Over the past year there has been a strong effort to make West Coast Swing competitions gender neutral, meaning men can compete as followers and women can compete as leaders. This degendering of competitions has raised a lot of questions, caused many concerns, and stimulated plenty of debate about the purpose of competitions, the logistics of how we implement competitions, and even the definition of roles in the dance. To shed some more light on this subject, I’ve asked a few different leaders of the degendering movement to share their perspectives and insights here on this blog. Each week this month I will post a different guest blog, and at the end of the series I will share my own thoughts on the issue. (Be sure to read earlier posts by Kelly Casanova, Kim Sifter, and Jonathyn Jackson.)
This week’s guest is Faith Pangilinan. Faith is a Washington, DC-based dancer who has been hooked on West Coast Swing since taking her first group class in 2006. The instructor evaluated the gender balance (4 women for every 1 man) and declared that everyone would learn to lead and follow. Like growing up bilingual, this was initially difficult but had great payoffs. She primarily considers herself a social dancer, but competes in as a follower in Advanced and as a leader in Intermediate. She is excited to have started her sixth year with DC RolePlay, a WCS team that specializes in role-switching choreography.
I’ll be up front: I’m an advocate for degendered West Coast Swing competitions. There’s been great debate and discussion on social media, a strongly supported petition, and now we have the World Swing Dance Council’s recent decision to track Jack & Jill points for both roles. The guidelines aren’t perfect, but this is a significant step toward full acceptance of gender neutral competitions. I fully trust that degendered Jack & Jill contests will eventually be endorsed in an appropriate and fair way.
I recognize that most people will want to dance in their traditional roles, and that’s an important right, too. But I don’t want to be part of a community that becomes an exclusive, heteronormative club that invests solely in a dynamic of male-female chemistry. As a former tomboy and engineering major, I can’t support messages like “girls don’t do this” and “boys only do that.” Some girls love math, and boys do cry. Some ladies lead, and some fellas follow. I think the flexibility of WCS is one of the most exciting things about it, and gender neutrality enhances the ability to express the full range of human connection.
So what can we do to achieve not just permission but also acceptance? Ultimately, I care more about acceptance. Dancing is powerful. We invest our creativity, our trust, and our very selves. Our identities are on that dance floor, whether we’re dancing for fun or prizes. I want everyone to have the freedom to truly be themselves and pursue this dance in the ways that intrigue them. Are you masculine? Feminine? Straight? Gay? Tall? Short? Other? Doesn’t matter to me. I believe you should be free to pursue the role(s) in partner dancing that you wish.
In achieving acceptance, I believe one of the most powerful things we can do is simply be seen. Those who are uncomfortable with the idea of degendered dancing may find the reality isn’t as threatening as they imagined. I’m a member of DC RolePlay, a WCS team consisting of dancers who both lead and follow. We have put five role-switching routines on the floor, and it’s been rewarding to hear responses change each year. “Wow, I couldn’t take it all in” or “Is it really lead-follow or are you just doing the choreography?” has given way to “I love your creativity” and “I want to learn to lead and follow, too!”
I am so grateful to have learned West Coast Swing in the DC area. I had the opportunity to learn both roles from day one, and had a tremendous role model in Melissa Greene, a talented and avid social dancer in both roles. It has been incredibly gratifying to feel community reaction change over time. If I take a class as a leader, I’m no longer expected to switch to following if there’s a gender imbalance. I can’t remember the last time someone cut in to “rescue” me and a female partner from “having” to dance together. Instead, I feel accepted and appreciated for pursuing both roles – by dancers who choose to do the same, and by dancers who don’t. I love that dancing together matters more than what role we are dancing in our DC community.
How can we foster an inclusive environment in our community? First, be visible. Get out there – socially and competitively – and dance in your non-traditional role. Although the WSDC will only track points for one role per event, I plan to lead whenever possible because for me being seen is more important than being competitive. I hope that by seeing degendered dancing, more people will accept and even celebrate it. Second, be encouraging. This dance can be intimidating for beginners, especially in one’s non-traditional role. Your presence on the floor contributes to the kind of critical mass that will make more people comfortable with trying it.
It is my hope that by being ambassadors of gender neutral dancing, we will create a community that accepts and respects each person’s exploration of our dance in the role(s) they wish.