Can Feminists be Swing Dancers?

“You’re leading again!”

My boyfriend and I have begun to take swing classes, and I made a discovery revealing no small amount of naïveté on my part: Women are not supposed to lead.

Halfway through our first class, after we had spent about half an hour walking like “cool cats” in a circle, our amiable and sprightly teachers – girl and boy – split us up into pairs.  As we stood awkwardly next to our randomly selected partners, we girls received a lesson on what our female instructor calls “empathy.”

“Girls, you have to imagine yourselves like big barrels full of water.”

This was not to say that we were fat, her male counterpart joked, amid the ensuing giggles.  No, it simply meant that we were to submit to be dragged blindly along by our partners, following his steps by responding in a slightly belated, water slopping-like motion to the tension between our arms, and in this way our dance would be perfectly coordinated.

Now, I don’t want to seem like some maniacal power-hungry feminist, and I realize the era of bra burning is over.  But why does it seem that no matter how far women progress, and no matter how many CEOs and politicians are sporting a uterus, there are always those tiny twinges, gender spasms, if you will, that remind us of our place in the hierarchy of the sexes?

I know some may think I’m taking this analogy a little too far, and to be fair I must admit I may have been a little worked up during swing class because just the day before I had read a study that considerably riled up my (generally quite placid) inner feminist.  It stated that according to the last survey conducted, in November 2010, women in Israel’s public sector earn 36 percent less than men.  The private sector, faring slightly better, has a 17 percent salary gap between the sexes.

It would be easy to chalk this up to sexism or oppression, or simple good-old-boy chauvinism, and in fact, I am quite certain this is what many über-feminists do.  My severe discontent, however, issues from my acquaintance with numerous studies conducted by social psychologists showing that this is not the case.

Back in swing dance class, I had covertly planted myself in the men’s line as the women moved around with every call from our instructors to switch partners.  Once I had succeeded in establishing myself as a “leader,” I became convinced I could parade the girls around with the best of them.  In fact, many partners who came apprehensively my way were pleasantly surprised with my capabilities and complimented my unassuming grasp of their waist (our instructors, meanwhile, were walking around loosening jaws-of-life grips on love handles).

As I proudly gamboled around, I mulled over my dissatisfaction with the role of the female swing dancer.  Though I don’t remember much from my year as a psych undergrad, I do recall a few studies on women’s self-image.  In some of these, social psychologists such as ET Amantullah and MW Morris have shown that women are less likely to negotiate a raise in salary because they fear a “backlash” of negative attributions by their surroundings.  Thus, they explain, women tend to “hedge” assertive behavior and “competing tactics,” inevitably obtaining lower outcomes.

So, have we come no further than Freud’s notorious observation on gender and destiny?

I vented my rage at swing dancing’s ultimate enforcement of this observation later, during lunch with my girlfriends.  One of them, who is something of a veteran swing dancer, told me I should wait until I improve.

“Then,” she remarked, “you’ll be able to take some initiative without actually leading.”

“That sounds complicated.”

“Not really.  You just have to sort of show your partner what you want him to do without actually saying it or pulling him along physically…”  Was I then expected to develop telepathic powers?  Or perhaps seek glory in the ‘50s-type ‘woman behind the man’ position? I suddenly found myself acquiring a much deeper understanding of the line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.  Watching them so perfectly coordinated in “Too Hot to Handle,” I wonder whether Rogers thought of her partner as her “leader,” or of herself as employing “empathy.”

In any case, Rogers’ carefree, all-consuming grin as she cavorts happily with her mate is one of the film’s most attractive features.  Maybe, in a nod to biology and destiny, next lesson I’ll try letting my boyfriend lead.  Or maybe not.

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