Posts Tagged ‘dance’
I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying about being attractive. I started in my teens, from the position of believing myself to be grotesque and repulsive, as most people do. I spent a while trying to learn to be less repulsive from my peers, who had their own strategies, from sex to self-harm, and settled for a while on religiously following magazine beauty tips. I soon stopped, because they were obviously stupid, and often contradictory.
I got older. I felt less grotesque. I learned how to be attractive from conversations and observation of friends, a method which promotes constant comparison. Like anyone faced with a situation they can’t control, but really need to, I created achievable goals. If I keep my eyebrows plucked, my hair styled, my legs, armpits and pubis shaved, my face made up, and my clothes flattering, I’ll be attractive. When that failed, I relied on inherent, if transitory qualities. As long as I’m under 30, I’ll be attractive. That sort of thing.
At some point in the last few years, all of the things I used to do to ensure I was attractive fell by the wayside. Shaving is a faff. Wearing foundation gives me spots. Daily washing and styling uses up valuable sleeping time. I’m not willing to pay the heating bills that sexy nighties cause. In fact, I’m not even willing to stump up for a new silk nighty at this juncture. Some of my university friends are turning thirty this year.
A strange thing has happened. I haven’t got less attractive.
While I’ve been distracted by other things, like earning a living and writing a novel, I’ve forgotten to compare myself to other people. Suddenly, now I’m not noticing the miniscule differences, I can see how attractive most of my friends are. The ones who value grooming, the ones who rarely shower, the ones who’ve lost weight, gained weight, not bought a new outfit in a year, the ones in porn and the ones who hide behind laptops and screen personas. I’m not delusional, I don’t suddenly believe that we’re all equally beautiful and special, but I do note that we make an attractive group, me and my friends. . I wish I could go back and tell my thirteen year old self. I wouldn’t tell her that it’s ok, she’s attractive after all. I’d tell her that being attractive isn’t half as hard as everyone makes out.
It would be nice to think that this is the result of some kind of inherent, immutable beauty shining though. Sadly, I don’t think it is. Beauty is something that catches your attention when you aren’t expecting it, you can notice it when no one else has. You know beautiful things about your partner that no one else does. It can make you interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily make you attractive.
When we talk about attractiveness in ways that affect us personally, like who to spend your life with, it operates a lot like beauty, and it’s mostly dependent on personal taste. In superficial interactions, though, personal taste doesn’t come into it so much. In these, attractiveness is a category, and you can assess it in a glance. The category of attractive woman is what the men at the library are reacting to when they say mildly flirtatious things, what the shop assistant reacts to when she suggests a particular dress, what makes people glance at my boyfriend to decide whether he belongs next to me. It’s what divides me from the overweight girl in the baggy clothes when men look around the room at dancing. They don’t seek beauty, they don’t search my face for evidence that I’m their deepest desire. They look just long enough to determine where I belong in the order of things. That doesn’t mean the overweight girl isn’t beautiful, and I’d be very surprised if she didn’t turn some of the men on. When they approach her, though, they do it differently to how they approach me. When they watch her dance, they do it less openly, and when they thank her, there’s a very slightly different tone. I bet she doesn’t get asked why she doesn’t bring her boyfriend along as often as I do, but that’ just speculation.
Now that I’ve noticed this (yes, you might say that it took me long enough), I’m horrified to notice the ways my categorisation is, and is not, in my control. I’m almost in the category by default because I’m under forty (yes, I moved the goalposts), have an acceptable BMI, and no visible impairment. I suspect that being white helps, too, if only because in a mostly white culture, it doesn’t carry interpretive questions or baggage. The biggest factor under my own control is probably my weight, but even here I have a natural advantage in my height, which allows me to get podgier than a short person before anyone notices. After that it’s mostly a case of not doing things: not getting lots of piercings or tattoos, not wearing crazily colours stripy things, getting dreadlocks, hanging spikes and metal from my clothes. I’d have to put some effort in. Just not caring enough to shave or dress prettily wouldn’t cut it.
I ought to be reassured to discover how easy it is to be attractive. Mostly, though, I’m looking at the rules of the club, and wondering why I wanted in.
This weekend I’m going for my first “dance weekender” which is distinguished from an ordinary weekend by £130 and the addition of the letters “er”. It’s not classy and it’s not cool; it’s at Pontins. I’m dreading three nights on the lumpy mattress of in my “budget chalet,” but not as much as I’m dreading the suppressing my feminist rage for three days. If I never blog again, it’s possible I’ll have exploded in ‘The Chill Out Zone’, look for pieces of my body there.
Ceroc has never scored high on the subtle-understanding-of-gender metre. They provide training and examinations in dance teaching, but their teachers don’t think anything of calling women ‘girls’ and making jokes about how the stranger I’m dancing with wants to grope me. The average punter doesn’t seem to mind, though; in fact, indignities caused by fellow dancers are much greater than with the teachers. I’ve never been felt up by a teacher. I’ve never been pressured to do close moves I’ve said I don’t want to do by a teacher. I’ve never been complimented on imagined weight loss and then had my imagined positive reaction parodied by a teacher. That’s all been fellow dancers. Sometimes I look around the room and think that I’m the only one there to dance, everyone else seems to be involved in a vast, insulting and semi-consensual meat market. At least no one has followed me home from the dance hall in an attempt to start a sexual relationship, as happened to one woman I know. So I don’t suppose that many of their other customers care about the awful way Ceroc handles gender identity issues, and I don’t suppose they’ll change any time soon. Most people won’t even see a problem.
Ceroc weekends operate “gender balanced booking” and use it to attract people to their events. I can see why. It’s frustrating to be at an event where there are twice as many women as men, because you’ll only be able to dance half the time, or less than half, as some women have partners to monopolise. I’ve left early after hours of boredom because of a bad gender imbalance.
