Get onboard or get left behind

Posted by Jake on 20th October 2017

I attended my first dance class at university in 2004, and have taught partner dance for the last seven years. In that time I've seen a lot of things change and wanted to share my personal story of how my attitudes to the roles in the dance have changed, and how as a company we've changed our teaching philosophy.

Initially, my teaching style mirrored those that taught me, I conformed to the paradigm that men lead and women follow, without giving it a great deal of thought - that's how I was taught and I was a product of my environment to an extent.

I introduced a class with 'guys behind me, girls over there'. I taught the 'he goes, she goes right turn'. And I didn't think anything of 'ladies styling' classes, other than perhaps they weren't for me. In classes I would explain the forms like 'men you do this, women you do that'.

That said, even in the early days I found myself apologising to the women in the class who were dancing the lead role when I referred to them as men! I made a bit of a joke of it, and tried to talk about things in terms of lead and follow to avoid confusion - but it was a difficult habit to kick.


I approached running classes and events with a certain amount of naivety - I think I believed that people would always be nice to each other, polite and respectful.

But after having to exclude a number of people, after a number of very serious complaints and repeatedly having to stamp down on disrespectful behaviour - I began to understand the full scope of my responsibility and duty of care to our members.

It has become my opinion that the paradigm that 'men lead and control the dance, while women are submissive' as well as overt sexualisation of the dance, fosters the environment where this is tolerated and goes unchallenged.

Now whilst sometimes people are attracted to each other while dancing, a partner dance is not inherently a sexual experience - in fact it's rarely the case, and in my experience the people that encourage this kind of myth are precisely the people who are subverting the dance to their own agenda.

And I shouldn't even have to say that when someone is sexualising the dance and it's not reciprocated that's plain wrong. Whether that's with a look, a word or physical contact.

Parallel to this, I noticed another damaging and abusive narrative - leads blaming the follows when things go wrong. This makes me really uncomfortable, particularly when the community strongly enforces that men must lead and women must follow.  In 2017, should we be tolerating men berating women when things go wrong?

Again I found this is reinforced by the classic roles in the dance - the man leads/controls the dance, the woman is there to look sexy, be subordinate.

Social partner dance should be a conversation. Both partners are there to contribute their expression to the dance, however they want to express themselves.

Changing Mindset

About three years ago, as a team we took the decision that StreetSalsa would stop talking about the dance in terms of men and women's roles - but instead, in terms of the lead and follow role.  The 'he goes, she goes' became the 'lead & follow's right turn'. We encourage people to dance the role they feel comfortable with.

Initially it was tricky to balance this. As an introduction we've settled on 'Salsa is a lead and follow dance, one person suggests the moves and it's up to the other person to decide whether or not to follow the suggestion'. It took a fair amount of time not to slip up and talk about men do this or women do that - this stuff is simply so ingrained.

But now it's second nature, and it makes me cringe when I hear the old school way of describing the dance and its content - whether that's in salsa, swing or any other partner dance.

It makes me feel like I would feel if I heard that a job was a woman's job, or a man's job. If my sister was told at school she couldn't play rugby, or my brother couldn't take dance classes. Or that the law applied differently for men and women.

What's changed?

Since we've made the change, we've created such a more positive environment for people to learn and express themselves. The culture is so much more respectful and creative, if men want to dance in a 'feminine' way then they can and visa versa. The lead role is no longer inherently 'masculine' and the follow's role no longer 'feminine' - unless of course the individual wants it to be.

And I couldn't imagine going back - an increasing number of young people don't identity with either classic gender role and I'd hate someone to come to my classes and not feel like there is a place for them.

A student I've taught at the university for over a year, has enjoyed dancing the lead role - trying the follow role on occasion and it's great to see that from day one she's felt empowered to do so.

Also, why is it even assumed that the lead's role is masculine? That the follow's role is feminine? Other than convention. Don't talk to me about men are stronger, leading is about technique - not force. I've seen plenty men who are smaller than their female partner get on just fine as a lead.

I know a lot of people out there are going to feel threatened by this simple change to the way we approach teaching partner dance.

But I would suggest if you're a teacher or promoter, you realise that this is the way things are going. There's a generational gap in this kind of thinking, but if you want to attract students and guests in the long run - you better get onboard, or get left behind.

I'm just going to leave this here. For me, it's an exciting example of expression which subverts the norm - isn't that what art should be?

By Jake

Nearly a decade ago, I resolved to run a salsa night the way I thought it should be run and the idea for StreetSalsa was born.  The rest as they say is history..

I've made some of the best friends you could wish for through dancing, and want to share what a life-changing experience dance can be.

By Richard on 23rd October 2017 at 16:35

Love this, Jake. It's amazing how powerful language is, and I'm really proud of the inclusive environment we've created as a result of this.