Ballroom Dancing: A metaphor for men and women?

I had never taken the idea of dance lessons seriously but had arrived at a point in my life where I was always ready to respond to any offer with, "Why not?" As in the movie The Bucket List, where the protagonists have compiled a list of things to do before they die, I had decided to seize the opportunities that came my way so that I wasn’t lying on my death bed moaning about having missed out on something. So, when the opportunity presented itself to step out onto the dance floor, I took it.

In November 2008, I began my foray into dance with the idea of seeing what this kind of dance was all about; something I had seen on television and in the movies. Would I see this frog prince transformed into a… ah, dancing frog prince? Ha!

I should add here that everyone has danced at one time or another. However if one thinks of a nightclub, most of the time a couple is dancing apart, each doing their own steps. Ballroom dancing on the other hand is about dancing together as a couple; we do not each do "our own thing". There are rules of the game: each person has their own role in the couple and the goal is to dance together in a coordinated way.

My instructor Isabel turned out to have a friendly but firm approach to teaching her students. I had never danced ballroom before so I had absolutely no idea of what to do but Isabel was patient and oh how I must stress her patience. I’m chuckling now at the thought of how awkward I was when I started. I was a tad embarrassed then and I sometimes cringe a bit when I think about it! However, Isabel did point out two or three times that I had a good sense of rhythm so even if I did not know the steps, I could hear the music correctly and follow the beat.

Isabel taught me the rumba as my first dance. She thought it was one of the easiest dances, a little slower and easier to follow. She told me that learning becomes easier with experience: the more you know, the easier it is to learn. In looking back on my time at the school, I must admit she was right. After eight months of training, for instance, I noticed I was picking up new dance steps faster and with less effort than in the beginning.

From the start, Isabel tried hard to clarify the roles that each person has when dancing. The man leads; the woman follows. The man always starts with the left foot; the woman always starts with the right foot. It was here that she told me her joke: women always start on their right because women are always right. [groan] However, I took that one good naturedly. 🙂

If there is one thing I never forget, it is the most fundamental part of ballroom dancing: maintaining your "frame". Both the man and the woman must keep their arms in a certain position. By doing so, the man can lead the woman by signalling which way to go while the woman by doing so can "feel" or receive these signals. I have heard about a zillion times, "Keep your frame!" I’m smiling as I write this but I certainly came to fully understand why it is important. Without it, a man cannot lead a woman. Without it, a woman can be led. It is of the utmost importance that both members of the couple maintain their frame as it is how they communicate while dancing.

During each lesson, Isabel gradually added a little of her own philosophy on dance. It was through this idea of dance that I began to see dance as a metaphor for the relationship between a man and a woman.

History has shown societies to be patriarchal with traditional roles for both sexes: the man is aggressive, the woman is passive. However, the modern age with its sexual enlightenment, its feminism, its changes in life has moved us towards a change in those roles, roles which are supposed to be more equal but which are certainly not as traditional. Isabel’s teaching of dance simply said this: the relation between a man and woman is not aggressive and passive; it is not dominant and submissive; it is assertive and receptive.

Yes, we trade aggressiveness and passiveness for assertiveness and receptiveness. Instead of following the idea of domination, we have initiated an idea of a more equal partnership. This is what Isabel talked about. In dance, yes, the man has the leading role. He leads; the woman follows. However, Isabel emphasized that there is always a choice in dance. The man offers his hand to the woman to dance but the woman always has the choice to accept the offer or reject it. There is no question of domination; this is a partnership. A man can dance with a woman only with her cooperation. The offer must be accepted and then and only then does the dancing begin.

In these roles, Isabel pointed out the importance of politeness and respect in the dance. I repeat what she said in my own words: the difference is the deference with which a man treats a woman. Having been raised to be respectful of women in general and my partner specifically, I found this quite natural and in accordance with my own thoughts on the matter.

Of course, the irony of having a female dance instructor did not escape me. I joked by saying that there I was at the age of 56 having a woman teach me how to be a man. Ha! Isabel was a superb teacher and I must add a good philosopher about life, love and the symbolism of dance as a metaphor for the relationship between a man and a woman. [smiles] I must confess that I was a little intimidated by her. She was after all my instructor and whenever I danced with her, I sort of felt like I was being marked. [laughs] Am I man enough to dance with Isabel?

Isabel also mentioned another aspect of the dance which is very important for men. To dance well, the man must have self-assurance and he must know what he’s doing. Then again, it crossed my mind that without knowing what you’re doing, it might be quite impossible to be self-assured. It’s funny how Isabel presented the idea that the man sometimes has a more important role in the dance because he has the responsibility to lead the woman, to be the leader of the couple. He must know exactly what to do and he must do it with confidence. Hey, no pressure!

