In spring 2022 my younger sister was enjoying the carefree life of an Erasmus exchange student in sunny Portugal. Mum and I decided to fly over to Porto and see how the Little One’s doing. I was thrilled to discover that she started taking Bachata classes and hence immediately asked if I could join in for one. “No problem!,” she said. Yeahhh!
To be honest, I was not exactly a beginner on the bachata floor, having participated in several workshops and festivals in the past. But attending a class with my Sis was my idea of bonding, showing support and spreading enthusiasm for social dancing.
We traveled to the suburbs of Porto and entered a rather old-fashioned looking school, to be greeted by a young and handsome teacher.
During the warm-up I was NOT showing off my moves. Nope. Not at all. Never.
OK, I was. Guilty as charged. Front row and center, aiming for the spotlight. The teacher kept smiling at me, clearly getting the message that it’s not my first time on the bachata floor.
Then he ordered “all women to stand in a circle and all men to rotate”. The words “women/men” struck me, since I had already changed my perspective from thinking about genders to thinking about roles of followers and leaders. Tiago and Felipe, two amazing dancers and fighters for more diversity and equality within the community, were my undisputed idols (https://rolerotation.com/ )
It soon became clear that there was an imbalance in this particular beginner’s class, with the “women’s” circle almost twice as big as the “men’s” group. Without hesitation, I switched the sides, positioning myself as one of the leaders. My sister noticed it and hissed “Anna, what are you doing? Get back to a woman’s place!”. “Don’t worry!” – I whispered back. “I’ve got this!”. I mean – c’mon – with only the basic steps and a few simple turns to do, I felt fairly comfortable with leading.
Unfortunately I only managed to lead for a minute or two, when the teacher approached me, ordering me back to a women’s circle. “But why?” – I asked, astonished. – “I CAN lead and I’m helping you out.” His tone was hard: “No. Women may not lead in this school. That’s not allowed.”
If it wasn’t for my sister and my mum, who both looked embarrassed by the situation, hell would have been unleashed right there, with me screaming on top of my lungs DON’T TELL ME I CANNOT DO SOMETHING BECAUSE OF MY GENDER! I was ready to fight the stereotypes the same way I used to fight in my professional field, eventually becoming a manager of 200 people. Women may not lead? Hold my beer!
But reminding myself that I was a guest at that particular school, with my little sis and her friends watching, I calmed down and took a seat next to my mum, only to watch from now on.
As soon as the lesson was over, the teacher explained his motives, saying “you know, it’s a beginner’s class and we do not want to stir things up. Playing around with roles when you are an advanced student is one thing, but asking women to lead in a new class is a bit controversial…”
I respectfully disagreed with that bullshit.
My younger sister was not amused. “Why do you always have such a hard time accepting rules?” – she asked. “You are a woman so it’s pretty clear you need to learn women’s steps. Men lead, women follow. That’s simple!”
Except that it is not.
There is no such thing as “women’s steps” or “men’s steps”. I mean, it’s not like a basic step to the left has penis attached to it, right? There are just STEPS and EVERYONE can do them. The core principle of partner dancing is that one person leads, the other one follows. The machine works the same, regardless of who’s playing which role. The physics of movement doesn’t really give a crap about your gender.
We spent the rest of the evening arguing about equality on the dance floor, with me proudly showing Tiago and Felipe’s videos as well as a TED Talk with 748K views, entitled ‘Ballroom dance that breaks gender roles’ https://www.ted.com/talks/trevor_copp_and_jeff_fox_ballroom_dance_that_breaks_gender_roles .
Alida Esmail, Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox – three professional dancers – demonstrated in November 2015 in Montreal how outdated the motion is that the man always leads and the woman always follows. They captivated and commanded the stage while boldly deconstructing and transforming the art of ballroom dance with their concept of “Liquid Lead”, which is based on the same principle as Tiago and Felipe’s “Role Rotation” (https://rolerotation.com/ ).
Jeff Fox said “When Trevor and I would get together for training seminars or just for fun, we’d toss each other around, mix it up, take a break from having to lead all the time. We even came up with a system for switching lead and follow while we were dancing, as a way of taking turns and playing fair. It wasn’t until we used that system as part of a performance in a small festival that we got an important tap on the shoulder. Lisa O’Connell, a dramaturg and director of a playwright center, pulled us aside after the show and said, Do you have any idea how political that was?”
So that began an eight-year collaboration to create a system for switching but also explore the impact of being locked into a single role, and what’s worse, being defined by that single role. Because classic Latin and ballroom dancing isn’t just a system of dancing; it’s a way of thinking, of being, of relating to each other. There’s one thing that stayed consistent over centuries, though: the man leads and the woman follows. So street salsa, championship tango, it’s all the same – he leads, she follows. This is not just dancing – this is gender training. You aren’t just learning to dance – you are learning to “man” and to “woman.” 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, the history. This isn’t the present and doesn’t represent how we – modern people – think today.
Unfortunately, when you watch TV programmes on dancing, the couple is always only a man and a woman. So, same-sex and gender nonconformist couples just disappear. In most mainstream international ballroom competitions, same-sex couples are rarely recognized on the floor, and in many cases, the rules prohibit them completely.
It sounds ridiculous, but when you Google-image, “professional Latin dancer,” you’ll be lucky to find an actual Latino person. What you will get is page after page of white, straight Russian couples spray-tanned to the point of mahogany. There are no black people, there are no Asians, no mixed-race couples, so basically, no non-white people, as if they did not dance or exist in the dancing community. Even within the white-straight- couple-only paradigm – the woman can’t be taller or bolder, the man can’t be shorter or gentler. The standard image dictates that the leader must be larger and masculine and the follower smaller and feminine. This is a stumbling point.
If you were to take this old-fashioned dance concept and translate it into a conversation, that would be a monologue, not a dialog. He dictates, she reacts. A dominant and a submissive, without exceptions. We, as a culture, would never stand for this. No relationship – gay, straight or anything – that we would regard as remotely healthy or functional looks like that, and yet somehow, you put it on prime time, you slap some makeup on it, throw the glitter on, put it out there as movement, not as text, and we, as a culture, tune in and clap. We are applauding our own absence. Too many people have disappeared from partner dancing.
What if a couple could lead and follow each other and then switch? And then switch back? What if it could be like a conversation, taking turns listening and speaking, just like we do in life? What if we could dance like that?
Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox call it “Liquid Lead Dancing.” Tiago and Felipe call it “Role Rotation” (https://rolerotation.com/ ). And I highly encourage you to reflect on their concepts. Let’s make our dancing a conversation, not a power struggle between genders. With the change of our mentality, the dance moves from being a dictation to a negotiation. Anyone can lead. Anyone can follow. And once the blinkers come off, anything can happen.
About the author:
Anna Koliber – LGBTQIA+ ally and student of Role Rotation – is a psychologist, a dancer and an avid reader of mythology. For almost 20 years, she has performed on theater stages and at numerous festivals. Her passion for ancient myths, dance, Latin music, and opera is reflected in her novels and short stories. Koliber avoids mainstream romance patterns and consciously promotes strong, independent women and men with character. Her debut “Faceless Lover” is based on Greek and Roman mythology.
The author donates all profit from the sale of her book to Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH), a non-governmental organization operating since 1992. By buying her books, you will support humanitarian assistance in impacted communities in Ukraine and surrounding regions where Ukrainian refugees have fled.
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