confused-man-by-david-goehring-flickrSome of the male responses to my articles mentioning sexism perplex me.

These men outright deny that sexism exists, or that it’s a problem. I admit I have trouble understanding why anyone would take that stance.

I talked with my husband. He’s good at explaining what it’s like to be a man in partner dancing. He’s also non-white, so he has insight into the minority experience as well.

Together, we discovered some sticking points that make it harder for men to unravel the puzzle of sexism.

I failed to see these as sticking points because I experience life as a woman. To me, these are so foundational they don’t need to be said. That makes it more difficult for me to explain the sexism I experience in the dance community.

First, let’s define sexism as it relates to partner dancing.

Sexism is when men act subtly, overtly, or systematically to limit the choices of women.

Overtly: “You can’t do that because you’re a woman.”
Subtly: “It’s better for you to do this because you’re a woman.” Or, “It’s weird/uncomfortable/abnormal when women do that.”
Systematically: “This is what women do, because that’s how it works.” Or, “Men on this side, women on that side.”

Don’t think the above things are bad? Don’t think they are ingrained in partner dancing? Here are three things that may be limiting your appreciation of the burden of sexism on women:

1) Referring to men and women as their dance roles.

When trying to understand sexism, calling men and women leads and follows (respectively) adds a layer of obfuscation.

You give the men and women labels. Then you impose sexist structures on the labels. Therefore, you believe you are not being sexist because you’re applying the structures to labels and not real people. Saying, “Follows can only be creative within the structure the leads give,” is much more palatable than, “Women can only be creative within the structure men give.”

You can defend the first by saying, “That’s how the dance is defined.” But you know the second is just plain vulgar. You might protest that women can learn to lead if they like…

Point of information: The vast majority of dancers conform to the dance role that is expected of them. Women make up a higher percentage of doctors and engineers in the U.S. than leads in the lindy hop community. There is a greater percentage of male nurses than male follows.

Lead and follow roles in partner dancing come with more gender baggage than being a doctor, an engineer, or a nurse.

If sexism isn’t a huge problem, where are all the women who specialize in leading? Where are all the men who specialize in following? Why are gendered dance roles still taught and defended with fervor?

How are men and women going to choose anything else when choosing a dance role is like choosing a gender?

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When you are trying to undermine sexism, reduce the gender baggage associated with the roles. And acknowledge that anyone can dance any role they please.

But when trying to understand sexism in partner dancing, remember that the vast majority of follows are women in real life. The vast majority of leads are actually men. Don’t call us by our dance roles and use that to justify the status quo.

You could say, “We teach follows to be submissive.” But in real life, that plays out as: “We teach women to be submissive.” And, “We teach men to be in charge while dancing.” Yuck.

2) Inability to imagine what sexism feels like.

White people can hardly imagine regularly being followed by cops. We can’t imagine being denied housing based on the color of our skin. We absolutely can’t imagine having 10% of our brothers incarcerated.

In the same vein, I have trouble imagining a common fear men suffer from: Being perceived as weak. As a woman, I thought that fear was silly until I talked with men who experience it. Turns out it’s not so silly. It’s a limiting factor in the choices men feel they can make.

Want to know what sexism feels like in partner dancing? Imagine these things happening to you on a regular basis:

  • You’re expected to be submissive to your opposite-sex partner. What you wish to do is not as important as what your partner wants.
  • You’re taught that your creativity is entirely dependent on what your opposite-sex partner allows.
  • You get dirty looks from your opposite-sex partner when you’re experimenting with creativity.
  • Your opposite-sex partner does the same move over and over again until they can make you do it.
  • When your opposite-sex partner can’t get you to do what they want, they use more force. Often this is uncomfortable.
  • Some opposite-sex partners grasp your wrists or other body parts to get more control.
  • You don’t get asked to dance again when your opposite-sex partner can’t get you to do what they want.
  • Your opposite-sex partner dips you uncomfortably or dangerously and expects you to enjoy it.
  • Your opposite-sex partners use mistakes as condescending teaching moments (even when you’ve been dancing for a decade).
  • You receive significantly less attention in classes, which are mostly taught by the opposite sex.
  • Above all, you are criticized and/or belittled by the opposite sex for pushing back against gender disparities such as the above.

If you can imagine these things, then you can imagine what it feels like to be a woman in partner dancing. Though some women manage to avoid the worst aspects, I hear complaints like these over and over again.

And that’s not even getting into all the ways women are expected to conform to gender expectations in partner dancing (skirts, sexy movement, always saying “yes,” etc).

These are examples of how men limit women’s choices. Men expect to control the structure of the dance. Whether from a misguided sense of benevolence (“so my partner can let go”) or out of a need for dominance, it has the same effect. In partner dancing, men are taught to control women.

That’s called sexism.

3) Defensiveness against impending change.

Defensiveness is one reaction to the perception of being attacked, which is how some men feel the moment they hear the word “sexism.” Defending your position is fine if you use logic and facts. On the other hand, defensiveness conveys an anxiety to avoid blame at all costs.

I understand that men feel blamed for sexism. I’d like to suggest that there are other ways of dealing with your feelings besides defensiveness. Defensiveness is ineffective.

For example, some retorts I’ve heard from men who feel defensive about sexism in partner dancing:

“That’s how partner dancing works.”

This is poor logic for at least two reasons:

A) Even the most rock-star-ish lead on the planet has not swung out as many times in the follow role as I have (or any follow of a few years experience). As actual follows, we have more authority to define our role than any lead.

B) Moreover, everything changes over time, often profoundly. Men commonly argued against women’s suffrage by saying women already had a voice in politics. It was thought that “her ability to reform society would be impaired.”

The anti-suffragists were wrong. Politics have only been improved as women have gained more control over their role, and what that role means.

Luckily, women don’t need to start over learning the lead role in order to be equals to men. Women can choose to participate equally in whichever role they like.

“If you don’t like it, get out.”

This is not appropriate. I finally have the experience, confidence, social standing, and investment in the dance community to challenge sexism. You know I’m not leaving. “Get out,” is akin to saying, “Shut up and deal with it.”

Not the most respectable response, is it?

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“Being called sexist pisses me off.”

“Sexist” is not an insult. It’s not a personal attack. “Sexist” is a descriptor of a thing you do, not who you are. Doing sexist things doesn’t make you a bad person. It means you have room for improvement. Join the club! There are approximately 7 billion members already.

Men who do not wish to be called sexist can stop doing and saying sexist things, bit by bit. As a result, they’ll enjoy greater respect and empathy for themselves, and a better relationship with women.

Conclusion

More and more women are tired of being dance props, tired of being “protected,” tired of playing second fiddle, tired of being expected to please men. We want equal opportunity to dance our chosen roles in a way that works for us. We want freedom from the oppression of gender expectations.

Equal-opportunity connection is one way of getting there. You can download a whole course on treating your partner as an equal and improving your dance conversational skills.

If you don’t like it, you could get out. But you could also just keep dancing the same way you always have. So long as you don’t argue (either subtly or overtly) that others should conform to sexist expectations, I respect your role in the community.

P.S. I’m not exactly sure why some women deny sexism. But this article on Harvard Business Review has an important clue.

Photo credits: David Goehring (man), Department for International Development (doctor), Graeme McLean (boy)