Can you picture Fred Astaire in black leather jeans, imprisoning Cyd Charisse in his arms? OK, that’s not hard. What about Cyd hooking her finger into the D-ring on Fred’s collar and powering him backwards in a Quick Step? Kink and partner dance have a lot in common.
Among my endeavors, I teach Ballroom and Latin dance, mostly to straight couples of a certain age. At the first lesson, I tell my students how to approach the choice between leading and following. Basing the decision on gender or height is just too old-school. It needs to be based on desire and character.
A leader works hard. Leaders are responsible for choreographing the dance, for communicating changing steps to the follower and for health and safety. That means that the leader shouldn’t wildly spin out a follower, especially close to a picture window, or dip a follower until a chiropractor is called. That means that the leader has to watch out for oblivious crazies on the floor who think they own the floor. Elbows are well-known offensive and defensive weapons – and leaders often employ them to protect their followers from out-of-control dancers on the boards. The job of the leader is to thrill the follower while engendering a sense of security and trust. What’s in it for the leader? Control.
Followers don’t carry such burdens. They just have to be intuitive, sensitive to leaders’ signals – not always clear or timely – and willing to give it up to the leader. There can’t be two leaders: followers have to surrender to the will and creativity of the leader. They even have to relinquish the music. Instead of following the beat, they have to follow their leader’s interpretation of the rhythm. Of course, followers have to firmly hold their own balanced weight and, most difficult, they even have to smile as they follow their leaders’ mistakes. What’s in it for followers? Intense, thrilling sensations.
Like kinky sex, these complimentary abilities to control and submit can result in a drench of endorphins (happy hormones) that can only be resolved by an epiphany. When it’s going right, the dance of lead/follow, dominance/submission can produce moments of incomparable ecstasy. Endorphins are the drugs of delight, whether you get them in a horizontal or vertical collaboration.
You can see it happen, experience it as a voyeur, in this remarkable retro-clip my cousin Nina sent me of two youngsters jiving.
I grew up jitterbugging, copying the mostly white (in Philly!?) kids of American Bandstand. I’ve got it in my genes: my parents married each other because they were the best dancers in the crowd. My dad maintained his smooth suave lead even in his final years when he couldn’t get out of his chair. In high school, I did the swing and cha-cha with the boys. By my young adulthood as a baby butch, I was grinding pelvises (pelvii?) with pretty young women in my arms.
But no serious instructor was prepared to take on a woman student, like me, who wanted to lead. Because so many of the top champions are gay men dancing with (generally) straight women, the international dance associations are rabidly and defensively homophobic and gender conservative. Men must lead and women must wear concoctions of feathers and sequins – not my style.
I was stuck. While I lusted to study partner dancing, I had no stomach for chiffon skirts slit up my thigh. No, I wanted the tuxedo or the Latin bolero jacket. I gave up hope of professional training until 1990, when the London Pink Dancers was born, just as I moved there. One of our instructors, Ralf, had a fine competitive history in his native Germany and the other, Glenn, was a renowned teacher of champions. Dressed in a black leather motorcycle jacket, I was the first woman leader to do an official British “Showcase” presentation, leading Ralf. I went on to get my bronze, silver and gold medals, leading all the way. Luckily, highly qualified heterosexual women judges were willing to back up our gay male instructors in breaking through these arbitrary gender barriers.
I spent a number of years performing around Britain with my scrumptious partner Brian, a former international youth champion who agreed to be my follower in Latin America dances like cha-cha, rumba and jive – the same family of dance that you see these young people doing in this hot video clip. People in dance venues would be puzzled by this little 5’4” woman leading this guy over 6’ tall and clearly of a professional standard. The light bulb would go off and they’d ask me, “Oh, are you a teacher?” (Instructors must know how to both lead and follow.) “No,” I’d smile, “I’m a leader.”