I’m smiling in thinking that I always felt we men had an idea that dancing was for sissies but then in trying to do it, I realized that only real men know how to dance. Am I kidding by saying that? If I consider the list of demands of this activity: self-confidence, to know about dancing, to know the steps, the moves, etc., and to be respectful and polite, I must conclude that any guy who can do all that must really be a man. Ha! Here were all us guys thinking that dancing was for wimps. On the contrary!

And sexy? I had a chance to see a dance demonstration. The instructors, both professionals, did an Argentinean tango. Unlike a regular tango, the Argentinean style involves a lot of cross leg steps where in my opinion; the risks of tripping over your partner by getting your legs tangled up are great. Nevertheless, these two people did a fabulous dance. They clearly embodied all the aspects of dance I had experienced in my own lessons: self-assurance, strength and knowledgeable movements. On top of it all, the 2 of them on the dance floor looked… well, hot… sexy as all get out!

I managed to pack quite a bit of dancing during my time at the school. I had purchased a package of dance lessons which consisted of 1 private hour of instruction a week, one or two one hour workshops a week and access to the facilities on the weekend for two 2 hour practice sessions which were supervised. Wow, this was a lot of dancing. At one point, I was at the school 10 hours per week!

I must point out how Isabel took an interesting approach to dance instruction which certainly broaden my experience immensely. Our main instruction consisted of private lessons but I also participated in a number of workshops. Unlike the private lessons, I shared our instruction with 4, 5 sometimes 6 other couples. However, the most important aspect of this was that Isabel made us change partners.

Isabel mentioned it and I discovered she was absolutely right. When you dance with the same person, you both get used to each other’s faults. In fact, you each begin to correct for the other’s errors. By changing partners, you are forced to examine what you’re doing. With another partner, taking the view that we’re all in this together so let’s help one another, you find about things which are not quite right.

As I previously said, the man has the job of leading the couple. Am I making my signals clear to my partner? Do I really know what the heck I’m doing? Can I actually go through a step correctly with this new person? All of this was an eye opener and quite educational. With a workshop of, let’s say 6 couples, I would get an opportunity to dance with 5 other people and get more "real world" experience of dancing and how others dance. This, I must say, was an excellent addition to my own private lessons, an extra education. Some women did not hold their position very well and were difficult to lead. Others had not quite learned who is leading whom and I had to fight them to control the couple. Some women pointed out my own faults in that I sometimes wasn’t holding my frame properly and I wasn’t leading them very well.

Ah yes, one other little oddity of my lessons. All instructors, both male and female had to learn both male and female roles. An instructor had to be able to dance either the male part or the female part. Isabel sometimes taught me playing the woman’s role, sometimes the male role. Sometimes I was taught by a male instructor playing either part. I attended a couple of workshops where there were not enough women so a male instructor would fill in as the extra person. When Isabel made us rotate partners, I would end up dancing with a guy. [laughs] I know girls dance with girls without thinking about it but it is a little unusual for us guys. But, I’m in touch with my feminine side so I did it. Maybe I did it with a raised eyebrow, but I did it. 🙂

I took lessons for almost a year and learned the basics. I now have a better understanding of what’s going on when I see one of those ballroom dance competitions and I respect the people for the time and effort that goes into perfecting their moves. I do come back though to the idea of how dance, at least ballroom dancing represents a certain perspective on the relationship between a man and a woman. It is a partnership and while I must admit right up front that a man is different from a woman and we can’t say the 2 roles are completely "equal", I can say that both roles are "equitable". The word equal we know but equitable means according to Princeton University’s WordNet: fair to all parties as dictated by reason and conscience as in "equitable treatment of all citizens". Nevertheless, I must come back to the essential of this relationship, that is, assertive and receptive as opposed to dominant and submissive. We are different; we are complimentary; we are partners.

Time does not necessarily permit me to continue to study dance right now as I have other things on my bucket list but I did enjoy my time with the dance lessons and will go back at some point in the future. I still smile when I told Isabel that Fred, referring to Fred Astaire, had nothing to worry about concerning his reputation of one of the most famous dancers. I was certainly not going to be replacing him any time soon. Ha! But I did have fun. 🙂

Click HERE to read more columns by William Belle.


Wikipedia: Ballroom Dance

Wikipedia: Lead and Follow

Take the Lead

[smiles] I have to add this little number to the article; an example of maybe not the best, but certainly the heat. Antonio Banderas starred in the movie Take the Lead about a dance instructor who starts a ballroom dancing course for some inner city kids at a high school. It wasn’t an excellent film but this one scene where he dances the tango is a great number and I’m referring to both the music and the dance. Up to this point of the story, the kids didn’t "get it"; they didn’t see the magic of dance so Antonio invites a star pupil to come and dance with him to demonstrate just what dance can be. [chuckles] Works for me!

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