There are two ways to deal with the problem. One is to separate gender from dancing role, so that the make up of the crowd doesn’t define the evening. The other is to exclude some women or include more men to balance the numbers. It as the reverse of the problem so many fetish and swingers’ clubs have.
As a feminist, I tend towards the first option. In dances like Lindy Hop, which attract a younger, more liberal crowd, I see plenty of women leading. It happens occasionally in jive, and is usually a symptom of a man shortage. To convince more women to lead and men to follow, we would have to reform the culture of jive. At your first lesson you’d have to be told you can choose to lead or follow, we’d have to change the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ to ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ and take all of the gendered assumptions (whether that’s jokes about groping to comments on men having better spatial awareness) out of the lessons. The whole sexualised atmosphere of partner dancing would have to be dialled back. That would suit me well, as I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that the men I dance with are having a sexual interaction with me—one’s over eighty—and I suspect it contributes to them not respecting my boundaries.
I have to recognise, though, that I’m not like most jivers. There’s a reason it feels like a meat market: a lot of people are there to find sexual partners. I’ve seen the vultures swoop in at the beginning of the freestyle, after the lesson, in their tight dresses and high heels, to flirt with the men. Hundreds of men seem to have awkwardly tried to ask me out, or ascertain if I’m single. I’ve learned to recognise the recently-divorced look, and the look of the nice guy whose friends have told to get out and meet people. They want to dance with people of the opposite sex because most of them are straight. How many hobbies bring you into contact, physical contact, with so many people of the opposite sex over the course of an evening? And if you can’t think of scintillating conversation you can just concentrate on the moves. Do the men who are enjoying this really want the women clamouring to dance with them just to pair off together? Do the women want to forego the chance of meeting someone who’ll sleep with them, so they can dance with their friends instead? It seems unlikely.
That’s the cuddly side of heteronormative culture, straight people who don’t mind gays, but don’t want them getting in the way. There’s a nastier side to it, though. I’ve attended one (non-Ceroc) jive club where an individual was forced to leave because (s)he didn’t conform to the expected gender roles. (S)he wore a dress, and had masculine characteristics. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether (s)he was a male-to-female trans woman, a cross-dresser, or any other gender variation. I do know that (s)he wasn’t allowed to take part in the lessons because some men complained they weren’t comfortable dancing with another man. They felt that the finger-tip touch necessary for jive was too sexual. They were happy to do it with any woman in the room, and happy to see women do it together (lesbianism doesn’t count, right?) but not with men. So the people who ran the club saved its male members from such an awful fate.
At what point does recognising the desires of the (straight) majority cross from pragmatism to homophobia and transpobia? I don’t know. I’d be happier, though, if I thought the question had crossed the minds of the people running Ceroc. They explain their gender balancing here:
We made the decision to introduce gender balancing into the weekender market as we believe very strongly that both boys and girls should have the same freestyle opportunities.
Absent a major overhaul of jive culture, this is understandable. What’s less understandable is the wording. I’m not a girl. I haven’t been a girl for nine years, and I’m one of the younger members. This is the sort of language they use throughout the website and literature. There’s also a conflation of “male,” “man” and any other word signifying the individual may have a penis. Take this email they sent me, a woman who has already booked:
All the accommodation for this event has sold out. However, if you are a MALE and have a friend who has already booked an apartment and can accommodate you, then for £99 (per person) you can still come and enjoy this event.
They repeat at the end that the offer is only available to “MALES”.
To try to stop people cheating the system by pretending to be MALE when they are not in possession of a penis, stewards will be checking that everyone is wearing the correct colour-coded wristband (I haven’t got it yet, but who thinks it’s going to be pink?). How they’re going to check? Will men have to strip at the entrance to the dance hall to display an all-important penis? For women, will just unbuttoning a blouse be ok?
I’m lucky, I wear dresses and make up and feel relatively comfortable with my birth gender (as long as people don’t make stupid comments about multitasking), so I don’t think that I’ll be misgendered even though I don’t shave my legs. That gains me admission to a club I don’t really want to be part of, because what happens to the butches, trans people, the queers and the intersexed? Why should they have to justify themselves at a dance event? And who are these stewards to tell me that they know more about my gender identity than I do?
If it really is about dancing, and not about getting straight people laid, than committing to leading for the weekend should have as much weight as having been born with a willy. If it is about getting laid, I’ll stay in Manchester and do it a more cheaply and enjoyably with people who know better than to call me ‘girl’ or use ‘female’ as a noun.
Here’s my plan: next time I’ll go in drag. Who’ll chip in for a couple of natty three-piece suits and a pair of snazzy black and white wingtips? I’ll provide the hat. Not only will I dance better than half of those willy-owners who claim to lead, I’ll look a hundred times more suave. Send cravats!
It’s the time of year for making resolutions, and I’m making none. I’d like to resolve to give up supermarkets, but I haven’t worked out where to buy reasonably priced breakfast cereal. I could resolve to write a novel, be more organised and buy more lingerie, but I already recognise the necessity of doing all these things, and they’re no more urgent now than they have been any time in the last few months. Instead, I am giving serious consideration to which forms of dancing to try this year. It’s more “I’ll try this form of exercise and see if it’s fun” than “I’ll join a gym and lose three stone” but there’s value in being realistic.
I spent New Year’s Eve with people who do Lindy Hop. I’ve been thinking about trying Lindy for a while, mostly because of the clothes. I know I’m not the only one who takes up dancing styles in order to dress up: I met someone recently who had started ballroom because she wanted more sparkly chiffon in her life. I can’t see the attraction, but the clothes of the Swing Era have a lot going for them. In deluded moments I imagine myself getting slim enough to pull off a flapper dress, but if I’m honest the real attraction is full skirts, net petticoats and seamed stockings. My seamed stockings will have been kicking around in the draw for so long that they’ll be genuine vintage soon.
