Gendering dance talk

My MA used lots of discourse analysis theory, which looks at the way language and words are used in written texts. I’ve also done some spoken discourse analysis work (which isn’t the same as linguistics, though there’s some crossover). I’ve been fascinated by the way spoken discourse analysis theory works in an online environment, where we can talk about online talk as spoken language. And of course, I’m fascinated by gender and power in these settings.

Let’s have a little think about the sort of public talk that women do in the lindy hop world. The lindy hop media world.

Radio (aka podcasts and streaming radio):
Hey Mr Jesse – no women hosts, but occasional women guest musicians (almost always singers) and ‘audience feedback’.
Yehoodi Radio Talk Show – Nicole is the new addition to the team (and is also a woman), but she is often out-talked by her co-hosts Manu and Rick.
Yehoodi Radio guest DJ – very few female DJs.

And in the blogging world?

I haven’t done the quantitative work to follow up on this stuff. When I was doing my PhD I did do some careful analysis of the Swing DJs discussion board, where I found there were far few women than men, and that they posted far less frequently than men. I think this is even more the case today, where I think I might be the only woman posting regularly. Though no one posts on Swing DJs regularly any more.

One of the things I noticed, and keep noticing, is that women tend to do more of the supportive talk online. They’re the ones who respond to people’s tweets about feeling bad with supportive comments (but not necessarily advice – they just make ‘comforting noises’ that helps people feel less alone). This was definitely the case in discussion boards – almost all the ‘supportive noises’ came from women. I was quite shocked when I realised this, because I thought it was a stereotype.
Men tend to be more combative, and to use more declarative statements. I’m like this, which is why I’ve always been confused for a man in places like Swing DJs where I’m not talking about gender. Though offering to kiss Reuben right on his face might have given me away. Because I don’t know a single queer male lindy hopper who’d have made that offer sincerely to another man in a public online forum.

This article, Language Myth #6: Women Talk too much, talks about perceptions of women and men talking. Or, how much we think women and men talk. The upshot is that people think women talk a lot, even if they’re talking very little. I’d have thought that anyone with half a brain has noticed that men dominate mixed gender settings, even if there’s just one man in the room!

It’s interesting to think about this in relation to dance classes. Who does most of the speaking in dance classes? The male teacher? The male students? And what are people’s perceptions of these amounts of talk? I have noticed, in almost every dance class I’ve ever been in that has mixed gender, men dominate talk. They ask more questions, and they are asked more questions.

There’s been a bit of talk lately about teaching follows and leads in class, and how to do it. Nathan Bugh wrote a piece Ladies First, which loses points immediately for unselfreflexive use of the word ‘ladies’, and then loses more points for some of the thinking. But it gains points because it suggests that we need to talk to the follows in class if everyone is to learn more. Though I’d argue that the fundamental point of Bugh’s piece is that we should give follows more attention in class so as to best improve the leads’ dancing. Yeah, nah.

My teaching partner and I have recently made a concerted switch from talking about leading first and mostly, to clearly setting out tasks for both leads and follows in class. I know, right? Two women, both of whom follow, and we’re still talking about leads? But we got wise, and realised that we needed to give the follows clear instructions and learning goals, or else they stood about saying things like “If the lead doesn’t lead it right, I can’t do anything.” inorite. But if we don’t actually point out to follows how they might improve their dancing in class, that’s how they’ll think.
Ramona Staffeld pointed out the importance of addressing follows in class to me this year, and it really helped me rethink my approach to teaching. It also made me rethink my leading, and to revalue following which is interesting, and tells you more about my own biases than I would like :D

I think, what I’m saying, here, is that if teachers address follows specifically in class, we give them something to work on, and more pertinently to this post, we give them something to talk about in class. We give them subjects for discussion, and we give them the language to talk about them with. We also make it clear that following is important enough to talk about, and that we invite their engagement – as learners and discussors – as follows. And, by extension (through gender tropes in our scene), as women.

So if you want women to participate more actively in class, you have to give them a way to participate (language tools, thinking and learning tools), you have to give them something to talk about (by talking about following as a craft requiring particular skills and practices) and you have to make the space more welcoming to women’s speech (ie actually shooshing the men, or addressing women as active participants in the lead-follow partnership).

In this way, you make a shift from thinking about following as some sort of natural state of grace, tied up with ideas about idealised femininity, to thinking about following as a craft. A craft which requires extensive thinking and practice and experimentation.

