Is Partner Dancing Sexist?

leading a dance

The author dancing lead

I know a dance teacher who feels strongly that the whole concept of leading and following is sexist.  She is trying to teach Lindy Hop as an equal partnership where no one is in charge of the dance.  It’s an interesting subject, and I have very strong feelings on the subject as well.  It is true that the tradition of men leading and women following has it’s roots in sexism, but I don’t think that’s a reason for trashing the whole concept.  Nor do I feel, as some do, that everyone should learn both roles.  I do think learning both parts makes for a better dancer, but let’s face it.  We dance for fun.  If you love to follow and hate to lead, it’s not going to be fun to learn both parts.  And if you dance in a heterosexual scene, you may not have much opportunity to use your skills if you learn the part not assigned to your gender by tradition.


So let’s talk about traditional roles for a bit.  Man leads.  Woman follows.  Is that inherently sexist?  My thoughts on the matter may be controversial in some settings, but here they are anyway.  Regardless of gender, it’s the job of the leader to create a joyful experience for his or her partner.  In a traditional coupling, the man is giving a gift to his partner.  She may be in charge of most of the rest of her life, as are most modern women, but on the dance floor she’s on vacation.  She gets to turn off her brain and go for a ride.  Someone else is doing the driving for a change, and she gets to enjoy the ride.  It’s part of his job to decide what steps to lead and she does have to follow his lead, but if he’s a skilled leader, he creates the choreography for her.  He keeps the dance at a level that challenges her enough to be fun without making her feel stupid.  If her facial expression shows that she isn’t enjoying a particular step, he doesn’t repeat it.  And she has verbal say as well.  She can tell him that she doesn’t like to spin very much or that she does.  A leader who makes the dance about himself instead of his partner won’t be a popular partner no matter how skilled he is.  It’s an old fashioned scenario where the guy gets to be a hero and the woman gets to accept a gift.  It doesn’t make him in charge of the relationship.  It doesn’t make her subservient.  It’s just a dance.  It’s a break from life, not a formula for behavior.


The lead/follow relationship is what makes a partner dance work.  But in a jazz dance like Lindy Hop, there is plenty of opportunity for the follow to be creative within the context of whatever is lead.  The conversation that is created between the dancers and the music is what makes the dance so exciting.  If you are a woman who feels demeaned by the role of follow, then by all means learn to lead.  I have no problem with either gender learning either role, but I do take exception to the elimination of those roles.


At a Boogie Woogie workshop in Norway, one of my teachers had us play with the vocals in a duet song.   The men took over the jazz variation when the man was singing and the women did so during the woman’s part.  He was adamant that the women should not break out her dance  while the man was singing.  He also was equally adamant that dancers should stick to their gender defined roles.  To illustrate his point, he danced to the woman’s voice prancing around like a drag queen to show how ridiculous it was.  I was duly shocked at his blatant sexism in this day and age as this was only about 10 years ago.  The truth is, everyone adds their personal styling to the dance regardless of their gender or their role.  A woman can add a feminine styling to her lead without looking like a drag queen, or she can use a more masculine style if it suits her personality.

It’s also fun to switch lead and follow during a dance if both people know both parts.  Richard Powers, who teaches vintage dance at Stanford University, teaches his waltz students to switch roles during the dance.  Since the footwork is the same for both roles, this is particularly easy to do smoothly in waltz and adds a delightful non-traditional touch to the dance.


None of this takes away the roles of leading and following.  You can be creative with the way you play with those roles, but I believe they are still important to partner dance.  Whether the nontraditional gender is leading, whether the roles are switched, or the traditional roles are kept, someone has to be leading and someone else following at any point in the dance.  If you take that away, in my opinion, you take away the fun of partner dancing.

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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