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 asked a few different leaders of the degendering movement to share their perspectives and insights here on this blog. Be sure to read earlier posts by Kelly Casanova, Kim Sifter, Jonathyn Jackson, Faith Pangilinan, and Andy Bouman.
I started writing this post explaining why I competed as a follower in the Novice division at Boogie by the Bay last year when I have points as a leader in the All Star division. But that’s not what’s important to discuss. The reasons I competed as a follower were that I didn’t know how competent I was as a follower and I believe in following the system and earning your way up. The more important thing to discuss is why being proficient in one role does not automatically translate into equal proficiency in the other role.
I’ll say it again: Being good at one role does not automatically make you good at the other. The denial of this truth is what drives the current World Swing Dance Council rules (no longer guidelines) and serves as the basis for the contempt people have for what they perceive as “sandbaggers” – more advanced dancers dropping into the Novice division to compete in the other role.
(By the way, in my own experience, people who oppose more advanced dancers switching roles and competing in Novice aren’t other advanced dancers, or even Intermediate competitors. Neither are they the leaders I’ve drawn in contests, who are actually very kind and gracious. No, the only ones I’ve heard complain about me competing as a follower in Novice are other Novice followers, who didn’t feel it was fair to compete against me, and a few Novice leaders who are generally opposed to the idea. I’m not saying they can’t complain, but just pointing out that, at least in my experience, the complaints have come from a minor few.)
Jonathyn already did the math from Boogie by the Bay last year: of the 13 advanced dancers who competed in the Novice division in the opposite role, only five made finals, and only two placed. The judges clearly did not favor the advanced competitors because of their status in the traditional role, nor were they biased against them, as some of them did indeed make finals. Surely, if being an advanced dancer in one role equated to equal proficiency in the other, then all of those advanced dancers would have made finals over their Novice-level competitors. And yet they didn’t. There was disparity among those who switched roles, and not all of them were proficient in their nontraditional role. This contest was not a fluke but rather part of a pattern – a pattern that reflects reality.
Yes, advanced dancers generally have better body movement, better overall technique, better musicality, and a better understanding of the dance. So why then are so many advanced competitors not easily beating out lower-level competition when they switch roles?
Because being good at one role does not automatically make you good at the other.
But why? Why would a dancer who excels in one role not instantly excel in the other?
The answer is mindset.
Mindset does weird things to our bodies. I see it all the time: people walk into class with good posture, moving from their centers, balanced and relaxed, only to begin dancing and turn into a combination of Quasimodo and a newborn foal. The only difference? Their mindset. The mental focus on dancing makes them use their bodies differently. It’s not that they can’t move properly, but rather that their minds are directing them to move differently.
Similarly, a great dancer with a high quality of movement may lose that high quality when transitioning to another role. Think how many followers go to lead with a wide stance, hunched posture, even an arm lead. What about guys who learn to follow and hunch forward, tighten their arms, and don’t anchor properly? These are people who supposedly have better body movement, better partnership skills, and better musicality, yet they look just as inexperienced when they switch to another role. Why? Because leading and following are not the same. One is about moving yourself to communicate something and the other is about moving yourself in response to something. The fundamentals of body movement are the same for each role, but the mindset that’s required is different, and this in turn affects how we move in the dance.
The strong desire to communicate and the strong desire to be responsive make us do things that we know aren’t right. Followers learning to lead think it’s all about executing patterns and moving the follower, even if they don’t enjoy following pattern-driven leaders who force them around the dance floor. And leaders learning to follow will try to anticipate in an effort to be responsive, even if they don’t enjoy followers who anticipate and ignore their leads. We don’t want to dance with these kinds of partners, but when you step into their shoes, it’s a different matter entirely.
Anyone who has learned the other role knows that it’s a different experience. And because it’s a different experience, with a different mindset and a different application of skills, it requires effort to get good at it. When I started following, I just did it for fun, but then I started following so I could be a better teacher, and I quickly became aware of my flaws. It took a lot of focused practice to maintain my posture, to find my anchor, to correct my frame, and to make sure I was following properly. I’m still working on following more advanced and complicated leads, spins and turns, and developing my dance. These aren’t things that happened over night but rather over the last couple of years. And I’m sure it will take a few more years to get where I want to be with my following.
Few if any people can switch roles and instantly be successful at it. As with learning your primary role, you need instruction and regular, focused practice to reach a level of proficiency. Just doing it more does not make you good at it. It does not make you a better partner, it does not make you easier to dance with, and it does not make you more enjoyable to dance with. People who wish to learn the other role (and I encourage it, since it teaches you a lot about your primary role and the dance overall) should seek instruction on how to do the other role and then practice to improve.
If people are upset that I danced down to compete as a follower, because they think I’m better than Novice as a follower, that’s their right (and also flattering). I know it can be frustrating to compete against people who you feel are ready to advance to the next division. But to assume that any advanced dancer switching roles is automatically a threat to a Novice dancer is incorrect and not based on the facts. The bottom line is that leading and following are not the same. They require a different way of thinking which in turn directly impacts how we move our bodies. As a result, proficiency in one way of thinking and doing does not automatically translate to the other.
I sincerely hope the WSDC reconsiders its position on nontraditional roles, but in the meantime, we as a community should consider the evidence and accept the reality that advanced proficiency in one role does not mean advanced proficiency in the other. Then and only then can we start having honest conversations about how best to establish guidelines that are fair to all competitors, whether they compete in the traditional or nontraditional role.