Tag Archives: writing

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.