Leading and following. An integral part of a movement that gives joy to many – Ballroom and Latin dancing. And yet it is also one of the trickiest aspects of the art form to master. These stylistically distinct dance genres are usually learned and performed together, because they are both built upon a particular technical core of partner dancing. Whilst performed professionally under the title ‘Dance Sport’, Ballroom and Latin are predominantly practised as ‘social dances’ between non-professionals who enjoy dancing recreationally with friends. These dance forms call for a dominant ‘leader’ to decide on the sequence of moves and a subordinate ‘follower’ to execute them, having interpreted the leader’s intentions through embodied signs made through posturing and contact. The leader is usually a male person, or a woman said to be acting as a male; the follower usually a female.
Developing the confidence, knowledge, and planning skills to lead clearly, but kindly, takes years, as does learning to interpret read these bodily signals effectively as a follower. Part of the difficulty may also derive from the inequality of the creative process. Throughout my many years of dancing, I have met many women who simply don’t like to be told how they ought to express themselves to the music. Of course, following isn’t all about being told to what to do. It is also about pre-empting your partner, outwitting them perhaps, and finding spaces for your own individuality to blossom through your mutual union and shaping your own space in a shared set of movements. An ideal dance partnership is about negotiation and mutual generosity. Yet it is in the nature of these dance forms that one partner will always be dominant.
The various types of dances included under the umbrella terms ‘Ballroom’ and ‘Latin’ derive from a huge variety of cultures,[i] and therefore offer a greater variety of possible expressions than some other dance forms.[ii] Amongst the main influences are European folk dances (Waltz), hybrid Hispanic heritage (Paso Doble), the North American Jazz Era (Foxtrot, Quickstep, later Jive) and Latin American social dance (Tango, Cha-cha, Rumba). Dance is a culturally embedded form of expression. Since it is primarily a social activity, often one involved in courting, the postures and signature movements of the dance outline interpretations of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. These ideals set iconic parameters concerning ‘correct’ forms of identity, expression and social relationships.[iii] This is particularly true in Ballroom and Latin dancing, structured as they are around a normative male-female dyad.
Consider the Paso Doble: the physically intimidating body shapes, the arm movements driving out through a broadened chest and strong shoulders, expressing power and machismo. The male shaping has a distinctive height in the upper body, and dramatic female poses may involve the woman bending backwards, but rarely the man. In this dance the man represents a matador, and the woman is said to represent either his cape or the bull. Both are under his complete control. One adorns him, the other both threatens his masculinity and will ultimately serve to glorify it, by its own destruction in death.
The waltz and slow foxtrot, on the other hand, require smoothness and an imperceptible muscular control that looks like floating. The male is still, calm, and provides a proud frame in which to display the elegance and desirability of his lady partner. It is fashionable for female dancers to bend their head backwards and left, opening their shoulders and displaying a dignified, but shy, elegance. She looks away from both her partner and (most of the time) the direction of travel. The majority of hesitating postures entail her stretching into a shape that both defers away from the man, and shows off her grace and control over her own body.
The meaning and function of dances has evolved, but the postures remain. Our bodies are the matrix through which we experience social life. Bodily postures teach us meaning by subjecting our bodies and sensibilities to particular experiences.[iv] Such actions, as they become habituated into the body for life, also teach those who perform them about what kind of a person they should be, viscerally ingraining their sense of ‘proper’ relationships in the cultural world they live in. Dance is just one of many bodily techniques that socialise individuals into culturally correct kinds of relationships with each other. It is not an accident, for example, that Catholics learn from an early age to bow the knee before the tabernacle, or Indian children are taught to touch the feet of the family elders. Similarly, the comportment of military officers or fashion models is an essential part of their social authority and key to how it is produced. They are, in the same way, cultural techniques that socialise individuals into culturally correct kinds of relationship with one another.[v] Although now a popular hobby for many of the British public, this heritage can create discomfort and conflict amongst individuals who are uncomfortable ascribing to normative, sometimes oppressive, social identities.[vi]
Pink Jukebox is a Ballroom and Latin Dance club run for LGBT people and their friends. Every Sunday in a basement canteen in central London they come together for a day of dancing and socialising – without the conventionally prescribed gender roles. Here, dancers are not referred to as ‘men’ and ‘women’, but as ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’. Most members can dance both equally well, but generally they have a preference. The club was founded and is co-run by Jacky Logan, a London dance DJ, and Ralf Schiller, a prominent dance teacher and Argentine Tango specialist who was involved in training Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace, of Strictly Come Dancing fame. Pink Jukebox is a popular organisation with attendees ranging from teenagers to septogenarians. The dancing day starts with an Advanced Class, followed by Intermediates and Beginners, and then a ‘social’ dance event. Those who are able participate in as many classes as possible, and others often arrive early so that they can sit around the edges, chat with their friends, and learn by watching the more experienced dancers. Unusually for a dance class, partners are switched every 3-5 minutes, so anybody could end up dancing with anybody else. This adds to the friendly nature of Pink Jukebox, preventing fixed couples from forming, allowing dancers of different proficiencies to dance together, and encouraging people to experience and learn from a wide range of leading and following styles.
