7 Ways to Make Partnered Dancing More LGBT+-Welcoming

A performer dances in the Oslo Pride Parade 2017. Credit: Human-Etisk Forbund via Flickr, CC BY_SA 2.0
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Dear fellow dancer, teacher, event organizer:

So, you want to make sure LGBT+ dancers feel comfortable in your local scene? Thank you.

We’ve seen immense progress in attitudes towards LGBT+ dancers in many places. However, depending on where you’re dancing, negative responses from fellow dancers, classmates, and even teachers can persist.

Yet you have the ability to make your dance scene more LGBT+-friendly. As the organiser of Norwich Same-Sex Dance tells me, “I do believe standard dance events can be heteronormative, although there is an increased tendency for men to learn lead and follow roles and to dance together, especially at swing dance events. I think it’s the atmosphere you encourage at classes/events which sets the standard.”

So, let’s look at how you can create a dance culture that gives LGBT+ people the confidence to attend – and keep attending.

1. Mind Your Language

And I’m not just talking about being polite (although that’s important too).

Avoid misgendering people. Use someone’s preferred pronouns and names (even when they’re not dancing in their traditional roles). Not sure what they prefer? Ask them. It can feel awkward, but not as awkward as when someone has to either correct you or remain silently uncomfortable. If in doubt, a simple “What are your preferred pronouns?” will make everything easier.

Especially when you have female leads and male follows in a class, don’t refer to “the ladies’ steps” and “the men’s steps”; stick to “follower” and “lead”. Refer to styling as “masculine” and “feminine” and accept that a male follow or female lead may wish to use either of these styles – or even a combination of both. (More on that to come!)

In fact, even if you don’t have female leads and male follows in a class, don’t talk about “men” and “women”. Doing so signals that you’re not open to same-sex dancing or role reversal. That person dutifully dancing their culturally assigned role while wishing they could switch? They’ll be even less likely to do so.

This can be a hard habit to break. Don’t feel guilty if you slip into gendered language occasionally. But keep working on it; it means a lot to people who don’t adhere to traditional gender roles, whether on the dance floor or in life in general.

Does your language not have a gender-neutral way to describe “lead” and “follow”? Use the English words or get creative with verbs like “direct” and “respond”. There is always a way to describe the different roles. And on that note…

Two men tango during the 2008 Buenos Aires Pride. Credit: Beatrice Murch via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

2. Explain The Roles

Too many dancers pick their role based solely on their gender. But there are huge differences between leading and following:

Leading is an opportunity to direct the dance. It pushes your creativity and musicality. It’s a mental challenge: you have to think about more things at the same time, since you have to not only master your steps but direct your follower’s, pay attention to the music, and practise floorcraft. It’s harder than following at the beginning, but over time leads will see themselves progressing faster than their counterparts. And leads are nearly always in demand for dances.

Following requires you to develop a whole different skill set: understanding and interpreting leads, giving over control, and more. You have to master these skills to the point where you no longer think about the lead but only feel (and, because of that, people will often tell you that it’s “easy”). As a follower, every social dance is different. A good follower can dance routines that are above their level – but if the lead is less skilled, they may find themselves getting hurt. And, in most dance scenes, they significantly outnumber the leads and so may have to spend more time sat out.

Teachers, explaining these differences will encourage students to choose the one that best fits their preferred dance experience – rather than merely the one that they feel that their gender dictates.

It will also make same-sex dancing and role-reversals more socially acceptable, leaving LGBT+ dancers less likely to face inappropriate comments and questions. After all, no-one should feel that they have to publicly announce their sexuality in order to learn how to dance, or put up with snide comments and jokes about it.

In fact, even if someone prefers to dance in a specific role, encourage them to try the opposite role on occasion. Doing so will improve their dancing and also help everyone to understand that dancing doesn’t have to be sexualised or heteronormative.

As Priscilla Barkmann, Founder of Salameros Salsa LGBT in Brazil, tells me, “If the people who learn dancing starts to dance with everyone (like man-man/woman-woman/woman-man), independent of the sexual option, I guess it would help everybody. The dance would be more democratic and the people would be more human and the dance would flow more, I guess.”

