About a year ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to partner dance. It’s been on my Bucket List for quite some time. I just needed to find a person to do it with me and be consistent. I knew taking a salsa lesson once every four years wasn’t going to cut it, or have me cut the rug in the way I wanted. My close friend Ted has the same item on his Bucket List. We agreed on Lindy Hop and set off.
Lindy Hop emerged in the 1920’s and 30’s in Harlem, New York taking many steps from African social dance culture. It has two basic steps: using 6 and 8 counts which use a mix of single steps and triple steps. It experienced a revival in the 1980’s and has been going strong ever since. Ted and I both love the energy and playfulness of it, which is why we chose it.
The initial lessons were exciting though a bit confusing, but the more we saw, the more we both wanted to continue. Before each class, Ted would get nervous, speaking of bowing out and failure because there’s a lot to undertake as a beginning dancer. Lindy hop necessitates a whole array of moves perfectly performed to the basic step. Turns out single steps and triple steps evoke a lot and in different ways for leaders and followers.
In partner dance, there is an intrinsic sexist language built into the words “leader” and “follower.” While teachers in all classes I took (two different locations, probably a dozen teachers) let us know we didn’t need to follow “traditional” male/female roles, most of us fell into them anyway. In a society that is still patriarchal, where men still lead in many industries, having men lead in yet another realm is sometimes annoying and growthful at the same time. I noticed my own agitation at being a “follower,” but immediately consoled myself by saying, Well, someone has to do it, right?
As I’ve gone deeper into the dance, other perspectives have emerged. Beyond learning how to lead (which I want to do after I’ve mastered following better), is how we view each role. (Note: the following language will be gendered for ease.) A leader can be attuned to his follower in a way that’s not overbearing or oppressive. He notices where his follower is in space and makes dance choices that take her into consideration. He learns how to cue correctly, so his follower actually knows what is going on. Done well, this is not a dance of oppression. It’s a dance of co-creation.
For the follower, I’ve learned that following is not some passive role where I dutifully and submissively follow the lead. Instead, it’s a dynamic communication between me and my leader. I listen carefully to the cues. When they are poorly telegraphed, I respond to that. When they are overbearing, I let my leader know. When my leader is too subtle, I let him know it’s okay to cue a bit more firmly. When I am in sync with my partner, and he is responsive to me, we co-create a playful dance. When we’re not in sync, it falls flat.
For Ted—and other men I’ve spoken to since then—fear of failure looms large. There’s the sense that Ted needed to master the basic steps, add arm movements in, know how to cue his partner in a way that is both clear, but neither too soft nor overbearing. Each time he would nail a move, it was elation, but when legs refused to cooperate, beats were missed, and turns were confused, the sense of failure mounted. He has also remarked on the burden of leading. In the dance, we had to make a choice, but in life, he doesn’t always want to lead, and I’m sensitive to that. In other words, while the dance imitates some aspects of life, it certainly does not imitate all aspects of life.
I’ve also noticed men feeling worried about being overbearing when leading. This is an interesting quandary as we all navigate a #metoo era. How can men lead firmly and decisively when necessary (as in Lindy Hop) but also recognize places where they are not listening to their partners? How does consent play a part in this? At best, the dance floor is a rich area for exploration, calibration, and a nuanced understanding of somatic communication. At worst, there are some bruised toes and egos.
All in all, we finally seem to be moving past the beginner level. Basic steps are etching themselves into muscle memory. Turns and flourishes come more easily. We are both learning patience with the moves and with ourselves. When I give feedback to different dance partners, I do so gently and with an awareness that leading can be very challenging! When I am following, I tune into the places where I check out or lose the connection with the lead. And when we move together harmoniously, I am reminded of what is possible when two people are listening and communicating deeply.
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