Thursday 7 May 2015

And Two Steps Back

To buy or not to buy...
Oh, poppets. Such a terrible evening.

To put this into context, I had looked forward to swing class all week. When I ducked into charity shops, I looked for dresses and skirts that would be cool for swing-dancing. When I lost interest in whatever B.A. was watching on TV, I surfed the web for real swing-dancing shoes. I spent an hour yesterday looking for a pair of dark sneakers (plimsolls) my size to go with my new-to-me 1940s style dress. B.A. even came home early so we could have dinner together before I went to class. And I gave myself an hour to get there.

The first bad thing that happened was that the Rough Bus didn't turn up. After five minutes, I noticed a sign saying that the road ahead was closed--not just that there were works, which there have been. A car stopped beside me and the driver told me that a truck had crashed into the railway bridge, and not even pedestrians were being allowed through. So, rather peeved, I went back through the Historical Estate and marched through the woods in my city shoes to catch another bus.

Miraculously, I got to the Improvers' class only five minutes late. I put on my new sneakers and was raring to go. We were taught a complex series of steps, and I did my best to be a good follower: not leading, not anticipating, not messing up the steps, and always encouraging the lead. "Nobody died, that's the main thing" is the sort of thing I say to a red-faced lead. 

Then, half an hour in, horror. The instructors told the followers to become leads, and the leads to become followers. All of a sudden, I had to do everything in this complex series the opposite way from the way I learned. And I had to do it in such a way that not only completely violated the philosophy of being a good follower, it also contradicted my painfully learned lessons on how to get along with men in social situations. All of a sudden, I had to literally push them the way I wanted them to go. 

All the anxiety and the humiliation I suffered through in the early classes came roaring back. And whereas in the first classes I had expected to feel clumsy and horrible, as all my life dance classes had made me feel clumsy and horrible, I had come to expect to feel graceful or, if not graceful, at least gracious. And it was so painful and so disappointing, I signalled to a spare woman to come and take my partner. He, poor man, was shocked, and she was greatly surprised. However, I simply was not going to carry on. I got a glass of water and hid in the ladies' room. As one so often used to do. 

I was furious. Utterly furious. Irrationally furious. I felt like the rug had been pulled under my feet, and in more ways than one. "Why did men always used to lead?" asked a teacher rhetorically some time ago. "Sexism." But I don't believe that. I simply don't believe it. I think that for physical and psychological reasons most men are just better at "leading" than at "following" and most women are better at "following" men (or, to be frank, any taller or heavier partner) than leading them. Eventually I came back and watched small women push around big guys and although nobody looked abjectly miserable, the laughter was often a little too loud, a little too forced. I thought about those poor American ROTC cadets ordered to parade in red high-heeled shoes.

When the class came to an end, I was unsure what I should do. Stay for the social and dance? But that meant either standing on the edge of the dance floor, smiling, etc., or asking one of the least confident men to dance, and suddenly I knew I was just too angry. In that state, I could not fake happiness, and nobody would want to swing-dance with Mrs Angry. So I went home. Which, since, the Rough Bus route was closed off, took me an hour and a half. 

"Don't take it so personally," said B.A. after listening to my descriptions of forced gender-bender hell.  

"It's hard not to take it personally," consoled Alisha, via Facebook.  

Naturally Alisha Ruiss is my guide to all things swing, and the best thing I could do, since I realized that to go from loving swing-dancing to hating it in the space of ten minutes was a violent change, was to write to her. Apparently it is helpful to learn how to lead to become a better follower. And yet  it was perfectly normal to feel the way I was feeling.  You can feel happy about it all, and then there's one little thing you can't do, and you feel like a terrible dancer. 

Well, if Alisha can feel like that...! 

I'll tell you who else Alisha is. She is my heroine of  persistence. All her adult life she has gone to auditions, sometimes getting the part, but also sometimes being rejected. Again and again. And since I hate rejection and, if something I write gets rejected, fall into dejection, sometimes the only thought that gives me hope is Alisha, who looks at going to auditions as a large part of the job and takes rejections in stride. I am a born quitter--which is why I took an oath I would study Polish for five years before giving up--but I don't want to die one. 

Oh, and my new sneakers squeaked and squealed like giant mice. Terrible. What a night. 


  1. Expat Houswife7 May 2015 at 13:35

    When I was dancing tango years ago on several occasions I had to dance with women who were leading. it was just weird. The female instructor was excellent but she simply didn't have enough strength to lead. They all say strength makes no difference and that it is all in the rapport and technique, but I don't believe that. Sorry that the evening was awful but don't let that put you off. I suspect they will go back to normal next time.

  2. Domestic Diva7 May 2015 at 13:42's such a downer to look forward to something, only to have your hopes and expectations dashed in some way like this. Don't give up! Next week will be better.

  3. I am feeling angry too on your behalf! I don't know anything about swing, but if it was latin/ballroom we would both be in the corner refusing to dance.
    I guess it won't help to hear that my dance class this evening was lovely - we has a new (Scottish) instructor and he has a lot of fun teaching.

  4. As a fellow swing dancer, I'm with you, Seraphic. This sort of thing is all too common in the various swing scenes in which I've participated.

    I've wondered if it's the case that millenials feel guilty about their participation and enjoyment of a dance that was clearly traditionally gendered in its original context. It's as if they're trying to say "I know I like wearing feminine vintage dresses and wearing my hair in victory rolls, but believe me—I'm as committed to today's sexuality and gender nonsense as the next gal."

    The swing scene in my city where the best dancers congregate is full of this attitude. Consequently, I don't go out as much as I'd like. The "worst" I've had to endure was leading with a male follow while rotating through a lesson. It made me uncomfortable, but I tried to hide my discomfort, lest I be denounced as a counter-revolutionary.

    I'm sure your friend Alisha is right that if you want to become the best possible dancer you can, you need to learn both leading and following. Frankie Manning, one of the greatest lindy hoppers there was did that with a (male) friend of his. Alone. In his apartment.

    It strikes me as unkind for the organizers to force this on everyone at a public event. Any first timer who felt uncomfortable is unlikely to return.

  5. Well, it was all female leads dancing with male followers, and it was an "Improvers'" class, so I don't anticipate an exodus. Personally, I really don't mind dancing with women. But I do mind having to lead, especially when I have never given it any thought or attention before.

  6. I suspect men may feel more strongly about dancing with other men than women may feel about dancing with other women. I wouldn't appreciate the sort of lead-follow switch you had to deal with either.

  7. Oh definitely. And I was reminded of the time a pair of male tango dancers danced together as part of show in a hospital wing. The discomfort of people around was palpable and I thought, "Yeah....I don't think Edinburgh is ready for that."

  8. Thanks for this post, Seraphic; I'm very touched. I have many thoughts about gender in dance, and I have to say it's very much an individual preference in terms of leading/following. I like to follow mainly because that's what I learned first and I'm kind of too lazy to change it :) It also happens to be one of the few areas of my life where I'm not anticipating or thinking too much which is nice for a change. In reality, though, I often think like a lead and would probably make a good one if I took the time to learn. Dance, in the end, is movement, and so long as it's well executed, I don't think it matters who does what. Here are some great examples:

    The Decavita Sisters from Sweden (they are both awesome, and one is a cancer survivor):

    Max & Thomas, two of the top leaders in the swing world

    Max & Juan Villafane

    I couldn't find videos of them but Angela Andrew and Marie N'diaye are both highly respected teachers who lead as well and are amazing.


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