I have to catch myself on and remember, though, that I’m not actually that good at dancing. I went to modern jive for the first time because the alternative was another evening in. I surprised myself by not being the utter disaster I was sure I would be. Almost a year later, I’ve almost erased the effect of the sound of my friends’ laughter accompanying parodic impressions of my dancing when I was sixteen. It helps to be one of the few twenty-something girls in a room full of middle aged divorcees, and it helps even more to wear a bright red dress. Suddenly, strangers are commenting on my elegance; judging by their gaze, they often mean “cleavage”, but I’ll take my flattery where I can get it.
I am sometimes upstaged, of course. I was shocked, one week, to see one of my pet partners (those who can be relied upon to dance a second time, without regarding it as a step towards marriage), dancing for a third time with a young, slim, fresh-faced blonde. Who, it turned out, trained in ballet and gained an attractive glow as she danced (I just sweat. Lots.). That was also the evening I first tried Lindy Hop. After an hour of trying to remember where my feet went, get my head around dancing off the beat, and tactfully explaining to my partners that I wasn’t would rather they didn’t throw me across the room until I got to know them better, I was very glad when the lesson ended and we could all get back to modern jive again. I stood at the sidelines, sipping water, when the fresh-faced girl appeared. “That was great!” she said, “I want to know where I can learn Lindy.” I certainly didn’t. I solidified that when the tutor offered to help me with the jumps and I managed to kick him, twice.
Modern jive being so simple, I sometimes forget that I’ve failed at almost every dance I tried, from the ballet class I got too tall for at age six to the Bollywood routines I ruined by being unable to memorise the mudras. There’s a part of me that says I should stick with what I’m good at, but another which reasonably points out that using that logic I would never have tried jive in the first place. Maybe I’m secretly a natural at tango and will never find out.
I must, therefore, try a new form of dancing, so as not to be boring. It would preferably be one with a younger crowd, so as not to be groped. And Lindy looked pretty good. On the other hand, so many people have asked if I do salsa that I feel I ought to give it a go just to get out of all the confused looks when I say I’ve never have. Since salsa involves choosing a style (Cuban, Colombian, etc), unfortunately make no progress by picking that, only open the door onto another labyrinth of decisions.
Not all dances are partner dances, of course, or at least, the partners are sometimes off-stage and referred to as the audience. One of my main characters has decided she’s a burlesque dancer, and the couple of workshops I’ve attended aren’t really going to cut it in terms of background knowledge. Unfortunately, my character is much more confident than I am, unlikely to hide at the back of the class and panic when the routine requires a180 degree turn and she finds herself at the front. Burlesque, unfortunately, is more the sort of thing I’d like to be good than the sort of thing I can reasonably expect to gain any proficiency in. I resent that, and I covet the outfits.
The last class on my list is pole dancing. I know, it’s tacky and vulgar. Sometimes, though, I think tacky and vulgar can be good, especially those prone to pretension and snobbishness, as there’s no disputing I am. I enjoyed my one pole dancing lesson, but, like burlesque, there’s little chance of me being good at it. When you have to lift your own body weight, being small and slim is a definite advantage; I am neither. However, I keep thinking of my empty threat to punch the groper on Portland Street. If I was strong enough to swing myself around a pole, I’d be strong enough to sock him. I can almost feel a “pole dancing for self-defence” class coming on.
To summarise, under consideration are salsa, modern jive, Lindy Hop, burlesque and pole dancing. Wasn’t I meant to write a novel this year? If I can’t decide, perhaps I could pretend I’m giving up frivolous things like dancing to concentrate on literary pursuits. Otherwise, I’d best pick just one. All three people who’ve expressed an opinion so far have been Lindy Hoppers, and—guess what?—they’ve all cheered for Lindy. I’m easily led in more than one sense; Lindy’s gaining ground. Do you support them? Or think I should pick one of the others? Perhaps you would like to complicate matters more by throwing another dance into the mix? Help me, please, because I simply can’t make the decision.
Most of my life, I’m sorry to say, isn’t about sex. Most of my popular blog posts are. If my life was filled with gorgeous men and women willing to provide imaginative, no-strings sex things might be different, but in reality it is populated by unattractive, unavailable people, a few mirages and the odd gem. That’s why I get annoyed when modern jive teachers try to spice up the moves or fill their lessons with innuendo. They invariably tell their dirtiest joke just as a press my fingers into the hand of a mild-mannered married man older than my father, and causing us both to embarrassedly stare at the floor until the music starts.
A hint of sex, if you play it right, is rather nice. Most people don’t play it right. If you use your most lascivious tones to compliment me on my hair and describe the pleasurable sensation of it on your skin as I spin past, saying “you remind me of my daughter,” during the same track is going to make me feel uncomfortable. In fact, anything which you can’t laugh off is probably a little dangerous. I might avoid dancing with you again if I think you’ve been overcome by uncontrollable lust. Worse, I may return your affection and seek you out at every event, dancing inappropriately close and angering your wife. All in all, it’s safer not to indulge.
Last Friday, someone reminded me why I remain an incorrigible flirt. I’ll tell you about him
Since the first time we met he has been called, in my mind, “The Fantastic Flirt”. I asked him to dance entirely on the basis of his height, because, being 5’ 10’’, I spend far too much time ducking as I turn. Not only was my man tall, he was also, I discovered, an excellent leader. We went through the usual moves, and a less usual one as, from behind, he guided my hips from side to side. I got it wrong the first time, and lost the beat the second. “You’re a natural,” he said. “I’m off the beat,” I replied. “I don’t care!” he told me.
