Note: This post is a detour from my planned 3-post series I began in my previous post.

Tired of sexism in the lindy hop community? Me too! Let’s do something about it.

sexism by uppityrib flickr

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about sexism on lindy hop blogs and Facebook. This is very encouraging. Change is a-brewin’, isn’t it? And women must continue working at the forefront to make it happen.

In my last article, almost as a footnote I explained that sexism is the source of our erroneous understanding of connection. Today I want to go much, much further than that.

I’m assuming we all understand what’s wrong with sexism. This whole post is devoted to discussing solutions for the lindy hop community. Let’s move the discourse forward! I’ll be happy to read your ideas in the comments.

I’ve seen three main suggestions on how to address sexism in the lindy hop community:

  1. Use gender-neutral language while teaching.
  2. Teach/learn both roles, lead and follow.
  3. Teach/learn equal-opportunity connection and dancing.

Gender-Neutral Language: Not Nearly Enough

Using gender-neutral language is a good practice to adopt in your teaching. This is a subtle way of acknowledging that anyone can be a lead or follow. But using gender-neutral language can’t do very much to solve sexism by itself.

Take the Philippines, for example. They don’t have separate words for he and she. Their pronoun “siya” (pronounced “shya”) is non-gendered. It refers to either he or she, depending on context. My Filipino husband, Paul, moved to the U.S. at the age of 23. He tells me his culture is quite sexist. Paul thinks this is because there are many sexist messages present elsewhere in culture, and also because you can easily infer gender from context.

Paul said people would assume “leader” means man and “follower” means woman—even when you do not specify gender, and even if you never say “men” and “women.” How would we limit the effects of sexism in a Filipino partner dance classroom? I asked him.

He said we’d need to be much more explicitly non-sexist. We’d need to subvert the many other sexist messages present elsewhere in the dance (and culture).

Learning Both Roles: A Giant Step Forward

One obvious way to be explicitly non-sexist is to demonstrate and teach both roles to everyone. (Or if you are not a teacher, by learning both roles.)

In most of the lindy hop world, women are strongly expected to follow and men strongly expected to lead. Learning both roles can go a long way toward opening up opportunities to everyone. Socially, more women might choose to lead, and more men might choose to follow.

If everyone dances both roles, we can understand and accommodate our partners better, whatever role we choose.

Still, I don’t think this goes far enough, either. Women are expected to follow because the role is considered feminine. Men are expected to lead because the role is considered masculine. So long as the roles are gendered and sexist messages prevail elsewhere in our culture, we will continue to mostly fall back into these roles along gender lines.

It’s possible (perhaps likely) that the gendered-ness of the roles will fade over time. If lots of people practice both regularly, I expect the lines between masculine and feminine to blur and equalize.

But I think we can make this happen more quickly by being even more explicitly non-sexist.

Equal-Opportunity Connection: The Linchpin Solution

Instead of hoping people will get the point of non-gendered language or learning both dance roles, we must also teach them to not be sexist in their dancing. I suggest teaching and learning gender-neutral leading/following, or what I like to call equal-opportunity connection.

Currently in lindy hop, we are taught to communicate with each other in very gendered ways:

  • Masculine/dominant characteristics are associated with the lead role.
  • Feminine/submissive characteristics are associated with the follow role.

When explaining connection, I used to teach follows to give up control, to not “back lead” or “hijack” or do anything independently of their partner’s directions. I taught leads to be powerful, take charge, and give clear directions.

This is problematic. Even if people switch roles, they are still expected to conform to the gendered expectations of that role.

I’ve long been troubled by this, even as I was spreading it. For those of us who would like to be equals to our partner, this language rankles:

  • “If you lead clearly, she has no choice but to do it.”
  • “Make her do what you want.”
  • “The follow is like a shopping cart.”
  • “The lead is like the driver of a car.”
  • “Never hijack. Leads find it irritating.”
  • “You can add your own footwork, but it must not interfere with the lead.”
  • “You can choose to do something different, but the lead has ultimate veto power.”

In our platonic and romantic relationships, we don’t usually tolerate these kinds of highly gendered expectations. The dance world, it seems, has not caught up.

It’s true that people can be masculine, feminine, a combination, anywhere in between or something else entirely. But dance roles are not inherently anything, nor do they need us to ascribe masculine or feminine characteristics to them in order to make partner dancing work.

Lead does not need to mean “in control.” Follow does not need to mean “giving up control.” These expectations, and anything approaching them, are mechanically unnecessary, illogical, and creatively limiting. This unfairly restricts all new dancers who are taught to associate gendered dominant/submissive traits with lead and follow.

I’ve specialized in dancing the follow role for 8 years. Guess what? I am not submissive!

Nor do I wish to be dominant. So no, I will not spend the next several years becoming a more refined lead. I want an equal opportunity to express myself and be heard in my chosen role. Plenty of people already understand equality of dance roles. Let’s spread that to everyone.

Let’s kick the gendered concepts out of leading and following.

Gendered dance roles are a relic that needs to be killed off like your least favorite Game of Thrones character.

For all the lip service we give to lead and follow being equal, you’d think we’d actually get more progress on that. I’m tired of talk. Let’s play this game, already! Let’s actually practice equality.

Since the way we relate to each other is critically important, I chose the phrase “equal-opportunity connection.” Equality of communication is the key concept here, and science backs this up. Biology doesn’t dictate that men must be in charge. The biological differences between men and women have literally nothing to do with whether and to what extent we share decision-making during social dancing. Especially since—reality check!—I can dance with a person of any gender.

I’ve observed a huge variety of ways and degrees to which follows take initiative and leads are influenced by follows. Every partnership makes decisions differently. It’s even fine for the follow to be in charge! No one can erase that reality by defining it away, saying it’s wrong, or even by teaching hordes of newbies their limiting definition.

And since, to my knowledge, nobody is nursing a child or lifting weights while lindy hopping, we have run out of ways to blame biology for our sexism.

breast-feeding-and-weight-lifting

By acknowledging and practicing the reality of shared decision-making, we can be equals not just in theory but in real life. Our (Western) culture has grown a lot in accepting that there are many different ways to have relationships. Why, in dancing, do we still steer people into very narrow roles?

Partner Dancing Is a Conversation

Sometimes you take turns talking and listening. Sometimes you interject. Sometimes one person talks for a while. Sometimes the chatter goes quiet and you have only body language. It’s possible for one person to dominate the conversation while the other just nods their head—but those aren’t the best conversations, are they?

lions Kjunstorm flickr

By learning to BOTH take initiative with AND be responsive to your partner, you open up the maximum amount of possibilities. In one dance you might share decision-making 50/50. In another dance, you might let your partner take the creative lead.

When you have equal opportunity, you do not have to iron yourself into narrow dominant or submissive roles. You can do whatever works for you in the moment. That is what equality looks like. That is liberation.

And it starts with you. Don’t wait for someone else to solve sexism. Reprogram your expectations and start learning non-gendered dancing skills right now.

Got more ideas? Feel free to leave a comment discussing these or adding your own solutions.

(And if you don’t think sexism is a problem in lindy hop, please email me instead of derailing the conversation here.)

Photo credits: Uppity Rib (two women), honey-bee (breast feeding), Greg Westfall (power lifter), Lori Branham (lions)