Preferring That You Take The Lead: Examining Gender Roles in Dance

by: Rohan Lewis 

A week or so ago, I attended a milonga, which is a dance hall for the tango. I absolutely love to dance. I love the tango. The politics of it have intrigued me, a dance form that molds itself as an individual expression of self within a collective space of protest and nationhood? It’s absolutely wonderful.

However, there is one thing that I have to talk about, that the individual expression of my lack of gender is not allotted to me. I hate to lead, which is a man’s role. It doesn’t fit my personality when I have to be constantly aware of not only myself, but my gendered female partner who follows me. How am I doing? Did I just step on her foot? Am I handling her the wrong way? Yes, I just stepped on her dress.

I think “Why is she dancing my part?”

People also talk about the machismo of the tango, which is true, to a degree: originally, men started off dancing the woman’s part to better understand how it felt to be manhandled on the dance floor– it’s actually obnoxious when he does.

The milonga went on into the late hours of the night, and I found myself sitting at the table for the most part. I am a dancer, I hate sitting, especially in a space where dance contributes to so much of a person’s existence; this is a dance that can envelop a person, in which the movement is a personal expression that creates a pocket of gold in space for everyone else to see. And no one has to be a professional about it.

When I come to a milonga, all I see are technical moves.  Moves that have been repeated over and over and over again, the expression of self is taught by someone outside of this. Gender is one of these taught things. My “masculinized” self interferes with who I am.

At the end of the milonga, a woman I met when I arrived agreed to finally lead me. I found myself unable to connect with her. I was frustrated. Why was it that only at the end, when no one was there to see my pocket of gold, that I was allowed to be who I am? Of course, this turned out poorly.  We ended up switching roles, much to my frustration.

It was of course, in these final moments, that I saw her again leading another man, dancing alongside two women who were dancing together.

Why is gender variance allowed when most persons have left? People were filing out, trickling away into their cars and into the vacuum of the Chicago night.  These people waited this long to crawl from their corners and dance?

We should never be afraid to dance. It is who we are. The dogma of this dance dictates that we should express who we are. Thus, until we can dance as we are, we will never protest the nation that has left us behind and we will never be tangueros.

Rohan Lewis is soldiering their way through their third year at Northwestern University. An ethnomusicology major with a minor in dance, Rohan invests time in performance and creation. A choreographer, dancer, trumpeter, playwright, composer, poet and fantasy writer, Rohan loves all things “fairytale.” Zie is inspired by Yo-Yo Ma, Lin Hwai Min, J. K. Rowling, Isabelle Allende, J. R. R. Tolkien, Tamora Pierce and Shakespeare. Rohan, born in Florida but raised in Atlanta, also carries a Jamaican dual citizenship.

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One response to “Preferring That You Take The Lead: Examining Gender Roles in Dance

  1. Pingback: A Revelation Upon Revelations: The Ignored African Diaspora | In Our Words·

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