Is Partner Dance Sexist?


This article is the summary of research that was prompted after I participated in an online discussion about partner dance being sexist. The obvious issue that was raised was that of men leading and women following. The main thrust of the argument was that roles are allocated to one based on one’s sex. The smaller thrust was that leading implied some control (thus superiority) over the follower, which when combined with the allocation of these roles to one’s sex made this issue more poignant. Certainly it was hard to argue that one’s sex doesn’t play a role in a social dance. This alone could be described as sexist depending upon your definition of the word ‘sexism’. This too is actually contested by some, and adds to the complexity of the situation.


Note: this article contains adult content about sexuality and gender roles within dance. It might not be for for you.

What do most people think?

To get a feel for how people feel about partner dance I decided to first run a poll to get a broader perspective on what people thought. This would provide more information to add to what people had to say in the forum that started this investigation. I should point out that the poll was held on a Facebook fan page, and most people who liked that page would likely already be comfortable with the nature of traditional partner dance. Thus the sample is biased and more weight would need to be given to people who were unhappy with the status quo (no matter how hard you try, there’s always a bit of subjectivity when looking at such things). Four options to describe the nature of sexism in dance were put to fans of the page:

  • Not sexist; different roles doesn’t mean inequality.
  • Not sexists, but very traditional.
  • Yes it is; it tells you what to do based on gender, and I am hoping it changes.
  • Yes it is, but I like that every once in a while.

It was also possible for fans to add other options if they were unsatisfied with the options given and they could also leave comments to further express their position.

The survey is still up, but at the time of writing this about 40 fans had participated (around 1.3% of the community). The overwhelming response was that dance was not sexist because different roles do not mean inequality. I explicitly added the phrase about different roles and inequality to ensure people pondered this before answering. And this might be right where the issue lies. Some people would argue that once you allocate a difference in roles based on sex, you have sexism. If this is applied strictly, then dance is indeed sexist. However, a lot of people seem to feel that in the case of dance this is not an issue. Why might that be?

Why do we accept gender roles?

To understand why people might be comfortable with a different role and not feel that this is sexist, I went to research on biology of humans. Obviously we are different, men and women that is, but is this limited to reproductive roles alone? Can it carry over to societal roles? Charles Darwin argued that the reason for having two sexes was the division of labor. By having specialists within a species (as opposed to generalists) there are fewer compromises in the design of the organism in question (in this case, the human). Thus it would seem reasonable for the majority of people to be comfortable with a difference in role, some people made the link with team work and the importance of each role. However, why would it be these roles that people are happy with?

To answer that question I considered the sexuality of dance. I have come across this quote a number of times and I am sure that you have likely come across it too – ‘Dance is the perpendicular expression of a certain horizontal desire.’ Given how ubiquitous this quote is, how it seems to resonate with many in dance and given that as, Freud pointed out, ‘The behavior of a human being in sexual matters is often a prototype for the whole of his other modes of reaction in life’ an understanding of sexual differences might shed some light on this. Recent research into female sexuality reported in New Scientist in 2005 showed that when women orgasm much of their brain shuts down, and induces a different state of consciousness. However, this only happened if it was with a partner. If women were to bring about their orgasm themselves, then the brain responded differently. Thus, women are able to experience a different state of consciousness, seemingly unknown to men, when another is in control of them in some way (typically physical). If the link between dance and sex is as strong as the above mentioned quote suggests, then this might explain why women enjoy the follow roles at times. It allows them to come slightly closer to this unique state of consciousness. Indeed, some women who responded to the survey did make comments to a similar effect. One woman said ‘I found it comforting that after a day of being a female executive in my vice president role at a major financial institution, I could put the guard down and feel that my partner was happily willing to take the lead.’ Note the use of the word ‘comforting’ suggesting a different state of being. Another woman said ‘I want to be able to “just follow” and not be expected to lead on the floor. I love getting swept up in a nice lead. Sometimes as women who are in charge all day, in every aspect of our lives, we thrive for that moment to be (dare I say it… ) submissive to another’s lead.’ This comment too also talks of a different state of being that comes from being led and ‘swept up.’

