Who cares who leads? Non-gendered first dance ideas for all

Guest post by Lilith Brouwers

Lilith, a self-described “fat, poly, and queer dancer,” teaches body-positive, LGBTQ-friendly dance classes in London. She's been kind enough to give us her advice about non-gendered first dances.

Photo by Aaron Tamayo

First dances can be anything from nerve-wracking, to romantic, to hilarious. But what many of us hope is that it will be an expression of the relationship we're celebrating. And since every relationship is so very different — and the people in it are so different — why are many first dances so similar?

Of course there is nothing wrong with the “man leads, woman follows shuffle”-type first dance, but not every wedding involves one man and one woman. And even for those who do, there are many options beyond the traditional first dance!

My brother-in-law — who has never danced himself — once told me that he thought it was “only natural” in dancing that the man leads and the woman follows. Having taught many partner dance classes, from Swing to French Folk, I can tell you that that is completely and utterly untrue.

Leading and following is unconnected to gender

Dancing is all about expressing yourself, and some people feel more comfortable leading, while others are more comfortable following, or they don't have a preference either way. This is unconnected to gender. In fact, the idea that men only lead and women only follow is a relatively recent invention. Queen Elizabeth I held women-only dances at her court, where women led and shared dances for fun. And in the early days of Argentine tango, men danced together to learn to follow in order to improve their leading skills.

So if you are a man and would like to follow, or if you are a woman and would like to lead, you are in excellent company! Of course, if you are in a same-sex or non-binary wedding, you're probably already aware that making assumptions on who leads and who follows in dance can't be based on gender.

Interchange who leads and who follows within a dance

What many people don't know is that you can very smoothly change who leads and who follows within a dance. In dance styles like Blues, and more experimental Argentine tango styles, dancers have experimented by changing the way they hold each other and taking turns leading and following. If you both have one arm around the other's waist while holding hands with the other arm, you can easily switch from leading to following and back. This means you are not stuck with the question “Who has the ‘men's' part in the first dance, and who has the ‘woman's' part?”

Multiple-partnered first dances

If you are in a non-monogamous wedding — like a triad — it is good to know that it is possible to lead multiple people at once, though it does take a lot of practice. Although it sounds fun, holding one hand of each of your partners is difficult, and makes it very likely they will bump into each other. But leading one partner and having a second partner stand right behind them, basically spooning them, is possible. Just make sure not to do any complicated moves or spins! But a simple shuffle-style first dance, or some Blues or simple Argentine tango, is definitely possible with multiple dance and life partners.

Chose a different style of dance

Of course, dancing in a classic partner style is not the only option for your first dance. Perhaps you would like to do a hip-hop routine? Bust out some boyband moves to your favourite '90s cheesy pop song? Show off your pole skills in your wedding dress/tuxedo? Or do a romantic ballet duet? You can really do whatever you want with your first dance, as long as you feel happy with it. The good thing about more non-traditional first dances is that they do not have such strict expectations when it comes to gender.

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Comments on Who cares who leads? Non-gendered first dance ideas for all

  1. i love this article! and it makes me especially happy, as a person planning to have an unconventional first dance. my fiance is not particularly coordinated or confident on the dance floor, while i’ve been taught ballet, jazz, modern, pointe, multiple forms of belly dance…so we’re doing something we can both do, and that he does have confidence in: spinning poi. we’ll stick to LED because i’m not up to using fire yet and that’s a lot of safety hazard i don’t want to deal with at a wedding, and we’ll do a mix of partnered and individual spinning, because we both have very different styles and are still figuring out partnered spinning. so yeah! this article. much love.

    • Oh, spinning is such a gorgeous alternative to a first dance! I love that you found something so personal to you both, and within your comfort zones, that you can share. LED poi sounds very exciting!

  2. Even though we’re decidedly not having dancing at our wedding (for personality/comfort level reasons more than anything), the existence of this article makes me happy in my queer, non-gendered, polyamorous heart.

  3. My partner and I love dancing, but he is kind of terrible at leading, and I am much better at it. We both love the drama of Tango, and were stuck on what to do about the whole lead and follow bit. I’m so glad to hear that lead and follow are easy to switch with Argentine Tango! Now we just have to find somewhere that will teach us accordingly…

    • Depending on where you live, I would recommend searching for a dance school or teacher who teaches same sex/lgbt+/queer dance classes – they tend to be open to teaching leading and following based on preference rather than assumptions. A nuevo tango, neo tango or street tango (yes, these things all exist) school might be more open minded as well. Or just ask some teachers how they feel about teaching when you lead and he follows, and then pick the teacher who replies most enthusiastically!

      Learning to lead Argentine tango is difficult and takes a lot of practice! Make sure you plan enough time for it, and don’t leave this to the last minute before the wedding (in other styles it is doable to throw a choreography together in the last month, but not so in tango, so if you are in a rush there are many styles I would recommend over tango). Good luck finding the right teacher for you both, I’m sure they are out there!

  4. As a semi-professional ballroom dancer who also happens to be getting married, I could write pages and pages about the relationship/gender/partnership dynamics of couples dancing. The short version is this: On the surface it seems like a patriarchal holdover–men lead, women follow. In reality, the more you learn and get into it, you realize that it’s this intimate conversation between leader and follower in which both have to pull equal weight to make something wonderful–sound familiar?

    • HollyS – totally! The lead and follow dynamic of partner dancing is so lovely – and, yes, parallels so many things. And it’s wonderful that we’re now moving out of a time when the assumption – and reality – is that men *always* lead and women *always* follow. Having a woman lead and a man follow, or a same-sex couple, doesn’t in any way affect that amazing interplay of two roles; it just opens up the joy of dancing to even more people 🙂

      • I couldn’t agree more. The beauty of partner dancing is that it can be a mirror of good life partnership (or of a more casual one, as the saying goes: dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire..). The reason I find gender neutral dancing so important is exactly because relationships are so diverse, and our dancing should, and can, reflect that.

  5. I know you mentioned blues but I just want to say that blues is brilliant for this stuff. Teacher won’t talk about men and women but leaders and followers, a very high percentage of people will do both, and switch dancing is becoming incredibly popular. We’re actually seeing people moving away from the terms lead and follow as well, towards initiate and respond. This is great because the follower/responder role is not a passive one at all.

    Here’s an example:

    • Absolutely. I have been very lucky to work on inclusivity and diversity with some SF/US based Blues dance teachers at the European Blues Invasion. However, the European Blues community still has a bit further to go when it comes to being gender neutral. But change is on its way! 🙂

    • What a fantastic dance — I love when folks switch! And love hearing about the idea of “initiate” & “respond” too. Glad to see this article in general too. 🙂 So many folks don’t understand the possibilities of being subversive in partner dancing– because it appears so rules-based. Little do they know…! bwah-ha-ha!

  6. Reading the article I was surprised it never once mentioned the name I most often heard for serious same sex dancing: equality dance. Depending on where you live maybe that will help your search if you’re looking go take gender neutral lessons.

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