When I moved to my current rustic, foothill town for work back in June, I had no friends and no family, so I did what any sensible twentysomething would do and joined a social dance group. West Coast Swing on Wednesdays became my scene, and until my job started in August, it was the only thing that connected me with others in an otherwise bleak social environment.
I started as a timid, apologetic beginner, but as I danced more and more, I developed a certain confidence in my dancing ability that bled into other aspects of my life. I felt better about my interactions with others, more physically present in the world, and more self-assured that, since as a dancer I might be worth something, so too as a person might I also have worth. I began walking with my chest out instead of collapsed, my shoulders rolled back instead of trying to hide within myself, and I was no longer ashamed of my presence. Dance posture, one could say.
I felt like a better man. A quality man.
Then one of my dance friends, a strong woman and conscientious follow, an excellent physical communicator who never breaks a solid sense of connection while dancing, asked if I wanted to follow for once. She was working on her lead, and I had never followed before, so why not?
For those of you who know little about social or ballroom dance, there is usually a lead (who is male) and a follow (who is female). The lead leads the follow through the dance with the use of tension and body language, and the follow reacts and responds to the lead’s cues. Leads don’t have to be men, and follows don’t have to be women, but traditionally this is how it is.
And so, for three minutes, I assumed a woman’s traditional role on the dance floor.
It was horrifying.
I’m not saying my friend was a bad lead. For all I know, she was excellent. But I do know I was a terrible follow. My experiences as a woman for those three minutes on the dance floor were disturbing to say the least. Any sense of self-assurance I felt that I was doing something right in this world was threatened.
For three minutes, I was being whipped around, pushed and tugged according to somebody else’s plan, trying my best to make it enjoyable for my partner, and yet completely clueless as to how to behave in such a way as to make it a fulfilling experience for anyone involved. As far as my partner knew, she was leading me through an intuitive and pleasurable dance, and yet I was completely failing at my end of the bargain to respond in such a way that worked for either of us. I was awful.
This is not only about my level of skill and experience. Relinquishing any sense of control over the situation and putting myself at the mercy of others made me feel pathetic and emasculated. I felt powerless.
And for a brief moment, I felt like I knew a little better what it is like to be a woman living in a society where they are often objectified, at the mercy of men who think they know better, a society whose rules are written by those oblivious to the challenges faced by a population trying desperately to secure a voice. There I was: being pushed and pulled by someone else’s design with little else to do but smile and pretend to enjoy it lest I break down and embarrass myself or others. Social dance is a microcosm of society.
Make no mistake: It wasn’t just the experience of being forced into submission. It wasn’t just the psychological challenges of relinquishing control. I can’t suddenly claim to understand what women go through in life using three minutes of dance. My empathy, though well-intentioned, is foolish…
…It was that I had suddenly understood my own leading, my own traditionally masculine role, from a different and more honest perspective. For months, I had been leading under the assumption that I knew what I was doing, and that my follows were enjoying it. And now, from the other side, I knew this likely to be untrue.
I was going through the motions, smiling and laughing, all while secretly hoping for it all to end. This is no longer just about dance.
I, as a lead, am a reckless buffoon. I, as a follow, am a deceitful manipulator. I, as an observer, see myself as two people dancing, enjoying each other’s company, none the wiser.
How could I then go back to the role of a lead and be secure in knowing that what I’m doing is good for the follow, when as a follow, I now know that I might be terrible?
I stepped away from the dance with my confidence shaken, full of self-doubt, with just a hint of paranoia. I couldn’t figure out why anyone has ever agreed to dance with me. In fact, I couldn’t figure out why anybody dances at all, ever, especially women, if they are to be subjected to the misguided whimsies of strange men like myself.
If you go through life overcoming that unwelcome shred of doubt about your interactions with people, knowing consciously that they probably do enjoy your company as much as you do theirs, and yet carrying with you a suspicion that they are just placating you, pacifying you, tolerating you, but secretly wanting to get away from you, and then you find out through three minutes of a role reversal that your suspicions might be right? That all of your intimate moments might have been a lie? That every passionate moment of your life might have been a dance wherein the follow is patiently waiting to leave quietly lest they break your heart? How do you rebuild the pathetic shambles of your once proud self?
I couldn’t dance for the rest of the night and went home early. I still have a hard time going back.