A few days later I approached him at a freestyle and asked him to dance. He politely accepted and led me to the floor. A few bars in he said “Ah, I remember you. You’re the one with the hips!”*
There’s a fine line between flirting and sleaziness, and I honestly can’t tell you how to stay on the right side of it. I get a lot of odd compliments. “You’re like a butterfly”, for example (was that a reference to my hairy body?); “you must have a wardrobe full of nice dresses,” (not full, there’s room for lumpy jumpers and old shoes); and my favourite “you’ve got solid hips and first class movement.” (Um, thanks). Vocal appreciation of someone’s moves isn’t always good. The Fantastic Flirt always gets it right, though. Not that he has much finesse. He’s been known to make little moaning sounds when I get close and wiggle. He usually mentions that I’m good at that. He’s used the same canned compliment about how happy he is to dance with me three times to date. Always seems a step further along the path of dancing close, he introduces a move in which I have to touch his chest, or be pressed against his body, causing me to pull away in surprise before daring to follow his lead. Last week he managed to make me blush. And, yes, insinuating that I may have had a previous job as a lap dancer was probably taking it too far, but I think I can forgive him.
I like the feeling of his hand on my back as he guides me to the floor. His big hands make me feel delicate. I like the gentle way he leads me, relying on my desire to follow. I like his choice of moves, guiding me by his fingertips on my shoulders, my wrist. I like the praise, which feels like enthusiastic applause. I even like his teasing.
Why does the Fantastic Flirt always leave me with a bolstered ego and a rosy glow, while lesser lechers on the dance floor make me want to scrub off their fingerprints? Is it because I know that he’s taken? Or because he seems so in control, always ready with his next quip or complex move? A man overcome by desire can hardly have brain space for musicality. The whole thing is a game we play, another sort of dance, leading nowhere. It feels safe.
That said, there are few people worse at reading these situations than me.
Whatever it is, I’m enjoying it. I wanted to share. The romance of a dance may be documented to the point of cliché in an hundred romance novels, but the empty flirtation with the man who is not, and never will be, a part of your life, is always overlooked. I know you shouldn’t put a gun on the wall in act one if you’re not going to fire it in act two, but sometimes that means you miss out on the little things. The tension in a man’s muscles beneath your hand, the intake of breath as you spin, and all the other meaningless details.
*I wasn’t insulted about being forgotten. In fact, after several weeks of dancing with him, I realised that I’d conflated him with another person. It wasn’t until they both turned up for the same class that I noticed they were two separate individuals.
I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”
“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”
I bought it anyway.
Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.
I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?
Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.
I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.
I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.
It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.
I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.
I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?
*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.
I have been conscious, ever since I wrote Can Feminists Jive?, that I may have been a little unfair to ‘Jive Magazine’. Was I looking so hard for sexism that I would have found it in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, let alone some poor monthly publication for a handful of jive enthusiasts? So I decided to approach the new edition with an open mind. Not open enough to pay for a copy, but enough to flick through my father’s and see if it was actually as infuriatingly sexist as I remember.
It made a good start with this cover photo. Yes, there’s a young, blonde woman in a sexy pose, but then there’s also a hot man with attractive stubble and a sleeveless shirt to reveal his muscular arms in the sexy pose with her. Even-handed objectification, that’s what I like to see.
Unfortunately, inside the magazine objectification seems to be centred on women again. I recognise that women tend to be more scantily clad than men while dancing, but you’ve got to go out of your way to find anyone in fishnets and bunny ears or a PVC French maid’s outfit. They managed it, along with photos of women reading the magazine while wearing bikinis (there’s an odd aura of ‘readers’ wives’ around that one). I’m all for dancing, and for porn, but if you’re going to sell dancing porn, can’t I have pics of half-naked men, too?
Among articles on famous dancers, choreography, competitions, shoes and two pages of dance-related horoscopes, there one piece promised to tell me how to avoid sitting out dances. With diagrams. I had high hopes.
I hate sitting out. I hate it when I’ve sat out one track, and, re-screwed my water bottle hopefully at its end, to look up and see that no one has even made it back from the dance floor, but merely grabbed the nearest person and begun again. On a bad day, it makes me feel like an inadequate dancer, ugly, unattractive and lacking in charm. On a good day, I recognise its origins in the gendered partner system and surplus of women.
The ‘Dance Doctor’ promises to solve my problem, claiming, “this by the way isn’t sex bias, but as most clubs seems to be 60/40 female to male, it’s more important the girls give themselves every advantage to nab that bloke!” Actually, ‘Dance Doctor’, it’s not. I’m not trying to nab anyone, I merely want to dance. If the male: female ratio means that I have to sit out a couple of dances, I’m not going to scheme and connive to do other women (there aren’t usually any girls there) out of their share.
He not only assumes a level of competitiveness I’ve never witnessed (for a job, yes, but a two minute dance? No), but has very complex behavioural codes for women. Are you sitting in the wrong place, shyly awaiting a man’s attention? It’s your own fault if you never get picked. Or do you stand between the bar and the dance floor, and actually ask men if they would like to dance? Then you’re a “vulture,” and the men are your “pray[sic].” Does this remind you of something? Yes, you’re right, it’s the virgin/whore dichotomy! If you aren’t getting men, you ought to be trying harder, and if you are, you must be aggressive, devouring men and sadistically keeping them from water and rest. How dare you? Fortunately, there is a demure way to get a dance. The Doctor says “offer the hand, or those puppy dog eyes, maybe even mouth those words; ‘Would you like to dance[?]’” Do everything you can to avoid actually asking. Plead with your eyes, sneak up on the question and maybe, voicelessly, half-ask. Otherwise you’re a vulture.
