Gender Roles and Ballroom Dance

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.

The Power of Mindset

Success is all about your mindset.  The struggle is just in your head.  Mindset matters.   These are all variants on a cliché we’ve heard plenty of times, probably a lot in sports especially.  But this is one of those cases in which the cliché reflects the truth, at least when it comes to one particular distinction between two types of mindsets: fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets.  This distinction was found by Carol Dweck and her colleagues, and dozens and dozens of correlational studies and experiments have found evidence that mindset matters.

Dweck’s book. Haven’t read it personally, but I’ve heard it’s good.

Basically, a fixed mindset is the idea that each person has a fixed trait that determines their ability.  This most often applies to intelligence, but it can be about any skill – so this is the idea that we each have innate talents that determine how good we are at a given activity.  Most people think of IQ this way, as something we are born with that cannot be changed, no matter how hard we try.  On the flip side, growth mindsets are the idea that we can improve our abilities over time with practice, dedication, and hard work, and that we are not limited by innate talents but instead can nurture them over time.   Going with our IQ example, this would be the idea that we can change someone’s IQ with things like education, nutrition, or other environmental factors.

Interestingly, fixed mindsets are tied to performance goals, in other words, trying to demonstrate your ability either to yourself or others, while growth mindsets focus more on improvement and learning, honing that ability over time.  Growth mindsets tend to be better for people both in the short and long term, particularly when they are not very skilled at something to begin with.  Why?  Because if you have a fixed mindset and fail, you are more likely to give up because you think, “I’ll never be better at this.”  On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset and fail, you are more likely to think about how you can improve and do better next time.  Fixed mindsets for people who initially succeed are nice and all (probably ego-boosting, in fact), but the key difference lies in when people fail, which they inevitably will at some point.

People tend to lean towards having a more fixed or growth mindset as a default, at least when  it comes to specific domains such as intelligence or sports performance or just about anything.  However, research has also shown that mindsets can be manipulated – if we learn about benefits of growth versus fixed mindsets, then people can shift their perspectives and benefit from the good things that come with growth mindsets.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I think it’s inherently really interesting and challenges a lot of people’s naïve theories on how people work, but it’s also super relevant to ballroom dancing.  Some people have the idea that they’ll wander in to a class, take a lesson or two, and immediately be able to dance, but us ballroom dancers know it’s not remotely that easy.  I would say it takes a year of regular instruction for most people to feel really comfortable with a full repertoire of ballroom styles, and of course many, many more to master them.

For some people, particularly those with a lot of previous dancers (you know who you are, having danced ballet/jazz/tap/etc. basically since being able to walk), ballroom comes very naturally and without much effort or struggle.  Sure, you have to correct a few habits, but learning steps is extremely easy.  For others, ballroom is fun but much more of a challenge!  The pesky alignment thing in standard, learning the difference between all the subtypes of styles, simply remembering what foot goes where.  Feeling like a total clod and thinking that it’s near impossible.  I was there, back in the day.  I had no idea what was happening half of the time, but it was still fun and after a while of mucking around, I realized I would have to put effort, money, and a lot of practice time into learning these skills.  Having a growth mindset is really much more conducive to learning and improving, compared to a fixed mindset.  Yes, _______ is hard, but once you get it, it’s all that much more rewarding.   I do have one caveat – I do think most of us have some innate ability to learn particular skills.  There’s no denying that some people are more “natural” at things than others.   In dance, some people are more flexible or have a more ideal body shape for a particular style or learn steps faster than others do.  However, each of us can make the most of what we have, and sometimes being not so natural at something can produce passion and drive to improve that many of the “naturals” lack.

Anecdotally, one of my friends was better at standard than Latin when he started, placing quite well at competitions in standard.  But he decided, I want to be a Latin dancer.  That’s what he really enjoyed and aspired to be, so he worked hard at it over time, practiced a lot, and got to be a pretty good Latin dancer.   If he had had more of a fixed mindset, thinking he couldn’t get much better at Latin, he might have just stuck to standard or maybe even given up dancing at all.

Every time we advertise the club in effort to recruit new members, I inevitably encounter the same sorts of reasons to not join.  “I have two left feet,” “I don’t know how to dance,” “I could never dance like that,” and so on.  Very fixed mindset, wouldn’t you say?  Hey, that’s where I and 95% of the people in the club started!  People have this idea that ballroom dancing’s some magical power that we just have, but we all start as beginners.  For those who have been dancing some time and can’t imagine ever reaching some level, be patient with yourself.  People tell me, “I could never be as good as you!”  Not true.  A few years ago, I never would’ve imagined myself competing at pre-champ or champ levels, but here I am (at least, in some styles).  It took quite a few years, but it happened.  So, if you ever feel like “ugh, I could never do that,” check yourself and remember that with enough hard work and dedication, you totally could.  Just keep chugging along.

