One central part of traditional ballroom dancing is that of gender roles. A couple consists of a male leader and a female follower. For some organizations, this is an actual written rule; the rest of the time it is implied. Dance teachers tend to refer to each person as the gentleman and the lady, or the man and the woman.
One view of ballroom: The man is strong and powerful. He decides what steps the couple will take at what time, dictating direction and timing. The woman responds to the man and does whatever he leads, and her job is to be beautiful and expressive. Some people really appreciate this very traditional (others would consider it antiquated) aspect of ballroom – each gender has a particular role and they complement each other, and if everyone does what they’re supposed to do, then it works out beautifully. Men are men and women are women. Men act gentlemanly with chivalry towards graceful ladies, who follow what they are asked (told?) to do.
As an aside, gender is something we all learn at a very young age, and something that is instilled as part of our identity even before we are born – our parents refer to us by gendered pronouns and dress us in traditionally female (pink) or male (blue) colors, before babies even begin to act differently. Girls are described as pretty and boys are described as strong and handsome. Behaving in a sex-consistent way is reinforced, while behaving in a sex-inconsistent way might be punished. Boys are supposed to play with trucks, not dolls, and so on. Girls are supposed to be ladylike and nurturing, while boys are supposed to be rambunctious and tough.
However, the state of gender is not so black and white. (Fortunately, in the past few years, we have seen more and more gender nonconforming individuals who may identify with the gender that is opposite of their sex or neither gender.) I’ll switch to my preferred terms here, leader and follower, which are inherently less gendered. The leader does control direction and timing, but whatever the leader decides to lead is more of a suggestion than a command. The follower needs to always be sensitive to these suggestions, taking a hint and turning it into a full expression of the figure, but does not always “have” to do what the leader intended. The follower interprets whatever she or he believes the leader to have suggested, and if it happens to be different from the original intention, the leader needs to just go with it and adjust accordingly. This relationship is an ongoing conversation that requires both parties to be sensitive to each other, it’s not a relationship between dictator and passive servant. Usually, the leader provides the power for a movement, but many figures require the follower to take over and provide power as well.
Both roles also look out for each other – primarily, leaders do the steering and try to prevent the couple from hitting others, but followers also need to help out when the leader is going backward and cannot see where he or she is going. Couples should develop a subtle signal for this situation, but also a quick verbal “Watch out behind you!” also works in a jiffy.
More recently, some standard couples, particular in the WDSF divisions, have changed up styling, such that leads create more dramatic shapes rather than staying relatively straight up and down. This trend also blurs the line between gender roles of the woman being the “pretty picture” and the man providing the frame for her and showing her off. (Personally, I like some shaping from both parties, but not so much shaping from leaders that it’s distracting. But it comes down to a matter of personal taste)
In the past few years, with more marriage equality and openmindedness about gender roles overall, there have been more and more opportunities for same-sex ballroom dancing. (Technically, sex refers to biology while gender refers to social identity, but we’ll just go with that conventional terminology.) USA Dance officially announced that they would offer same-sex events, to be run separately from the typical ones. In the U.S., there have been such events as the Gay Games, the Boston Open Dancesport event, and the Glitz and Glitter Ball.
Same-sex partnerships really offer interesting interpretations of each person’s role, and people can approach them in dramatically different ways. One person might fulfill a traditional masculine leader role while the other is a traditional feminine follower. They could switch off leads. Styling choices might be consistent with their conventional role or their actual gender. There is actually a lot of debate about whether same-sex couples should compete against different-gender couples, because of certain perceived advantages that they might have in terms of athleticism, power, speed, or gracefulness.
Another variant of playing around with gender roles is reverse role dancing, with the female leading the male. There are fewer avenues for this arrangement, at least competitively, but it’s a literal flip of the gender roles in traditional ballroom. Naturally, you’ll have to deal with some height situations not being ideal, but it’s definitely a fun and educational way to get an idea of what challenges your partner has to deal with.