Monday, January 1, 2018

Partner Dancing Needs A Queer Revolution

I used to dance when I was young, and then I didn't dance for a long, long time, and then I started to want to dance again. So I started thinking about "what kinds of dancing," and one aspect of the contemporary dance scene that one immediately confronts is that a lot of dancing is geared either toward performance or toward what I learned is called "social dancing." And a lot of social dancing is partner dancing, where two people dance together.

In North America, partner dancing seems to include ballroom dancing, waltz, tango, salsa, and related styles. I want to dance to have a good time, not to perform, so on the face of it, social dancing is just what I'm looking for, and I like the idea of partner dancing -- dancing with someone. As I've known for decades, though, social partner dancing presents a person with an immediate problem: one person has to follow the other.

I've tried partner dancing a few times in my life, and leading and following is one of the first lessons. A shocking amount of partner dancing seems to still involve a man and a woman paired up together, and when it does, it's the man who leads and the woman who follows. OK, it's 2017, so that's a little nuts right off the bat. But when you start being instructed on how to follow, you realize it's even crazier than its sounds.

I remember in one class being told that to be a good follower, you had to be ultra attentive to the tiniest gestures and glances of your partner, so you could sense, as immediately as possible, what direction they were going to go in, and what move they were going to do. It's not like a "Simon Says" situation. It's more like immersing yourself in a study of the physicality of the other person, to sense them, understand them, and respond to them.

I remember when I heard that I was kind of horrified. I mean, one of the things that makes it difficult to be a woman in the modern world is that women are socialized to study men, sense them, understand them, and respond to them. And while it would be nice in romance if everyone would study, sense, understanding, and respond to others, in public life and work the gendered difference in this activity becomes a huge problem. know a lot of women share my sense that in those contexts, studying, sensing, understanding and responding to men's every motion and glance is what we're trying to unlearn. And now doing it is going to be part of my dancing? My dancing I am doing for fun?

If you think I'm exaggerating the creepiness of following, notice that the "following" advice on this page includes the sentence: "I tell women 'you are a food cart, with steel arms and really good wheels.'"

This is no good. Something should change so social partner dancing can get away from all these heteronormative styles and norms. Maybe there are already queer social dances and places that I just don't know about. But even if there are, they haven't made their way to my local dancing class studios, which are in a big city and probably have a lot of queer clientele already. So, what to do?

What does it mean to dance "with someone" if neither person is following? One idea would be for there to be more set and choreographed dances that people would learn. What's wrong with dances that follow a specific script of where you go and what steps you do and when? Then if both people know the dance, they can do it together, without anyone following.

In fact, if the steps are choreographed and always the same, the sensing and responding that is an annoying part of gendered following could become a lighter and more mutual thing. Making sure the dance moves smoothly is something both people could do together. Weren't there European dances that like this back in the day?

If you look at this description of The Quadrille, you'll see a highly structured dance with multiple couples. Interestingly, the Quadrille is related to modern square dancing -- a form in which dance figures are "called." Why can't that structure be danced to cool new music with cool new moves? That seems like it would be really fun.

I thought about this idea before, when I was in BodyAttack. As regular readers know, I'm obsessed with this class, which is officially a "sports inspired" workout class -- but if you've been, you know it has a lot of goofy moves and a hilarious anthemic track 8 with a chorus-line feeling. Anyway, a few years ago a release came out where the "agility track" involved getting into groups on either side of the room, and moving toward one another and then away, facing front and then facing one another, all set to this incredibly infectious electronic dance song "Hardcore Salsa 2K14 (Hardstyle Edit)."

It was really fun. When I did it in Paris at the gym near Place de la République, it was in the dark with disco lights on, and it was awesome. I remember thinking: this is like a dance. If I'd known what a quadrille was, I might have thought, "This is like a quadrille." Why not more things like that? Not only could the people identify in any way gender-wise, the partners could shift around during the dance, which would actually be cool and awesome.

In some ways partner dancing is such an antidote to the ills of modern life. It is an essentially in-person activity, it is artistic, it encourages everyone making themselves a little bit vulnerable, and it doesn't require expensive equipment. Plus -- it is dancing! If only we could solve the leader-follower thing, we'd really be getting somewhere.


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Aaron Boyden said...

It's clear that some people have been using some unfortunate metaphors in the dance instruction you've encountered, but I also think you're reading a little too much into this. In general, in partner dances, the follower has more complex moves, while the leader has simpler moves and so is less distracted and more able to pay attention to surroundings, to avert possible collisions or other trouble. This also means it's an advantage for the leader to be taller, to have a better view, which is a reason for the man in most male-female couples to be the leader. At least most partner dance groups I'm familiar with don't consider this more than a convenient general rule, and I've never encountered such creepiness as you describe in any descriptions I've heard from people about leading and following in dancing.