When I learned to Lindy Hop at the first Friday Night Swing of my freshman year, everyone, including me, assumed that I would be a follow. In a partnered social dance context, this is the role that women traditionally dance, and it involves responding to a lead’s initiative and suggestions creatively. I danced as a follow for a year and a half before realizing that while I loved swing dance, I didn’t really like following. I often ended up ignoring and fighting my leads rather than responding to them. This was frustrating, until I finally figured out the problem — I wanted to lead.
I loved leading as soon as I tried it, but I had to spend a couple of embarrassing, difficult months leading nothing but swingouts for entire songs. (For those who don’t Lindy Hop, that means doing the exact same 8-count pattern over 50 times in a 3-minute song.) After that, I poured my energy into improving as much as possible: and by going to workshops and dancing all over southern Michigan, I managed to become a fairly competent lead. More than just a personal success, however, becoming a lead taught me that when we’re considering roles, we have to pay more attention to people’s unique characteristics than to our own categorical assumptions.
When I started swing dancing, no one paid attention to the fact that I was six feet tall, that I was assertive, or that I loved creating my own ways to move with the music — all of which are characteristic of leading. I was only seen as a woman, and I danced in a role I didn’t enjoy for over a year as a result. This experience gave me a new perspective on a problem that I see everywhere up the Hill.
At Hillsdale, men and women often try to fit into specific, predetermined roles that are based on their gender — not on who they are as people. It’s disturbingly common here for someone to assume that women are not well-suited for stereotypically “male” roles — whether that’s soldier, scientist, or even president — and that they should be relegated to domestic servitude. Similarly, it’s a common assumption that men are designed to be leaders, and that for them to do anything different, like be a stay-at-home dad or serve under a woman’s leadership, is a teleological failure — that their true purpose is left unfulfilled.
The problem of assuming that gender is an all-encompassing definitional category plagues men and women alike. I know many men, including my father, whose best skill is their ability to listen — and who torment themselves because they lack stereotypical leadership traits. However, when they own their talents and listen intentionally, they flourish as skilled communicators. It turns out that by not taking charge in the expected masculine way, they are actually making the best possible use of their natural talents and fulfilling the purpose that suits them best.
Likewise, I know many brilliant, talented, well-educated, and qualified women who preclude themselves from leadership positions because they are afraid of taking on a role that they believe should rightfully belong to a man. There are also women who don’t want to have children or create a family home, but who feel an overwhelming social expectation to be a good wife and mother. I have seen only good things come of competent women filling the positions that interest them and excelling in whatever sphere of life they find appealing.
Men and women should feel free to be who they are, not who other people expect them to be, and to do what they do well, not what they are expected to do. The roles that people can fulfill vary widely, and all roles are intensely valuable and important, regardless of who is performing them.
The role system isn’t binary, either. People are complex! We can lead in some situations and follow in others. I have a reputation for being “ambidancestrous,” which means that I can both lead and follow, and while I prefer to lead, there are certain dancers with whom I choose to follow. I enjoy following much more now because I’m making a conscious choice to do so, rather than conforming to an expectation.
I am a woman. I also love to lead. I love initiating, I love creating exciting ways to move with the music, I love providing the leading voice in a social dance that my partner can then respond to. My intention is to encourage other men and women to not hold themselves back. We shouldn’t let preconceptions about our roles in life keep us from cultivating our unique talents and gifts.
I am a woman. I also love to lead. And I don’t think those two statements should be incompatible.