“So You Want to Be a Man?” On Gendered Language in Dance

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About once a year I take a trip to Europe and visit a few places so that I can continue to improve my kizomba. I take lessons from top teachers – always as a leader. Then I attend parties and get to dance in a range of styles – most of the time as a follower, except with people I know personally. I am currently enjoying myself at Summer Sensual Days in Rovinj, Croatia.

I am a cis-gendered woman. That means I have the sexual reproductive organs that made them say “It’s a girl!” when I was born, and I identify as a woman. I also present as a woman: I have long hair, I wear makeup on my face and shirts that hug my breasts.

Jessica Keener Photography

Jessica Keener Photography

Yet ever since I started leading in kizomba three years ago, these have been the questions I receive in a group class in Europe, as all-female followers come down the line or around the circle:

“Are you a man?”
“You want to be a man?”
“Are you learning to be a man?”
“I don’t understand. You don’t like to be with men?”
“You prefer to be a man?”

Uhhhh….

No matter how many times I hear them, these questions make me feel annoyed or uncomfortable. I have to suppress the urge to respond bitingly:

“Do I look like a man?”
“Yeah, major penis envy here.”
“Oh, I didn’t know this class was about becoming a man!”
“Actually I enjoy dancing with people regardless of their sexual organs.”
“I prefer to keep my options open.”

I don’t answer like that, because I know that most of these people have no idea their questions might bother me. In several languages, there is no way of describing dance roles in a way that is not gendered, and quite a few literally use that expression “learn to be a man” and “learn to be a woman” to refer to learning to lead and follow, respectively. Some of them come from cultures that do not acknowledge the existence of a gender spectrum and believe that acting outside heterosexual roles is a perversion.

That is why I don’t ask all the girls to dance when I’m at a social dance in Europe. Unless someone knows me, or has already seen me teach as a leader, she may perceive my request as an unwanted sexual advance. Obviously I don’t agree with such assumptions – the implication would be that she can only dance with people to whom she is sexually attracted. (Go on, think of all the people you dance with regularly. Is that the case?) Nevertheless, I don’t want to fight that cultural battle every 10 minutes, so I prefer to enjoy following in a setting of such diverse dance backgrounds. Sometimes I get annoyed when there are clearly lots of women waiting around to dance, but at such festivals I try to make connections in class so I can dance with those ladies in the evening.

close embrace

I’m also well aware that my lot could be much worse. Our use of such heavily gendered language in dance classes serves to exclude people who are trans, intersex, or nonbinary (who do not identify as strictly male or female). It also strongly discourages attendance of those who are not heterosexual.

I was once at a small European festival where attendance was such that I could reasonably aspire to dance with everyone. There were a fair number of people who had seen me teach at recent festivals not too far away, and by the time I had danced as both leader and follower with that population, the others were pretty used to the idea of my dancing with everyone. I also danced with nearly all of the teachers present at the festival, dancing the corresponding role to what was usual for them. When I asked one female teacher, however, she responded in a way that I will never get out of my head:

“I think kizomba can only work between a man and a woman.”

Again, I had to bite back a scathing response. “A simple ‘no, thank you’ would have been fine! Don’t let me ask how you feel about gay marriage!” I don’t think that head-on conflict is going to change these kinds of ideas.

Of course, quite a number of people I encounter at festivals do come from countries that theoretically acknowledge the complexity of gender identity and condone legal partnerships regardless of gender. I have to wonder if these people also ask androgynous types whether they’re male or female, or ask which lesbian partner “is the man” of the relationship.

Inappropriate or not, I will not be able to avoid the questions in class so long as I want to attend with the intent of improving my lead. So I have tried to come up with answers that are honest and hopefully a bit subversive.

“I’m not a man, but I am leading in this class. Why shouldn’t a woman be the boss?”
“I enjoy leading. I get to be the creative director of the dance. I can shape the dance to fit my idea of musicality.”
“I would be happy to lead men, but there aren’t too many that admit to interest in a supposedly submissive role.”

– and no wonder we have so few men trying to learn to follow. It’s quite stigmatized in our culture for a man to “act like a woman.” That’s much larger than our dance scene, of course.

For those who protest based on cultural or historical grounds, that kizomba has always had male leaders and female followers, I remind them that in semba (kizomba’s predecessor), men have frequently danced with each other. See how in this video the male leader dares much riskier tricks when he has a male follower:

I can also point to videos of women dancing with each other in Angola, both old and young.

