As mentioned in The Three Worlds of Ballroom Dance, closed-couple partner dancing began in the 19th century, when the essential ballroom mindset, in both Europe and America, was selfless generosity, with an emphasis on enhancing the pleasure of your dance partners and the assembled company. Another important part of the original ballroom attitude was a flexible mindset and adapting to your partner.
The American dance master William DeGarmo wrote in 1875, "Gentlemen who acquire a diversified style easily accommodate themselves to different partners." DeGarmo suggested that the man adapted his steps to his partner's steps, not the other way around.
America's most famous dance master, Charles Durang, further clarified that, "Gentlemen ought always to be attentive to their partners, and they should move in unison with their every step and attitude." Notice that he didn't say that the lady should move in unison with the man's every step and attitude. The gentleman accommodated the lady.
The Dark Ages: 1920s to 1950s
This completely reversed in the 1920s, when dance manuals changed to a particularly disagreeable phase of ballroom dance, when the term lead meant "command" and follow meant "obey".
L. Ray of Chicago wrote in 1930,
Never should the so-called gentler sex be quite so gentle and acquiescent as when dancing. No matter what her views on suffrage and feminism may be, it is a woman's duty to let the man lead on the ballroom floor. His is the guiding spirit; hers, the following. He is the pace-maker; she is his shadow.
Suffrage and feminism?! Yes, this new ballroom dance attitude developed soon after American women won the right to vote.
This attitude quickly spread to England. Courtenay Castle of London wrote,
Now, men, in these days of sex equality you can take heart from the fact that, on the dance floor at any rate, the man is still the boss. It is he that decides when and where any particular step is danced. He designs the pattern of the dance. The man will do most of the work while his partner just makes a pretty picture. Now for the ladies, you don't have much to say in the matter at all.
The British ballroom champion Victor Sylvester gave simpler advice to women in 1927: "Submit yourself entirely to your partner." And Arthur Murray thought that women wanted it this way: "The dance floor is the one place where the weaker sex prefers to remain submissive."
Alex Moore, another British ballroom champion, wrote,
The lady's part is to follow, whether the man is dancing a figure correctly or not. She must not have a mind of her own. She must just follow whatever the man does and not attempt to correct him.
The American George Raft took "must not have a mind of her own" a step further, saying,
No girl with much intelligence will suit me because once a dancing partner has any grey matter she tries to figure out ideas on her own, whereas she should merely think and move like machinery.
Note: That was not an obscure quote. It was featured prominently in the April 1934 issue of the Dancing Times magazine, which was read by every serious ballroom dancer at the time.
The woman had to adapt her steps to the man's steps. If she didn't, the resulting damage was seen as her fault:
"Don't, little lady, blame your crushed toe on your partner. Maybe your back steps are too short. Get out of his way!" (The exclamation mark was his.) — Arthur Murray, 1946
Compare that to an 1865 quote: "A good dancer would consider himself disgraced if any mishap occurred to a lady under his care."
This was a new attitude in ballroom dance, emphasizing domination by the man and submission by the woman. Dance instruction was now phrased like a man making a puppet move, as opposed to letting a woman enjoy dancing:
Pressure with the heel of the right hand on the left of the girl's vertebrae will turn her to the right. The leader gets his partner to cross her left foot over the right foot by pressing with the heel of the right hand.
The man should remember that there are two basic uses for a lead. The first is to make a change of position, the second is to get the girl to do the step.
When a girl does not react readily to her partner's lead, he should hold her firmer and give a stronger lead.
— Israel Heaton, Brigham Young University, 1954
If you're a dancer and all of that sounds normal to you, step back and look at the big picture. What is the essential dynamic here?
He asks her, "Would you like to dance?"
She replies, "Yes, I'd love to!"
Do you think she means:
"Yes, I would like to dance."
"I'd like you to control my every move by pushing and pulling me and pressing the heel of your hand into my back for the next three minutes."
If you think she prefers the second one, we recommend that you actually ask her which she prefers. You may be surprised.
Our recommendation: If you ask a woman if she'd like to dance, then let her dance — don't make her dance. That's an insult to her, in effect saying, "You can't dance very well. You need me to make you dance." Yes, of course there's a lead/follow dynamic in social dancing, with the Lead suggesting figures, the Follow interpreting those suggestions, then the Lead adapting his dancing to her interpretation. But that's different from his controlling her every move, and very different from expectations of submission.
Comparing the two eras:
The man's responsibility to care for his partner:
"A little watchfulness can almost always avoid collisions, and a good dancer would consider himself disgraced if any mishap occurred to a lady under his care."
— Routledge's Ballroom Companion, London, ca. 1865
Note that the man's concentration is on protecting his partner from harm.
Then almost a century later:
"Ladies, may I ask for a little forbearance if, through his concentration on his steps [note where the man's concentration is now] he should inadvertently run you into the wall or fail to see the chair that got in the way and caused you to sit on the floor?"
— Courtenay Castle, London, 1958
Concerning a lady correcting a gentleman:
"If the gentleman is so inexperienced as to force the lady backward [note: it was dangerous because women's ballgowns had a short train in 1875, which she could step on if she were to step backwards], she should check it by immediately turning herself to the right or left, at the same time notifying him that it is dangerous."
— Wm. DeGarmo, NY, 1875
Then ninety years later:
"At no time should the girl criticize the man's dancing — unless she prefers dancing without a partner." (The italics were his.)
— Richard Kraus, Columbia University, 1965
The Dark Ages
Review all of those early 20th century quotes again. What was the emphasis of Kraus, Heaton, Silvester, Ray, Castle, Moore and Murray? Women enjoying dancing? Or women obeying men?
Although a few ballroom teachers and dancers are still stuck in the Dark Ages of ballroom dance, the best dancers and dance teachers today have completely rejected that attitude, and now emphasize mutual respect between dance partners. As mentioned on the main page, the aware Lead knows and he cares what is comfortable for his partner, what is pleasurable and fun for her.
About the Author:
Full-time instructor in contemporary social dancing and dance history, Stanford University Dance Division, Department of Theater and Performance Studies.
Principal focus since 1975 has been social dance forms from the Renaissance to today. Specializations include currently evolving vernacular dance forms, 19th century American and European social dance, dances of the Ragtime Era and Jazz Age.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the AccessDance Network. Be aware that imagery is copyrighted and often licensed for use on AccessDance only. Copying of images is strictly prohibited.
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