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Why Men Lead and Women Follow – 10 Wrong Reasons

Spuds posted a link on Yehooid to this article written by a dancer named Lloyd on his blog. It claims 10 ‘good’ reasons why men should lead and women should follow in partnered social dance. He doesn’t refer specifically Lindy Hop much but it’s definitely relevant to the Lindy scene.

Enough preamble – here’s why he’s wrong:

1. Someone has to lead
This is no more a justification for men to lead than for women, or space monkeys, or cats…..

2. Men are taller than women
I’ve 5’5″, which is about the average height of Australian women – does that mean I should restrict myself to following? I disagree with the ‘simple fact’ that taller follows are harder to lead, I’ve never found that in my experience. I’d say that, if anything, taller leads find it harder to lead (particularly when they’re learning) as they need to match the size of their movements to the range of movement of their, sometimes much, shorter partner. This is a skill that some may associate more with following than leading.

He also says something about the leader needing to be closer to a tall follow in order to turn her with his hand above her head. A big height difference can create opportunities for cool moves, such as jumping when you lead this sort of turn. No uncomfortable contortions required.

In any case – there only needs to be one counterpoint to this argument – Shorty George. Enough said.

3. Men are stronger than women
Lloyd argues that there are many moves (particularly in ‘Jitterbug’) that involve the lead taking the follow’s weight including aerials. You could apply this argument to performances or competitions, but how many moves like this do you actually see on the social dance floor apart from established couples (who should know better than to pull crazy aerials on the social floor anyway).

There’s plenty of moves where the follow supports the leads weight. Moves that involve one of the partnership taking the ‘weight’ of the other are much more about timing, balance and counterbalance and making the physics work for you than they are about brute strength.

He goes on to say that followers need to trust their leaders to support them and that men are unlikely to trust women, particularly if they are a stranger. Lloyd should consider that the reverse of this might be as valid. It’s a damn good argument for not pulling crazy stuff on strangers. More importantly trust in a dance partnership needs to be mutual for these sort of moves to work and be safe and fun.

4. It avoids arguments
Yes, I know Lindy Hoppers aren’t renowned for this, but the only thing that avoids arguments is communication. It only takes a couple of words to establish who’s leading and following and if this exchange were a convention it would be even easier. In fact you can ask it in the same question as asking the person to dance. For example the conversation:
“Would you like to dance balboa with me?”
“Sorry, I don’t dance bal – would you like to lindy instead?”
“Sure – let’s dance”

becomes:
“Would you like to dance as a lead with me?”
“Sorry, I don’t lead – would you like to lead instead?”
“Sure – let’s dance”

5. Each sex can specialise
The argument presented is that a new dancer should pick one part and stick with it. Whilst Lloyd uses this to support the established gender roles it’s not really an argument for it per se. Nevertheless it’s still wrong.

Think of all the best dancers you know. You’d have trouble naming any who can’t both lead and follow. Knowing the other part makes you a better dancer.

It may be advisable for a beginner to pick what role they’re going to start out with and stick with that whilst they’re learning. Once they decide to pick up the other part they will be able to do so quicker as they  already have fundamentals such as pulse, balance, frame, connection etc. It will never take twice as long to learn both parts and ultimately learning the other part improves your dancing.

Having said that I think there is a case for teaching both parts from the get go and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has ever learnt or taught both parts more or less at the same time. The first ever blues class I did had a huge excess of guys, so some of us followed as well as led. Whilst it probably helps that I was already a lindy hopper and blues isn’t really a left or right handed dance I managed both parts fairly easily. I actually ended up having a couple of insights during that class that helped me pick up the basics well.

6. Sex is part of the fun

Here I will refer to number 10: You need to get out more and post some videos

Dawn Hampton dancing with Steven Mitchell, Virginie Jensen, and Frida Segerdahl

Thomas Blacharz and Max Pitruzzella

Max again, this time with Alain Wong



7. Men prefer it
8. Women prefer it
I’ll group these together as it’s basically the same argument and makes the common fallacies of appeal to popularity, appeal to tradition and appeal to common practice. I’m sure there’s plenty of men who like to follow and plenty of follows who like to lead all to a greater or lesser degree. And you will find plenty of people who prefer to exclusively dance in their traditional gender role. Reasons for preference probably have more to do entrenched socio-cultural norms than pop evolutionary psychology (which isn’t really a science) explanations.

9. It isn’t command and obey 
This is about the only point that’s on its own is correct. Many dancers have discussed the partnership in great detail, for example here , here and here. However it still doesn’t refute the argument that in partnered social dancing generally and Lindy Hop specifically there is a strong current of sexually conservative gender norms and to a greater or lesser extent more obvious sexism.

10. You need to get out more

Basically this entire argument is an appeal to common practice, a common fallacy. Just because something is a common practice or a tradition, doesn’t make it right. And the truth is that there is a lot of sexism (much of it not intended and little of it malicious) in the lindy hop community. Others have posted about this at length, for example this excellent posting by Sarah.

Whilst most of us do have fun within this construct of gender roles I believe that we could have more fun by breaking them down. We’re also excluding many members of our society who could enrich the community we are a part of. I don’t think this will really change until more men start learning to follow, but more about that another time…

Posted in debunking, gender, lindy

5 Comments

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’d seen these 10 Reasons before and was so flustered with indignation and wrongness that I couldn’t even fathom where to begin. It was so wrong in my brain that it was almost not worth the thinking power to refute it. I was wrong. This post is awesome. Thank you for breaking this down so concisely, and thanks for those awesome clips. (I love collecting same sex Lindy Hop clips/photos.) *** I have been following for 10 years and leading for 6, but only in the last 3 or 4 years did I pursue leading as something I wanted to socially do often. But once I came round to that, I started taking classes differently. I understood concepts so much better when I could try out the move or drill from both sides. “Okay okay, let me try and lead it…Okay, cool.”

  • I’ve got no problem with women leading but males (elite dancers excepted) make terrible follows – they don’t like being told what to do, most of them think they’re better follows than they actually are, they’re too strong, they’re too big and most of them can’t turn properly making them just plain dangerous on the social floor

  • Most men probably think that they are better leaders than they are too. As for your other points – it’s nothing that a bit of practice couldn’t fix, but more about that later.

  • Hnmm.. to me whole subject is simple: if you want to lead or follow.. do so, REGARDLESS of you or your partner’s gender. That’s it. If anyone has a problem with this then it’s THEIR problem. Any other view is gender stereotyping and traditionalism.

  • I started dancing lindy six months ago and lucked into a class that teaches everyone both roles, the only one in Melbourne that I’m aware of. This has been an incredibly empowering experience which has enabled me to choose to develop both roles equally from day one.

    I can’t imagine I would have followed this trajectory if my teacher wasn’t committed to teaching everyone both roles.

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