Leading and following

I’ve been a dancer for close to twenty years, most of them dancing bachata, salsa, and chachacha.  I bellydanced for a while, dabbled in hiphop, and was a serious blues/fusion dancer for several years.  I love east and west coast swing to watch, but (at best) can fake my way through the basics.  I consider myself strictly a social dancer, although I spent a few years in performance classes (thank you Sarah & George!) but found out my dislike of choreography was greater than my enjoyment of performance.

When I moved from Portland to Spokane, for a number of reasons, my robust dance life all but halted.  When Covid hit, it came to total halt, as it did for most of us.  I’ve been one of the people more reluctant to get back to dancing in person, but took the plunge recently and promptly got Covid.  It was worth it, but this post isn’t about that, it’s about the opportunity we have now to reconsider and reshape social dancing.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for years, in large part because I’ve been both leading and following for close to 15 years (thank you Sheena & Asia, and the lead-swapping blues fusion community) and want to see more of this, especially in latin social dancing.  I decided to write this piece because of a conversation started recently in the salsa community by Juan Calderon & Edwin Ferraras and furthered by owner of Vitalidad Movement Arts Center and friend, Carolina Andrea Mundaraín-Rahima.

If we’re going to (finally) take a hard look at our dance scene with regard to consent, then a movement to de-gender the lead/follow roles cannot be far behind.  We’ve seen this happen in dribs and drabs, a few same sex performance teams, a video here and there of same sex couples dancing together, but nothing big, nothing serious.  For example, a simple change could be at the beginner lesson usually offered at the opening of every social dance night, the instructor using “lead” and “follow” instead of gendered terms.  Using gender-neutral terms can encourage people to try something different, or to step into the role they actually want to dance, not the role assigned to them by gendered language.

I started leading years ago in part because blues/fusion has a fairly gender-neutral approach to lead/follow roles and I love blues/fusion, in part because I saw this video and immediately thought “I want to lead too!”  So I started learning and it was one of the best dance decisions I ever made.  I’m not a stereotypical “ideal” salsa follow (petite/tiny or tall/willowy), so leading also gave me a way to feel more confident in myself as a dancer; where my strength, stability, and stature were put to good use in ensuring my follows felt supported and protected on the dance floor.

I’ve danced with thousands of people, as a lead and a follow:  pros and amateurs, experienced and newbies, highly technical and purely social.  I can say with confidence that choosing only to lead or only to follow narrows the range of experiences even possible, and shuts out half of the best dancers.  Don’t limit your possibilities.

image text reads "if you only ever lead, or only ever follow, you miss out on half the best dances" on a dark blue background speckled with stars

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