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Leading, following and sexism in social dance: change of meaning as contained secondary adjustments



By assigning men the role of ‘lead’ and women the role of ‘follow’, social dance can be viewed as a form of serious leisure that appears to perpetuate a system that positions women as subordinate to men. Interviews with 29 women and 10 men who self-identified as social dancers revealed that women used several strategies to create meanings for following that allowed them to achieve parity with men while operating in an explicitly sexist idioculture. Women’s interpretation of following and the relationship between leading and following was as learning a complex set of skills and abilities that allowed them to make an important contribution to the dance. The meanings women applied to following can be understood as contained secondary adjustments. By viewing following as a performance that requires considerable skill, women can expose the idea that the role of follow is subordinate to the lead as a social construction, and, in the process, use being a follow to subvert the expected social organisation.
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Leading, following and sexism in social
dance: change of meaning as contained
secondary adjustments
James K. Beggana & Allison Scott Pruitta
a Sociology, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292, USA
Published online: 02 Sep 2013.
To cite this article: James K. Beggan & Allison Scott Pruitt (2013): Leading, following and sexism
in social dance: change of meaning as contained secondary adjustments, Leisure Studies, DOI:
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Leading, following and sexism in social dance: change of meaning
as contained secondary adjustments
James K. Beggan*and Allison Scott Pruitt
Sociology, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292, USA
(Received 14 March 2012; nal version received 28 May 2013)
By assigning men the role of leadand women the role of follow, social dance
can be viewed as a form of serious leisure that appears to perpetuate a system that
positions women as subordinate to men. Interviews with 29 women and 10 men
who self-identied as social dancers revealed that women used several strategies
to create meanings for following that allowed them to achieve parity with men
while operating in an explicitly sexist idioculture. Womens interpretation of
following and the relationship between leading and following was as learning a
complex set of skills and abilities that allowed them to make an important
contribution to the dance. The meanings women applied to following can be
understood as contained secondary adjustments. By viewing following as a
performance that requires considerable skill, women can expose the idea that the
role of follow is subordinate to the lead as a social construction, and, in the
process, use being a follow to subvert the expected social organisation.
Keywords: dance; feminism; gender roles; Goffman; serious leisure; sexism
We typically think of leisure activities as pleasant pastimes. However, as noted
by Stebbins (2000), leisure can have obligatory or unpleasant components. Con-
sider, for example, the case of amateur marathon runners who must endure
unpleasant physical and psychological experiences both training for and running
races (Ridinger, Funk, Jordan, & Kaplanidou, 2012). Bella (1992) found that
women sometimes viewed preparing for the Christmas holiday to be an unpleas-
ant obligation. Stebbins (2007) identied serious leisureas the pursuit of activi-
ties at a level that can represent signicant investment of time, effort or cost. In
keeping with Browns(
2007) analysis of Carolina Shag dancers, in the present
research we investigated social dancing as a form of serious leisure because of
the investment required to learn requisite dance skills.
Researchers have noted that participation in serious leisure can be inuenced by
beliefs about gender and gender roles. Bartram (2001) found that serious male
kayakers may reject female partners on the grounds that women are perceived to be
insufciently aggressive and risk tolerant to provide rescue in case of emergency.
Major (2001) found that female, as opposed to male, runners displayed a greater fear
for personal safety. In contrast, King (2001) found that quilters felt the hobby was a
female activity that allowed women to express a feminine voice and was, therefore,
inhospitable to men. In summary, individuals who attempt leisure activities typed
*Corresponding author. Email:
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for the other sex may encounter resistance that could decrease their enjoyment of
the activity.
Gender stereotypes contain behaviour that is deemed culturally appropriate for
men and women (Brehm, Miller, Perlman, & Campbell, 2001). Furthermore,
research (e.g. Seal, Smith, Coley, Perry, & Gamez, 2008) indicates that the attitudes
and behaviours of both men and women strongly comply with these scripts. In the
present research, we wanted to better understand how women dancers would think
about their participation in a form of serious leisure that encourages conformity to
traditional gender roles along both formal and informal tracks.
According to Hanna (2010), the eighteenth-century waltz represents the rst
dance in which men and women danced as couples in embrace. Since then, a large
number of dances have been developed in countries such as Argentina (tango), Cuba
(salsa) and the USA (swing). Polhemus (1993) suggested that Western partner danc-
ing reinforces restrictive gender roles. Hanna (2010) noted that the tango can be
viewed as a metaphor for the sexual relationship between men and women. With
few exceptions, Western partner dances, regardless of their national origins, rest on
historic tradition for demarcating the roles of men and women in a manner consis-
tent with expectations about the characteristics of men and women (Marion, 2008).
The man adopts the role of leadand the woman adopts the role of follow.
The experience of, and reaction to, institutionalised sexism in dance is particu-
larly interesting because social dance is a voluntary pursuit. In an analysis of
ballroom dance competitions, Peters (1991) stated that although the basic com-
mandment the man leads and the woman follows made [her] uneasy(p. 147),
she still considered herself an avid ballroom dancer who performed as a follow. This
convention is rarely given serious challenge mainly because people who attempt to
challenge it may nd themselves less likely to obtain dance partners (Marion, 2008).
Despite the importance of dancing in our culture (Desmond, 1994), there has
been little work devoted to understanding how women experience and make sense
of these conventional gender roles. One interesting aspect of gender in social
dancing as an example of serious leisure is that male and female participants do not
perform the same tasks, as would occur in sports such as running or kayaking.
Instead, men and women develop separate skill sets that they must use in a coordi-
nated fashion in order to dance properly. Thus, one sex might be able to look at the
other sexs contributions as somehow less important, but it is not possible to exclude
one sex, as one could do with, say, an all-male kayaking team (see Johnson (2005)
for an analysis of same-sex partner dancing in a homosexual context which does
allow for the exclusion of one sex).
Both rst wave and second wave feminism focused on challenging institutional
and structural inequalities between men and women in areas such as employment
and compensation (Alfonso & Trigilio, 1997; Gerhard, 2001). Third wave feminism
further spoke to similar issues but also encouraged feminists to be accepting of roles
that might appear inconsistent with feminism (Baumgardner & Richards, 2000),
such as sex worker (Chapkis, 1997), and embraced a broad range of perspectives on
issues such as sexuality, career, and marriage and family (Orr, 1997). From a second
wave perspective, men leading and women following reinforces sex-based role dis-
crimination. This discrimination implies an imbalance that positions men and mens
interests above women and womens interests. As informed by third-wave feminism,
however, this role differentiation can take on a variety of meanings as women
choose what participatory roles to adopt. It does not automatically follow that
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different roles should be seen as promoting or producing inequality. Thus, rather
than viewing social dancing as either reinforcing or not reinforcing sexism, we are
alert to the possibility that multiple interpretations might be simultaneously true,
from the subjective experiences of the individuals who are dancing. It is possible
that some women would prefer to follow, even if given a choice to lead, and genu-
inely enjoy the role of following. Being a follow would not automatically make a
woman victim of hegemonically dened masculinity, nor would it mean she rejected
feminist goals such as equality.
Certain elements of partner dancing make it a unique site to understand womens
responses to structurally based sexism. In a dance context, from the perspective of
self-interest (Bolzendahl & Myers, 2004), a woman gains the most benet by con-
forming to sex role expectations and adopting the role of follow. Most men prefer to
lead because the idea of the man as leader is important in supporting both a mascu-
line and heterosexual identity(Ericksen, 2011, p. 155) and women prefer to adopt
the role of follow because it is compatible with the way women learn to perform
gender(Ericksen, 2011, p. 201).
Another reason why partner dancing represents an interesting context for under-
standing responses to institutionalised sexism is that social dancing is an activity that
can occur between individuals with discrepant beliefs about mens and womens
roles. Marion (2008) differentiated between dancerspersonal values and beliefs
regarding sex roles and the expression of sex roles in the context of partner dancing.
Peters (1991) viewed the role differentiation of lead and follow as a form of role-
playingthat reconstructs and reiterates courting rituals that idealize the female
body(p. 147). These perspectives suggest that women may not bring personal
beliefs about sexism into play when they engage in social dance. A parallel observa-
tion was made by Hancock (2007) with regard to racial homogeneity he observed
among Lindy Hop dancers where respondents cited having funas their main rea-
son to dance and seemed genuinely unaware of implicit segregation.
As swing dance acionados, the authors had been struck by womens acceptance
of biological sex as the basis for assigning roles as leader and follow. Prior to begin-
ning the research, we had conversed with women about this apparent sexism but
found that most women were quite tolerant of it. To better make sense of this phe-
nomenon, we undertook a more formal investigation. As the basis for our examina-
tion, we adopted Goffmans(
1961a,1961b) concept of an adjustment, i.e., a method
to get around an institutionally enforced constraint on behaviour, to better under-
stand the potential conict between modern beliefs about the importance of gender
equality and womens desire to dance and willingness to conform to social dance
traditions. The purpose of the present research was to better understand how
womens efforts to make sense of the explicit sexism in social dance could be under-
stood as social adjustments. We felt that Goffmans concept was key to understand
how women resolved this conict because an adjustment can include actions taken
that challenge an assumption of an institution without necessarily challenging the
institution itself.
