There is an ongoing conversation in the dance community about gender and roles and expectations and I gotta admit I’m a little confused. I’ve been thinking about this for months. I’ve been trying to explain to non-blacks the complex and different way that black culture treats gender as an issue. In IMO. What makes it tough is that most people in the blues community have no idea what I mean and meanwhile the other blacks I’ve spoken to get “it” but like seeing water when you’ve lived in it your whole life it can be hard to explain. I’m going to break this down into sections on some history and examples of black culture and explain a but why I struggle with roles in the community, and assumptions, and then discuss particularly what I think would help those who are choosing to follow to have an even better experience.
First I want to make something clear, Black Americans do NOT share the same gender roles, assumptions or values as most Americans. Our culture has it’s own issues but it doesn’t look like White American problems. I often find myself confused or chuckling at the silly things white people do, as most of that wouldn’t fly in black culture. I don’t hold the same beliefs as other people in the community and am comfortable switching “roles” and/or presentation depending on my own mood. After months I’ve decided that this is in part because of a few major things. 1 Gender is treated differently, 2 we also don’t often label people 3 we accept people as individuals.
I’ll address 2 and 3 first. Kylie recently made me crack up while we were describing the difference between white parents and black parents having children with different cognitive abilities. White parents label and box their children trying to shape them into something “appropriate” for them to be successful. White parents will label their child autistic and send them to a specialist, and put them into programs. Blacks will say something along the lines, “dis is karen. She only eats the color red. We love her. . So we give her red food.”(side note: My own personal struggle with anxiety was handled this way). Another easy place to see this accepting nature is in high school cliques. There is a reason in the black group there is at least one white kid. Either they get “it” and can hang. Beyond jokes and using Nigga, who cares what they look like. OR, they are the kid the white kids outcast-ed. That child may be strange, but besides self preservation...http://i.imgur.com/m5o06ma.jpg…. We generally shrug when people ask and say “ bruh is weird but chill” and move on.
Keep that in mind as we get to the meat of this, gender. Our “genders” are “binary” and equal. But before I get hate, I put those in quotes for a reason.First let’s start with the gender and binary bit. I feel weird putting everyone in boxes. White culture says prince is off the binary or fluid but to me prince is male with femme look. Our boxes include so much more than presentation it’s about your role in society. A person who dressy Masc. hangs out with masc people, and acts masc, no matter the physical body falls into the Masc category. This category includes the butch woman, the gayest man, the non binary person, to the straightest man. The same works for the femme. What about those in the middle? In this model you have an overall role/position/way of contributing and then there is your personal style. Separate. That’s why prince falls into the masc category no matter how many heels he wears. So for someone like me no matter what I dress like unlike I take on the masc role I’ll be femme, who sometimes dresses weird. (I’m unsure if that is at all clear but this article is mostly about follows in the end)
So what makes the Masc and Femme categories different? Well for starters they emphasize different things. There are different role expectations. And Femme people have more power. This article goes into a bit of why Blacks went a different gender dynamic route than our white counterparts. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/gender/history.html Our relationships are always a partnership with a lean towards the femme person. Then through family lines it’s always the maternal line with the most power. In some ways black women* have had more freedoms than white women and yet their lives forced them to not only maintain their own role from pre america but additional to take on some of the men’s role. So in our culture the roles are essentially equal. There is a reason the “strong black woman” motif exists. I found this quote where it’s easy to see the women’s power
"Post-Emancipation black women in fact viewed their husbands’ political rights as their rights. The black man’s vote was a joint vote. Black wives often accompanied their husbands to the voting booth and, as Barkley Brown notes, they often would have a shotgun or some other weapon in their aprons.14 Was it to protect their husbands, or to make sure their husbands voted the way they had agreed at home?"
Women make a lot of the money choices, have a stronger influence on the morals of the children, pass on the culture, often punishment is worse by them, and generally they hold the household together, meanwhile being successful in the work force since as a culture they’ve never had the chance to be at-home mothers. These women are strong, outspoken, understand their power, driven, independent, empowered about their sexual habits and dating, and expressive just as the culture and the world demands they be. This spills into every part of the culture. Dad may become a “friend” but mama is always mama. The powerful. I can’t explain the pleasure of watching your adult mother cower and adjust to their mother being around.Then they turn on you… both of them. So much for laughing.
The men have other responsibilities. I won’t attempt to tell what those are since although I mostly hang out with men, I don’t have a father and it means I was cut off from the patriarchal line. I know some of it but someone else will have to write that one. But it’s almost equal and it’s clear to tell if they are fulfilling their role or not.They also have different values on what being a man is than other cultures.
So what does this have to do with dance and blues. EVERYTHING. The dance isn’t lax but because there are no rules. It’s lax because there are assumptions underneath each role. The overall assumptions are one’s we often talk about as “blues aesthetic” but into the roles themselves it divides into leads and follows. This does not mean the man is in “control” Because that literally makes no sense culturally. Those roles don’t mean the man “tells” follows what to do because that also makes no sense culturally. The man doesn’t have any say over a follows expression, that also goes against culture. Once you let go of those assumptions partnership becomes just that, partnership. Approaching the dance in this way opens up so much. Don’t wait for a lead to “give: you space, own your own space. Own your own dance. Be strong and powerful and own your thoughts you lead will keep up. And together with both of you contributing you can build something amazing.
We need to teach Follows to dance their own dance and that it’s alright even encouraged for them to add to the dance. Pure following is great but the next step is being an empowered follow. This is why i encourage follows to try stuff they don’t know will work. To solo dance at every opportunity. To play with and own their sexuality take care of their relationships and own their ways on interacting with leads. Be powerful. Be strong and expressive and confident that you ARE good enough. That you ARE worth it. Your expression does matter. And anyone who steps into the role of following should understand this. It is an equal role, so act like it.
I often hear from many different people about their struggles with following. First it's hard for people to learn to slow down and listen but then people never learn how to be vocal and strong again. To really be empowered you must learn to be both the listener, the nurturer, the one who hold it together AND the powerful, expressive, passionate person you are. That’s what following in this dance is.
*My language will probably shift back into “black language” as this post goes on. Code switching while explaining a thing is actually very difficult. Please acknowledge women is a stand in for the aforementioned femme category while man is a stand in for Masc. What I explained is the subtext when blacks speak a lot of the time.