Uma lição de dança para quem gosta de dançar o Semba no Kilamba. wanguizuba

Posted by Hilário João on Sunday, April 5, 2015

I do think things are improving – this year I haven’t been heckled by any men in class. I could wish that the compliments I receive from my partners weren’t always expressed with such surprise, but it’s still nice to hear “You’re the first one that led me clearly” or the ubiquitous “You’re doing better than the men!”

I would love to see more teachers undermining social expectations by inviting “anyone who wants to lead today, stand on this side! Those who want to follow for this class, over here!” Better yet would be to encourage people to dance outside their society-assigned role. Most professionals agree that being able to dance both roles provides better mastery and an enhanced appreciation for your partner’s efforts. And having more flexibility could also make our dance scene more inclusive.

I receive a lot of defensive reactions to these ideas. Why feel threatened? My learning to lead as a woman doesn’t prevent men from leading or women from following if that’s what they prefer to do. I also don’t think we can hide behind the excuse that people don’t understand what’s meant by “leader” or follower” – the more people who use this vocabulary, the more people will recognize it. We might find that some people are initially slower to respond to such language, but all societal change is slow. Consider what language was acceptable even 50 years ago when referring to someone of a different ethnicity, compared to today. Consider what jobs were open to women 50 years ago.

I’m not asking for dramatic action; no need to organize marches or burn bras in the street. Still, we owe it to ourselves to see our dance communities come into the twenty-first century. Let’s fight the oppression of gender-based expectations with something simple yet mighty – our words.

NOTE: Following an advocate’s comments outside LDC, this article was edited to include language more inclusive of the trans community.

21 Comments

  • Michael Thorne says:

    Coming from blues, I forget that this is still an issue in some communities. Dancing both roles had made me a far better lead and a better partner, in general.

  • Vera says:

    Hi Rachel,
    Thanks for this great article.
    I love dancing salsa, but the traditional genderroles are what I dislike the most in the salsascene (and Bachata/kizomba/etc.) It always pleases to see men and women dancing with each other. Too bad the comments from people around them often say they must be gay. They Indeed can be (out and proud), but what does it matter if someone who leads could be gay or straight? As long as we all have fun while dancing with a nice person, regardless of their gender!
    I actually wish that there were more women who could lead and who would ask me to dance with them. Haha I know the solution is that I should learn to lead myself, but I don’t have the time for that right now. Hopefully in the future!
    I was just wondering, why do you specifically mention Europe? Isn’t it the same in other parts of the world?
    If you visit Amsterdam, I hope we’ll meet and dance 🙂

    • Hi Vera,
      Well, up until now i have only danced kizomba in Europe, North Africa, and the USA. North Africa is not a place we expect to see gender equality in most spheres, so I didn’t call out their dance scenes. In the USA it is true that most teachers still use “men” and “women” to refer to the dance roles, but:
      – we have MUCH more women leading. At least one or two in every scene I’ve visited (which is most of them) if not more, and that makes for a fair number at a festival. At one of our largest kizomba-dedicated festivals, our Masters/Advanced level group featured 2 women out of 10 leads.
      – we do have guys learning to follow, and not only because they want to be teachers. They are still the exception, but we have some role models for that
      – some teachers are encouraging everyone to try both roles, and are using exercises that include role switching for at least part of certain classes
      – In the USA I always feel comfortable asking girls to dance. A few still tell me “No, I’m not comfortable dancing with a woman” and I respect that. People have a right to their personal boundaries. But I never feel looked down on or mocked for choosing that role. On the contrary, I often have women running up to ask me for dances, or introducing their friends to me.
      As to other parts of the world – I’m headed to Australia and probably parts of SE Asia in the coming year, but I have no direct experience. So far everyone I’ve talked to online has been very receptive to my coming as a solo female teacher, which I think is a good indication. In Europe that’s starting to become more possible, but I have heard many times “If we hire a solo female teacher, no one will come to the workshop.”
      I will be in Amsterdam July 19 for a day/night following Na Passada’s 4th anniversary party! Message me on FB or e-mail me and we can definitely meet up 🙂

  • Zillah says:

    Hej there!

    Thank you for writing this article! I recently started again with learning to lead in Tango which i really love! I often get comments like “you are better than the men” 🙂 i think that in tango, at least at the places that i have been to, it is not uncommon to see both guys and women dancing together, and indeed, i live dancing with a woman, as very often her lead is more subtle than that of guys. Funny enough my first encou ter with ‘follower’ and ‘leader’ as terms in class was in the USA at a bachata course there. They were very strict in these terms too, which i have seen get used more and more in my dance lessons as well. So keep it up to break people’s expectations and find a subtle but good way to answer the prejudices! Lots of love and good luck to you!