From Goffmans(
1961a) perspective, when a woman agrees to act as a follow in
a dance, she takes on the obligation to be alive in the situation, to be properly ori-
ented and aligned in it To engage in a particular activity in the prescribed spirit
is to accept being a particular kind of person who dwells in a particular kind of
world(p. 186). Having accepted the dance, it would be expected that most women
would attempt to execute the role of follow to the best of their abilities. Adopting
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the conventions of following to work cooperatively with a lead represents a primary
adjustment, according to Goffman.
In contrast, secondary adjustments are any habitual arrangement by which a
member of an organization employs unauthorized means, or obtains unauthorized
ends, or both, thus getting around the organizations assumptions as to what he
should do and get and hence what he should be(p. 189). Goffman identied two
types of secondary adjustments. Disruptive secondary adjustments are intended to
abandon or radically alter an existing institution. In contrast, contained secondary
adjustments t into an existing structure without encouraging drastic change.
Goffman, as well as subsequent researchers (e.g. Ingram, 1982,1986), applied
the concepts of primary and secondary adjustments to individuals dealing with insti-
tutions such as hospitals, prisons or churches. Goffman did not consider gender roles
as they apply to primary and secondary adjustments. Other scholars (e.g. Luciano,
2006; Zurcher, 1965) have considered how primary and secondary adjustments
might operate in other settings, such as the Sanctuary of Machu Picchu located in
the southern Peruvian Andes or on a naval vessel. Although scholars (e.g. Khiat,
2010) have extended Goffmans(1961a) pioneering work by developing classica-
tions of different types of contained secondary adjustments, in most instances con-
tained secondary adjustments are considered as actions or behaviours. For example,
in an analysis of identity construction through swing dancing, Renshaw (2006)
examined how behavioural contained secondary adjustments were used in the pre-
sentation of self. Furthermore, many of the examples Goffman (1961a) gives are
consistent with this denition. However, by dening contained secondary adjust-
ments as ways in which the individual stands apart from the role and the self that
were taken for granted by the institution(p. 189), Goffman (1961a) allowed for
the consideration of contained secondary adjustments that are not actions.
The process of leading and following
Leading and following operate through the physical connection between the man
and woman. Typically, the mans left hand grasps the womans right. The mans
right hand contacts the shoulder blade area of the womans back, and the womans
left hand rests lightly on the mans right shoulder. Through this connection, informa-
tion about how to move is conveyed from the man to the woman (and, in some
cases, back again in a feedback loop) through weight shifts and pressure on contact
The goal of learning leadfollow communication is to develop a foundation
upon which competent dancers may improvise and express themselves in their own
unique ways(Borland, 2009, p. 474). Peters (1991) described partner dancing as a
form of dance that depends on the simultaneous execution of movement by two
dancers locked in intimate body contact, but how those movements are performed
and where the focus lies depends entirely and absolutely on whether one is male or
female(pp. 147148). According to Peters (1991), leading assumes, all movement
is initiated and controlled by the man all dance patterns are labelled from the
mans point of view(p. 151).
To be considered a good lead, a man needs to be able to send a clear signal to a
woman. To be considered a good follow, a woman has to decode the leads signal in
a rapid and correct manner. In describing following, Peters (1991) stated the
unforgivable sin for the woman is to anticipate a move, failing to wait for the lead
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(p. 152). According to Borland (2009), highly skilled follows must engage in the
difcult task of overcoming oneself in order to allow the leader to take control
(p. 478). Skinner (2008) termed the experience of following for women as: She does
not have to think of the moves if she is with a dancer with a clear lead(p. 74).
Whereas highly procient dancers such as dance instructors can exchange
leadfollow roles (Renta, 2004), most people learn to lead or follow on the basis of
biological sex. Dancing in same-sex couples represents a challenge to the simple
rule that one sex leads and the other follows. In an analysis of couples dancing in a
country-western gay bar, Johnson (2005) found that men decide their roles on the
basis of beliefs about what characteristics make an individual a good lead or follow
such as whether a person conforms to characteristics of hegemonic masculinity or
hegemonic femininity. Although some of Johnsons informants recognised doing so
reinforced gay stereotypes, they insisted their reasoning was sound.
Exercising power in the lead-follow relationship
At rst glance, it would seem that the lead exercises power over the follow and con-
trols her actions in the dance, a one-directional ow of inuence. However, as noted
by Foucault (1982, p. 220):
a power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are
each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that the other(the one
over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very
end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole eld of
responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up.
In a manner consistent with Foucaults dual element analysis, Spiro (1996) noted that
equality can have at least two meanings. In equality of identity, two people are equal
only if they are the same or nearly the same on some critical attribute. As applied to
social dancing, equality of identity would mean that men and women have access to
the same roles, which does not occur. In contrast, equality of equivalence is based on
a pluralistic system of values and suggests that different people can have the same
worth even if they possess different levels of a given attribute. Marion (2008) sug-
gested that the roles of lead and follow can be seen as possessing an equality of
equivalence in that Men and women dance different parts, with different roles
and responsibilities Yet both male and female are valued …’ (p. 145). An equality
of equivalence is maintained due to the differential skills that women and men, as fol-
lows and leads, bring to the dance partnership. Benjamin (1988), inspired by Hegels
ideas on the masterslave relationship, noted that in a relationship where one person
dominates the other, the dominator may ultimately come to depend on the dominated.
In parallel, although the terms leadand followsuggest that the follow depends on
the lead for guidance, it is also true that the lead depends on the skill and good will
of the follow.
As noted by Foucault (1982), Power is exercised only over free subjects, and
only insofar as they are free(p. 221). For men and women engaged in social dance,
the explicit acceptance of role constraints restricts the expression of individuality
with regard to gender roles. Within this constraint, however, both men and women
are able to exert free choice over the process of the dance. In this sense, both the lead
and follow can exert power over the other. A failure on the part of either to cooperate
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in the execution of the dance can cause both parties to have a sub-standard experi-
ence. Just as the follow cannot refuse to follow, the lead cannot refuse to lead. If
either party abrogated their responsibility, the dance would abruptly terminate.
Despite this interdependence, in practice, even complementary role differentiation
along gendered lines may lead to inequality (Ridgeway, 2009). McMains (2006,
p. 30) wrote, There are many frameworks through which one could argue that the
leader-follower dichotomy does not perpetuate gender inequality, but my extensive
experience as a professional follower has convinced me that rampant gender inequal-
ity stems directly from this distinction. Although she recognised that the follow is
not completely passive, she noted that the lead is responsible for making most deci-
sions about the ow of the dance. Inequality is also manifested in teaching practices.
Marion (2008) noted aspects of dance lessons that indicate the lessons are geared
toward the male perspective: when couples teach lessons, the man typically leads the
lesson, and instructors will most often call out the mans footwork rather than the
In the present research, we used Goffmans concepts of primary and secondary
adjustments to better understand how women made sense of the role of follow in an
institution that reies traditional expectations about sex-appropriate behaviour. Like
Borland (2009), we intended our analysis to move beyond recognition of the gen-
dered nature of leading and following and toward better understanding the dynamics
of partner dancing. The majority of our analysis focused on how women use con-
tained secondary adjustments to establish parity with men and create an equality of
equivalence between the roles of lead and follow. By using contained secondary
adjustments to establish a more equal footing with men, women are able to trans-
form social dancing from a space that might serve as an uncomfortable reminder of
gender inequity to a place where women can see their contributions, and themselves,
in a more positive manner. In this way, then, although we have conceptualised con-
tained secondary adjustments as an internal, cognitive process, they have the same
purpose as the behaviours described by Goffman and others (e.g. Khiat, 2010): to
create a more favourable psychological reality for the person invoking them.
As the basis for our analysis, we used ethnographic peripheral member-participant
observation (Adler & Adler, 1987) in a major southeastern city in the USA (greater
metro area approximately one million). We investigated two particular dance estab-
lishments because they were very active at the time and included dancers at a range
of skill levels interested in several different types of dances (swing, ballroom and, to
a lesser degree, salsa and Argentine tango). As participant-observers, we attended
dance lessons and took part in social dances to gain rst-hand experience with lead-
ing and following and become more conversant with issues involved in partner
dancing. As participants, we were able to engage in casual conversations with danc-
ers, set up times for interviews and gain rsthand experience with dance etiquette.
We also visited other dance places where social dancing occurred, such as ballroom
studios, special events with live music, and college dance clubs, for the purpose of
expanding our analytic frame of reference. We became casual friends with many
members of the social dance community and carried out numerous conversational
interviews, which later formed the conceptual basis for in-depth active interviews.
