I’ve been feeling really frustrated for some time now and I’m uncertain of what to do. I’ve been noticing some serious problems in a community that I really care about and want to be a part of, and I’m uncertain of how to address them. This is a post about swing dancing and about sexism, and if you think that those two things don’t happen together then you should probably go away right now because I’m not particularly interested in trying to convince anyone that they do exist. What I do want to do is talk about how to react when someone mentions that your scene has a problem with sexism and that it’s bothering them. Two caveats: I don’t travel much for dance, so this post is limited to my local dance scene, and I have not done much by way of digging into other people’s experiences so this is primarily my own experience. However I think that if anyone in the lindy scene is treated as I have been, then it’s a problem.
I have noticed from the very first time that I began swing dancing that there was a problem with sexism in my community. The examples of this are too numerous to list in full, but to begin, there is the extremely gendered nature of the lead/follow roles. Some people might suggest that it isn’t sexist to have separate roles, but any time all the people in one gender feel pressure to do one thing and all the people of another gender feel pressure to do another thing, and there is exactly 0 space for nonbinary people, I start to worry. When it’s perfectly acceptable in a class for the instructor to say “guys” for leads and “girls” for follows, even when there are female leads in the class, I get really worried.
In addition to the fact that the two roles are gendered, it seems from my experience that they are also weighted differently. In competition, the male’s name is always called first, and he wears the number: he is considered “the couple”. This may seem small, but it is symbolic of a larger hierarchy in which leads tend to get more attention, praise, and time than follows. Follows are generally given short shrift during lessons, particularly in beginning dance classes which focus a lot on teaching leads particular moves. In the vast majority of the classes that I have been in, the male partner of the teacher duo speaks far more often than the female, and dominates the class. More often than not, he speaks exclusively to the leads. Therefore leads get most of the class time focused on them.
I have also heard following described in a derogatory fashion many, many times. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen it stereotyped as easier, lazy, unimportant, or as not contributing. I’ve heard follows referred to as trailers. Leads are told that they’re there to “show off” their follow, as if she’s an object. And as an odd pairing with this, follows are told that they’re “always right” and that leads are “stupid” in a bizarre mimicry of the putting women on a pedestal while treating them like they can’t do anything.
And even beyond the gendered nature of the roles and the prioritizing of one over the other, there is absolutely policing of heterosexuality and gender roles in the dance community. Some people might say that everyone is free to choose the role that they prefer, but there is a great deal of rhetoric that men are more suited to lead, and when all of your gender is choosing one thing, you absolutely get jokes or comments when you choose something else. And when you look at who dances with whom, it’s highly gendered. Sometimes women will dance with other women. That is true. Generally it’s their close friends, and when there aren’t enough men around. Men very rarely dance with each other, and a bizarre kind of fetishization takes place when they do: they get cat-called, or watched like no one else does. Men who follow get a lot of attention, but not really for the quality of their dancing, simply for being different, exciting, and “sexy”. Certain styles of dancing are considered feminine, and others masculine (seriously, try being a fly on the wall when an instructor asks guys to do hip swivels. 90% of the men look highly uncomfortable, and the instructor treats them like they’re physically incapable of moving their hips. I realize that women are typically more flexible through their hips but it’s not like we all need to be Nina Gilkenson here folks).
Perhaps worse than anything, some of the leaders of our community repeatedly make inappropriate and misogynistic comments and are still hero worshipped. I have even talked to other follows who have been groped while dancing with some of the leaders of our community and no one will bring it up or ask people to change their behaviors. I have absolutely had non-accidental boob and butt grabs happen to me while dancing and that is 100% Not OK. That is harassment. Plain and simple.
And yet there is absolutely no system in place to address concerns like this. When I have been grabbed or made to feel uncomfortable, there is no one for me to speak to about it, and I rarely feel as if there is a system in place at events for me to deal with or process it. It could be as easy as instituting a harassment policy in classes, events, or social dances, so that if someone is being inappropriate, there is someone to tell. And in addition to the lack of any oversight about harassment, the reaction when I have mentioned that things might be a little off has been…unwelcoming to say the least. When I try to bring up sexism in the dance community, every single tired old excuse for sexism gets trotted out in front of me.
