What I Learned By Asking Men If They Want To Lead Or Follow Bachata

A bachata party at Corazón y Alma, Berlin that was not part of the experiment. Credit: Marc Wiediger, Corazón y Alma
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 “Do you ever ask men to follow?” the Social Dance Community editor asks me.

“Those who I know follow, yes, and some men ask me,” I say. “But otherwise, I stick to leading other women.”

“I think it would be an interesting experiment,” he tells me. “You could try it one night.”

I pause. “Not here,” I say, remembering the dance party a few days prior: three men had manhandled my female partner because we chose to dance together instead of with them. “But I’ll be in some less conservative cities soon. I’ll try it then.”

So, the challenge was set: ask men if I could lead them. The locations: London, UK and Berlin, Germany.

Is It Reasonable To Ask Men To Follow?

I had reservations about this experiment, ones that weren’t just about my location.

Firstly, I find that following is tends to be an underappreciated skill. Knowing that most men don’t follow, wouldn’t I just be implying that following doesn’t require practice and hard work?

Then there was the choice of dance. A few months ago, I injured my shoulder and I’m still not back to my full range of dances. In fact, the only one I am currently able to lead without pain is bachata. While I know a few male bachata followers, I see a lot more of them in salsa, Brazilian zouk, and non-Latin dances. Add to that the increasingly different lead and follower styles in bachata in Europe, and I could see this not going well.

However, when I thought about it a bit more, I realised that I wouldn’t be demanding that men follow. Sometimes we forget that an invite to dance is just a question. I would just be checking if my male partners would like to follow or not.

And so, not without trepidation, I set off to ask men to follow in bachata.

The Ask

Okay, that last line was a (small) lie. Rather than suggesting men follow, I opted for the line: “Would you prefer to lead or to follow?” or “Would you prefer to lead, follow, or switch?”

This felt like a non-aggressive way of gauging interest and gave men the ability to make a genuine choice about what they danced, without having to directly say “no” (something that I think everyone finds hard at first).

I tried this on four different nights. Here’s what happened:

Night One, When I Made Many Men Uncomfortable

The location: A Dominican bachata class plus mixed Latin social in a trendy part of central/north London.

The results: Out of all the men I asked, only one actually answered me, with a polite if terse “I don’t know how to follow”. The rest ignored the question. One laughed nervously before starting to lead; others gave no response at all before they began to dance.

When dancing with me, not one of these men then smiled. In fact, the one who’d nervously laughed didn’t look at me during the entire song. Nobody asked me for a second dance, and when I looked around the dance floor at the start of songs, some men started avoiding my gaze.

Now, these should have been good dances: I followed everything I was led in, compensated for some not-quite-there leads that I suspect weren’t always successful, added some styling, was as musical as I knew how to be without disrupting the lead, and did everything else a follower is supposed to do. I also smiled at my partners the whole time I was dancing, and I’m not talking about a polite smile. I plastered a beaming, having-the-time-of-my-life smile on my face. Yet I just couldn’t get a single one of them to smile back – not even a fleeting, barely there, yes-that-move-went-well or yes-she-looks-happy smile.

Somehow, just by asking if they wanted to lead or follow, I’d taken the soul out of every single dance.

The conclusion: Subtle rejection stings.

Night 2, When Men Started To Relax

The location: The second night of my experiment was unplanned: I came out of a Brazilian zouk night in central London to discover that they were playing bachata downstairs and not going to close for another twenty to thirty minutes. While reluctant to face yet more awkward rejections, I headed in.

The results: I was first asked to dance by a man I’d danced with in the Brazilian zouk social. I see a lot more role-switching in Brazilian zouk than in Latin dances and, when I asked him, his face lit up. We agreed to dance two songs, one in each role. Success!

Heading further into the room, I realised that a few people from night number one were also there. Surprisingly, the nervous-laugh man asked me to dance again. With added confidence, I asked him again; he told me “I don’t know how to follow.” I responded with a large smile and an encouragement for him to lead me. And during the dance, he looked at my face a reasonable amount and I even managed to get a weak smile or two out of him. Another success!

Soon afterwards, I spotted another man from that the first night. He too responded more positively (while still electing to lead), and he also smiled during our dance. In fact, I even got him to laugh once.

The conclusion: The more familiar men were with the idea of role-switching, the less uncomfortable they were.

A bachata party at Corazón y Alma, Berlin that was not part of the experiment Credit: Marc Wiediger, Corazón y Alma

Night 3, When Responses Were A Mixture

The location: One of London’s biggest mid-week bachata nights. I set off with low expectations, as I typically think of this place as a pick-up night. Yet it was actually my most positive experience in the city.

The results: Three men responded to my request by suggesting I lead. The dances were fun, full of laughter and smiles even when moves didn’t work.

I told one of them, after our dances, about the experiment and my previous results. His response was: “If a cute, slightly crazy girl is asking you to dance, even as a follower, why on earth would you say ‘no’?”