I think the article has done me good. No more am I going to sit, silently, on the sidelines, passively waiting for a man to seek me out. Do I want to be the sort of woman who makes puppy dog eyes at a man? Do I think men are objects to be competed over or ‘nabbed’ like the largest cookie? Certainly not. So from now on, I’m asking them straight out.
Another article, by “Bev the Dance Diva” displays just as much sexism (there’s no gender discrimination about who can write sexist articles for this magazine!). She seems to have made the simple mistake of confusing dancing and sex. There are obviously points where they blur into each other. However, if you saw some of the men I dance with, I’m sure you’d agree that sex is the last thing on my mind, and I’m quite comfortable with the fact that many men would consider me with the same indifference. I choose my sexual partners with much more care than my dance partners. Doesn’t she?
Criticising a man’s dancing “is equal to passing judgement on his sexual performance,” apparently. I agree that it’s rather impolite. All the same, I now know who to blame for all those men who think they give great oral sex because their ex-girlfriends never complained. In a rare moment of self-reflection, she writes “Sounds like I am some sort of dance floor prostitute, out there to service the male dancer or worse a 1950’s housewife pandering to her chauvinist husband’s ego.” Yes, dear, it does. Instead of considering why she feels the need to seduce every man she comes across, though, she explains her method: “My mother told me that men want women to be the epitome of vestal virgins one minute and harlots the next. I might dance as if I am just that.” She goes on to explain that she achieves this by intermittently wiggling her hips. Good to know.
By the end of the article, she’s got to the nub of her obsession. “For men, is a good dance with a pretty girl always a precursor to thinking about having sex with her? A large cross section of my male dancer friends tell me that if the girl is good looking then yes.” Breaking: men like sex with women they fancy. There’s more, but this is sapping my will to type.
Why do I care? I love to dance. I already have to overcome the challenges of the gendered roles, sexist teachers and men with wandering hands. There are a significant number of men who seem to think that I make my body public property by stepping onto the dance floor. They make comments about my looks, touch me without asking, use me as a demonstration model and sometimes put their sweaty bodies far too close to mine. They are a minority, and I’d like them to stay that way. What I don’t need is Bev the ‘Dance Diva’ telling them that I’m looking for a quasi-sexual experience, with romance and danger, or that I’m trying to seduce them with every move of my hips. Nor do I need the ‘Dance Doctor’ telling them that I’ve scrambled over the bruised bodies of several more feminine women with puppy dog eyes in my desperation to drag them to the floor. To do this, we’ll have to recognise dancing for what it is: a leisure activity, out of which can come many things, including sex, love, sparkly shoes and once, in my case, the chance to have my neck immortalised in a statue of Aphrodite. If you’re looking for that, though, you’d best begin by offering yourself as an artist’s model, and by the same token, dancing hardly guarantees sex. Even if people do turn up to jive events trying to pull, the ones who fork out £2.40 for ‘Jive Magazine’ are, I would wager, the ones who are serious about dancing. Almost embarrassingly so, when you see the adverts for dancing holidays and strangely named ‘Weekenders’.
‘Jive Magazine’ caters to dance enthusiasts. One day, will we be able to talk about jive without resorting to crude stereotypes of the women who do it? By the magazine’s own claims, more women are interested than men. Who does it pay to insult them?
I’m sat on a train opposite a nun. Not one of those wishy-washy nuns who wear ordinary clothes and do voluntary work, but a real, honest to God nun with a black and white wimple, a brown habit and a bit of knotted rope hanging from her waist, which, combined with the windbreaker, makes her look like a nun ready for the high seas. She’s just crossed herself, opened a leather-bound Bible and settled in for the journey, so I thought this would be a good time for me to talk about pole dancing. To you, not to her, because I don’t want to cause a serious incident on the East Coast Mainline.
Last week I had my first pole dancing class. If you have been reading this blog, you will know that until recently I had attributed my dislike of pole dancing and associated activities (lap dancing, over-zealous waxing, etc) to feminist principles, considering that it reduces women to sexual objects, and not very interesting sexual objects at that. Then I got to thinking that, since I enthusiastically support burlesque, which is, ultimately, stripping out of old-fashioned outfits to the music of yesteryear, I am being inconsistent, if not hypocritical. If I’m going to reject something on aesthetic grounds, I should have some experience of it. Standing at the back of a room in a Soho lesbian bar, glimpsing the odd elbow through gaps in the crowd as two women performed on stage probably isn’t enough. So, I decided, I would experience pole dancing for myself. I’ll be the first to know if I feel degraded.
The class I chose was on a Sunday evening. I don’t know what the nun would say about pole dancing on the Sabbath, I’d better not ask. I sent off an email to book a place, and received a confirmation entirely in text speak. My worst prejudices were conformed; there was a lot of lolling. Either she was an hysterically giggly woman, or her relationship with the English language was verging on abusive.
Nevertheless, I turned up at the village hall, ready to take pole dancing for a spin. We were herded into a room with two poles, and everyone wriggled out of their outer layers. Suddenly I was the only fully clothed woman in the room, self conscious in my stretchy trousers and vest top as others flaunted flesh beneath their hot pants.
I don’t want to step on anyone’s dreams, but it has to be admitted that certain items of clothing look much better on some body types than others. I’m not bitter about this because it works both ways. Corset on a skinny girl: What’s the point? Corset on me? If you’re lucky, one day I’ll show you pictures. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever go for a latex cat suit, I don’t own a pair of skinny jeans, and you’d have to pay me to get into that nun’s habit. There are those who disagree with me. This girl is proud of her skinny jeans, and good luck to her. It is a personal opinion, and one which I would not visit on anybody else, that hot pants look best on the slender. A couple of years ago, say, at the end of my last cycling holiday, I could have pulled them off. Currently, I think it would be best to reserve the sight of my upper thighs for those who already know and like me.
