The Internalized Misogyny of the Follow

I’ve been on a bit of a dance hiatus for a long time after feeling a bit of a plateau and some serious anhedonia issues that left me feeling uninspired by dancing. However this week I finally got back in the saddle and made it out to a dance. Overall I found myself having somewhat lackluster dances as tends to happen after you’re gone for a long period of time, but my last two dances were with Anthony Chen and they were fantastic. Now that in and of itself is not a surprise, as it’s always fun to dance with Anthony, but what surprised me was how I felt about myself and my dancing during and after the dancing.

In the past, one of the things I’ve loved about dancing is the feeling of losing myself. I don’t have to think, I don’t have to plan, I can trust someone else to guide me and get me where I need to go. I’m not generally very good at trusting others, particularly with my body, and so for a long time I thought that this was progress: I could trust someone with my body, to place my body, to let someone else be in charge for a while and let myself simply go with what was happening.

It’s a feeling a bit like being on a roller coaster: you feel almost out of control, but you trust that you will be safe.

This dance was different. I found that instead of being told where I was supposed to go, I put forward my own energy and found someone else there with me. I contributed. I usually am extremely self-conscious of adding any flare or styling to my dancing. I get scared of screwing it up or looking stupid. I worry that it won’t fit into what my lead is doing. This wasn’t even on my mind during this dance. I simply DANCED and happened to be with another person. Each time one of us added some energy in, the other saw that and raised their own energy level to match. It was lovely.

I realize that this is not a revelation. There has been a robust discussion ongoing in the dance community about changing attitudes towards the lead/follow relationship and about the importance of equal partnership in dancing. I even was aware that this was the ideal in dancing for a long time before I had this dance (there have been few others where I’ve actually felt that I could achieve something close to this ideal). Rather what was a revelation was my own personal attitude towards the experiences of dancing equally and dancing not in partnership. I cannot speak for anyone else when it comes to these types of attitudes, but I strongly suspect that there are other women out there who share them.

I feel more comfortable when I’m not in control of my own body. I feel more safe. I feel as if I’m doing something right when I give up some of the autonomy that I have and let someone move me. It feels like an intense relief to me. Looking objectively at these two experiences, I can see that I dance better when I am on equal footing with my partner, but I am deeply uncomfortable with contributing something of myself to the dance. Instead, I simply want to get it “right” and do what the other person is asking me: be the perfect follow that is just an extension of the lead.

I have noticed this in other areas as well. For all that I hold feminist ideals and strive to be independent and autonomous, I often feel the most comfortable when someone else is telling me what to do, particularly when it comes to questions of the body. I prefer not to be particularly ostentatious with my body. I know that I have internalized these attitudes because society has told me to be more submissive than men, has told me that my body is dangerous, has told me that my body is an object.

Some people might deny the link between the objectification of women and the tendency for female follows to be passive in their dancing, but I know that it is true in my personal experience and I strongly suspect that it may be true for others. I worry that by encouraging women to be follows and that by continuing to teach follows to be an extension of the lead, we are solidifying the internal misogyny of many women. I know it has encouraged me to continue taking a backseat in my own body and in my own motion. It has not encouraged me to take up space, something that I have always found difficult and that I have actively worked to do. It has not encouraged me to be intentional with my body.

And so I worry that the way dancing is approached by many women is from a mindset of internalized misogyny that not only sets them up to dance worse than they could, but also to continue to put themselves in vulnerable positions. I don’t think it’s a stretch that the way we present our bodies and relate to others in dancing can carry over to many other places, even so far as sex (I’ve found that I’m very passive in both contexts out of much of the same motivation: fear of screwing up, fear of disappointing my partner, fear of looking stupid). But more than that, it seems that dancing could be a wonderful place to experiment with new attitudes, new rules, and new behaviors. It’s a fairly safe space (the worst that happens is you have a bad dance), and it’s one of the few places where we actively learn what we’re supposed to do with our bodies. In my mind, this gives dance teachers (especially those who are teaching beginner students) a great deal of power to make a positive impact in the lives of their female students. It certainly means that they should be careful with the language they use (e.g. I once heard a teacher refer to follows as a trailer hitch. Not helpful), and at the very least spend some good time with follows early on in dancing to set up the concept of equal partnership in dancing.

I’d really like to encourage other follows to think about the dances they prefer, the dances that make them feel comfortable and ask themselves about how that might reflect on their relationship with their body or gender. I’m certainly going to be more intentional going forward about not letting myself slip into a passive role, and I am setting myself a goal to learn how to lead. I would be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts about the relationship between gender and style of dance. Sound off in the comments!

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