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We spent eight months conducting semi-structured interviews (about one hour in
length) with 29 women and 10 men who were self-dened active social dancers.
We asked respondents about their early experiences with partner dancing, the
types of dancing with which they were familiar, and the places where they had
learned to dance and were currently dancing. We asked participants to talk about dif-
ferent elements of partner dancing, especially the concepts of leading and following.
We also asked respondents about social aspects such as whether they had found
romantic partners through dancing. Subsequently, we asked participants to talk about
the meaning of sexism. We questioned respondents about their view of sexism in
partner dancing. Most of the interview questions were open-ended. For most of the
interview, we adopted the role of active listeners (Holstein & Gubrium, 1997). We
attempted to engage in minimal guidance and most of our prompts were limited to
statements like, Is there anything more?or restating what respondent had earlier
Age of respondents varied between 21 and 65. Due to the racial homogeneity of
dancers, we were only able to recruit white respondents. The tendency of contempo-
rary social ballroom and swing dancing to exclude participants of colour has been
noted by previous researchers (e.g. Picart, 2006) and is consistent with historic divi-
sions between dancers of different races (e.g. Hubbard & Monaghan, 2009). Most
respondents had a bachelors degree or were currently in school working toward a
degree. All but one respondent were employed. Of the female respondents, six were
married, nine were divorced but not remarried and 14 were single. Of the male
respondents, two were married, four were divorced and four were single. With
regard to respondentsdance background, 16 danced only swing; seven danced only
ballroom; eight danced swing and ballroom; two danced swing, ballroom and salsa;
ve danced swing, ballroom, salsa and Argentine tango; and one danced ballroom
and salsa.
We recruited participants by direct face-to-face invitation, usually while they
were at the dance venues. As we were interested in how women resolved the tension
between favouring gender equality while participating in a system that reied sex-
based role differentiation, our main goal was to recruit women respondents. How-
ever, as we also wanted to contrast how men, as leads, viewed social dancing in
comparison to women, as follows, we made an effort to recruit men. Most infor-
mants preferred to be interviewed in coffee shops or restaurant although two were
interviewed in their own homes, and three were interviewed in the rst authors uni-
versity ofce. Interviews were taped with the informants consent and conducted in
We required that participants had been dancing at least six months to make sure
they were familiar with the basic ideas of lead and follow. Time dancing ranged
from six months to 15 years. Although most of our sample consisted of individuals
who went swing dancing on a regular basis, we found that many of our participants
were familiar with several different genres of dance, dened in terms of knowing
the basic step and several patterns.
We analysed the transcripts using analytic induction for the development of
grounded theory (Miles & Huberman, 1984; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In the rst
phase, we randomly selected and coded half the interviews for content. In the sec-
ond phase, we looked for emergent themes using the sensitising concept of con-
tained secondary adjustments. Themes that emerged involved the way sexism was
dened, the meanings applied to leading and following with regard to power rela-
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tions and cognitive demand, and essentialism and socialisation as rival explanations
for gender-based role differentiation. Finally, in the third phase, we examined the
other half of the data to verify our conceptualisation of emergent themes remained
valid for the other responses.
We adopted several strategies recommended by Shenton (2004) to ensure the
trustworthiness of our research ndings. Before collecting interview data, we
became familiar with both swing and ballroom cultures. Familiarisation included
taking dance lessons, attending dances and talking informally to other dancers. We
also engaged in triangulation by using two methods for data collection, specically,
participant observation and semi-structured interviews. Finally, individuals who were
not comfortable participating were reminded during the administration of informed
consent that they were free to discontinue at any time in the interview.
The dancers we interviewed emulated forms originating during the 1920s1940s,
referred to as vintage swing,and represented by dances such as Lindy Hop,
Charleston and Balboa. Vintage swing can be distinguished from the type of swing
dancing taught in ballroom studios or country-western bars on the basis of stylistic
differences. The dance location we examined did not cater to country swing dancers
and none of our respondents mentioned that form of swing dancing. Most respon-
dents danced vintage swing styles but a few trained in ballroom dancing expressed a
preference for ballroom swing.
At the time data were collected, vintage swing dancing took place weekly in two
different locations. A Tuesday dance was held at Rosewoods, a full-service Asian
restaurant. About 8:30 pm, tables were pushed aside to create a dance space with
enough room for no more than 10 couples to dance comfortably. A Thursday dance
was held at Johnny Tomorrows, a large, well-established bar with a permanent
dance oor big enough to hold 30 couples. Both places offered a full bar. On swing
dance night, there was a great deal of overlap of patrons. Otherwise, Rosewoods
attracted a different crowd, in part because, as a restaurant, it catered to people who
wanted dinner and was also able to admit people under 21 years old.
For both venues, a dance lesson started about 8:30 pm and was taught by the DJ
or one of the more procient dancers. Dancing started immediately after the lesson.
The DJ played to the tastes of dancers. During the period ethnographic and inter-
view data were collected, each night about 2030 people attended the lessons and a
total of 50 or more people attended the dance.
Skinner (2008) noted that the norms of the social dance environment require
women to dance with anyone who asks. As such, they must endure the painful or
creepy dances as well as the dances they welcome from those they would like to
dance with(p. 69). On the other hand, women are not without recourse. A woman
is free to reject a dance invitation as long as she does not accept a subsequent invita-
tion for the same song. However, she is free to dance with someone else on the next
song without necessarily going back to the person she previously turned down.
In the context of a heterosexual dance environment, although men and women
are both free to ask for dances, in practice, in the two locations where we conducted
our ethnographic analysis, men did a large majority of the asking, but women rarely
turned down dances. Women reported waiting to be asked about 77% of the time
and asking men to dance about 23% of the time. When asked why they waited to be
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asked, women often cited the fear of rejection or the desire to conform to social
norms as explanations. In comparison to traditional bars where the men often
outnumber the women, in the venues we examined, there was often a reverse imbal-
ance. Because of the scarcity of men, women had to sit out dances more often and,
as a result, sometimes became bolder about asking men to dance. Other women
would become frustrated by the relative lack of attention they received and leave
early. One informant stated that if she did not get asked to dance for three songs in
a row, she would leave.
Making meaning about the role of follow
According to Goffman (1961a), primary adjustments refer to an individuals actions
that cooperatively contribute to an organisation or institution. In the context of social
dance, women who tacitly accept the role and dance as follows express primary
adjustments because they do not challenge the sex-based role designations for lead
and follow. Our respondents were reluctant to attribute sexism to partner dancing even
when asked directly whether assigning the role of lead and follow constituted sexism.
About one-third of respondents agreed that they could see the argument or thought it
was possible that other people might see it that way, but personally did not.
As noted by Goffman (1961a), it is possible to distinguish between what an actor
is expected to do on the basis of role requirements and other actions which can be
considered secondary adjustments. Although all the women we interviewed willingly
took part in the behaviours of following, respondentsinterpretations of accepting
what appeared to be institutional sexism can be understood as the expression of four
forms of contained secondary adjustments: denial, acceptance, distancing and
One response was to simply reject the idea that assigning lead or follow on the basis
of biological sex represented sexism. This response represented a strong form of con-
tained secondary adjustment in that it allowed the respondent to simultaneously view
the practices of dance as non-sexist but at the same time endorse statements that were
probably factually in error. For example, Grace, a 20-year old college student, said, I
think a feminist would be ne with the fact that usually the guy does lead, but the girl
can as well its not sexist, its just a fact that usually thats how it is. Most likely,
feminists would be troubled by the assignment of dance roles on the basis of gender
(see Peters, 1991, as an example), as well as judging a practice as non-sexist because
there is historic tradition behind it. Henry, a divorced 28-year old retail manager, simi-
larly justied role differentiation in dancing on the grounds that Dancing goes back
hundreds of years thats not being sexist, thats just how it is, how its been for
hundreds of years.Amanda, a 21-year old engaged college undergraduate who
worked as a bank teller and also taught ballroom dancing part-time, endorsed sex-
based role differentiation with the comment, Theres no room for anyone to be
androgynous, and in doing so reinforced a bifurcation that associated maleness with
masculinity and leading and femaleness with femininity and following.
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Lisa, 25, a married and very religious woman with one child said in regard to the idea
that dancing was sexist, I guess technically it is. But she added, I wouldnt think of
it as a negative. Respondents who seemed accepting of sexism in the leadfollow dis-
tinction did so on the basis of three different, but related, rationales. On the one hand,
social dancing was seen as embedded in an idioculture that required tolerance for, if
not outright acceptance of, this role assignment. Some respondents asserted that sex-
based roles were an essential element of dance. Christine said, dancing is an old insti-
tution probably a lot of the steps were originally thought up by men. She added
that, ‘… if youre going to let that interfere with your dancing, then you probably
shouldnt dance. Christine was a married 65-year old woman who worked as a psy-
chiatric nurse and had one daughter. Most of Christines dance experience came from
ballroom dancing but hip and knee replacements made it difcult for her to dance.