Isn’t it strange to see that old, old nature/civilisation gender dichotomy at work in lindy hop? Where we can map the masculinised ‘civilisation’ (doing and making and building and engineering and acting) onto leading, and the feminised ‘nature’ (being and feeling) onto following? It seems we need to do some second wave feminism work, here, my friends.

Ortner, Sherry (1974) Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? In Anthropological Theory, John McGee and Richard Worms, eds. California: Mayfield Publishing Press. Pp. 402-413.

Language Myth #6: Women Talk too much.

Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Tannen, Deborah, ed. Gender and Conversational Interaction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Deborah Tannen has written both scholarly work and popular publications about interruption and gender in conversation. She’s a great place to start if you want to get a quick introduction to this stuff.

You might also want to look up some interesting stuff on politeness and gender. I don’t have references off-hand, but if you use ‘feminist’ and/or ‘gender’ with ‘polite*’ as keywords, you’ll find useful stuff.

NB ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ is not a useful source. It essentialises gendered behaviour, and my type of feminism is very sceptical of essentialism. In fact, we think it’s bullshit.


  1. Following is a really important skill in PARTNER dancing! I feel that the skills required to be a good partner when following have been given a backseat to more trendy/flashy moves in the last several years, and lately the partner connection in swing dancing is hurting because of it. I’m glad you’re spending more time addressing it in your classes, and I’d be very interested in some specific examples of how you engage the followers. When I teach, I try to address the skill set behind the move and suggest how to apply that to other moves not taught in that class, too. Critical thinking skills, yo.

    ha, I’m kind of surprised that you thought that “comforting noises” from women was a stereotype – as another woman who naturally uses declarative statements, I’ve always been very aware of them. I actually had to learn how to make these comforting noises when I decided I needed some female friends. Without that, I was alienating most of the women I wanted to befriend. :)

  2. One of the reasons I stopped attending group classes at dance events (other than the 3 a.m. DJ shifts) is because I wasn’t feeling engaged. Still seeking out more engaging and collaborative learning opportunities…the Balboa Experiment has done some of this, which I appreciate.

  3. Sigh and sigh.

    Truly, it makes me sad that we, as teachers, have to be reminded to “teach follows stuff too.”

    In that vein, what I have found problematic in classes is that the “progressive” teachers who do engage “ladies” have to label or specifically target followers by stepping outside the implied you of “leaders” to actually turning and saying things like: “now followers, it is important to remember x” and then transitioning back to “you”–either implied or explicit–to refer to leaders.

    This kind of alienating the follower from the main focus of the dance is degrading and limiting in the most gender-biased way. But it’s also sneaky and absolutely pervasive in the same way many still use “he” pronouns to refer to the whole population in text. But I digress.

    This kind of “leader-first” training also extends to the exclusion of swivels from the core curriculum of teaching a swing out because “it messes up the lead” or “it isn’t essential.” Of course the first premise is obviously playing into the biases of the patriarchy, while the latter assumes that the fundamental nature of the follow role in the swingout is inessential and *gasp* less fundamental to the swingout than the leader’s basic leading pattern. Whereas, the swivel is quite possibly as integral to the swingout as triple steps. (I know, an astounding statement!)

    So, teach swivels.

    And be more awesome.

    And listen to when teachers are making followers secondary in the conversation.

    And then talk to them after class about it.

    Whether you are a follow or a leader.

  4. Beth: YES! Let me think about specific examples, and maybe make a post about them. It’s really quite a challenging thing to do, but we’ve found it makes our classes like nine million times better.

    Comforting noises: I keep reminding myself, “shh! Listen to them! You’re _listening_ now!”

    Lindy Shopper:
    I’ve heard the balboa experiment is good for that stuff.
    Yeah, group classes can be a poo.
    But I’ve actually found teaching solo was a good route to addressing follows – it gave me the language and thinking tools for talking about my own body, and then you just kind of apply that to the follows. It also sets up follows to _expect_ technical feedback.

    Abigail: SWIVELS YES! We had a teacher training session with Ramona recently, and she was very decisive in her opinion on this: teach follow swivels. Frankie did it. And we should do it, because it’s absolutely central to the swing out. I know, I know, it’s just one of many jazz steps, but swivels are important.
    We taught a ‘level 2/3’ class recently where we looked at swingouts, and we built in the swivel and the bow (a la Frankie). We did it partly because #FUN, but mostly because these two things teach you technical stuff: they teach the lead to waaaaaait while the follow does good stuff; they teach the follow to take their time and really relish doing good stuff. This in turn taught both leads and follows how to maintain momentum, how to stay energised (esp for the leads on 7/8/1), and how to get their streeeeeetch on.

    Frankie: the man was a GENIUS.

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