Clara, a lesbian-identifying lady in her 50s, prefers to lead, enjoying the creativity of shaping the dance, thereby colouring the postures of the dancing couple. However she also reflects that, when she is tired, it’s ‘quite nice to follow’, to not have to think ahead all the time, to let somebody else look after you for a little while. When I asked her what she thought the ‘politics’ of Pink Jukebox were, she paused before replying that most people would say, there are no politics at Pink Jukebox. Rather, she said, the politics lies in the normative dancing world, where men must be men, and women must be women, and women must follow men. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘anybody can do whatever they want, there are no such rules or constraints. No politics,’ However she immediately conceded that such a stance is by default political in itself.
Another regular attendee is Albert. Identifying as gay, Albert was kind enough to take me on the dance-floor for my first time leading, which was an unnerving and decidedly uncanny experience. ‘How do I do this?’ I asked, as I fumbled to establish a Latin hold as a leader. Starting with basic steps, I found myself having to concentrate intensely on my body, working hard to produce movements that I had so often seen and responded to as a follower. These movements, however, felt curiously alien and uncomfortable with the shoe on the other foot. When I asked Albert how to lead the figure known as the ‘fan position’, he found it difficult to explain verbally. Suddenly I found myself being led into that figure as follower to Albert’s lead. He had subtly taken the lead off me to show me what I wanted to know. As I followed this time I ignored my own habitual following response and focused in a new, intense way on the minute movements of Albert’s hand. ‘I’m giving the lead back to you now,’ Albert said. Somehow, imperceptibly, the lead transferred back to my control, and I successfully led Albert into a fan.
Sharing the lead in this way is something that members of Pink Jukebox sometimes do socially. If the follower suddenly feels like they want to steer the creative direction for a little while they gently take over, requiring their leader to acquiesce, and may return the lead or have it taken off them at a later time. The dynamic this gives to the dance is unlike anything I have experienced before in my nine years of dancing. Frequently changing partners, with individuals swapping between ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ roles as the need dictates, Pink Jukebox provides an open and inclusive dancing experience that attracts LGBT and straight-identifying people alike.
‘People like it here, because they know they’re going to get a dance,’ Clara told me. ‘It doesn’t matter [who you’re dancing with],’ was Albert’s philosophy. ‘You don’t have to fall in love, it’s just dancing!’
Approaching leading and following as choices, rather than as fixed and non-exchangeable roles, allows dancers the freedom to ‘perform’ the tropes and romances of the social dances with consent, creativity, and aplomb. The creative union between dancers in a social or performance setting becomes even more intriguing when the lead becomes a part of the dance to be played with, used in dialogue, and creatively engaged with in the same way as any other conventional aspect of dance choreography. A performance at Pink Jukebox by the founder and dance teacher Ralf Schiller with colleagues Omar Ocampo and Monica Romero is an excellent example of this, as is some of the work of the Argentinean dance company Corporación Tango.
Same-sex dancing has recently made a significant challenge to the professional circles of Ballroom and Latin as well, with bodies such as the World Dance Council banning same-sex couples from competing in their events. However, same-sex dancing is increasingly popular in recreational and educational dance scenes, with ‘queer’ or same-sex clubs proliferating at an unprecedented rate. Anna, an attendee at Pink Jukebox, runs a salsa class in Brighton that her friends teasingly refer to as ‘inclusive’ dancing. But for Anna, this is nothing to joke about. She explains that, as at Pink Jukebox, she never refers to the dance roles by gendered terms, instead telling the ‘dominant’ or ‘leading’ partners to go to one side of the room and the ‘followers’ to another. She notes with a wry smile how often both partners in a marriage agree that the woman should be the leader. ‘People for the most part didn’t think anything of it,’ she said. ‘They just enjoy themselves… Most men didn’t realise what was going on until we changed partners and they found themselves face to face with another man.’
‘A wise person once said that the leader gives the indication for the follower to do an action, the follower executes the action, then the leader follows the followers,’ Ralf told his students, showing them how not to pull on their follower’s arm as they lead a spin turn. Indeed, leading was never meant to be an act of brute force, but as people at Pink Jukebox accept, leading and following is just the nature of the dance. ‘You could get all political, like I once saw one woman do, and ask “why should anybody lead and follow?”’ Clara told me. ‘And, I suppose you could negotiate and plan out what all the moves are going to be beforehand… or alternatively, you could just get on and dance.’
My sincerest thanks to Ralf Schiller and Jacky Logan, co-founders and organisers of Pink Jukebox for welcoming me to Pink Jukebox and giving permission for me to discuss the club in this article. Thanks must go also to the members of Pink Jukebox for their kindness, openness and warmth, and for sharing their passion for dance with me. Please note: names of club members have been changed.
[i] Included in ‘Ballroom’ Dancing are Slow Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep, Ballroom Tango and Viennese Waltz. Within Latin there is Cha-Cha, Rumba, Jive, Samba, Paso Doble and increasingly also the Argentine Tango
[ii] Picart, J. 2002. “Dancing Through Different Worlds: An Autoethnography of the Interactive Body and Virtual Emotions in Ballroom Dance” Qualitative Enquiry 8:3
[iii] Reed, S. 1998. “The Politics and Poetics of Dance” Annual Review of Anthropology 27
[iv] Cowan, J. 1990. Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece. Princeton University Press
[v] Risner, D. 2002. “Rehearsing Heterosexuality: “Unspoken Truths in Dance Education” Dance Research Journal 34:2
[vi] Hanna, J. 1975. “The Anthropology of the Body” Dance Research Journal 7:2
Hanna, J. 2003. “Who Speaks for Gays in Dance?” Dance Research Journal 35:1