Similarly, Fran, a 48-year old separated artist with two adult children, said, I think
when you push things to that point of bringing feminism into dancing, youre taking
yourself way too seriously. Louise, a 32-year old woman who worked in cosmetics
sales, said that dancing was sexist in a positive way.
A second rationale was given in terms of pragmatics. In explaining why he was
not bothered by assigning lead and follow roles on the basis of sex, David, a 50-year
old college professor who had been ballroom dancing for about three years, said that
if someone had to learn both roles it would be so overwhelming, it would kill the
dance industry. For David, the leadfollow convention was a matter of conve-
nience, not to mention tradition. He had gotten divorced after over 20 years of mar-
riage and started dancing as a hobby to ll his spare time. He remarried shortly after
separating and now only danced with his wife.
A third justication for acceptance of the leadfollow roles was perceived
helplessness in the face of deeply embedded norms. Carly, a married 50-year old
ballroom dancer who worked as a librarian, played the harp in a restaurant on the
weekend, and went dancing several times a week, admitted that the leadfollow dis-
tinction seemed like a throwback notion. But she defended her acceptance with the
excuse I cant exactly reinvent ballroom dancing,and pointed out that somebody
has to lead. Carly saw herself as a single individual, lacking sufcient agency for
change. She recognised that the institution of social dance exercises power over her
but felt she lacked the ability to exercise power over the social institution. It is
important to note that in stating that someone has to lead, Carly, like David,
accepted the dictum with little question that that individual should be the man.
One way to side-step the sexism of assigning leadfollow roles on the basis of
sex was to express the roles of men and women in terms of leading and following.
For example, Marie, a 35-year old nurse who was procient in swing, ballroom and
salsa dance styles, suggested that the relevant conception is not male and female, its
lead and follow. While not directly challenging the role assignments, by purposely
using language disengaged from sex-based role assignment, Marie was able to pres-
ent a vaguely subversive counterpoint to the often-stated value attributed to the
adherence to tradition. By using the leadfollow terminology rather than man
woman, Marie opens dialogue regarding the possibility that the lead and follow roles
may not be decided on biological sex.
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In contrast to acceptance, which seemed to involve women tolerating sexism in
social dance in order to preserve the opportunity to dance, a few respondents
appeared to view dancing as a microcosm where a different set of rules could apply
that did not challenge the importance of equality between men and women. Goffman
(1961b) used the term role distanceto refer to how a person might separate his or
her actions from an identity. Jennifer, a 26-year old graduate student with a back-
ground in art and dance, did not feel that feminist issues would be relevant to her
role as a dancer. She explained:
I make 1950s jokes all the time when Im teaching class to the girls. OK, youre all
great and youre all going to do great in your lives, but for right now, when youre
dancing, if you want the dance to ow, when he leaves the house, everything in the
house stays exactly where it was until he comes back to the house.
By acknowledging to the women she is teaching that they are greatand will do
great, Jennifer feels she is able to then reference the 1950s as the epitome of the
acceptance of traditional gender roles, and by doing so assert that social dancing
exists in a conceptual bubble that separates it from the concerns of modern society.
The phrase everything in the house stays exactly where it waswas meant to refer to
the woman leaving a hand or arm in the same place where the lead left it (in order to
coordinate better dancing), but it also conjures up images of the Leave it to Beaver
nuclear family where the father leaves for work in the morning but returns home to a
house that remains unchanged in the evening. The 1950s reference is perhaps further
reinforced by the fact that the dances Jennifer values trace their origins to the 1920s
and 1940s and hence may be viewed as a reection of an even more conservative
time. Like Carly, who accepted the social norms of leading and following, despite
seeing them as a throwback notion, Jennifer views social dancing as displaced to a
time when it is now believed that no one challenged gender-role conformity.
Justications for assigning dance role on the basis of biological sex could be
grouped into three broad categories: essentialist, social and Biblical. Essentialist
arguments involved the assertion that women and men had special characteristics
tied to their sex. Both male and female respondents appeared to naturalise gender
roles. Linda, a 50-year old divorced mother who worked as an astrologer, said that
women should be assigned the role of follow because, A womans gift lends itself
to following. And a mans gift lends itself to leading men are more aggressive
women are more submissive. Grace said, [Leading] is really, really difcult but
that could just be my female instinct in following. Similarly, Lisa said, Im
programmed I do better as a follow.
Tony, a 29-year old European, temporarily working in the USA as an engineer,
explained leadfollow roles in terms of physical size. I think a lot of times, femi-
nists tend to forget that our physical aspects of being a man or being a woman,
which make it easier or harder to do something …’. Although Tony acknowledged
that women could lead in theory, he suggested that if you have two men or two
women dance, you will never get as good of [a] dance couple, relative to having a
man lead and a woman follow.
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By relating dance role assignment to factors such as biology (size or strength) or
possessing temperaments viewed as correspondent to the role of lead (aggressive-
ness) or follow (sensitivity), these respondents presented a rationale for the reica-
tion of a traditional gender hierarchy. What is interesting about arguments based on
size or strength is that these beliefs persist despite contrary evidence available to
dancers. In our exposure to the social dance scenes we observed, men who were
shorter or thinner than the women with whom they were dancing still adopted the
role of lead. While it is possible that some men or some women were reluctant to
dance with mismatched partners, none of our respondents mentioned this problem,
and we observed numerous instances where men danced with women as tall as or
taller than themselves. Moreover, there are instances of famous swing dancers where
the woman was taller than the man (Miller & Jensen, 1996). It is interesting to note
that in an analysis of gay country-western dancing, Johnson (2005) said that dancers
volunteered for the lead or follow role on the basis of the degree to which they felt
they possessed masculine or feminine traits. The power of conventionality in social
dancing is sufciently strong such that the execution of what would appear as a
direct challenge to notions of heteronormativity ultimately manages to reinforce it.
Some women asserted that leading was more difcult than following. Eleanor, a
39-year old social worker who had started with salsa dancing, said, I really think
following is easier. Bethany, a 27-year old woman who had started in ballroom
dancing, stated, Being male and being the leader is better. Among the women who
we interviewed, for those who saw leading as more demanding than following, the
greater status afforded to leads followed as a consequence of leading being more
Other comments focused on social traditions. These comments tied a mans role
of lead to the traditional role expected of men in society as a whole. Irene, a 45-year
old divorced mother of two children and who worked in an ofce, said, I dont care
what women say, they can be their own women and be all they want to be, but they
still like a guy that can take care of them. Her comment about being taken care of
referred to domains that extended beyond the dance oor. She saw the etiquette of
dance as a specic instantiation of a more general and traditional rule of gender-
based etiquette. Irene justied naturalising gender with regard to pragmatics. She
said, It just generally works better if one takes the lead and everybody knows who
thats going to be. If the woman learns to lead and a man learns to lead, then they
cant dance together. While it may be true that one person must lead and the other
must follow, it does not automatically mean that the man should assume the role of
lead. It would be possible for men and women to switch roles with a single com-
ment regarding who would like to lead and who would like to follow, as occurs in a
homosexual context (Johnson, 2005). It is also possible that two people could switch
roles mid-dance, if they wanted.
Farah, a single 26-year old who expressed a preference for ballroom dancing,
said, Traditional values, its the way its been done, its the way it looks best. Simi-
larly, Mary said:
I enjoy it because the guy is actually leading. Men in our society have lost that role,
sometimes. And I think but its in a very respectful way women can always choose
to follow or not. But if you follow, you can do it in a very creative way and even bet-
ter, you can make the dance, by following creatively and creating it together its
seeing the traditional roles in a really good way. Youre able to see it in harmony.
There are two different roles for a reason.
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Mary lamented that in modern society men have lost that role, yet she felt she
had an important contribution to make to the dance by the virtue of her role as
follow. Mary conformed to the tradition of making sacrices for her man (in this
case moving with her ancé so that he could attend medical school). Unfortunately,
they broke up shortly after he started school, and she returned to her home town.
Although a minority, a number of respondents who possessed a strong Christian-
inuenced belief system invoked a form of traditionalism that rested on the Bible.
For these respondents, Biblical directive overrode other issues such as fairness or
equality of role. Taylor, a 28-year old woman who worked as an insurance adjustor
and attended the seminary, said:
The analogy of a Christian marriage gets me all red up because it works so well I
just kept seeing how it relates to how God laid out a marriage in the Bible, and people
ght against it because the woman wants to lead, the woman wants to be dominant
thats just not going to work, so God knew that, so in dancing if two people try to lead
it just doesnt work. And neither person has fun God has laid it out for the man to
be the leader and I think, as much as people hate to admit it, guys are more dominant
or whatever. Theyre wired for that, whereas the women should submit.
