Leadership Lessons from Dance – My Dance Lead Journey

I first starting learning how to lead in dance because I would go to group classes and there would be more followers than leaders so I would help the class out in the moment.

Then I decided I would be an assistant dance instructor. It was difficult to correct the leaders in the class since I only knew the dance from the followers perspective. I could tell something was off but I couldn’t give them advise on what to change or do to correct it. So I started to pursue learning to lead and becoming a full dance instructor teaching a group class on my own.

I remember early on I was teaching a class and a male instructor came over to “assistant” me however he ended up making it more difficult because I was leading the class and calling out instructions from the lead’s perspective but he suggested that he lead me because “it was confusing for the class if I lead because I was female” so we switched. So there I was leading a class, calling out the leads counts and steps, but doing the followers movements. Talk about difficult! I was so frustrated by this perspective and these assumptions that the class would not be able to follow my lead because of my gender. I eventually made an announcement to the class that they were in good hands with the male instructor and went over to help another instructor. Upon reflection I realize that by switching we were perpetuating systemic oppression of gendered roles. Now if that were to occur in one of my classes I would make an announcement like “I am now leading this person is following” and call it a day.

Another time, as I spoke with a male instructor about feeling insecure with my leading he stated that the reason most instructors were male was because they already know how to lead so the transition to instructing the class how to lead is easier whereas women have to learn how to lead on top of learning how to follow. I knew this point of view frustrated me and if anything it gave me the motivation I needed to keep pushing through to not be like most women he knew but it wasn’t until I was preparing for my TEDxUTAustin speech about the parallels between partner dance and leader and sharing this story with another male instructor that he pointed out the flaw in the initial instructors logic. What should occur is that all instructors learn both the lead and follow role so that they understand the principles for both and can therefore teach both roles equally. Instead there is a bias towards teaching the leads to lead and assuming the follows will go along for the journey and pick up what to do. This philosophy does everyone a disservice. The lead often don’t know how to lead movements, the follows learn to back lead or do movements on their own, and instructors cater towards the lead role.

It is for these reasons and more that I strive to make my classes as inclusive as possible with the language I use and by leaving space for exploration of new roles not yet explored. I often challenge the social construct that stereotypes and limits roles into a dichotomy exclusive to men and women. I refer to the roles as lead and follow and try not to say guys and ladies as that reinforced that roles are exclusive to a gender. Speaking about roles by gender also doesn’t leave room for those who don’t identify as one gender in particular or who may be exploring or questioning their gender expression. Finally, it restricts people to only learning one prescribed role and not becoming a well rounded dancer.

All in all becoming an instructor just reinforces my believe that everyone has the potential to lead and follow…

*Note: I use the terms “lead” and “follow” as all genders/gender expressions can assume either role at any point.

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