Lisa Hickey likes the lead and follow, teach and learn, and give and take of both the masculine and the feminine.
In the not-too-distant past, I was addicted to Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop is a form of Swing Dancing, a partner dance. It’s usually a man and a woman, a leader and a follower. When I started, it never occurred to me to defy traditional roles. As the woman, I was the follower.
Through tons of practice I got good. I went to workshops, camps, entered competitions and danced in performances. On the morning of one performance, I broke my thumb bicycling to work. Drove straight from the hospital to the dance hall so I could tell my partner in person I couldn’t dance that night. But when I showed up, our choreography said “Don’t tell me you’re going to dance with that huge cast on your hand? Well, c’mon then, get on stage.” My partner was terrified he’d hurt me. “Don’t worry,” I whispered in his ear. “The thumb’s already broken.”
Being that good a dancer had its privileges. A small group of us girls decided we wanted to be leaders too. We took the beginning classes all over again, as leaders, not followers. We learned to signal our intentions through weight shifts and arm movements. We learned how to lead well enough so that when we took classes if there weren’t enough men we would lead, and if there weren’t enough women, we would follow.
I’m an equalist, but in swing dancing, I hated leading. As a leader, I’d be the one who had to think up all the moves. I’d have to watch out for my partner, keep track of where I was on the dance floor. I was often too short to be graceful. Not strong enough to do stunts. I’d have to think while I danced, instead of just dancing. And as a leader, I had to dance with women. As much as I love women, a woman is not a man.
Dancing has this interesting physicality. It’s kind of sexual, kind of not. At dances and workshops, you are constantly switching partners so that you dance with strangers all the time. I loved that about dancing. The roles were clear, it was not a pick-up scene. You were there to dance. But as a heterosexual women, dancing that close with a man, having to trust them, having their body move your body in rhythm – well, dancing was sexy.
And I liked nothing better than to follow–to give myself away, floating, not have to think, just move to the music and dance. But knowing how to lead? Made me a better follower.
My daughter Caitlin started playing ice hockey at age 7. There weren’t any girl’s hockey teams when she started, so she played with boys, til high school. She made the varsity girls team in high school, then on her college Division 2 team.
Anyone who has seen a girl’s ice hockey team and a boy’s ice hockey team at the same level knows there is a difference. Boys teams aren’t just faster, they are two or three times as fast. They are not just stronger, they are more powerful. They are not just more aggressive, they are more forceful. There’s no comparison to watching someone being slammed into the boards on a boys hockey team vs. the way girls bump into each other. There’s no denying the difference in the pace of the game, the strength of a slapshot. Maybe some of it’s socialized, but if you watched my daughter, who played on boy’s teams all her life and then didn’t, you can see differences that can’t be explained by socialization or coaching or determination alone.
So my daughter stepped off the ice at age 20, and didn’t play another hockey game until a few weeks ago, at age 27. Her grad school had an intramural team. She borrowed my equipment. She was nervous. She hadn’t been on the ice in seven years. I walked into the rink with her. A couple of guys on her team were already in their skates, introduced themselves. They towered over 110 lb Caitlin. She came up to her teammates chest. Out of 22 people playing that night, there was one other girl.
But when she stepped on the ice, something happened. Yes, the guys were faster. Yes, they were stronger. But Caitlin could skate. She knew exactly where she should be on the ice, could anticipate the puck. The guys –- she had never played with them before — picked up on that in 30 seconds. There was some hidden code where they knew to pass her the puck every single time. She’d skate rings around the other team, get the puck close to the net, pass it back to one of the guys who would slapshot the puck into the net. Again, and again and again. 4-0, her team won easily. The ease at which the guys switched from leading to letting Caitlin lead was extraordinary. No one had to say a word.
About eight months ago, my right leg stopped working. Just like that. I couldn’t get up stairs, couldn’t get into cars. At various times, I think I hung on to every parking meter and lamppost in Boston until I could limp along again. Thirteen doctors and specialists couldn’t figure it out. Doctors would say things like, “well, let’s rule out a brain tumor, shall we?” Yes, please. Finally one doctor threw up his hands and said “I don’t know what to make of your tests. But this much I will tell you. You have to exercise as hard as you can every day. Keep moving every day. “But doc, I can’t even walk!” He looked at me evenly, and gave me the best advice I’d ever gotten. “If you can’t walk on your right leg, hop on your left.”
The next day, my ex-husband drives me to our (younger) daughter’s game. My leg is so bad that as we pass by a hospital I yell, “HEY! Why don’t you drop me off at the emergency room and you go to the game. Pick me up on the way back.” He convinces me to go on to the game, so on we go. We walk in the rink, I’m leaning on his arm. He’s my ex-husband, and it wasn’t all that good when I left. But we’ve worked it out for the sake of our kids, and when I walked in the rink, he held onto my arm as if we were walking back down the aisle, or with the same care he took when we walked together into the maternity ward for the birth of one of our four kids. He was my ex, but when I needed a right leg for the sake of our children, he was my right leg.
Tom Matlack and I started working together two and a half years ago. His background is in finance, I’m a creative. I’m a female, he’s a male. He’s logical, I’m intuitive. Except for when he is intuitive and I am logical. He uses conflict to uncover truths, I use collaboration to discover insights. He’s built huge companies, I’ve built social networks, books and art. We’re both passionate about the project, but we’re emotional in different ways. We’ve certainly had our share of clashes. But most of the time, there’s no one I’d rather work with than Tom.
Tom has taught me to see conflict as a way to quickly get to an honest assessment of the situation and create change as needed. We challenge each other. We listen. He is happy to teach me everything he knows, I return the favor. The speed at which we work together is amazing. Because of Tom, I’ve accomplished more in the past two years than I’d done in a lifetime. It often feels like I’m rushing down the ice in a high-speed hockey game, swirling on the dance floor in a Lindy Hop move. Sometimes I need to take time off to be with my family and kids and sometimes he does. Sometimes I follow while he takes the lead on stuff he is stronger at, and sometimes he follows while I lead.
I love that there is a gender binary, or, more likely, a gender spectrum with masculine and feminine traits at either end. I like that there are differences. I like that it’s not one big mush of gender, although I don’t much care which traits anyone exhibits at any given time. But I don’t want to deny guys their masculinity any more than I’d want to be less feminine. I like gender differences, and want them to be a part of my life.
My favorite kind of masculinity is best demonstrated by someone who has confidence is his own strengths. Who leads when needed, but is not afraid to let me or anyone else lead either. And so we go. Onward.