So that might shed some light on why women are happy with their role. But what about men? It has been argued that men should not always be expected to lead. Is this so? If we were to consider the research into female sexuality from above and assume that the majority of women have sex with men, then it could be expected that the flip side is that men are expected (at least when it comes to sex, and thus probably dance too) to take a lead to show a woman a good time.

However, there is more to this notion of men needing to take responsibility. Research into the bystander effect has shown that men (especially if they are young) are less likely to be helped when in need of assistance than are women. Thus the majority of society (men and women) expects men to take care of themselves. I have experienced this personally when concussed after trying to protect a friend from an attack and trying to find the emergency room once getting to the hospital car park – instead of receiving help from a woman I asked directions of she called security on me.

Men probably also relish the chance to physically take care of a woman too. It happens very rarely in our time. Society has been set up for women. The goal of society is to make life safer, more comfortable and less physically demanding. These are often things desired by women. Think about which gender is most likely to want to escape modern life and go camping or river boating or something similarly counter intuitive. Men have probably evolved to protect women, there is little other explanation for the wasted energy that goes into their size. It would in some respects make sense for men to be smaller – women only need to be large enough to carry a baby that is big enough to survive once born. Men could be a quarter the size of women and still fulfil their reproductive role. Thus male bulk must play an established biological role, one that is rarely needed these days – to protect. It would be expected that some natural instincts would go along with this even in the face of an environment that no longer demands it (take a read of Jared Diamond’s Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee for insights into how our biology affects us in everyday life), and men thus have a natural urge that is rarely satisfied. Dance would allow men the chance to do this, and explains why men would usually also be happier taking the lead, despite the perceived (by some) greater responsibility and effort required.

The above would explain why the majority of people are happy with dance as it is. Many of us accept that there are differences between the sexes, especially when it comes to sex, which dance is related to, and are happy for these to be expressed in dance. However, some people are still uneasy with it. Is this simply a case of adhering to the strict definition of sexism mentioned above? Is there something more for some people?

What about when there is only one gender?

Same sex partner dancing can shed light on this. Interviews in the documentary Ballroom Rules with a Melbourne based dance instructor Anny Salerni, who specialises in same sex partner dancing, and her students reveal some insights into how the roles of lead and follow can be perceived. Because they are same sex couples, the role of lead and follow need to be worked out in a way that is not based on sex. Instead, a natural tendency needs to be found. When interviewed, Anny noted that many people come in to her studio and think they know what they are (lead or follow), but then find that are the opposite. Some come in and find that they never feel comfortable with just one role, and need to switch from time to time. Thus, there are potentially people in the social dance world who do not like being a lead (if they are a man) or follow (if they are a woman) and think that they should be the other, but never find out that they are indeed in the role that is right for them because they don’t get a chance to experience the alternative. A student in the documentary (a woman who was a lead) noted that the more she danced the more she realised that it was possible to be masculine and graceful – indicating that she had an idea about leading and masculinity in her mind that was not entirely correct. This could mean that some people might actually be overly presumptuous about the nature of each role, and more exposure to dance would help. Nevertheless, others might simply find that their natural tendency does not align with the gender role in traditional partner dancing. It is easy to see how an individual in any of these situations would find partner dancing sexist.

So is partner dancing sexist or not?

Because it allocates roles to each sex that the majority of people seem comfortable with, partner dancing is not sexist. However, due to its nature and the way it is run (very traditionally) dance could be more inclusive, and some people do rightly feel that it is sexist towards them. Thus, like most things in this world, there is an opportunity to make dance better. This can be done by allowing dancers to explore if leading or following works better for them and why, which would likely be of value to all students and probably make dance better for everyone. How this should be done in practice I do not know – I am neither a dance teacher nor a dance studio manager. Just something for such people to ponder and for you, as a dancer, to think about if you’re not happy with the status quo.