Everyday linguistic anthropology

Inclusivity and dance terminology

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About six months ago, after learning that I dance socially, a stranger at a party asked me: “What’s an example of a dance where the woman leads?”

“Um,” I responded, “all of them, potentially.”

He looked perplexed, so I decided to illustrate.

“Can I touch you?” I asked. He nodded, First I put my right hand on his shoulder blade, draped his left arm over mine, and took his right hand in my left. Then I took a step backwards and he moved with me. “Now I’m leading,” I said. I then rearranged us so that we mirrored this position. “Take a step,” I suggested, and when he did, we both moved. “Now you’re leading.”

What do “leading” and “following” actually mean?

Even if you’ve never danced, you probably know that partner dance requires two people, and that these two people have slightly different roles. Roughly speaking, one person sets the direction of movement — and the other follows that momentum and embellishes upon it. You might also say that one person suggests a movement, and the other decides whether or not to accept that suggestion. The first of these roles is the lead and the second is the follow.

Lots of people tend to naturalize the idea of leading and following. That is, they don’t see it as a question of suggestion, but rather this way: “Leaders lead, followers follow, and that’s how it is and should be.” And that can imply some uncomfortable dynamics around consent and coercion.

Those dynamics are almost certainly linked to gender, since the roles themselves are heavily gendered. Traditionally, men dance the lead role and women dance the follow role.

But welcome to 2017: men dance with men, women dance with women, women lead men, and not everyone identifies as a man or a woman.

How do we talk about dance roles?

In broad strokes, there are two ways to talk about gender in social dance spaces.

Some instructors use almost exclusively gendered terms for the roles. “Ladies, follow me,” they might say, or, “Guys, let’s have you start on the right.” These instructors — and the dance spaces they teach in — also tend to make assumptions based on your appearance about two things: your preferred role and the gender you prefer in your dance partners. And this language, and these practices, reinforce strict ideas of gender, including the stereotypes my new acquaintance was leaning on.

In other spaces, there’s a move towards more gender-neutral terms. These days, I hear leads and follows more often than terms linked to gender. The assumption, or at least the ideal, behind these terms is that anyone can and should ask anyone else to dance, and that it’s polite to ask someone if they prefer to lead or follow. (The one exception is when you know them well enough to know the answer.) It’s not a perfect system: sometimes you ask someone to dance only to discover that you both prefer the same role, and then you might skip dancing together. But it provides a lot more flexibility.

In practice, of course, most dance spaces mix the two approaches — some people use more gendered terms and some people use more gender-neutral ones. And given that most people continue to dance the role you’d expect based on their gender presentation, talking about what leads and follows can or should do is sometimes just a coded way of making sexist generalizations.

While moving away from gendered language can help evolve past gender norms, it doesn’t suddenly and magically get rid of them. If anything, some toxic ideas about gender are particularly persistent in the dance world: for instance, norms around who can and should initiate contact. The social dances that I attend most often use the terms lead and follow, and everyone is encouraged to ask everyone else to dance. But even at these dances, male-presenting people do most of the asking, many of them ask female-presenting people to dance far more frequently, and many of them assume that the more male-presenting person will lead and the more female-presenting person will follow.

Does every dance have a lead and a follow?

Further complicating the issue, I’m familiar with at least a few forms of dance where there are two complementary roles, but where it doesn’t make much sense to think of these roles as leading and following. These are dances where you have a partner, but you don’t dance with that partner alone: you also need to interact with other partnerships in regular and predictable ways (e.g. square dances, line dances, contra dances). You can’t really be creative about momentum or direction — everyone would just smash into one another. Instead, everyone needs to end up in particular places at particular times in order to interact with someone else.

These dances typically have a caller: someone who’s telling everyone what to do at any particular point. That means lead and follow are somewhat inaccurate, at least in terms of the overall directionality of the dance. In fact, the biggest difference between the two roles is whether you’re on the right or the left in certain kinds of movements, and whether you participate in certain figures or not. (One role still tends to be the one to suggest certain types of flourishes like twirls, and the other role can accept or reject that suggestion.)

So what do we call the roles in this case? Gendered terms (ladies and gents, boys and girls) are particularly common in these spaces, for (at least) two reasons: not only are lead and follow somewhat misleading (pun intended), these are also old-timey dance forms with a traditionalist bent. But those gendered terms can get awfully confusing: there are always quite a few female-presenting people dancing the gent or boy role, and quite a few male-presenting people dancing the lady or girl.

Even worse, these terms are often used in ways that reinforce strict ideas about gender. For instance, I’ve heard the following mnemonic more times than I can count: “Just remember, ladies on the right, because the lady is always right.” (Do I need to spell out why this is sexist?)

You know, we could just call the roles right and left and avoid all that nonsense. And there are various sets of alternative terms that aim to do just that, although they haven’t caught on widely.

Keeping up with the times (and the beat)

Society evolves; language evolves along with it. We’ve gotten a lot less strict about gender norms — both on and off the dance floor — and we’re still making progress. Inclusive language is far from a silver bullet, but it helps demolish the infrastructure that keeps inequality alive. And the way we talk about gender has shifted to accommodate the way society is changing.

After all, changing the way we talk can help newcomers join the community without some of that gender baggage. And it makes the community more welcoming, especially for folks who don’t identify with “traditional” gender roles.

So why not apply the same mindfulness when we talk about dance roles?

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