Although many people would view the above comment as heavily sexist, Taylor
was comfortable with expressing the sentiment because it was consistent with her
interpretation of the word of God, though she did acknowledge that many people
who were not devout would disagree with her interpretation.
The comments of women who defended sexism in dance with reference to exist-
ing social structures represent an instance of Goffmans(
1961a) observation that in
some cases secondary adjustments can become primary, such as when an institution
incorporates it into its own organisational structure. In response to the recognition
that employees sneak away from work for coffee, an organisation might institute
work breaks into its ofcial procedures. In a similar manner, by emphasising the
importance of tradition as a justication for accepting a sexist structure, women are
endorsing a contained secondary adjustment that simultaneously reinforces the status
quo (and can, therefore, be viewed as a primary adjustment).
Making meaning about the skills of following
In addition to considering the way that women viewed being assigned the role of
follow, we also found evidence that women thought about the skills involved in fol-
lowing in a way that allowed them to establish parity with men, as leads. They did
so by using secondary adjustments to distance themselves from a conventional
meaning that automatically assumed leading is a more difcult skill. These
secondary adjustments could be understood as reinterpretations of the concepts of
control,powerand thinking.
Alternative meanings of control
A number of respondents used the word controlwhen they talked about leading
and following. Control of the dance was cited as an important dimension of leading.
Consistent with analyses of social dancing by Borland (2009) and Peters (1991),
both male and female respondents afforded greater control of the dance dened in
terms of what moves were going to be executed to men as leads. Taylor felt that
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as a good follow, she had to avoid deciding the move that goes next because its
not my decision. Similarly, Eleanor said:
You cant anticipate what another person is going to do. Here you are, youre trying to
dance correctly and look good. You think you know where that persons going, but
you cant anticipate you cant do anything of your own the dance is about what
your lead is doing and what he wants you to do, and how able he is to communicate it
to you, and how well you are able to receive it which is why I want to learn how to
lead too.
According to Foucault (1982), The exercise of power is a way in which
certain actions modify others Power exists only when it is put into action …’
(p. 219). He further states, The exercise of power consists in guiding the possibility
of conduct and putting in order the possible outcomes(p. 221). In Foucaults
terminology, deciding on the order of moves can be viewed as the exercise of power
in social dancing. However, female respondents recognised that controlling the ow
of the dance in terms of the order of the moves executed represented only one
expression of control.
Although Eleanor made it seem as if she viewed herself as a passive respondent,
it would be incorrect to assume her acceptance of the role of follow robbed her of
agency. For one thing, she expressed the idea to usurp the mans role and learn to
lead. Eleanor was sensitive to being perceived as an incompetent dancer. She felt as
though she tried hard to make the leads look good and resented it when they failed
to appreciate her efforts. In regard to not being taken seriously for her efforts, she
said, Treat me with respect, you know. I dont care if you think that Im not good,
treat me with respect, or I dont want to dance with you.
Eleanors recognition that she could exert inuence over a lead by refusing to
dance with him could be seen as two levels of resistance. Her recognition of her
own power to hypothetically accede to or deny a dancer could be viewed as the
exercise of a type of power. Moreover, to actually turn down dance requests would
serve as a means of exercising power through action.
Although the word controlwas frequently used, respondentscomments sug-
gested that the word could take on a variety of meanings. The men we interviewed
perceived the leadfollow relationship in terms of the womans submission, i.e., in a
manner consistent with Foucaults use of the term power. For example, Seth, a 40-
year old maintenance technician who was married to a woman who once taught ball-
room dancing, said that leading involved taking control of the dance the woman
doesnt have to think about anything other than what Im telling her to do …’ With
this sentiment, Seth reveals a very linear, one-directional view of following, with
information being transmitted to the follow with non-verbal cues. This point-of-view
assumes that following is a passive endeavour and fails to recognise the great deal
of skill and perception that goes into the role. This perspective was repeated, elabo-
rated upon, but ultimately ratied by Thomascomment that follows only have con-
trol to the extent that you as the lead give them that. His comment revealed a
hierarchical approach to dancing, control centralised with the lead and any control
the follow had being derived from the leads willingness to cede it to her. At the
same time, Thomas admitted that he liked to give follows freedom to be creative
because it does make it more fun that way, it makes it more of a conversation.In
dening following, Matthew, a 24-year old seminary student who had danced about
three years, took control away from the follow with the comment: Being a good
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follow has a lot to do with the person being a good lead, no matter how good of a
follow it is.
Although men thought about control in terms of their restriction of the follows
choices, Grace said, Men probably think about the dominance of leading more than
women do. Jillian, a 51-year old special education teacher, expressed a similar
view, and suggested that dancing was not about power, its about having fun.In
contrast to men, women did not approach following in terms of losing control to
men. Instead, women thought about control in terms of self-regulation. For women,
control involved women disciplining themselves in order to be able to follow the
lead in a competent manner. Olivia explained that a good follow needed to, give up
your will rather than use your will to follow [his] will. Similarly, Carly said that
following involved not imposing your own will or assumptionson the dance.
The value these respondents placed on self-discipline is consistent with Foucaults
(1975) concept of the docile body. Institutions such as prisons become most efcient
when the inmates are made to discipline themselves rather than require an external
force to do so. Leads do not have to encourage women to adhere to the rules of fol-
lowing or police them if they fail to do so if women have internalised the desire to
follow well. In other words, the perspectives of both men and women are consistent
with Foucaults analysis of the exercise of power. The only difference involves the
target of the exercise of power. For men, as leads, power is exercised over women in
terms of controlling the ow of the dance. Although women afford controlling the
order of moves to the lead, women recognise that they still possess power over the
lead in terms of being willing or unwilling to dance with them. Men may recognise it
at some level but no male dancers expressed this concern in his interview. Thus, both
men and women believe they exercise power over the other, though it may be the
case that women are better able to identify the power that men exert over them than
men are adept at recognising the power that women exert over them.
Women, as follows, also recognised that power is exercised over the self, i.e.,
the body is self-disciplined. For Foucault, the promotion of discipline does not
require the use of force. Instead, the docile body polices itself. The costs of not fol-
lowing well can include threats to the self-image as well as the image of the self
held by others. Because women value their skills as follows, they are motivated to
follow well, i.e., to internalise the valued discipline. With regard to social dance,
continuous observation of the follow occurs because the lead is literally in physical
contact with her and will immediately notice a disjunction. The possible loss of
coordination can also be potentially noticed by observers with detrimental effects for
the follows reputation as a dancer. Other women might conclude she is not a good
dancer. Men might be disinclined to ask her to dance in the future.
Some women saw following as a difcult battle with themselves. Olivia said that
following was harder to do than it looks. Eleanor said, You cant anticipate what
another person is going to do. You think you know where that persons going, but
you cant anticipate. Anticipating the lead was the sign of a bad follow because it
indicated she was not actually waiting for a signal. Betty, a 25-year old college grad-
uate who worked in the equine industry, emphasised that because of her role as a
follow, dancing became a process of learning to trust. In summary, paradoxically,
for women the meaning they applied to the concept of controlin dance meant
training themselves to give up control regarding the instigation of movement of their
own bodies.
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Power as an expression of interdependence: equality of equivalence
Our interviews indicated that both men and women distinguished between the exer-
cise of power and control with regard to dancing. Although men and women agreed
that controlling the dance in terms of what steps or moves were executed was
decided by the lead, this element was different than the reciprocal inuence that
men and women had over each other in the dance. Our respondents thought of
poweras the need for each party to make a contribution to a dance that was
appealing for participants. For example, Seth said, A woman doesnt lose her power
when a guys in charge of something She hasnt lost her power A woman is
in a pretty powerful position when shes dancing with a guy. Seths view is consis-
tent with Foucaults idea of power as reciprocally exercised by the parties involved.
In the dance, each person in the partnership can bring the ability to inuence the
other to the dance oor.
Part of the power exercised by a woman was helping to maintain a psychological
space that encouraged men to act as competent and condent leads. Taking on this
supportive role is consistent with Hochschilds(
1983) groundbreaking work on
emotional labour. From the perspective of emotional labour, it is important for the
follow to appear to enjoy the dance. One author observed Marie dancing with a man
who was too forceful. What was interesting is that when Marie faced the man, she
smiled but when he turned her such that her face pointed away from him, her smile
disappeared, only to reappear when he turned her back to face him. To maintain an
appearance that the man was in charge of the dance, a woman would be required to
follow a lead regardless of how well or poorly he led. Eleanor admitted that part of
the reason she tried to follow well was that it helps them feel theyre in complete
control. She also based part of her evaluation of herself as a dancer on her ability
to meet the demands of her lead. She said, Some people take it so seriously that I
have this strong feeling that Im not doing well enough that Im disappointing
Rather than view leading and following as a one-directional method of commu-
nication, some follows chose to interpret communication as a joint, mutually interde-
pendent venture. In other words, they viewed leading and following in terms of
equality of equivalence (Marion, 2008). From this perspective, both the lead and fol-
low are equally valued because they are both equally necessary to full the goal of
creating a dance partnership. Amanda described this equality of equivalence in terms
of a reciprocal relationshipbetween the lead and follow and added that a follow
cant go out and do your own thing in a way that affects your partner negatively.
