Man, I Feel Like a Woman, and So Can You!
By Bryan Waznik
In last month's issue, Kevin Lam wrote a great article advocating against the heteronormative structure of social dance, and called for a less rigid assignment of roles in partner dancing. So what now? You've seen those stereotypes reinforced and thought, "Hey, what gives?" and you're ready to shake things up a bit. Or perhaps you're not quite convinced yet, and this article will persuade you ... or not. Whatever. I'm not here to tell you what and what not to think, but I am here to tell you that mixing things up will improve your dancing and give you a richer perspective of social dancing (see what I did there?).
Why you may want to learn to lead and follow:
To Know More
If you're like me, you want to learn everything, especially when it comes to partner dancing. International style? Great, what else? West coast? Cool, what now? Polka? Oom-pah for days. Merengue? .... Okay, that's my one exception.
The point is, even if I learn everything there is to know about how to be the best lead in every dance (fat chance), I will still only have learned half of those dances. The purpose of learning both parts isn't to upstage people with your superior ballroom knowhow but to develop a more nuanced understanding of the partnership and how each role complements the other. This also leads to you becoming a more effective teacher.
To Check Your Ego
Everything is on the wrong foot!
Wait, I have to pick where we go?
Am I leaning right?
How the heck do I lead this figure?
Why am I always spinning?!
Leading and following are both very specialized skills that take time to practice and refine. When we spend all our time working on our part, it's easy to become overly critical of the mistakes of others, especially when those same demands don't apply to us. Don't be that person; give the other part a shot. I guarantee it's much more difficult than you give it credit for, and your appreciation for your partner(s) will grow. Learning the other part is a great way to see dancing from a different side and humble yourself.
To Rediscover Your Addiction to Learning
The best part of going back to square one is that it gives you a chance to fall in love with partner dancing all over again. Think back to your first dance lesson (yep, that one where you did a box step forever and thought it was the coolest thing), and then remember getting hooked into something that you never expected to discover; each new step or concept was revolutionary. If you were in college, you probably went with some new friends back to your dorm to practice those basics for another hour or two before finally realizing that you should have been doing homework the whole time. Learning the other part allows you to enjoy learning to dance in a new, fresh way and gives you room to have fun while making a few mistakes along the way. It will force you to stop taking yourself too seriously and make you more open and receptive to constructive criticism in your everyday dancing.
To Improve Your Connection and Communication
Want to know what makes a good lead? Follow! Want to experience firsthand the qualities of a good follow? Lead! I went to a west coast swing event last month where I danced with a certain lead who shall remain unnamed. Three things happened. First, I learned very quickly which parts of my leads had become completely superfluous, and in some cases destructive, to my primary partnership. Second, I got to experience a lead drastically different from my own and got to feel what was helpful and what confused me. Some of those things, both good and bad, were habits I had also internalized, while others were foreign to me. Following his lead gave me a chance to evaluate my own leading, validating what I do well and exposing what I need to improve upon in a way that directly reinforces the importance of those habits. Finally, because the roles of lead and follow were not set between us, we would switch off throughout the dance, forcing me to be both articulate and receptive in my dancing. In newer dancers, there can exist a mentality that the lead is the only one that speaks and the follow's role is solely to listen, but in reality, it's a dialogue. Yes, there is a tendency that fits traditional norms, but if you don't do both, your dancing will be one-sided and your connection to your partner will be severely lacking.
It's More Fun at Parties
We've all been at a dance where there weren't enough leads, and some of us have had the surreal experience of an overabundance of leads (yes, it does happen from time to time). While generally I much prefer leading to following, as is my cisgender privilege, I also prefer dancing to ... well, not dancing. If you're going to get all cleaned up and nice-looking for a social dance, competition, etc., you might as well get the most out of it and get on the floor, regardless of which partners are available. Being flexible means you have double the partners to choose from. Side note: it's also really fun and comical to make up things you don't know on the floor, provided you're not putting anyone around you at risk of an arm to the face.
So do you need to lead and follow 50/50? Of course not! You do you. But stepping out of your comfort zone will be more fun, develop understanding in your partnership, make you more approachable, and revolutionize your dancing.
Is there something I forgot? What are your thoughts?