In the last few years, the international dance community has been discussing numerous issues of inclusivity. From renaming the Jack & Jill to more gender-inclusive language, to dealing with the aftermath of high-profile sexual predators, to the recent discussions of racial inequality brought up by Ksenia Parkhatskaya’s past blackface performances, the dance community is slowly trying to correct course on previous blind spots and patterns of neglect.
Over the next few months, we hope to spotlight a number of those issues. We'll take a look at how swing dance communities are trying to improve their relationships with people of color, women, LGBT folks, and other marginalized people. Today, I’d like to focus on a few interrelated topics: gender roles, dance roles, and the queer and trans community. We’ll discuss both the positives about swing dancing as LGBT people and the ways that our scenes can still improve.
Let’s start with the positives. Generally speaking, people at Lindy hop venues are happy to dance with anyone who asks. There is no expectation that women should wait for men to ask them for a dance, and no social repercussions to whether the lead asks the follow or vice versa. People of any gender can compete or teach in either role, whether as amateurs or professionals. Nor is there much of a dress code; while some choose to dress more formally or in vintage styles, just as many show up in whatever feels comfortable to them. Most skilled dancers can do both roles, and, depending on the venue, instructors can swap back and forth to demonstrate both sides of a move.
All of this might sound obvious, but it’s not universal among partner dances. West Coast swing, for example, still bars people from competing professionally in the nontraditional role, even after a petition that was widely circulated last year. Some ballroom and Latin dances have much more strongly enforced gender roles than Lindy hop, where everyone dances the traditional role and women are expected to wait passively for an invitation to dance. One friend of mine, for example, recently told me that she was effectively shunned at a salsa dance after offering to lead another woman.
None of these things are true in Lindy hop, for which I am extremely grateful. That said, there is still room for improvement. I’ve heard stories from numerous queer and trans friends about bigotry at dances: anti-gay slurs and backhanded compliments; women who refuse to use the same restroom as an AFAB (assigned female at birth) nonbinary person, or who are visibly uncomfortable when rotating to a female lead. In some scenes, male follows have higher rates of rejection, and women who dance primarily as leads are treated as less ‘legitimate’ unless they also wear more masculine clothing.
In one galling example, I watched an entire string of male leads refuse to even touch my friend because he was taking the class as a follow. The instructors did nothing to address it, and may not even have noticed. In retrospect, I wish I had intervened. It’s been a year and a half since that evening, and it still bothers me.
Outside of these obviously homophobic experiences, however, swing can just be a generally heteronormative scene. Anyone can dance either role, yes, but the majority of people do choose the traditional one. It’s still relatively rare for a potential partner to ask “Do you want to lead or follow?” unless both usually dance the same role. Also, many people are careful to say “leads and follows” instead of “men and women,” but then act in ways that imply the two sets are functionally equivalent.
So, what can dance organizations and individuals do to be more welcoming of both queer/trans dancers and those who dance nontraditional roles? Here are a few suggestions:
• First, and most importantly, model the behavior you want to see. Don’t just ask people to dance regardless of their gender expression—actively make a point of reaching out to people who present outside the obvious gender binary. Ask them to dance, strike up a conversation, introduce yourself. It doesn’t have to be long: for a new dancer, even a brief exchange can make the difference between wondering if they’re welcome and knowing they are.
• If you see someone being harassed, check in with them and offer to talk to organizer about it. As a victim, it can be difficult to speak up about any kind of harassment. Knowing that a bystander is willing to stand up for you can be very heartening.
• Learn how to dance both roles. Especially, I would argue, if you’re straight and cisgendered. It can be pretty uncomfortable to be the odd one out in a roomful of people all appearing to fill their assigned gender roles. If everyone dances both roles, and not just the LGBTQ people, that’s one less thing that places us outside of the norm. (Plus, then you can dance with more people, and no one gets left out!)
• Use gender-neutral language when discussing dance roles. Some organizations are already really good at this; others may need help understanding why it matters. If you’re a dancer concerned with gendered language in your scene, this article has great suggestions for how to bring it up with instructors.
• If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, just ask! Asking shows that you respect them and care about their self-image. And if you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, don’t make a big deal about it; just apologize, correct it, and move on.
• For organizers: Explicitly include gender and sexual expression in safe space policies, and take all complaints about harassment seriously. Hire teachers who dance the nontraditional role or both roles. If you can, provide gender-neutral restrooms. Also, consider teaching all classes as switch or ambi (as in “ambidancetrous.”) If everyone learns both roles, there is far less social pressure to fall back on the traditional one whether or not you prefer it.
• When discussing etiquette in beginner classes, it can be helpful to point out that the dance environment is not meant to be sexual or seductive. Many people enter partner dancing with certain assumptions that can make them uncomfortable with the thought of dancing with someone they’re not attracted to. Clarifying that social dance is just that—social—should eliminate some of that discomfort for newer dancers.
• Lastly, if you’re not satisfied with the inclusivity of your scene, you can start a new one! There are queer and trans-specific dance organizations all over the world. Here is just a sampling:
QT Fusion - Washington DC
Swingin’ OUT - Toronto
Gothenburg Queer Lindy Festival - Gothenburg, Sweden
Lavender Country and Folk Dances - Boston, NYC and San Francisco
Circle Left Contra Dance - Oakland, CA
Village Contra - NYC
Motor City Swing - Detroit
Queer and Switch Lindy Berlin – Berlin
OutDancing at the Century Ballroom - Seattle
Queer Slowdance - Toronto and Montreal