I didn’t have time to give other women’s thighs much thought, though, because we were beginning with some aerobics and stretches to warm up. This is when my second bout of body-consciousness kicked in, as we were invited to circle our arms like energetic windmills, giving me the opportunity to wow the crowd with repeated glimpses of my under-arm hair. As I’ve written before, I refuse to believe that hair, on women, is automatically disgusting. In fact, only yesterday I was chatted up by a man who specifically asked if I shaved and noticeably redoubled his efforts at seduction when I said I didn’t (he also said he’d like to watch me pee, however, so I’m not sure he’s a representative sample). In the context of the pole dancing class, though, I was troubled. If any of the women were challenging beauty norms, they were doing it very subtly. Most of them were wearing make-up. Two of them sported genetically unlikely combinations of blonde hair and tanned skin. Nails were painted and in some cases artificially extended with acrylic tips. Hair was straightened, skin buffed.
I flailed my arms around a few times, then, in my discomfort, managed to draw even more attention to myself by accidentally whacking someone stood nearby. Not the best beginning.
We divided into two groups, five people to a pole. I found myself with four women, including the two with the anomalous colouring. I would guess that all of them were younger than me. My sense of being huge, grotesque, even, persisted. Everything about these girls, from their boyish hips to their pink iPods, seemed designed to minimise their presence. “Why did you decide to join?” asked the girl next to me. I summarised the wilfulness of my main character and my fear that I disguise prejudice as feminism, then asked, “why did you start?” “I just thought it would be a laugh,” she replied.
The lesson began. The tutor demonstrated a move and we attempted to imitate her in turn. The other four, being more seasoned pole dancers, did a much more impressive job than me. They managed recognisable versions, at least. I, on the other hand, spent a few seconds dangling from the pole, legs dangling redundantly, before my hands slipped down and my feet met the laminate. I did it again, and again, and again. Each time I slunk away to the back of the queue, cursing my height, my weight, my lack of pneumatised bones, all of which made lifting my body difficult. “Very good,” the teacher opined a few times, rather unconvincingly. “It really wasn’t!” I eventually retorted. “My first lesson,” she replied, “I couldn’t even get my feet off the ground.” I felt a bit better after that.
Now and again we were distracted by a particularly impressive move being executed by a member of the more advanced group on the other pole. For the most part, though, I fell into the rhythm of watch, queue, dangle, and queue again. As the others span and swung, made mistakes, gained bruises, complimented, encouraged and ribbed one another, something strange happened. I don’t know whether it was the cheesy music playing in the background (which seemed to have no influence on the rhythm of the dancing) or the consistent good humour of my group, but somehow the lesson became fun.
I can understand why women pole dance. I can understand that the approval of men is an attractive factor. Merely mentioning that I was going to write this post, while queuing outside a television studio on Upper Ground, caused a middle aged man to turn from his wife and say to me “pole dancing? I’m listening now!” I also understand that there are other factors. I’m going to go back, and my primary reason is a hatred of failure. I want to know that I have the strength, skill and ability to perform moves which the weaker-looking women managed with ease.
Can pole dancing be feminist? I’m still undecided. The class did not have the seedy tone which I had associated with pole dancing due to its association with strip clubs. Even as we ground against the pole, the atmosphere entirely lacked sexual charge. The naturalisation of artificial gender roles was very noticeable, from artificial nails to cutesy pink accessories, but it seems more likely that women who buy pink iPods take up pole dancing than that pole dancing encourages the purchase of pink iPods. The forces which shape feminine identity are a big tangle, and I don’t think pole dancing is completely blameless. When I’ve unknotted it somewhat, I’ll let you know.
I get tired of representations of single women. There seem to be two options: the desperate, pathetic girl, seeking her one true love, in the style of Bridget Jones; or the strong, successful woman who hasn’t yet realised that fulfilment will come when she meets her man and sacrifices her independence for something better. What binds them? The great, gaping man-shaped hole in a single woman’s life. Men don’t get the same treatment, the assumption seems to be that, for them, single life involves the favourable absence of scatter cushions and the freedom to have sex with a lot of different women.
Life isn’t really a romantic comedy, so I’ll step away from the stereotypes for a minute. A couple of weeks ago a new acquaintance asked me if I had a boyfriend. When I said no, he said, “we’ll have to get you one, then.” I wanted so say “No, we really don’t!” but it would have seemed rude.
I spend so much time fighting other people’s expectations that there’s no room for the truth about being single. When someone assumes that a single woman wants a partner, I want to challenge their assumption. When men assume that because you don’t have a boyfriend, you’re likely to be interested in them, I want to detail to them their defects and then point out the woman on the other side of the room whom I’d much rather date (I have never actually done this). I refuse to be filed under “desperate or emotionally stunted,” however hard they try.
The problem with being single isn’t, it turns out, the long, cold, lonely nights. You can buy an electric blanket and wait for spring. I love being single: for several months, now, I’ve been revelling in my clean bed sheets and freedom to do what I want without owing anyone an explanation. I have to say it’s rather nice. The sex is usually better when powered by batteries than by the idiosyncrasies of male anatomy, and there has been a sharp decline in annoying requests for early morning blow-jobs.
That isn’t to say that it’s all good. Society is set up for people in pairs. If I was dating, I wouldn’t be writing this right now, but instead spending my Friday evening watching burlesque cabaret or dancing to Rock and Roll music, both options I had to forgo because I didn’t want to attend alone. If I had a partner, dance workshops would be a few pounds cheaper. If I had a partner, we would, together, be able to finish a head of broccoli before it went off. These annoyances aren’t terribly important. I’m not happy at missing out on a fun Friday evening, but the solution to my problems would not be a lover, but a dance partner who came around to tea. There’s quite a difference.
