Tag Archives: language

Leader/Follower language

I’ve changed with the times. As I learn more and consider the effects of language on others — often subtle, and powerful despite the subtlety — I’ve come to carefully reconsider my choices.

I started out, like most of us perhaps, talking about the leader and follower roles in the dance by way of “he” and “she”. I considered myself progressive for pointing out to classes and in writing that any gender can dance any role in any combination. I used the terms consistently, referring to what I was doing as “she” when dancing as the follower. The word usage seemed concise, clear, and well understood.

But I started following the Ambidancers group on Facebook, and other discussions saying, “Hey, do the terms lead/leader and follow/follower make sense,” and “Can’t we get rid of the sexist language?” As a lover of language and as one who (at the least) believes they are well attuned to equality, I sympathized. Yet my high regard for clarity, consistency, and simplicity led me to reject ambiguous terms (although advocates might say that ambiguity is the very point) such a “space” and “flow”, or “mark” and “revel”.

So I started rigorously using Leader and Follower everywhere, even though I chafed at the extra length and syllables of these words.

Then most recently I’ve hit on what feels like an ideal solution for clear, simple, genderless, equal opportunity language. More than that, it feels like it actively encourages the audience to view themselves in either role, or at the very least, to have a greater regard for their part and their partner’s part in a combined effort.

I use the language of 2nd person–you and your partner.

Sometimes we have to kick off a discussion by heading it as either the Leader or Follower part, but it surprises how often even that becomes unnecessary.

Consider this piece of an outline I’m making for a Quick Start to Argentine Tango class.

Leader responsibilities
Care for the safety and comfort of your partner and other dancers.
Know at all times which leg your partner has free (the one that didn’t step last).
Give your partner time to respond to your movement suggestions.

Follower responsibilities
Care for the safety and comfort of your partner and other dancers.
Keep your weight clearly over your last step, with your other leg free to move.
Give your partner time to make their movement suggestions known to you.

Instead of some abstract, disconnected Leader or Follower, we are talking about you and your partner, making an immediate connection. We can see how similar are the two counterpart points of view. Lastly, setting aside the role headings, we can see ourselves saying, “Oh, yes, I see how that applies to me,” regardless of which we’re reading (and ideally we’re reading both!).

Pronouns — “You” usage seems direct and snappy, but “your partner” everywhere could become tedious (though it’s no more syllables than ‘follower’). So for pronouns we use the genderless (and also one-syllable concise) 3rd person plural: Them, They, Their. Despite what your high school teacher may have told you, or what “authoritative” (one might say, pedantic) references would have you believe, 3rd person plural pronouns work perfectly well with indefinite subjects that are singular, and it has been good English usage for hundreds of years.

So if a dancer tells you they object to teachers referring to dance roles as ‘he’ or ‘she’, you can assure them you’ve got it taken care of because you take a direct, pluralistic point of view.


P.S. In a similar vein, to avoid making your audience do abstractions and spacial translations in their head, use absolute (instead of relative) points of reference. For example, a well known and excellent reference work refers to stepping ROP – Right Outside Partner and LOP – Left Outside Partner, but this refers to the dancers’ side that pass closest to each other, not to the part that is actually further “outside”. In their ROP, I’m actually stepping to the left of my partner. If my partner is stepping backwards, then in my view they aren’t even stepping to their partner’s “outside”. In reality they are stepping backwards (and probably slightly towards the forward stepping partner’s center line!).

Better is to use unambiguous, absolute reference points, such as, “Stepping outside partner on the Hand (or possibly “Open”) side of the embrace.” Or possibly, “Stepping outside the embrace” versus “inside the embrace”.

People sometimes confuse even their own left and right. Please don’t make them do translations to their partner’s left and right.

She, he, or it?

My flamboyant mother used to say that instead of making all writing “he, he, he” with a masculine 3rd person indefinite pronoun (or the modern “with it” equivalent of making it all feminine), or using the cumbersome form “he or she”, that they should instead use a new word for she/he/it, maybe something like “sh/t”.

There exists already a perfectly good solution to this conundrum, notwithstanding what your high school English teachers tried to drum into you regarding agreement of numbers. For millennia the third person plural forms (they, them, their) have happily served this or that author to identify a person of unknown gender in their writings.

Now my language difficultly in describing dance is somewhat different. In the modern era it is not uncommon to have leading ladies and following fellows. Indeed, I support switching roles on a planned basis as part of your dance practice and exercises, because it enriches your understanding of whatever role you choose to dance.

man-woman-perpendicular-0 man-woman-perpendicular-1 man-woman-perpendicular-2 man-woman-perpendicular-3

So I’m writing dance sequence descriptions, and man! (jaja), it sure gets tedious typing – and reading – Leader and Follower spelled out everywhere. What about abbreviations? But L could also stand for left and F could stand for forward. Going beyond that, from whose orientation do you describe a movement, both? (Maybe, if there are interesting complexities involved.)

I’ve decided to move past the angst-filled hand wringing over something that probably isn’t that important to most people anyway. (A life theme: dithering in search of the ideal. It’s a wonder we ever got our house built.) I’ve decided that convention and simplicity trump gender-neutral and role-neutral descriptions. For the most part I’m going to use He as a placeholder for the person in the role of leader, and She as a placeholder for the person in the role of follower.

Furthermore, I’m going to generally describe sequences from the point of view of the leader role, only describing the follower’s counterpart where clarity calls for it. Savvy followers will know that in the effort to understand their role from the leader’s description, they will be delving even deeper into what is happening behind the words, and thereby may gain an even deeper understanding of their equally important role.

In every case, if you see something that is not clear to you (and therefore probably not clear to many others, or anyone), or if you have another take on the matter, please give us all the benefit of your comments. Down at the bottom of this blog entry, where it says Written by David Phillips — No comments — . . . , you should interpret that to say, click on “No comments” to give us all the benefit of your thinking on the matter!

Thanks!
  –David