Is leading and following in partner dances sexist?

Rebecca Brightly did a couple of posts on connection and sexism in lindy recently. I found it via the discussion on Reddit.

Brightly’s stuff is getting so much comment because it combines thoughts on how to enjoy dancing more (which is good) with an Internet-feminist deontology (which is wrong, as any respectable consequentialist could tell you). She’s now at the Defcon 3 stage of talking about “de-railing”, deleting comments, and closing down threads when people disagree with her premise. So I thought I’d put my response here.

Context: in partnered dances, there are usually two roles: one person leads, another follows. Quite what each role entails is a settled question for some dance cultures and a matter of intense mass debating in some corners of others. Traditionally, the leader is a man and the follower is a woman.

Brightly seems to say that followers should take more initiative while dancing, in part because this will combat sexism. Now read on.

Stuff I agree with:

In lindy, (most of?) the really good leaders can handle the follower initiating movements, and (most of?) the really good follows do so. You can tell this is true because there are so many videos of it on YouTube.

If you’re both into it, this can increase the fun, and is therefore a good thing.

The tradition that the man leads and the woman follows arose out of a sexist (and homophobic) culture.

Having the tradition enforced (whether by teachers or by the disapproval of other dancers) such that people feel they cannot choose to dance the non-traditional role limits fun and is therefore bad.

Stuff I’m not convinced there’s much reason to believe:

Everyone should be taught both roles from beginning of their dancing career (the premise of the Ambidanceterous blog).
Everyone should learn both roles.
(I mean these either for a categorical or hypothetical “should”, Kant fans, with the hypothetical being “if you want to be a good dancer”).

The mere fact that the traditional association between roles and sexes is still common today is a moral wrong that ought to be righted.

Stuff I disagree with:

There’s a moral duty for followers to take the initiative more and for leaders to learn to deal with that. This duty arises because:
1. The idea that follows should not initiate movements is sexist.
2. There’s a moral duty to eliminate anything which could be labelled “sexism”.

I disagree with 1 and 2 jointly and severally.

2 is the Internet-feminist deontology I mentioned. It’s usually either just asserted (as Brightly does) or advanced by deploying the worst argument in the world. As commenter Devonavar says, it’s not clear that there are bad consequences of having non-initiatory followers, so even if it is sexist, it’s not clear we should care, or at least, that we should care more than we care about other stuff, like having fun (we can reasonably assume that some people dance like that because they enjoy it).

1 is correctly challenged by commenter Josephine, who identifies the problem as the enforced association of roles with sexes. At most, the idea that followers should rarely initiate is indirectly sexist while the enforcement continues, but seeing as the enforcement does more harm, why not just work on that directly?

4 Comments on "Is leading and following in partner dances sexist?"

  1. I do ceilidh style dancing (English and Scottish) where although the dances are all written for male/female couples… the parts are rarely very different (beyond “mirror image of partner”) and few people would try to insist that the “logical men” are all *actually men* (especially when, as is common, there are more women interested in dancing).

    So I think we’ve overcome the “men must do THIS” part, because we let women do it too (and vice versa) so there’s no worry about whether the men have a more or less interesting part in the dance.

    I’m not really convinced by the idea that the follower should sometimes initiate stuff; I think that’s pretty advanced dancing (of course if you want to do serious advanced dancing maybe you *should* be thinking about learning advanced dancing things). Whenever I dance that sort of thing I try and find someone who Knows What They Are Doing to lead, because I’m good at following and bad at leading and I want a fun dance :-p

    There is the difficulty that some of these leader/follower dances rely rather heavily on the leader being *taller* (and sometimes also “able to pick up the follower”) – since I’m 5′ tall that means I wouldn’t get to lead much; so perhaps it would be better to teach me how to initiate Cool Stuff as a “follower” than to teach me how to “lead” when my chances of finding a suitable (shorter) follower are really low.


    1. I’m not really convinced by the idea that the follower should sometimes initiate stuff; I think that’s pretty advanced dancing

      Yes. You wouldn’t teach it to beginners, it’s hard enough for them to get the leading and following thing down without then saying “why not try both in the same dance?” But the good people do it, so my objection isn’t that Brightly suggests it, only that it’s presented (especially in her second post) as being all about reducing sexism and hence morally better.

      I’d like to get better at responding to followers initiating stuff, because the good followers do it and it does look like fun. Unfortunately, usually I just go “WTF just happened?” and then it all grinds to a halt.

      There is the difficulty that some of these leader/follower dances rely rather heavily on the leader being *taller* (and sometimes also “able to pick up the follower”)

      Heh. Brightly’s going to tell you that you can just lead moves that don’t involve underarm turns and lifts (the latter are considered really rude on the social dance floor in lindy, despite the public’s impression that it’s all about throwing the follower over your head. They’re OK in jam circles though). This is true in lindy: there’s a guy who’s a little person (is that the right term?) who leads in Cambridge.


    2. I have this almost the other way round: I’m male, I’m inexperienced at non-called dancing, and so I feel very much thrown in at the deep end when I’m expected to lead at something I haven’t done much of simply by virtue of size and gender.

      This is probably just an instruction issue, compounded because my experience is in one-hour ‘here’s another kind of dancing you might find interesting’ classes at folk-dance workshops; I had a better experience at some all-evening ceroc classes, but I think I was lucky in having found a ceroc class that was quite close to being a called dance (to the point that it struck the same note of getting perceptibly better with instruction at a physical task that I’d had with martial arts and close-order drill).


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