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Dancing beyond the gender roles

Equal yet different

Have you ever worried that you don’t appear feminine or masculine enough? You’re not alone. Many dancers approach me feeling insecure about gender roles and what’s expected of them. And many more are completely unaware of the toll these roles are taking on their dance and individual integrity.

For example, many couples engage in destructive power games about who should lead or follow. Instead of creating a constructive movement dialogue, they unconsciously play their roles of a "dominant male" or "submissive female". Not only are they being untrue to themselves, but are also limiting their dancing in the process.

Your biological sex is nature-given, but how you carry your gender through life is a choice. To carry it with grace, you have to drop some learned beliefs and behaviours that are in your way. Let’s become more aware of gender complexity by looking at how to step out of roleplaying and create a movement dialogue without losing your integrity.

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Lead and follow

The most symptomatic school of thought in our profession is the one of "lead and follow", based on the belief that the man should lead and the woman should follow. So we’re dealing with two issues - one relates to "gender" and the other to the "role" one accepts.

Your acceptance of being in a certain role results in cliché behaviour. The man is "supposed" to be strong, in control, initiating, giving directions, also time decisions and "allowing" the woman to respond. And the woman is "supposed" to be gentle, soft and light, following, reacting and waiting for the next indication.

Have you ever tried the opposite? How would it be if the man would be the one who waits, listens through the touch and interplays with reacting and accepting the initiation from the woman? There is beauty in being humble and delicate for both genders.

Or if women would be more encouraged to discover the male principle within themselves? Imagine a female dance being courageous by giving the initiative and openly indicating movement intentions.

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Mr. Richard Gleave and Mr. Anthony Hurley demonstrating at the Congress of La Classique du Québec in Montreal, 1983

Photo credit: Mr. Dave Pearson


Many great dancers and experts expressed partnering skills primarily from the human perspective.

Mrs. Bobbie Irvine and Mrs. Janet Gleave demonstrating at Blackpool congress

Playing a role of a gender or being aware of complexity of your gender are two different things. You can try different ways of training, like role reversal, just swap with your partner and taste the feeling of the opposite side. Explore also how the archetypes connect with how you feel your gender. Archetypes are engraved in man and woman, therefore your gender has value and characteristic aspects.

Search for balance between the male and female principle inside you, without playing a role, but deciding which aspect of your gender you want to manifest. C.G. Jung explains it with connotations of anima (woman in man) and animus (man in woman). Animus is the principle of giving, motion, energy and action.

The woman can also be strong, initiating an idea by non-verbally indicating her intentions. Male and female principles (in Chinese philosophy known as the Yin and Yang concept of dualism) are interdependent, relative, always in a dynamic relationship, they fulfill each other and co-create a special unity – a couple.

You need to understand that giving and taking have to be in balance as the movement dialogue is a two-way street. While one partner is talking, the other is listening and reacting, and the opposite. That’s why we call it movement dialogue. Stepping out of the gender roles will make you a better listener. While you are talking with your own body language, you are also listening. True leading incorporates following and true following incorporates leading.

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There can be no supremacy or control of one partner over the other as nature acknowledges both essences, both genders, male and female, as equally important and necessary. Dancing as a couple is based on the principle of joining two individuals into one unit without violating the integrity of either of them. The dance will look good only when you and your partner are truly connected in synchronized un-synchronicity.

Stepping out of the role

Are you aware of the impact of gender and role on your dancing?

If you identify with your gender role you might limit your freedom of expression and your authenticity. When dancers ask me: “How can I be more of a man?” or “How can I look more feminine?”, I would answer: “You are a man and you are a woman. How can you be more of what you already are?”


Born as a woman, would you be more feminine if you would put on high heels, a skirt, false eyelashes, long nails and lipstick? Or would dying your hair black and putting extra tan on your chest make you feel more of a “Latin macho”?


We may adjust our behaviour and looks when relating to different people – colleagues, students, friends, strangers, partner, family members – but we are still the same person.

When you are the same person, the same you in front of anybody, regardless of the situation, when you don’t play any role anymore, then you are connected with your deeper dimension of self. Thus connected within yourself, you will relate to others in a nurturing way.


Dance is about communication and as we are social beings, we seek to relate at most times. To partner, to relate means to react. There is a constant exchange of actions and reactions between you and your partner. By using non-verbal dialogue, you are “feeding” each other with movement sensations, similar to what you do in a creative verbal dialogue.


The point of any creative communication is a "stimulation" of another person towards new recognitions, sensations, feelings, insights. In dancing the stimulation can be found in the dynamics of partnering by acting and reacting. Without conditions and expectations, be involved with actions and reactions resulting out of the actual situation.


Equal yet different

Men and women are of a different gender, but should be equal as human beings, even if there is still a long way to go before this becomes a reality for all of us.

Be aware of your individuality and diversity that surrounds you. Your partner and yourself are two different people. Dancers often speak in the name of the couple, they speak about "us". Learn to speak in your own name and let your partner do the same.

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Self-differentiation means being able to identify your own thoughts and feelings and distinguish them from others. This is needed not only between yourself and your dance partner, but also in other relations, especially when the thoughts, opinions, values and feelings about certain issues are different.

If you have low self-differentiation, you will depend on the approval and acceptance of others. You may either conform yourself to others in order to please them, or you will attempt to force others to conform to you. In any case you will not be authentic.

If you have a higher level of self-differentiation, you will recognize that you need others, but you will depend less on their acceptance and approval. You will not merely adopt the attitude of those around you, you will hold to yourself and maintain your principles.

What you decide for and say, has to match what you do, like the saying: “He talks the talk, he walks the walk.” By increasing your level of self-differentiation you will become a more objective observer and more capable of calmness under relationship and task pressures.

You can either support another person’s viewpoints or you can disagree and reject their opinions. The beauty lies in the manner; how you stand behind your own perception of truth, without becoming hostile or passively disconnected to others, but remaining respectful and compassionate.

We are all different, not only in gender, but in many other aspects. If you want to relate successfully to others, you need to learn how to deal with differences without losing your integrity or harming others.

Ballroom dancing can send out a message to the world – one of respect towards human diversity and equality.

Source of inspiration

Jung, Carl Gustav. Man and his Symbols. Ferguson Publishing, 1964