3. Avoid Mimicry

Teachers, this one is especially important for you. The first time I saw a male teacher switch to dancing as a follower in a class without comment, I was shocked – but not because he was dancing as a follower. No, it was because he wasn’t making a fuss about it.

As a teacher, dancing as both lead and follow is important because you need to teach how to both lead and follow. You need to understand the roles; you need to demonstrate them; and you need to see if your students can do them well, something that is best done by dancing with them.

Yet too often, I find that my teachers either don’t know how to do the opposite role; won’t do it; or will do it, but only if they also make a big deal about “acting like a woman” (and I say “woman” because it’s normally the male teachers who do this).

By “a big deal”, I mean suddenly high-pitched voices, floppy hands, alter egos with female names, the need to mention “new hobbies” (shopping, anyone?), and over-the-top female styling, often – sadly – done to the sound of laughter.

This mimicry isn’t done to be cruel. In fact, it’s only done to hide the teacher’s own discomfort. However, it has a harmful effect. It says that only men should lead and only women should follow. It says that acting in a way that isn’t “traditionally” aligned with your gender is worthy of mimicry.

It says that it’s okay to laugh at certain types of behaviour, or certain people, on the dance floor. (And it also says a lot about what we think of women.)

So, let’s skip the mockery. Yes, it’s good when students laugh – but get them laughing about something else. When you switch roles to demonstrate a move or evaluate a student’s ability, don’t make a big deal out of it. Because if it’s not a big deal to you, it won’t be a big deal to anyone else in the room.

4. Allow Dancers to Define Their Style

Perhaps you have a male follow; should he use masculine or feminine styling? Well, that’s up to him.

What if he wants to sometimes use masculine styling and sometimes more feminine styling? Again, that’s up to him.

Yes, sometimes leads and follows need to adhere to certain styling rules. When doing a turn, followers need to get their arms out of the way and in a safe place. When their arms are flicked, they need to finish the half-count in a certain place. Leads can lead some moves better when they place their follower’s hands around their stomach or chest.

But there’s no reason why dancers have to do these things in a particularly feminine or masculine way – or why, so long as it doesn’t obstruct the partner connection, a lead can’t gracefully extend their arm or a follower do a chest pop.

Styling is part of how we express who we are. It allows us to demonstrate our personality and our identity to the world. (This is especially true for followers, who don’t get to choose the moves outside of shines.) Dictating what we can and can’t do, outside of the realm of safe and practical dancing, is to dictate who we are allowed to be.

And there are so many more important elements to our choice of styling than our sex. Does it suit the music? Does it match the type of footwork we’re doing? Do we feel confident when doing it? Does it complement or play with our partner’s style?

Focus on these issues – not on how you think your students should display their gender identity.

A woman dances samba in Auckland Pride Parade 2013. Credit: Kiran Foster via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

5. Support Your LGBT+ Dancers

Not taking action is a choice. If someone is unwelcoming or aggressive to someone in your dance scene, and you say or do nothing, you are choosing to condone this. Yes, it’s hard to speak up – but it’s even harder for the person experiencing this antagonistic behaviour.

Hear someone make a snide comment? Say something in support of the person they’re commenting on. Catch raised eyebrows? Mention something positive the LGBT+-dancer is doing: present them as someone to mimic, not someone to mock.

See people refusing to dance with someone because of their sexuality or gender identity? In the social, you can’t stop this. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable saying “no” to a social dance (and there are many valid reasons to do so). However, you can offer to dance with the LGBT+ person instead and then work to make sure that they have plenty of dances that night.

And in the class, teachers, you can make it clear: students dance with everyone or sit out the entire move/class. If a student feels that dancing with a particular person will compromise their safety, they should tell you so that you can address the issue (which, hopefully, will be about frame and connection and not about issues with the dancer).

6. Be Proactive

Partnered dancing doesn’t always have the best reputation among LGBT+ communities. Many of us who have tried it have negative experiences to share; even for those of us who don’t, there’s a stereotype to contend with.

So, if you want local LGBT+ people to come to your dance events and classes, be proactive. Demonstrate your openness to including us. Just like you would do on the dance floor, invite us to become part of the community.

Last month, a teacher asked me to be a substitute lead in an amateur bachata performance at a local fair. I was grateful, not just because of the extra (free!) classes and opportunity to further improve my dancing, but because this meant he was willing to advertise his classes to potential students in this way.

