Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ballroom Dancing and Traditional Gender Roles

            When you walk into a ballroom dance studio to take your first dance lesson the first thing that you learn is that the man leads and the lady follows. Ballroom dance is an art form that at its core represents traditional male and female roles. Men and women are placed in heterosexual partnerships and expected to carry out their very different roles on the dance floor. It is the synchronization of these two different parts that is what makes it so enjoyable to watch. When the two parts do not mesh together the performance looks disconnected and holds less entertainment value.
            The great success of reality TV shows “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” has brought ballroom dancing into the public view. The portrayal of ballroom dancing on these shows is often from a much more traditional standpoint. The women are in feminine clothing, and the men are in tuxedos that are supposed to portray power and wealth [1]. This only furthers the view that ballroom dancing encourages traditional gender roles and stereotypes to the public[2].
While teaching in Manhattan I attended a lecture given in Albany, New York in October of 2012 by a woman who owned a dance studio in Montreal. Her lecture was all about the differences between men and women and how to address them when you taught. For example women have more peripheral vision than men which is why their head is turned more to the left in dance position[3]. They are also not in charge of the direction they are moving in general, but have the ability to direct their partner if they are about to run into someone despite having their head extended further to the left. Even within this lecture there were subtle cues as to how to treat women differently while teaching them, they need more corrections because they like to multi-task or that men have the job to lead so they can’t be overwhelmed with technique in the beginning because they have to think about the steps. Although she herself owned a studio and was a working businesswoman and did not necessarily fit into traditional female stereotypes her teaching was full of subtle cues about how to treat male and female students differently.
Female dancers are constantly being told not to “back-lead” or take the leading role away from their partner. The role of “leader” is restricted for men. This serves a practical role as well. It is impossible for both partners to lead while they are dancing. Someone has to take on that role in order to generate synchronized movement together. It is likely that men have received that role because of the societal roles that existed when partner dancing was first invented. The synchronization of two people is what makes the dancing beautiful. However, because men are leaders women are often portrayed in the softer, more submissive role. The technique books for ballroom dancing include information on steps and roles. There are columns for different elements of dancing including direction of movement, footwork, amount of turn, and rise and fall. The steps are labeled with a “man’s part” and “lady’s part”. The men have an extra column entitled “lead”, to tell them how to lead a step correctly. This adds to the responsibility of men while they’re dancing. Indicating that they are capable of more responsibilities while on the floor than women.
Upon delving into the specific techniques of the craft the differences in the technique of ballroom dancing are much smaller than might be portrayed through a performance. The woman is not a passive contributor to the performance. She needs to participate as much as her partner does. When the international community speaks about couples that compete they call them “teams” which places the woman an equally important footing with her partner. In fact if you were to interview the top competitors in the world it is highly unlikely that any of them would ever view their partner as submissive. The greatest difference is in where the responsibilities of each movement lie.
It has been mentioned at countless lectures that I have attended that it only takes three years to make a good female dancer; however, it takes up to five years to make a good male dancer. This is an indication of the level of difficulty involved in being the “leader” while dancing. This could acknowledge one of two things, that women pick up their parts faster, which is an indication that they could take on more, or that their jobs are easier in relation and thus do not take them as long to master. The latter might seem like it would be the more likely of the two, especially if ballroom is coming out of an era where women were not thought of as equal to the task of learning the same amount of information or responsibilities as men. However, if you dig down into the technique behind the steps in the syllabus for ballroom dance that is international recognized by the International Society of Teacher’s of Dance (ISTD) you would notice a significant difference in the level of difficulty between the man the lady’s parts, especially in Latin American Dancing. Women have steps that are significantly more difficult to teach as well as learn. Men might have more responsibilities on the floor, but women spend much more of their time learning technique and dealing with the difficulties of the figures themselves, while often men repeat a basic action over and over only changing the leads for the steps. This is evidence that would indicate that women and men have jobs that are equally as challenging, and so a woman cannot lead the synchronization of the steps as well as have the more challenging actions to dance.
However the roles of men and women play out on the dance floor the culture of ballroom dancers is much more complex. There are many instructors that might be considered more progressive that promote the idea of unity while you are dancing and that men ask for permission to lead and women allow it so they can have freedom of expression within their movements while not worrying about where they are on the floor. Others, are more traditional and explain dancing as putting the man in a more dominant role and women in a much more submissive one. Whichever way you view it likely depends on the story you believe and want to tell within your dancing. The popularity of ballroom dancing today is likely due to the push for men and women and to explore and define their own meanings of gender roles and how they interpret the older values and create their own meanings while they dance [1].

[1] Yamanashi, Allison and Robert C. Bulman. 2007. The Choreography of Gender:
Ballroom Dancing and the Complexity of Gender Identity. Submitted to the meetings of the American Sociological Association. Saint Mary’s College of California.
[2] 2011. Strictly Come Dancing 'popular because of old-fashioned gender roles. The Telegraph. UK.
[3]  Contenta, Patty. 2012. “Teaching Men and Women.” Lecture given at Arthur Murray Region I conference.

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