Jennifer expressed this equivalence as:
conversation call and response one person suggests something and the other
person either decides to talk with them about the same thing or to not the lead lis-
tens to the music, decides what move is going to happen, executes the move, and the
follow goes with it. I dont feel like its that way at all its mostly that way, but I
like to think of it as he suggests a move and I can do it and improve on it or I could
go through it exactly like he asked me to do it, or I have all kinds of options that
people dont consider the follow having.
Rather than seeing following as responding to a lead, Jennifer saw herself as
someone who had to interpretthe cues transmitted by a lead. This different inter-
pretation gives her greater agency. Although she acknowledged that, You surrender
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a little bit, she also gave herself the important role of guring out how to express
herself and help the lead express himself. One way that Jennifer managed this inter-
dependence was to focus on the role of the music in dictating what both men and
women were supposed to do in a dance. By acknowledging a three-way partnership
between the music and the two partners, Jennifer recognised the mutual coordination
of men and women. From Jennifers perspective, it was possible to view the music
as exercising power over both the lead and follow.
Within the constraints of being a follow, women in our sample recognised that
they could choose from a wide range of possible responses. Fran said that as a follow,
she could communicate deance become playful become passionate. She said
that leads sometimes had to accept the fact that they might try get a follow to do
something but that he doesnt always get what he wants. She added that this discon-
nect was still part of the dance. By acknowledging that the follow had freedom and
that part of the freedom included denying (at least to a degree) what the lead expected,
Fran viewed some of the inherent exibility of following in terms of reestablishing
autonomy and challenging the hierarchical assumptions that lead may have held.
Matthew said, There are particular roles in dancing and there are particular roles
in life. They complement each other. No matter how good a lead is, if he doesnt
have somebody who can follow, he cant do anything. From Matthews perspective,
following carries an inherent responsibility the follow cannot abrogate. The lead
needs the follows interpretation skills, i.e., her ability to style, to be successful as a
lead and for the couple to be successful as dancers. In this way, the lead is just as
dependent on the follow as the follow is upon the lead. This is the notion of equality
of equivalence (Marion, 2008). One interesting aspect of the value placed on the fol-
lows styling is that it represents a formal means in which to give the follow liberty.
As such, it is possible to think of the value placed on styling as a form of primary
adjustment in a larger system that recognises the importance of giving the follow a
greater role in creating the dance. In fact, to the extent that leads would prefer to
dance with follows showing creativity in following, what might originally be consid-
ered a secondary adjustment can evolve into a primary one. That is, a womans
unique expression of self through styling might ultimately become viewed as an
essential component of the dance when viewed from the leads perspective. In some
instances, he might lead her to style and, as such, contribute to the transformation of
a contained secondary adjustment to a primary adjustment.
The contested meaning of not thinking
Another way in which womens reinterpretation of the meaning of concepts associ-
ated with social dancing involved the word thinking. While it is correct to say that
women, as follows, do not have to think about which move to perform next
(Borland, 2009), it does not automatically follow that women do not have to think
while dancing. Yet, a recurring theme in mens discussions of leading and following
was that women should not thinkabout what they were doing. Good following
was equated with cultural beliefs about womens thought processes, i.e., women
were intuitive and focused on feelings. When men talked about following, they sug-
gested that women could perform the role without accessing any higher cognitive
processes. For example, Thomas explained the process of thinking in dance with the
statement: the leads trying to think ahead but the follow is trying not to think at
alland distinguished between the leadsthinkingand the followsreacting.
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Jackson, a 31-year old accountant who had been dancing for a decade said, The fol-
lows have a hard time allowing themselves to just follow, to shut off the brain.
Because of the value our culture places on rational thought and deliberative action,
the instruction to not thinkcan be viewed as an implicit derogation of the follows
In contrast to how men minimised womens thought processes during dance,
women themselves had a more nuanced and favourable opinion of their own mental
processes. For women, not thinkingrepresented a difcult state to achieve and
required the active processing and integrating of information. Mary described fol-
lowing as a very demanding task. She said, You have to be really feeling every-
thing ultra-sensitive to what the lead is doing so youre able to catch on to
what hes passing out.Similarly, Amy explained the difculty in following with
regard to the variability of leads. She said, ‘… each lead is slightly different so g-
uring that out, sometimes really fast, especially if youve never danced with a person
just being in tune to know the little subtleties and the variances.
Promoting following as something other than non-thinking was a contained sec-
ondary adjustment that gave women a greater responsibility in the dance. For exam-
ple, Marys view of following forced her to accept the majority of the responsibility
for dances that did not go well. She said: As a follow, if you cantgure out what he
wants to do, then it looks like youre failing as a couple, as a unit even though
hes not showing you clearly enough what to do. It looks like you guys as a unit
arent doing it right because youre not putting out anymore. This acceptance of
responsibility is consistent with the disciplinary aspects of the docile body (Foucault,
1975). By incorporating responsibility for a poor dance into her self-image as a com-
petent dancer, Mary has internalised the requirement for disciplined performance.
Rather than view it as not thinking, some women thought about following in a
manner consistent with Csikszentmihalyis(
1990) concept of ow. According to
Csikszentmihalyi, ow refers to a mental state where a person is completely
absorbed by and happy performing the task at hand. Dolly, a nurse who refused to
reveal her age, termed the hardest part of dancing as, Relaxing letting him lead
me wherever he wants me to go.Jennifer said, Sometimes I close my eyes but a
lot of times I just shut off my brain Im not going to think anything, Im not
going to think about how Im moving Im just going to entirely let the connec-
tion determine what foot I step on, how fast I step on it, how far I go. From this
perspective, following is challenging because it requires women to achieve an
altered state of consciousness.
Disruptive secondary adjustments
Although we have conceptualised womens meaning making in terms of contained
secondary adjustments that do not undermine the authority of existing institutions
(Goffman, 1961a), some women were more direct in how they dealt with leadfollow
role assignment. These strategies, though not as common as the ones outlined above,
could be viewed as disruptive secondary adjustments.
These disruptive secondary adjustments could take the form of thoughts, just as
we found with regard to contained secondary adjustments in dance. A few respon-
dents asserted that following was more demanding than leading. For example,
Rachel, a 27-year old elementary school teacher who was popular on the dance oor
but had never taken a lesson, said, I think its harder to follow they have to
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adapt a lot more to the person theyre dancing with leaders do what they know
what to do the leader stays in a comfort zone the follow has to adapt more.
Foucault (1982) noted that The relationship between power and freedoms refusal
to submit cannot therefore be separated(p. 222). Respondents recognised that they
were able to refuse to follow a leads lead. In fact, a number of respondents referenced
the statement often made in dance lessons that a lead was a suggestionthat the fol-
low could choose to follow or not. A few women reported being more direct and actu-
ally engaged in actions to undermine the prevailing structure that assigned men the
role of initiating the course of the dance. Jennifer described actions that she took as a
dancer to engage in guerrilla warfare against the leads hegemonic dominance of the
dance. She said, Sometimes I mess up the lead I know what they want me to do,
but I want to see what their reaction would be if I did the complete opposite of it I
might [do it to someone I didnt know] depending on how secure they are in their
dancing. One way she did this was by shifting her body weight unexpectedly. She
reported doing this when men would try to dip her and she did not want to be dipped.
Using the body in this manner can be viewed as a form of resistance (Acker, 1990;
Swan & Fox, 2010). Marie, a 35-year old woman who worked as a nurse, and was
considered an amazing swing, salsa and Argentine tango, noted that a follow can gain
control by taking over the lead. Taking over, or hijacking, the lead was a common
practice among more sophisticated swing especially with Lindy Hop and west
coast swing, and salsa dancers. Typically, a follow took over the lead by unexpectedly
grabbing the mans right hand, thus forcing him to adopt the stance of a follow. Once
in this position, Marie reported that she would then execute the leads footwork, thus
requiring the man to adopt the follows footwork.
One way that women challenged mens dominance in the dance was by requiring
them to behave in a polite and chivalrous manner. Pamela, a 24-year old audiology
graduate student, said that leads needed to be considerateand keep it within her
zone. Taylor said she would be guarded, ghting against what hes leadingif a
lead had a reputation for being sleazy or danced in a way that felt uncomfortable.
By resisting conforming to moves initiated by leads that appear to be using their
leadposition as a means of engaging in unwanted physical contact, Taylor is able
to exercise defensive power over the lead in her role as follow. Like Marie, both
Taylor and Pamela reported using their bodies, especially body weight, in
unexpected ways to prevent leads from attempting to execute moves they, as
follows, did not want to perform. In other words, women can use the bodies they
discipline to maintain the role as follow as a tool to discipline men who are acting
inappropriately as leads.