There were plenty of male leads he could have picked. Instead, he was sending a message that same-sex dancing is not just allowed but valued and encouraged. He was helping define the face of partnered social dancing in his classes.

That same dance school also just held a free taster class on switching roles in Cuban salsa, encouraging both men and women to participate – a wonderful idea.

But even if you don’t have amateur performances or the ability to timetable and advertise classes on switching roles, there are many ways you can proactively reach the LGBT+ community:

● Celebrate LGBT+ and same-sex dancers: share impressive videos of and articles about them on social media or in your dance WhatsApp groups, for example.

● Actively post in LGBT+ community groups and put flyers in LGBT+ bars, advertising events as LGBT+-friendly.

● Hold taster sessions at LGBT+ events, such as Pride or queer cultural festivals.

● Understand the community you’re talking to: don’t use outdated and potentially offensive language like “transvestite”; don’t stereotype people; and – perhaps most importantly of all – don’t assume you understand and/or can speak for LGBT+-people about our experiences. (Similarly, don’t expect that every LGBT+ person will have the same experiences.)

● When an LGBT+ person does attend, don’t make a big deal out of it – but also…

● …make it clear that they’re welcome: dance with them, support them if people challenge or misgender them, suggest alternatives if they can’t or don’t feel comfortable doing something (e.g. a lot of bachata moves feature the follower’s hands on the lead’s chest, sometimes just for styling but sometimes to help lead body rolls), and let them know that they can choose masculine or feminine styling.

Three followers and a lead prepare for a student dance performance, organised by David Garcia/La Pista de Baile, Bilbao.

7. Listen

Have you done all (or some) of this? Thank you for working to make us feel welcome.

But sometimes, you may still make a mistake. Or the facilities might be missing something useful. Or someone else in the community might say or do something unwelcoming. So, if this happens, what should you do?

Listen.

It’s easy to feel defensive when someone comes to you with a problem. But give us the space to explain what happened and why it’s an issue. Don’t assume that you immediately understand. Think about what we’ve said. And take the time to search for a solution that might support everyone.

Too often, when confronted with problems, we focus on that we “can do” and what we “can’t do”, or even what is and isn’t “reasonable to do”. But listening – genuine, sincere listening where you consider what was said – is a powerful response.

Even if you can’t come up with a fix, your attitude will be appreciated. And you might just find out that the solution required is different to what you thought it was.

Queer partnered dancing has a long history: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At The Moulin Rouge: Two Women Waltzing” (1892) shows two women dancing in the (at the time) renowned lesbian district of Montmartre, Paris. Public Domain.

4 Comments

  • Richard says:

    Good article

  • Marius says:

    Dear Tanya,

    on our way to make this world more awesome to as many people as possible I’d like to thank you for your article!

    As a passionate dancer and teacher I’m lucky to have gained some experience with fellow people, my own and their habits and my own and their sometimes rather moderate willingness to view our habits from a distance and reflect upon them.

    So just as you do here, I wondered some time ago about the fact that some teachers have difficulties switching roles. Sure, in my early times this was kind of a challenge, but how could it be possible that teachers have problems with that??!

    With some more experience (and there’s still a long way to go! 🙂 ) I came to gather some truths about “lead & follow” to think about, which I’d like to share with you. I’m most of the time quite perfect in switching roles and I believe that understanding of these truths is among the reasons for that. So here are some of them:

    – You can’t lead if you can’t follow.

    – Indeed, in all relevant technical aspects, the leader role and the follower role are the same – they require exactly the same skills.

    – A dancer does not decide to be a leader. A dancer may decide to become a follower and only this is what may define the other dancer as leader.

    – It’s not the leader who decides what the follower does, the follower decides what the follower does. Always.

    – You can’t understand lead&follow if you don’t understand communication. Teachers, teach communication first. This is key priority, not lead&follow.

    Let me know if you find them intriguing, I’ll be glad to clarify the details.

    Best regards

    Marius

    • Tanya Newton says:

      Marius – I responded on Facebook but want to follow up here too as well, just in case other people want to join in with the conversation.

      First of all, thank you so much for the detailed response! I love all of these points. And in particular, I love the last three. The follower chooses to follow; the lead just communicates what they’d like the follower to do.

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