A screenshot has been making the rounds recently that suggests that the NDCA will soon be changing its rules regarding who can dance the roles of lead and follow. Hint: it’s not particularly progressive.
As you can probably imagine, I’ve got a few things to say about that.
Before we get into that though, let’s make one thing clear: This isn’t a particularly new rule; the implementation of it is just getting stricter.
A quick search of the Wayback Machine shows that as early as 2010 the NDCA has defined a couple as a male and female only (see image below). It’s entirely possible that this rule has been in effect for longer, but I don’t have access to any rulebooks older than 2010, and the NDCA doesn’t have any public records of these rulebooks that I am aware of.
This rule stands as a de jure realization of ballroom’s de facto men-dance-with-women rules. I would wager that the first 50 years of the NDCA didn’t see much need for a rule like this given the overall cultural aversion to any form of expression that could be tied, erroneously or not, to homosexuality or any other affect deemed too alternative for the refinement required of ballroom dancers.
Times have changed and the NDCA has not. Hence the rule.
The current motion, which apparently will be voted on in early July, would further restrict the above rule to close up an apparent loophole.
As you can see, this clarifies the glaring problem that, as defined previously, a female could lead a male.
Disagree at your Leisure, but Please Keep Reading
Before I go off to rant about all of the reasons why I think this is a bad idea in many ways, let me address those who wish to disagree right off the bat:
Please, continue reading.
I mean that. My goal here is not to simply shout taunts from across the ravine or spin circular arguments until they glitter in the light. I want to set out my arguments in a line and hear what you have to say in response. Tell me why I’m wrong because I want to know. To quote J. M. Keynes, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
I aspire to have strong opinions, loosely held. I will argue tenaciously for what I see as right, but if you provide a convincing argument to the contrary I’ll be happy to give way.
This Rules Change is a Bad Idea
And I mean that not in the proximal case of the proposed rule change, but in the broader case of the rule as a whole. On the whole, I don’t think the original rule is defensible.
- Freedom of expression. Though I disagree with those who believe that ballroom dancing should only be about a man leading and a woman following, I respect their right to express that opinion. I would not have the dance world set up such that those opinions are silenced or ignored as a matter of course. I would certainly not ban them from competing or participating.In fact, I don’t care if you prefer watching men leading and women following; it’s just as great if you only enjoy watching same-gender competitors. Express yourself however you feel.
Your preferences, however, should not determine what others can and cannot do. No matter how much you believe that your way is right, you must always leave the door open to other opinions and other ways of doing things. Not allowing this is morally wrong and kills innovation and excitement.
Freedom of expression is about being able to say and do what you want, with the caveat that by allowing yourself to do so you must also allow others to do the same, even if they disagree with you.
- Following makes you a better lead and vice versa. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial point, but some choose to disagree. I believe that anything that allows you to experience your partner’s point of view makes you better at creating a great dance experience for them. Who doesn’t want to do that?If you don’t believe me, read Kate Bratt’s great post about it, or Bryan Waznik’s excellent article about it, or Laura Riva’s wonderful treatment of the issue… The list goes on.
And sure, you can tell people to only do that on the practice floor, but there are important parts of competitive dancing that can only truly be practiced by performing. Why limit the learning tools available to someone?
- This discourages people from dance, especially young people. Why does this matter? For better or worse, we’re the future of the sport. 20-30 years from now my generation will be the age base that the ballroom industry depends on to pay the bills and keep the sparkles on.As a whole, young people tend to be more interested in gender equality than their predecessors, and less tolerant of policies that limit freedom of expression. If they associate ballroom with draconian gender policies, they’re going to go find other hobbies to occupy themselves with.
In addition, many, many dancers are getting their first exposure to dance on collegiate teams, where there’s a good chance they’re going to dance with someone of their own gender due to the team or competition logistics. Limiting the number of people who become exposed to dance limits the number who will pay for pro-ams later in their adult lives. We want more dancers, not less.
- Because let’s face it: this supports sexism and heteronormativity. Prescribing the roles that men, women, and others should play in dance puts them into little boxes that actively discourage deviation from the norm.Further, the system is built on an assumption of strict heterosexuality, an assumption which fails for around 5% of the population, or 10 million Americans. Or, how about those who do not identify as either man or woman? The implementation of this rule has a direct negative impact on anyone wishing to participate outside the bounds of these prescribed roles, and that’s a problem.
What’s more, there’s also a power dynamic at play, as the lead role is traditionally the more powerful partner. He is told to direct the follow’s movements, and that she should respond to his commands. Verbiage like this perpetuates elements of sexism that are unnecessary and regressive in a world moving towards gender equality and equity.
- Ballroom risks becoming an artifact. This point is a little more subtle but still pertinent: if ballroom doesn’t change with the times, it risks becoming as anachronistic as civil war reenactments.To quote Trevor Kopp from the fantastic Liquid Lead TED Talk, in reference to classic male and female roles in ballroom, “It’s a relic. And in the way of relics, you don’t throw it out, but you need to know that this is the past. This isn’t the present.”
As I’ve said before, you can argue that the art form is meant to express ‘traditional’ roles of men and women, sure, but if that ‘traditional’ history is steeped in sexism and heteronormativity, can we really be traditional without perpetuating the faults of the tradition? Is the man-woman paradigm so ingrained in ballroom culture that any departure from it will be seen as no longer ballroom dancing but something else instead?
I don’t think so. I think there’s plenty of room in ballroom for flexible definitions of lead and follow. And if we don’t dig into these changing definitions and move with the times, soon enough society will put us on the shelf next to the horse-and-buggy and square dancing, as by-gone artifacts that should occasionally be revived, but not studied for anything more than history.
The rules change and the original rule itself seem like bad ideas to me. I believe the NDCA could spend it’s time and money more wisely in cultivating efforts to push the sport to new heights, both athletically as well as socially. Ultimately time will tell how this rule will fare. I suspect we will see it quietly rolled back in the next 10 years. We can only hope and vote with our feet and money.
If you’ve got something to say on this matter, be it vehemently opposed or ardently for, drop me a line in the comments. I read every single one.