On Self-Related Motivations and Ballroom Dancing

Motivation in the conventional everyday sense refers to what drives people to do the things they do, which corresponds pretty well to the psychological study of motivation.  But motivation in the psychology sense not only refers to what underlies people’s behavior, but also how they seek out information, interpret information, and encode it in memory.  Specifically, self-related motivations underlie much of our everyday doings and thoughts, and there are a few that psychologists study in particular.  These scientists might even go so far to dub them the fundamental motives.  And, surprise surprise, these can all relate to dancing and how we learn how to dance!


Basically, people like to do things and think things and find out information that makes them feel good about themselves.  They prefer to read positive feedback to negative feedback and remember it better.  Some argue that this motive overpowers all other ones and is the automatic one, the one that kicks in without us even trying (Sedikides).  Most people think they are better than average at any given thing (driving, social skills, and so on), which is statistically impossible (Svenson, 1970).  People are very accepting of positive feedback and more critical of negative feedback.  Self-serving bias makes us take credit for success and blame outside factors for failure.

How self-enhancement relates to ballroom: Well, who doesn’t like getting a compliment?  Whether it’s from our longtime coach or a complete stranger, getting complimented on our dancing is a fantastic feeling.  Getting a compliment on hair or makeup or an outfit will more than suffice as well.  Particularly when we have put ourselves out there in front of a bunch of strangers, getting confirmation that we don’t look like idiots is indeed a nice feeling.  I would say most people think they are better than the average person in their lesson/class, unless they are anxious and particularly clumsy-feeling.  In competition, most people probably think they danced better than the average person, and therefore deserve a callback – that’s why not getting a callback is so disappointing.  It’s probably easier to remember competition successes than to remember failures, for the most part…or at least we spend more time trying to think about the successes.  When we get negative feedback from a coach, we probably automatically think, “What? I don’t do that” and then have to override that impulse to fix whatever problem it is.  Also, self-serving bias can definitely play a role in how we understand competition results.  When we win, it’s because we danced great! When we didn’t do so well, it’s because the floor was slippery or our partner did something wrong or people kept bumping into us or the judges didn’t like our outfits.  Also, even if we do badly, we socially compare downwards to make ourselves feel better, finding a standard of comparison to whom we can feel superior. “At least we were on time, unlike couple X.”


We like to find out things that confirm what we already know about ourselves.  We like to think we have a good sense of who we are and seek out information that supports that idea, because we like consistency and predictability (Swann, 1985).

How self-consistency relates to ballroom:  This might sound directly counter to self-enhancement, but if someone thinks they are an awful dancer, they (at least on a conscious controlled level) would prefer to hear negative feedback to positive feedback.  “I’m terrible, and these people agree.”  People with low self-esteem prefer negative feedback, because then they have a consistent view of themselves and get confirmation from others about their view.  What’s interesting is the cognitive-affective crossfire situation – people with a negative self-view emotionally (affect = emotion) prefer positive feedback, but cognitively prefer negative feedback (Swann et al., 1987).  I know, it’s twisted, but it makes sense – they have both the self-enhancement and self-consistency motives going on at the same time. Haven’t you encountered this social exchange before? “You did a great job dancing out there!” “Ugh no, I did horribly!”  I’m not saying that dancers who are self-critical (which might just mean they have high standards for themselves) necessarily have low self-esteem, but perhaps they had a low evaluation of their dancing at the time, and at the time would like a compliment on one level but prefer criticism on another.


Basically this just means that we want more information about ourselves, to see where we stand.  An accuracy motivation, to see if what information we have about ourselves seems to be correct.  Often this ties in with the motivation of self-improvement, which I think is pretty self-explanatory.  You have to know what you’re good and bad at before you can take steps to improve.

This motive I think plays the most into the learning process – we take lessons, seek feedback from more advanced dancers, and pay professionals lots of $$ to tell us how we are doing now and how we can get better.  Looking at judges’ scores and scouring YouTube videos of our performance help to fulfill this motivation, to see where we stand.  Practicing and staring at ourselves in the mirror for hours on end definitely help to fulfill this drive (though staring at the mirror and convincing ourselves of our innate, undeniable hotness is more in the lines of self-enhancement 😉 ).

Overall, I think the most interesting motive is self-enhancement.  There are so many ways that people make themselves feel better, even if they are deluding themselves just a little bit (or sometimes a lot!).  As someone studying psychology, it’s interesting when I catch myself or someone else using one of these self-enhancement strategies.  Hell, it feels really good to have my dancing or my dress complimented by a rando.  Didn’t get a callback? Judges didn’t see us.  Or the music was weird.  Or my shoes were super slippery. Obviously.

But hey, on the plus side, having these slightly positive illusions about yourself is good for happiness, mental health, and well-being in the long run, so they can’t be all that bad (Taylor & Brown, 1988).  Being ever-so-slightly arrogant (or confident, self-assured, positive, whichever word you’d like to use) about yourself seems to work out well for people in the ballroom world and everywhere else.