Of course, you could criticise this answer. “So, it’s only okay if she’s cute?”, “It’s only okay to follow in a heteronormative model?” “Role-switching makes you ‘slightly crazy’?” However, what I cheerfully took from this was his comfort with a heteronormative partner dance model that doesn’t have to involve men deciding what women do. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking, but sometimes it feels like it is.

A lot of men declined to follow that night but only one man seemed to take being asked negatively. He invited me to dance; I asked him if he would prefer to lead or follow. He then made a face, laughed, and said, “Oh, so you’re one of those.” Heavy emphasis on the “those”. He leant over to his friend to say something, laughing, before I interrupted him.

“What does ‘one of those’ mean?” I asked.

“Oh, you know, just one of those who like to lead.”

I asked him again if he was hoping to lead or follow.

His face hardened. “Lead.”

It quickly became evident that this dancer was a more technically advanced lead than I was a follower. But what was particularly unpleasant was the way he seemed to enjoy this. He didn’t just dance above my level. He seemed to deliberately do it. The more I struggled with a move, the more something caught me by surprise, the more likely he was to lead a challenging one straight afterwards, until I almost fell over. While I know improvers and beginners can struggle to match their moves to their partners’ level, I don’t believe that was the case here. I could see the expression on this man’s face and I believe he wanted to prove me “wrong” for asking him if he wanted to lead or follow.

It was only passive-aggressiveness. But it was a bitter moment in an otherwise delightful night.

The conclusion: Don’t assume you’ll get a negative response until you ask – some people will surprise you.

Night 4, When I Got The Responses I Was Hoping For

The location: A weekly bachata party run by ISM, Berlin.

The results: It was with a feeling of relief that I arrived in Berlin. I’d danced here before, I knew attitudes tended to be progressive, and I had actually attended a bachata-role-switching-in-the-park event here before. I felt like this was going to be the easy stretch of the experiment. And that turned out to be true.

When I offered men the choice of role, several of them suggested that they follow, even if they had never done so before. One man came up to me and, without any prompting, asked me to lead him. Two of the men who followed with me later came up to me and asked me to lead them again. And nearly all of these dances finished in warm hugs and conversation.

On the other hand, after my first few dances of the night, very few men asked me to dance. Perhaps it was just the dance culture of this place; perhaps it was because the other men assumed that I wouldn’t want to follow.

The conclusion: When people are open to role-switching, it makes my heart sing – even if I then get asked for fewer dances.

Seven Lessons I Learned

So, what was the point of this experiment? Did I change anyone’s perspective on dancing? Maybe, maybe not. But I did learn a lot.

Lesson one: People might just surprise you. Don’t expect the worst.

Lesson two: Some people will react awkwardly or passive-aggressively. But even though this was occasionally sad, I realised that I would prefer to know it.

Lesson three: Sometimes leading means sacrificing following. The more I led men, the fewer men asked me to dance. Yet previously, I’d been sacrificing my leading in order to follow. I look forward to when our dance culture develops to the point that you don’t need to prioritise one role over the other.

Lesson four: Location matters. Berlin was more open than London. I still wouldn’t feel comfortable trying this experiment in certain countries and cities, particularly those where I find people are more conservative about gender roles.

Lesson five: We can change dance cultures, but it takes time and effort. I love the fact that some men’s attitudes changed over the course of just two nights.

Lesson six: A good dance doesn’t have to be a technically good one, while a technically good partner can still result in a terrible dance. I already knew this, but it really hit home in this experiment. It didn’t matter how well or poorly my male partners followed, those dances left me beaming.

Lesson seven: Be more confident about asking people to dance with you. It’s so easy to feel self-conscious in our secondary (or primary) dance role, especially when there’s a big difference in abilities and experience between your different roles. Yet I had so much fun dancing with those men and women who agreed to follow with me. That moment of connection and shared joy was beautiful, regardless of the technique or number of moves.

Would I Do This Again?

I probably wouldn’t ask people to do this again on the first dance. Getting nervous about the responses is exhausting. But the second? Depending on the location, maybe I would.

Every so often, I wonder what I’m doing dancing. I experience so many outdated gender norms, I often feel objectified, and (despite often being described as a “sensual dancer”) I don’t agree with many people’s definitions of sensuality or sexuality and get tired of being interpreted through that lens.

But I am so happy when I dance with someone who is willing to break the norms and stereotypes with me, switching roles, playing with what it means to be masculine and feminine, and more. In those moments, I feel like my partner sees me as an individual rather than an object. I feel like they want to have fun with me and are accepting of what I want to add to the dance. And I’m not saying that I never feel like that when dancing as a follower with a male lead, of course, but for me, it feels a lot more infrequent.

I want to be part of building a culture where we feel comfortable dancing in whatever role we choose. I want there to be spaces where we can simply create and express ourselves, regardless of what society tells us. I want to lead, I want to follow – they are both different but incredibly fun experiences. And I want to be feminine even when I lead, because I am feminine, and I also want my partner to be as feminine or masculine as they want to be, regardless of their sex or dance role at that moment in time.

And if that takes a little bit of work, it’s worth it. Because when men said “yes” in this experiment, I finally felt like I belonged on the dance floor.

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