In this study, we focused on women who participate in a leisure activity social
dancing that occurs in an explicitly sexist idioculture, specically, a culture that
determines the role of lead or follow on the basis of biological sex rather than on
any particular aptitude, though we found evidence respondents believed that what
were considered the natural traits of men were consistent with leading and the natu-
ral traits of women were consistent with following. The tendency to assign the roles
of lead and follow on the basis of gender occurs across different Western cultures,
both in Europe and South America (Hanna, 2010). Although role differentiation
does not automatically result in status inequality, several elements of partner dancing
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associate the lead with greater status than the follow to the extent that McMains
(2006, p. 30) described the situation as rampant gender inequality.
Belief in and acceptance of gender roles may inuence whether men or women
are excluded from particular serious leisure activities (Bartram, 2001; Stebbins,
2007). In social dancing, however, the equal participation of men and women is
required and it is hard to imagine one sex lobbying to exclude the other. Despite the
need for men and women as co-participants, beliefs about gender role stereotypes
come into play on the social dance oor. As a leisure activity, womens participation
is voluntary, which makes their participation in the institution of social dance and
apparent acceptance of the explicit sexism even more interesting.
Most women respondents even those who expressed a tolerance for the
sex-based role differentiation of lead and follow established equality with male
leads by using contained secondary adjustments (Goffman, 1961a). Although many
of Goffmans examples of contained secondary adjustments were in terms of actions,
one contribution of the present research was to identify a context (social dancing)
where contained secondary adjustments could be understood as beliefs about actions
rather than just in terms of action alone. A second contribution was to focus on an
institution (dancing) that was not represented by a brick and mortar structure like a
hospital, prison or ship. Although individuals danced within the connes of a build-
ing, the owners and managers of the building or businesses contained within did not
patrol the social norms of the dancers. Instead, the dancers applied norms of dancing
only to those individuals participating in the dance scene.
We identied several ways women asserted that following deserved parity with
leading. In doing so, women appeared to minimise the potential for a perceived
inconsistency between actions that supported social dancing as an institution and
beliefs that favoured equality between men and women. The women we interviewed
put forward nuanced interpretations of following that stressed its inherent difculty.
In addition, rather than position leading above following, women suggested that
leading and following possessed an equality of equivalence (Marion, 2008; Spiro,
1996), i.e., they were interdependent actions such that one was useless without the
other. The challenge provided by the women we interviewed to the apparent ortho-
doxy of a hierarchical relationship that positions leading above following is reminis-
cent of research (e.g. Frank, 2002) identifying the complexity of the relationship
between men and women in strip clubs. Strippers and their customers possess an
equality of equivalence in that both roles are required for the social relationship to
exist. It is incomplete to assume that (male) customers exercise power over (female)
strippers, unless we recognise that strippers also exercise power over their custom-
ers. Women who work as strippers may view their over-the-top performance of femi-
ninity in terms of a male fantasy as evidence of its performative nature whereas men
may view the same actions as a display of genuine intimacy (Frank, 2003).
The concept of ow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) can be applied to how women
viewed following. Flow can be viewed as a a state of concentration, low self-
awareness and enjoyment that typically occurs during activities that are challeng-
ing but matched in difculty to the persons skill level(Ullén et al., 2012,
p. 167). Women felt that their contribution to dance was to seamlessly follow
their partners lead and, in the process, make both of them look good and also
look good as a couple. Men did not speak of their efforts at leading in terminol-
ogy reminiscent of ow. Instead, they appeared to focus on the decision-making
and guidance elements involved in partner dancing.
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In addition to being a perhaps difcult state to attain, being in the state of ow
from the process of following can serve as a positive experience. As noted by
Csikszentmihalyi (1975), social dancing can full a number of experiences, includ-
ing the sensation of body movement, connection to the music or to a partner, and
feelings of togetherness. The satisfaction of these motives may outweigh any poten-
tial psychological discomfort associated with a womans (or mans) recognition that
she (he) is participating in an institutional process that reies sexism. One limit of
this explanation is that while it would explain why women who are skilled dancers
might be willing to continue dancing, it does not explain why women who are just
starting out would begin or remain with the activity. We presume beginners would
nd it difcult to achieve a state of ow until they had moved to the level of inter-
mediate or even advanced dancer. In our research, even beginner dancers had a rea-
sonable amount of experience. It would be interesting to assess true beginners
feeling about the leadfollow distinction as it applies to sex roles or even the
opinions of non-dancers as they view dancing from the audience. It is possible that
serious social dancers have self-selected themselves to be willing to pursue dancing
as an activity despite the institutionalised sexism.
Labelling womens interpretations of leading and following as contained second-
ary adjustments does not mean we are implying that following is a less valuable
skill than leading. Instead, we adopt a perspective consistent with third wave femi-
nism and suggest that the most important factor is the subjective meaning leads and
follows apply to their own dance behaviours. In fact, some women asserted that fol-
lowing was more difcult than leading and both men and women recognised that
the dance would not exist without the contributions of women.
Although women emphasised the importance of their own contributions to part-
ner dancing, they characterised social dancing as affording men more responsibility
for maintaining the narrative of the dance in terms of which move to perform and
when. In their own terminology, women felt men had control of the dance but
women exerted power (of different forms). In some instances, the acceptance of the
leadfollow role assignment took the form of resigned acquiescence. Respondents
noted that they personally could not successfully challenge the deeply ingrained tra-
ditions of dancing. In other cases, respondents defended the extant role differentia-
tion on the basis of essentialist or socially constructed differences between men and
women. Differences in the ways that men and women were made it best for men to
lead and women to follow.
Despite the responsibility men have for initiating moves, an equality of equiva-
lence was maintained due to the differential skills that women and men, as follows
and leads, bring to the dance. Women may not have felt diminished as follows
because they felt they were working cooperatively with the lead to add styling and
air. The fact that women may become expected to style when they dance represents
an example of Goffmans(
1961a) recognition that a contained secondary adjustment
can metamorphous into a primary adjustment. This transformation can occur when
those in charge recognise the existence of a contained secondary adjustment and
modify the institution to take it into account. Although it is beyond the scope of the
present study to investigate the origins of the idea that follows should style, it is pos-
sible that leads encouraged women to style to give women a greater sense of owner-
ship of the dance.
In some instances, women reported engaging in more militant forms of self-
assertion. For example, one respondent said she refused to follow when a lead
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violated an implicit trust relationship in the dance by intentionally holding her too
closely. The physical intimacy of partner dancing represents an interesting break-
down of norms about personal space. Although people who danced together often
knew each other because of repeatedly attending the same dance events, it was not
uncommon for someone (usually a man) to approach a complete stranger and ask
for a dance. In this context, then, two strangers would share a level of physical con-
tact that might otherwise only be reserved for people with romantic intent. Thus, the
denition of too closelywas a relative concept. Forms of resistance intended to
repel an unwanted degree of contact could be classied as disruptive secondary
adjustments because they were intended to undermine the typical direction of inu-
ence assumed to operate in social dancing, i.e., the man leading the woman. Of
course, from the womens perspective, men who took advantage of the role of lead
to make unwanted sexual advances abrogated the follows cooperation or respect.
1982) analysis of the exercise of power can be applied to how con-
tained secondary adjustments operate within the connes of social dance. Both the
men and women in our study agreed that men, as leaders, were in charge of deciding
on the ow of the dance in terms of what moves were executed and when. However,
they also recognised other ways in which parties could inuence each other, mostly
due to the interdependent nature of dance. That is, each individual needs the other
to make the dance possible. Moreover, some women noted that they could engage in
more direct forms of inuence by consciously violating rules of dance as a form of
styling or to unsettle the lead. In general, women were reluctant to be too deviant in
the forms they adopted as contained secondary adjustment, in part, because the pub-
lic nature of dance made them leery of appearing less skilled than they were out of
fear that this perception by others might contribute to a lessening of future dance
In an analysis of Carolina Shag dancers, Brown (2007) observed a taxonomy of
involvement that varied from serious to casual. It is interesting to note that even
people with different levels of involvement may be tolerant of sexism in social danc-
ing, but for different reasons. Serious dancers may be accepting of the sexism
because they are more concerned with satisfying other goals such as mastering
dance steps or building a reputation as a skilled dancer. Less serious individuals
may compartmentalise the sexism of social dance on the grounds that social dancing
is its own little world with little bearing on the real-life beliefs and opinions of those
who dance.