I’m told that’s just the way things are, or that people just happen to feel more comfortable in the same role as the rest of their gender. I’m told that it’s an overreaction, that I’m the “PC Police”. I’m told that men are naturally better at leading, and women are naturally better at following. I’m told that men and women’s bodies move different ways so we can’t expect them to do the same things. I never hear discussion of these issues unless I bring them up, and when I bring them up there is so much defensiveness that I start to wonder if I’m hallucinating all these things that make me feel so uncomfortable and if I should just give up.
And that’s a huge problem to me. If someone in your movement takes the time to say that they feel something is wrong, that they feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in some manner, the response that they’re just making it up or overreacting is not the right response. Even if they are overreacting, you should still take the time to listen to their concerns and do your best to address whatever is making them uncomfortable. But when you gaslight, or get defensive, it alienates them and anyone else who might have had similar feelings. It illustrates that you’re more concerned about saving face and being right than you are about ensuring the comfort of the people in your community.
If leaders in the community, particularly instructors and those who organize dances, took the time to listen to some of the concerns, they might realize that the ways we can address some of this sexism are things that are fairly easy to institute and would generally improve the community even if sexism weren’t a problem. It absolutely wouldn’t hurt anything or destroy all gender roles or result in a breakdown of all order. It would simply allow more flexibility for everyone to learn all parts of the dance and challenge themselves.
1. Start out beginner dance classes as ambi: switching between lead and follow. If not beginner classes, then at least have ambi classes as an option.
2. Start a series of classes for intermediate to advanced dancers to learn the other part.
3. During social dances, announce one song a night that’s the gender bender song: everyone dance a different part or with a different gender than you typically would.
4. Try starting some dialogues, particularly in more advanced classes, about why people feel comfortable in particular roles and how we can make more roles comfortable.
5. Try to teach across genders: have a female teacher try to teach to the males, or vice versa.
6. Use gender neutral language when teaching.
I have a hard time imagining negative consequences to these actions, and if someone has thoughts about negative consequences please let me know. I can however imagine a lot of positive consequences. Each of us has individual talents. Some of them might be more likely to fall in one gender or another, but we all have talents, and if we were to be able to choose our role based upon which one we’re better at and feel more comfortable doing, rather than our gender, I imagine we’d all enjoy ourselves more. In addition, having an understanding of both parts of the dance can only make us better dancers. It increases our number of potential partners. It could help to desexualize many dances (which in my mind is a good thing: I don’t think dances should be sexualized unless both partners want it to be). If nothing else they will make us more aware of ourselves and each other, and improve our dancing by allowing us to understand more parts of the dance. So why do people react in such a negative way? Why are people so defensive about sexism in dancing?
To me, this illustrates that some people have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are, or that some people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of breaking down some of the gender roles and power structures that currently exist in dancing. I’m not entirely sure why, and I’m not sure what they gain by keeping things the way they are. But every time I bring up one of my concerns and am told that people are just joking, or to loosen up, or that I’m overreacting, I become less and less interested in returning to the dances around town. I enjoy myself less and less. I know that dance communities pride themselves on being welcoming and thus may not like to hear that someone feels unwelcome, but one of the most important things to do in order to be welcoming is to listen.
And I’m speaking up: I am losing something that makes me extremely happy because I feel unwelcome and ignored due to my gender. I feel like I’ve been actively told to shut up when I bring up these concerns. This is not the way to handle concerns in a community, and it means that you are actively losing someone who wanted to be part of your community. I realize that I have very little power and that whether or not I continue to dance means very little to anyone but me, but I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. If something doesn’t change, you will continue to alienate people. I have no desire to attack anyone, name names, or point fingers. This is likely no one’s fault, but is rather a vestige of the past. All I ask is for some changes, or at least some acceptance that there might be a problem and that we could improve.