or looking to prove something. I wouldn’t want a demo I was proud of being tagged as #LadyLead.
Why would I not want to be tagged that way? Because I’m not a novelty. Other dancers trained in non-traditional roles are not a novelty. We are not there for amusement. We are not there for two women to have a “sexy” routine for ogling, or for two guys to have a “funny” pantomime of flirtation. We are not there to be a PC addition to scenes to show representation. We are there to be f***ing bad-ass dancers.
I’ve fought in my own scene to not be seen as “good for a girl”. I’ve fought for the ability for the male leads in my scene to respect me as a lead who can hold my own in that role. Not as a #LadyLead – as a #BadAssLead.
A Double Standard
There’s a sad double standard at play in non-traditional leading and following. #FellowFollow often get used as an excuse for untrained dancing to be viewed as great. Yet, #LadyLead often gets trivialized to mean “good for a girl”.
This feeds back into a few other issues. First, the idea that following is “easy” and can be picked up on the fly. The #FellowFollow who just casually follows is no different from an untrained girl taking her first few steps on the floor. But, we give them a free pass because, you know, they’re a guy and they’re following.
Meanwhile, really good female leads get written off when called a #LadyLead because it is interpreted as “doing well for a girl.” Somehow, we expect more of female leaders than male leaders before we’re impressed on social media. Yet, we often expect less of male follows than female ones before having the same reaction.
We see this in teaching too. Female teachers are expected to do both roles. Male teachers often aren’t. Female teachers are expected to prove they know what they’re talking about. Male teachers often are assumed to know.
#LadyLead and #FellowFollow don’t help this situation because they often feed into these same stereotypes.
“But what about the Degendering Movement?”
The degendering movement is great. I’m glad there’s groups for videos to be shared, and support for people venturing into the non-traditional. But, to me, the goal of this movement should be to show that anyone who has the drive and ability can dance well in either role. It should not be a vehicle to promote the idea that just because you’re doing something that is (increasingly less) against-the-grain, you’re somehow wonderful at it, or that you’re “good (for your gender),” but simply a footnote in the wider field.
Also, the degendering movement should be concerned about the binary nature of #LadyLead and #FellowFollow. The terminology is suspiciously exclusive of some dancers.
“But I’m proud to be a #LadyLead or a #FellowFollow!”
I am also proud to be a good lead – but not because I’m a woman. I don’t want to promote the idea that I should be either trivialized as a novelty or held up as an example only because of my gender and role – which is what I feel the terms do. I want to be an example because I am good at what I do.
You don’t have to agree with me on #LadyLeads and #FellowFollows. You are welcome to view it as a powerful movement that helps people to step outside the roles. I just don’t see it that way. I would use my own community as an example of why.
I have a much higher than normal number of switch dancers in my classes – both male follows and female leads. Most students that have been with me for more than a few months decide to develop at least some skill in both. I think a large part of this is because gender isn’t highlighted. If you’re learning to follow, you’re a follow. Same for leading. I don’t treat you as a #FellowFollow or #LadyLead. Rather, I maintain the same expectations for your performance in that role without gender or sex ever entering the equation. It’s how I would want to be taught in my non-traditional role, and it’s how I would want to be treated. And, it’s worked wonders to create an inclusive and fluid role scene.
Holding Dancers to the Same Standard
Ambidextrous and non-traditional dancers have existed for a long time, even if they’ve only recently gained prominence in many scenes. I’ve been doing it for a while – and I certainly wasn’t the first. I want to see ambidextrous or non-traditional dancers being held to the same technical standards as traditional ones. Not higher – and not lower.
I want to see men who can follow with the same quality of movement as women. I want to see women who can base their partners with the same success as men. I don’t want us to be a novelty – and I don’t want us to trivialize competent non-traditional dancers by making it into an “other” category.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to be a #LadyLead. I don’t want to feel like I’ve been working at this for so long and pushing through doubting voices (“Don’t you have a man to teach with?”) just to be a #LadyLead.
Rather, I want to be a #BadAssLead – and a #BadAssFollow.
This post really inspired me! Thank you Laura!
I have a friend who is a fantastic ambidextrous dancer when it comes to Country Swing–the other night she was the best lead I danced with. Now you might not consider Country Swing a legitimate dance, but speaking as someone who also has training in ballroom–if anyone could write the book on lead and follow for that genre of swing, it would be her. But she is also incredibly humble. I want to celebrate people like my friend Sarah. 🙂
I really do not like when there is a random guy at a bachata LADY style and the teacher makes us clap our hands before the start to celebrate his courage to attend. What about the courage of all other female trainers ?!
Also reminds me a beginner bachata class, where I paid, and there were not enough leads, and I was very happy to learn and get the feeling to lead, so I did the course as a lead. When the teachers counted the attendees and the paid classes, it turned out that one guy had not paid “I was early for the intermediary class, as I saw that you were missing leads I came in”. It sounded very rough !
On the other side Laura, don’t you even recommend that one has to try both role in his dancing life ? Me I wanted to do it, to be on the other side to help me improve as a follow, also to be able to make women dance when there is a lack of leads at a social, and why not to lead men, because some like to do the Lady style, or the splits, or just like to be led… During the few classes I had as a lead, I found it a pleasure to lead very beginners, very attentive, they liked the easy steps and listening together to the music. Most of slighty more advanced ladies were less comfortable to lead, but it teaches me a lot about the connexion, and the frame, that a leader can expect from the follow. And to conclude, here we are not really playing the “two sexy ladies”, for example, the lady leading will usually not do hips rolls or arms styling. It also turned out to me that girls were leading other girls harder and with less gentle than men…
I’m really enjoying your web site.
Yesterday I asked if you have ever done Eastern European Folk dancing.
Although there are couple dances , most are not.
Which solves the who asks whom to dance problem.
But, more important ( to me ) is who leads in the occasional couple dance, as talked about in this article.
My impression , in this particular genre , is no one should ( lead ).
In particular , a Waltz is most enjoyable when both partners use the music to take their cues.
Can you comment ?