Because contained secondary adjustments provide a limited contradiction to
institutional norms but do not directly challenge them, they are not likely to lead to
widespread social change. In partner dancing, the indirect nature of most challenges
to the existing order makes it more difcult to effectively challenge the sexist norms
of social dancing. On the other hand, we have noticed that some changes are taking
place. For example, in our exposure to dance lessons during our ethnographic data
collections, we noted that sometimes instructors refer to leadsand followsrather
than menand women, perhaps as a way to combat some of the sexism present in
social dance culture. Wieschiolek (2003) noted that within a German population,
rigid denitions and acceptance of gender roles have become increasingly unpopu-
lar. One possible reason for the continued traditionalism of roles assigned on the
basis of sex in partner dancing is that dancing has been construed as a feminine
activity. Affording men control of the dance as leads may compensate for this
apparent demasculinisation.
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In our research, we did not nd instances of men who reported being dissatised
having to take on the role of lead. On the other hand, we were not explicitly looking
for such evidence. It would be an interesting goal to attempt to nd men who dance
as leads but nd the experience stressful or unwelcome in some manner. As a direc-
tion for future research, it would be interesting to examine the attitudes of social
dancers who might want to learn, or even prefer to adopt, the role of the opposite
sex. In the context of gay country-western dancing, Johnson (2005) observed that
men took on the lead or follow role on the basis of whether they perceived them-
selves or their partner as more stereotypically masculine or feminine.
Our results concerned the way that women and men integrated modern antipathy
toward sexism with beliefs about the more traditional representation of mens and
womens roles in social dancing. However, due to the nature of our sampling
method and interview methodology, we cannot speak to the direction of causality. It
is possible that exposure to the social world of partner dancing made people more
accepting of sex-based role differentiation. It is also possible that only people with
more traditional values would be willing to involve themselves in a system that
maintains sex-based inequality.
Social dancers in our research tended to make sense of the division of labour
between men and women, as leads and follows, as a necessary aspect of creating and
maintaining a coordinated physical action between two people. Though some women
had some difculty with accepting the role of follow, their difculty seems to have
stemmed from how they believed others (especially those outside the dance commu-
nity) may have relegated following to a lower status than leading. The women them-
selves seemed able to justify taking on the role of follow because of their love of
partner dancing and because their understanding of following differed from what
might appear to outsiders to be a subservient task. A recognition of the complexity of
the power dynamic between women and men, as follows and leads, in social dancing
echoes similar efforts in domains such as sex work where scholarship (e.g. Frank,
2002,2003) seems devoted to better understanding how women can achieve auton-
omy even in what might appear to outsiders to be a less valued role.
Notes on contributors
James K. Beggan is a professor of Sociology at the University of Louisville. His research
interests focus on social and psychological processes associated with the self and self-esteem
maintenance. He has also published research on the representation of sexuality in mass
media. His research has been published in outlets such as the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, the Journal of Sex Research, Sex Roles, the Journal of Mens Studies and
the Journal of Psychology.
Allison Scott Pruitt is enrolled in the sociology doctoral program at the University of Colo-
rado, Boulder. She received her masters degree in sociology at the University of Louisville.
Her research interests focus on gender role conict in occupations and the representation of
teenagers and motherhood in mass media.
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... I tried to be natural. Some students really appreciated the opportunity to express diverse gender performances in SQT in contrast to the traditional tango, in which dancers are encouraged to conform to stereotyped binary gender/sexual roles (Beggan & Scott, 2014). Particularly, two students used the opportunity to recalibrate the power dynamics between gender on the dance floor: "This way we could interact with each other and be in other gender positions" (Q-64), and "Queer tango has taught me something else about tango, which is that is two people dance regardless of anything else" (Q-75). ...
Purpose : The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, and queer/questioning students normally occupy a marginalized and at-risk position in classes and especially in physical education. In this paper, the authors explore the ways in which queer tango can contribute to counteracting heteronormativity and opening up students to new interactions and identifications through the performance of different gender performances in Physical Education and Sport Tertiary Education. Method : A queer tango session was carried out with 111 university students (91 men and 19 women aged 19–22 years). Data were obtained from interviews, video records, and open questionnaires about the practice. Results: The findings reveal that the performance of dance roles that are contrary to the heteronormative order reinforced both heteronormativity and queer embodiments in Physical Education and Sport Tertiary Education. Conclusion : An isolated activity is not enough, and more queer pedagogical practices should be introduced in order to make meaningful changes to mainstream students’ ideology and behaviors.
... Bosse, 2015;Ericksen, 2011;Harman, 2019;McMains, 2006). While Western partner dances typically assign the man as the 'lead' and the woman as the 'follower', 'vintage swing' dancers in Beggan and Pruitt's (2014) study did not define partnering as 'sexist'. It was aligned with dance steps designed for different roles and biological differences between men (taller) and women (shorter) that naturally lent themselves to different partnering roles. ...
This special issue on Dance, Movement and Leisure Cultures showcases theoretically informed articles illuminating different ways of knowing about the passions, actions, and practices within the economic, political, social, and cultural contexts of leisure-based dance. This introduction contextualises the content of the special issue within the previous dance research. Nuanced and detailed, these studies have examined diverse dance styles from ballroom to street dance, but share several main themes: the commercialisation of dance into popular culture; the increasing emphasis on competition in dance; gender roles in dance; community dance; and dance that has been recreated as an exercise form. To set the stage for the special issue, this introduction provides a closer reading of each of these themes.
... Firstly, Ravignani, Bowling, & Fitch (2014) use technical descriptions of cross-species group 'chorusing' behaviours to describe how individual leaders and followers in both human dance and animal behaviour can produce identically patterned rhythms, but 'leaders' stay ahead by a consistent temporal offset. Secondly, in partner dance, these conventionally gendered terms that may also suggest that the leader (usually male) always dominates (Beggan & Pruitt, 2013). Although these gendered norms persist in Lindy hop, they are not prescriptively determined, and today are often intentionally transgressed (Wade, 2011). ...
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This paper explores rhythm in social interaction by analysing how partner dancers and audience members move together during a performance. The analysis draws an empirical distinction between choreographed and improvised movements by tracking the ways participants deal with variations in the projectability and contingencies of upcoming movements. A detailed specification of temporal patterns and relationships between rhythms shows how different rhythms are used as interactional resources. Systematic disruptions to their rhythmical clapping show how audience members work with dancers to sustain the accountability and relevance of mutual coordination; this reveals how dancers initiate, sustain and complete distinct phases of spontaneous movement as embodied social action.
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Este artículo forma parte de mi Doctorado en Ocio en las universidades de Deusto y UFMG, es un trabajo de revisión documental y estado del arte sobre la temática de la danza de salón, que tiene una perspectiva de género y diversidad sexual. En la danza de salón se han venido presentando en los últimos 20 años diversos cuestionamientos: la crítica hacia la heteronormatividad y los estereotipos de género. La metodología cualitativa de revisión documental permitió realizar una revisión teórica de autores relacio-nados con las temáticas de heteronormatividad y este-reotipos de género en las danzas de tango y samba de gafieira. Esta revisión teórica y conceptual nos permitió visualizar ideas, conceptos y una perspectiva del estado del arte en relación con la heteronormatividad, los este-reotipos de género y los cambios que se vienen desarro-llando en los últimos años que cuestionan esta hegemo-nía en las danzas de salón de samba y tango.
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This chapter begins with the cultural base of the SLP, as served up in its relationship to ethnicity, gender, information, social class, cultural costs and constraints, and temporal space. A discussion of social change follows.
This chapter analyses the experience of learning to dance and explores how a serious leisure career is developed in the field of Ballroom and Latin American dancing. It outlines the areas of practice where dancers learn, refine and practice their craft, including group classes, private lessons, practices and medal tests. It explores the teaching of leading and following, which underpins dancing classes at all levels of difficulty. It is argued that ballroom dancing lessons are a place where the roles of men and women are ‘on the agenda’. Dancing can be seen as a space for discussing gender whilst also providing the possibility of falling back into the ‘comfort zone’ of the traditional notion that ‘the man is the leader’.
This book explores what Ballroom and Latin American dancing means to those who take part in this form of dance as part of their leisure activities and considers how contemporary men and women negotiate the intrinsic gender roles underpinning the practice of the activity. This chapter sets the scene by introducing relevant concepts and literature, including serious leisure and feminist leisure studies. It introduces the research questions, the research methods employed and the structure of the book.
Competitive ballroom is much more than a style of dance. Rather, it is a continually evolving and increasingly global social and cultural arena: of fashion, performance, art, sport, gender and more. Ballroom explores the intersection of dance cultures, dress and the body. Presenting the author's experiences at an international range of dance events in Europe, the Us and Uk, as well as featuring the views of individual dancers, the book shows how dancing influences mind and body alike. For students of anthropology, dance, cultural and performance studies, Ballroom provides an ethnographic picture of how dancers and others live their lives both on and off the dance floor.
At the most fundamental level of analysis, dance, gender and culture are one and the same thing. In order to demonstrate this provocative contention, however, it is necessary that we examine each of these subjects separately.