The real problem with being single is hyper-awareness. It works in two ways. You don’t have the cast iron excuse of being in a relationship, so you have to make sure you never get to the point of needing an excuse for not being interested in someone. That means constantly monitoring them, and yourself, for anything that edges you towards an indication of interest. Conversely, you can desire those indications of interest, and find yourself reading much more into something than was intended.
It probably sounds like I’m being contrary, wanting to put people off and collect evidence of their desire. There are a range of factors at play there. One is that in many cases these are different people; I meet many who I would emphatically reject, some I’d get into bed with, one or two to whom I would serve breakfast. Another is that, while I am happy enough without a partner, it is nice when people step into the role now and again. When there’s no one at home telling you you’re sexy, a few minutes of flirting and the odd compliment can make you happy. Yes, it would be better if the world were not structured in such a way to make a woman value herself according to her desirability to men. Mostly, I do quite well at ignoring what they think, but I’m only human, and I was socialised into patriarchy, just like everyone else.
The problem comes when you’re so hyper-aware of these tiny modulations that it borders on obsessive. Last week a man told me that I had a nice smile. He said it was nice to dance with a tall woman. He commented on my wiggle, and when I enquired whether it was a good thing or a bad one, he said, “it works for me.” I think the clincher, though, was when I bemoaned the fact that I am too tall (and, being in proportion, too heavy) for the moves in which the male partner picks you up and throws you around, and he said “I’d throw you around.” There was something in his tone that evoked actions beyond dancing.
I saw him last night. He requested a dance, but never came to claim it.
Week after week this happens: the conversation I interpret as flirtatious, the build of expectation and the resulting disappointment. I wonder sometimes if the disappointment is inevitable. Does it happen because I’m not attractive, or interesting, or a good enough dancer? The more likely scenario is that there was never any flirting at all, since if most of these men had shown any sign of real intent, I would have run for the hills. Only from the safe place of believing they’ll never make a move can I enjoy their attention. So we go around in circles of real, imagined and simulated desire.
None of my friends, during periods of singleness, has ever mentioned this problem. They’ve spoken about the difficulty of the sexual drought, their feelings of freedom, healing, despair, loneliness, and boredom when they haven’t had partners. I wonder, therefore, whether this obsessive reading of relations with others is a personal quirk or one of those things which everyone does, and everyone feels is too silly to mention. I’d love to know, so please tell me if you do it, too.
I don’t like pole dancing. I don’t like exotic dancing, and I certainly don’t like lap dancing. I recognise that there’s some gradation from artful spinning around a pole to grinding a man to orgasm with your naked buttocks, but I’m sorry, I don’t like it.
I’ve had to confront my dislike of it in the last two weeks. One of my characters got a job in a gentlemen’s club. I can’t actually go to one myself, because they require women to be accompanied by a man, and I don’t have any local male acquaintances I would be willing to ask. I could take pole dancing lessons, though. I haven’t so far, because I have been able to find an excuse every Wednesday.
Next month there’s a burlesque workshop on in Leeds. I’m so excited! It’s much further away, longer and more expensive than the pole dancing, but who cares? I could learn burlesque! I can see myself in heels and stockings, learning how to sensually slip elbow-length gloves from my fingers. I have a burning desire to be a burlesque dancer.
Surely if I find pole dancing repulsive, I should feel the same about burlesque. The purpose of both is to make entertainment for men out of the female body. They are, at core, commodifying and objectifying. I’ve always assumed that my objection to strip-clubs was a feminist one. Now, I’m not so sure.
Given that I love burlesque, could my objection to pole dancing be based in class? Pole dancing is trashy. Its fabric is nylon and its heels are Perspex. It is available in every town to everyone (male), the staple of sleazy middle-management men and stag parties. Burlesque, made of silk and satin, is an entirely different beast. Or do I resent the pressure that pole dancing puts on me, as it becomes more popular and its looks become more mainstream? No one wonders why I’m not dressed like a burlesque dancer (to the best of my knowledge) but high heels and thongs seem to be expected. Is my love of burlesque simply the effect of nostalgia on something equally terrible?
I’ve been going around in circles like this for weeks. Tonight, I identified my feeling about pole dancing. It’s the same feeling I get when I tell my father what I’m making for dinner, and he says “I’d rather have beans on toast.”
It’s sadness, rejection, disappointment, betrayal. I’m quite a good cook. I bake my own bread. My scones are light and my pastry crisp. My meringues are little white crumb-bombs, as they should be. Last week, I even made my own butter. So why does he reject my offering in favour of a tin of beans coated in sugar and salt, topping shop-bought bread?
I can recognise a diversity of tastes I don’t share. You may eat pheasant, or fancy blondes. Fine. The thing is, though, that women are great. They vary. They can be sexy, and funny, and acquire skills like martial arts or meringue making. The whole culture around pole dancing, lap dancing and stripping seems to conspire to make women less than they are. I’ve come across numerous dancers saying they dumb down to please the guys. It’s not just that they are reduced to a body, but that they dress up in cheap fabrics and trashy shoes to embody a fantasy, and that there’s nothing clever or subtle about that fantasy or it’s practice (although I bet it’s hard work). It’s the sexual equivalent of beans on toast.
So that’s why I don’t like pole dancing. I spent all this time learning to make meringues, and I’m disappointed there’s no one here to eat them. All the same, recognising that this is a journey, I’m going to give it a go. I’ll go to the pole dancing class, as well as the burlesque class, and I’ll let you know how it goes.
Oh, and if you know anyone in Yorkshire who’d like to take me to a strip club or a burlesque show this weekend, do let me know.
