Not an Odalisque

Can Feminists Jive?

with one comment

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.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

April 23, 2010 at 7:53 pm

One Response

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  1. […] a comment » 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 […]


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