  • Someone reminded me of this excellent video – check out the skills of a man following!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=51&v=W5dlqRTsDnE

  • Chip says:

    Nicely put Rachel, thanks for this post. Have you come across David Collins? You might want to check out his work on switching roles in kizomba (http://www.davidcollins.eu/current.html). I’m based in London and more involved in salsa than kizomba but your experiences resonate – I learned to lead as methodology for my PhD exploring gender roles and relations in salsa, and despite the challenges, I’m now thoroughly enjoying having double the number of awesome partners to play with! Hope to encounter you on a dancefloor somewhere sometime 🙂

  • Zillah says:

    Beautiful video of tango guys leading and following: http://youtu.be/4RlfDYyqt1A

  • Richard Eis says:

    Nice article, but is following a “submissive role” or the leader “the boss”? I’d stay away from those terms personally as you’re still trying to define leading and following as related to traditional gender roles. I’ve never felt submissive when I follow, we merely apportion tasks out. One set is following, one leading. If a wife drives a husband home when he normally drives the car you would never describe him as suddenly being “submissive” after all.

    I read a great article and although kizomba is obviously a different dance I think you may find it interesting: https://swungover.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/the-proactive-follower/

  • Steve Nachman says:

    You add so much value to the Kizomba community. We appreciate your dedication, passion, and thoughtful insight. Thank goodness there are people like you in the community. Hope to see you on the dance floor some day . . .

  • iamtanmay says:

    Did you also experience that here in Europe ? I as a guy, started dancing a few months back, and so far I danced with a few men.

    I danced swing, salsa and even sensual bachata with men, and loved it. I have never danced Kizomba with a guy though.

  • Sarita Geisel says:

    Great article, Rachel! I can relate to so much of this article as a female leader & follower, and to the reactions we women get in festivals when leading in classes. Most recently, at MBKF a few weeks ago in Miami, which attracts people from all over the world — Most women were just fine, but there are were a few daily who rotated to me and said funny things like, “You are doing the man’s? Why?” or “Haha, you are a beautiful man” or “Who’s leading? Because I don’t want to do the man’s.” Then after I lead them through the sequence we’re learning: “Wait, did you want to be the man??” And of course, the more positive reaction: “You lead better than many of the men!” I also reluctantly decided at the socials after getting a weird reaction from a lady I asked to dance, and feeling out the overall vibe of this scene, that I would only ask women I knew or who I knew would be ok with dancing with me, even though there were a severe lack of men at this festival compared to the women, and it meant standing around a lot more. Anyway, here in Austin TX, our teaching team (Dança Coração) consists of 4 women and 1 man, and we all lead and follow. We also encourage learning both roles to our students, and use the terms “leads” and “follows” in class and let students choose which role they want to do. It’s something we’re quite proud of! It’s normal to come to our classes each week and see students of either sex taking our classes to work on the opposite of what is typical for their gender. Lots of male students ask us female instructors to lead them in our socials too, and have realized they can learn a lot about leading better thru following. I’m sure you experience this too. 🙂 I definitely agree that learning both sides for either gender is very helpful for improving as a kizomba dancer. Thank you for writing this article!

  • Great article! I am surprised to realize that we are way ahead of the curve here in S. Florida – where machismo usually rules, especially in the Latino and Latin Dance communities. I just attended MBKF 2015 – Miami Beach Kizomba Festival, however . . . an amazing, 5-day event attended by over 1,000 Kizombeiros and Sembeiros from over 20 countries, dancing Kizomba, Semba, Tarraxinha, Batuke, Kuduro , Ginga, Funaná, Afro-house and other tribal dances. In almost all the classes the roles were referred to as “Leaders” and “Followers” and women (Including myself at times) were leading in every workshop I attended. More importantly, in a special class advertised for men only, and taught by 4 of the best International male instructors, including Edson Monteiro (EddyVents), women were welcomed as dancers (not as spectators) and everyone switched roles, leading and following throughout the workshop. I was happy to be allowed to participate. There was embarrassment and snickering at first, and numerous good-natured humorous remarks by the instructors intended to put the men at ease in the roles of following and leading other men, but in the end, everyone learned more than they had expected to and we were all sorry when the workshop ended . . . There were important epiphanies on all sides and it just may have been one of the most important, most enjoyable, rowdiest and best attended classes of the week. I hope they do more of this next year because not only does it break down cultural barriers, it makes us all better dancers!