Are partner dances inherently sexist? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a couple of times a week since I started modern jive four months ago. The whole system seems to be predicated on male dominance. The men lead, choosing the moves and signalling to the ladies, who constantly read their partner, responding to his unspoken signals. The entire endeavour of a woman at modern jive is to do what their man tells them and look pretty while doing it. This doesn’t sound like an activity for a feminist.
The problem is that I enjoy it. I like the music, the exercise, the chance to meet people and, yes, there’s a part of me that likes the male attention, the chance to wear pretty dresses and twirl about the dance floor led by a firm, masculine hand. So I wonder, am I indulging my inner princess at the expense of the rest of myself?
It must be said that sex isn’t the last word on roles in modern jive. At every class I attend there are always one or two women taking the leader role. They are a tiny, tiny minority, though. Almost all women choose to follow. Only once have I seen a man take that role, for a couple of minutes to help out a friend who was having difficulty with a move. It seems that, as in most things, women may take on a man’s role, but men will not stoop to take on a woman’s.
In some sense, it seems that I can hardly complain about a role which I have freely chosen. I contest, however, that it is not an entirely free choice. Stepping outside others’ expectations is never easy, and even if people don’t make negative comments a certain amount of confusion would ensue. Learning to dance at all is enough of a challenge for me.
The division of roles creates a strong sense of gender, but the negative aspects are amplified by gender imbalance. There are usually more women than men at an event. More than once I have felt like a minor character in a Jane Austen novel as I took a seat and hoped that by the beginning of the next dance a man would pick me. Men are a scarce resource for which women compete. So, during those long minutes between dances, I sink into comparing myself with other women. Why did she get a dance and not me? Would I be chosen if wore a dress as tight as hers? If I danced closer? If I was skinnier, or wore sparklier shoes? If only I wasn’t so tall, the short men wouldn’t avoid me, and if I wasn’t so big, the men who like the dips and leans would be able to throw me about. Now and again the rivalry spills over into bitterness. When a woman said, last week, “there are too many women here, aren’t there?”, I had to bite my tongue not to retort “yes, that’s because you and your marauding band of middle aged divorcees walked in after the lesson!” I suffer dancer jealousy when I notice that a woman has repeatedly been picked by one of my favoured partners and a sense of smugness when I am the one chosen. It can’t do much for sisterhood!
Still, I’m not sure that I can blame the dance form for our communal psychosis. When so much of culture is telling women that they need to be skinnier, prettier, and more exuding of charm to ingratiate themselves with men, and that this is a worthy aim in life, it is hardly surprising that these thoughts perpetuate through dancing as well as dates, manicures and waits with the magazines at the dentist.
People don’t help, though. Teachers say “girls” when they mean “ladies”, so infantilise a room full of women, some of whom are well past retirement age. People make sexist jokes about men’s temporary power. Instructors assume that men need to be told not to stare at women’s breasts during moves which give them the opportunity and male partners often invade my personal space and furtively grope at available flesh.
Representations of modern jive hardly paint a picture which would dissuade the gropers. ‘Jive Magazine’ features a dancing couple (the image above) on the cover of its current issue. The sexualisation of the man’s outfit is restricted to a few undone buttons. The woman, on the other hand, is presented to the camera, clad in a sequinned bra and fishnet gloves, revealing a lot of cleavage, her stomach and two very toned legs. Don’t get me wrong, if I had a stomach as flat as that, I’d want to show it off, too. I do think it says something, though, that this image was chosen; it doesn’t exactly send out the message that woman’s role is not primarily a sexual one. It’s worse inside. Karen Sweeney offers advice on “How to be popular on the dancefloor”:
“Guys: I know we girlies sometimes tempt you with the occasional low neckline, but don’t forget where our faces are.”
I am in no way a girlie. I’m getting on for six foot tall in my dancing shoes and even with the addition of ribbons and bows there’s nothing sweet about me. Partners may also want to consider the possibility that I’m not wearing the low cut dress to tempt them personally. Statistically, it is unlikely that I’m dressing for you.
Sweeny goes on:
“Dancing is the vertical expression of horizontal desire. They say that a lady can tell by the way a guy dances how good he is in bed. Think about it…no pressure then!”
Dancing is sometimes an expression of desire, but then, washing up, performed provocatively enough, is too. Most of the people I dance with are decidedly unattractive to me. I’m sure that they would be as horrified as I am at the idea that our dances were indications of anything sexual, not least because often they are performed under the gazes of their wives and my father. That isn’t to say that dancing never leads me to think of sex. I haven’t slept with anyone since January; glancing through car windows in traffic jams makes me think of sex.
Where does all this leave us? Is modern jive, like the current craze for pole dancing, a way of making a sexual spectacle out of women’s bodies for the enjoyment of men? Not in my experience. The sexual element is present, as it is in all human interactions, but no more so. Some people use dance for sexual access; I’ve met men with wandering hands and women looking for a second husband (there may be women with wandering hands, too, they’ve just never felt me up, and men seeking wives who just haven’t proposed to me). It is also true, however, that a sizable number of people come looking for a lover and discover that they don’t want one after all, now that dancing fills the lonely evenings.
There are problems. Most of them are not inherent to the form of dance, but products of social ineptitude and opportunism. The gendered elements of jive are not set in stone. It isn’t a feminist dance, but it could be, if we chose to make it so. At a Salsa workshop with a great imbalance of men and women, the instructor did away with the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘men’ and gave us instead the options of ‘follower’ or ‘leader’. That will probably never be widespread, but choosing your own role, rather than allowing your gender to choose it for you, could be more common. It would be good to see same sex dancing partners more regularly, too. I’ll offer myself to help the cause.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy wearing swirly skirts twirling under the hands of authoritative men. Please don’t think too badly of me.