Lee: The Gender Politics of Ballroom Dancing
For our first Yale ballroom team lesson, we were divided into two groups.
“Guys and girls, separate out,” one of the student instructors told us.
“You mean leaders and followers,” another one reprimanded gently.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry. Leaders and followers.”
This marked the beginning of the delicate process of navigating the gendered dichotomy of ballroom dancing in a time and at a school where gender is no longer considered a binary.
Ballroom dancing, particularly at the upper levels, isn’t merely about the motions of the body or the placement of the feet: it’s about telling a story through movement, about a narrative in which the partnership between two people is more important than the individual, and the partnership with the music is most important of all.
Unlike contemporary dance, ballroom relies heavily on tradition and history. At the class, we learn that the dances were traditionally employed as devices of hierarchies, some through as acts of courtship, others through displays of status. Part of appreciating the history of ballroom dancing is learning to grapple with its history as well.
Men lead. Women follow. This is the model that has been passed down for centuries through almost all forms of communication and media. Ballroom perpetuates these roles, particularly with smooth and standard dances such as waltz or foxtrot. Younger instructors handle the question of leading and following with more poise, emphasizing the partnership and the balance of the dancing relationship. Older instructors dispense with a lot of this tact and caution. “Be a man,” they tell the newbie leaders (who eventually, over the course of several months, have filtered out to be all male students). “Man up! Be strong and be firm.”
There is a lot of wincing and laughter when the instructors say something like that. Laughter because she encourages the leaders to beat on their chests like gorillas when repeating the refrain. Winces because it ascribes to several stereotypes that we are used to fighting against. Men as the bolder sex, the natural leaders, the ones who seize control.
Outside these cases, however, the gender binary of ballroom is beginning to break down. There are a few of pairs of women leaders and followers on the Yale team, and competitions frequently feature couples like this. The trend of female-female pairs reflects positive progress in the pop culture trend which encourages women to seize traditionally male roles.
However, at the competition we attended in early October, I was surprised to see that there were zero pairs of male leader and male follower. Women can step up and take masculine roles, but men still cannot take on the typically feminine roles. It’s humiliating to cede power once you have it. Because of this, no one even mentions the lack of female leader and male follower couples. Even if the women are willing to lead, the men aren’t willing to follow.
This imbalance of couples reflects a deeper failing of American gender politics and is certainly not unique to ballroom dancing. How can we claim equality when traditionally feminine roles or powers are still considered embarrassing or even shameful? We aren’t making progress towards making the roles of leader and follower truly neutral or outside the gender binary: we are just encouraging women to step up and be leaders.
Clinton can wear pantsuits and run for president, but men in politics must still go to extreme lengths to prove their masculinity, whether through threatening their daughter’s boyfriend in a campaign ad, implying that the manhood of another candidate is lacking, or equating issues like the right to bear arms with strength (ergo manliness). Women technically can be (almost) all things, even if there is a tinge of shame or contempt surrounding typically female roles. But ultimately, men can only be men, as a result of both the failure of American society to value traditionally female roles and the reek of homophobia that still permeates our culture. It’s demeaning to follow in a dance, but just as bad: it’s gay.
I’m not attributing these problems to ballroom dancing or claiming that traditional dances create sexism. Ballroom, like so many other forms of art, is learning to come to terms with its traditional patriarchal gender roles while preserving the beauty of its history. It’s progressing in some ways, and failing in others- just like literature or film or music or visual art.
Artistic expression both reflects and creates our ideas about issues including gender, power, and hierarchies. We use art as a force of change and a force of reflection, sometimes at the same time. But most days, we just use art as a way to express ourselves. Sometimes, we challenge the patriarchy and fight the stereotypes and strive for progress. Sometimes we just want to dance.