  • Gwen says:

    So nice to read your article….we teach Kizomba in Auckland with my dance partner….SHE is the lead, I’m the follower! People are used to see us dancing, both as leads and followers and the community is pretty small so girls don’t feel offended if we ask them for a dance. We have had to fight twice more although to prove that we were able to lead as well as “men”. It was like being judged as guilty and having to prove your innocence! Our students now appreciate having us as teachers, maybe because as followers, we know what we need to feel to be leaded…so we know how to explain to them how to lead better!
    Anyway, I totally get your words, and good luck with your journey!

  • Jamie says:

    Thank you for this! I started leading out of necessity (not enough leads in our community), but it turned out I really enjoy it! Sometimes when I travel, if I am leading in a class (that I paid for, mind you) and there are already more men than women, I get a lot of weird looks – and in some cases I’ve felt so uncomfortable by the atmosphere, I’ve gone back to following even if the class is below my skill level as a follow 🙁 I’m really happy to read that more people, like yourself, are bringing this conversation up in our dance communities!

    My favorite response when a woman follow says something like “oh, you’re doing the man’s part” is “no, I’m doing the leaders part – women can make great leaders, and not just on the dance floor!”

    • I know just what you mean Jamie! Just last night I was teaching a class and a guy was following. Another woman showed up who wanted to follow and he immediately switched to leading. I told the class – hey, everyone dance the role you wanted to dance when you arrive! I hate when people feel they have to dance the role most normal for their gender just because the class is imbalanced.
      Keep up your subversive comments 🙂

  • Steve Nachman says:

    Just for clarity, I’m male and love to see more females learning to lead. Ever since Gabriella, my practice partner, and I started rotating the lead/follow (switching off) it’s been a revelation for both of us. Great learning tool, more challenging, and more fun! I’m trying to do the same thing at socials whenever I’m dancing with a female who knows how to lead. Finding guys to lead me is more complicated because of the homophobic thing, which I too had to get over at first.
    A follow who wants to lead only gets sticky when there are already too many leads. Jamie, you mentioned the weird looks and uncomfortable atmosphere, which is probably due to that. What I try to do in those situations is switch my lead to following. Sometimes I’ll even just sit out. It’s good sometimes just to watch.
    You don’t want to sit out too long though, I hate it when I see people sitting out because the lead/follow ratio is so skewed. My feeling is that follows should continue to learn how to lead, leads should learn how to follow, and both be sensitive to the ratios in class and at socials.
    If you’re typically a follow and don’t know how to lead, please don’t hesitate to ask leads to dance. That’s not a problem, in fact I always feel flattered. If you get turned down, just go to the next guy or gal who knows how to lead👣

  • So nice to read your article. I have found the same thing on the most part as a lead and follow for both kizomba and Cuban Salsa and also a dance teacher who teacher both roles by herself most of the time. Because I started the kizomba dance scene in my city, teaching both the leads and follows it has become normal to see a few women leading and even men following at socials in our scene… and yes even men following men. Which I am really happy and grateful for. However during my travels, even in certain scenes in North America (although on a whole it is much more open than in Europe) I have been prohibited to take a class as a lead before and have felt very little opening for me to ask follows to dance at some socials. On the other hand I have also pleasantly surprised many follow by the quality of my leading both in classes and at socials. In any case, me and a friend of mine, due to frustrations around gender roles in social dance have started working on a project called Co-creative Social Dance. Which is basically social dancing without designating a lead/follow from the beginning and both partners being able to lead and follow… I won’t get too much in details now… there is a link to my blog on the bottom. But we are developing ways to adapt the original social dances in subtle ways to create opportunities to switch roles as well as exercises that help people understand the root of connection and intention and also developing vocabulary and language around these ideas to help open people’s minds. I am working more with Latin dances and Kizomba and my friend with Blues, swing… We have hosted a few co-creative workshops already are starting regular classes and co-creative socials. Here is the website with some of the information if you are interested to look into it: http://www.co-creativedance.com I believe in being the change you want to see in the world. To me leading or following has to do with having the skills to do so, and very little with your gender.

    • Obviously I agree completely! In all my dance classes now I invite students to choose their role and nearly always offer an opportunity for them to try a different role later in class. We talk about responsibilities and options rather than WHAT MEN HAVE TO DO and WHAT WOMEN SHOULD DO. It’s delightful to see more and more people talk about switch dancing, liquid leading, co-creation etc. Best of luck with your project!

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