Glamour and gender: Why sociologists should study dance
Ah, Victor Sylvester. I remember as an adolescent trying to practise my dancing to You're Dancing On My Heart, fox trotting round the front room with a Eubank as my partner. No wonder I failed my bronze medal. No such indignity though ever befelled Vicki Harman.
I already knew that in the spare moment she found between lecturing in sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London, she not only danced the night away but carried off competition prizes. When we finally met in our Phantom of the Opera studio I began by asking her to give me a little history lesson in ballroom dancing.
The Imperial Society of Ballroom Dance Teachers started in the 1920s and they really codified and standardised ballroom dancing.
They almost decided, did they, on the number of dances there should be - like we'll have a waltz, something of a fox trot or... how do you decide?
Yes not only the number of dances but the timing, the steps that were allowed and the steps that weren't allowed, some steps were seen as degenerate or risky, too close to your dancing partner and there was concern about the flow of the dance around the room - they didn't want people stopping and interrupting others when they were dancing.
Girls do start much earlier, don't they, to learn dancing, it doesn't look as though many boys start ballroom dancing at the sort of age that you started.
Yes exactly, so I'm doing a piece of ethnographic research at a dancing school and I found that like when I started to dance many girls get taken by their parents when they're relatively young, often they've tried different forms of dancing as well, like ballet, tap, modern.
And boys have a different trajectory - some start almost by accident, by going along with their sisters and watching them and then joining in and finding that they enjoy it or starting a bit later in life as well. I think the programme Strictly Come Dancing has opened it up to boys as well.
But of course in ballroom dancing the critical thing is having partners and as you found out here there are always too many women.
Exactly yes, there are more women wanting to dance than men at all different age groups. So even though it's difficult for men, for boys, to enter the dancing world, once they do they're in an incredibly powerful position because they have their pick of who they want - who they can dance with and they're very sought after.
Men in a way don't want to go in because they regard it as perhaps a bit sort of soft, a bit ridiculous. The television programme comes along, it almost gives them a permission to go and do it. They enter it a bit late but then when they enter it they're in demand and they're also leading - and that word leading it does sound a bit as though they're calling all the shots doesn't it?
And are they?
They are in the sense that they're responsible for listening to the music and being on time in their dancing, the thinking about the steps they're going to dance in advance and the figures and communicating those to their dancing partner.
They would say to the woman this is how we're going to do it?
Well they'd anticipate in their head the steps that they wanted to dance and then through their body - through their pressure or their alignments - they would communicate that to their dancing partner, so she can follow.
Now when you looked at couples it did seem to - difficult not to regard the woman as the submissive person within it. I remember reading in your paper there was someone who spoke about the woman almost as a piece of machinery.
The bloke is the vision. It would be like driving a car with your eyes shut. The woman is like a piece of apparatus he can fling around and make her look good. The man is using the woman as a tool. The man instigates it but without a decent lady you're wasting your time. It's how it is in society in general, it's drummed into you over the years.
People must have said to you well you can't call yourself much of a feminist if you're doing ballroom dancing you're walking backwards all the time being led around by a man - was that there within it because your piece of research - at the heart of it - is quite a bit about gender roles?
There is sometimes an underlying current of can you be a feminist and a ballroom dancer. I mean for me personally you can be both and a sociologist as well because I don't think walking backwards, following a man's lead necessarily means that you're not an active person, thinking for yourself and that it has a bearing on your kind of life outside of the dance floor.
But of course it is - it's part of the standardisation that the woman is the follower and the man is the leader. There were quite a few women who'd learnt to both lead and follow, they had experience of both roles.
When they were following arguably that gave them an advantage over men who generally can only lead. There are examples of quite feisty women that wouldn't be told what to do, that demanded being treated with respect, that would say I'm not going to follow you if you're dancing off time, if you're dancing the wrong steps in the wrong place.
The other point that you make that the women have to spend a great deal of time looking good.
Yes, yes. So it kind of links in with traditional notions of femininity, in the sense that women, when they're taking part in dancing competitions, for example, not necessarily just going along to a class, their expectations of how women look - doing your hair, your make-up, false eyelashes, fake tan, beautiful dressers, the diamante - and of course that glamour element is partly what attracts people to doing ballroom dancing in the first place.
But it can be experienced as a source of stress and of work, of having to kind of build up a fake tan over three or four days leading up to a competition, of feeling you're being judged on the tone of your skin, the colour of your tan and that is an important element on which people are judged and I think women taking part in dancing competitions are aware of this.
Those women that you talk to do they try and defend themselves from charges that really this is a return to an old fashioned idea of what women were supposed to be like - dependent and beautiful and silent and led?
Yes, I mean in ballroom dancing we are acting out, as you say, traditional roles for men and women. If it was the case that we were just passive followers it wouldn't take years to become a good ballroom dancer. One of the interesting things for me was some of the women that I interviewed had jobs that could be seen as typically male jobs, like scientist, for example, but they really enjoyed the glamour of ballroom dancing.
And I think there was a sense coming through from the interviews of why shouldn't I, why can't I be a modern woman and also enjoy wearing beautiful dresses and having the escapism of being led round the room and knowing that I'm looking good and enjoying the music and having everything feel like it's coming together seamlessly.
I mean do you see it as a reaction, is it that people have said I'm tired of all that personal expression, the type of dancing which goes on in clubs and go on in discos, I quite want some rules, I want some stages, I want some conventions?
Yes, I think there was a sense that that was something that attracted people to dancing, the idea that you are not just left on your own to kind of flounder on the dance floor, that you are guided in where to move your feet, what happens next. I think that is an advantage and there's something that's appealing in the fact that you're learning a skill, that you're learning set routines that you build up over time, that become more complex, more flamboyant perhaps, that you can go anywhere and dance and what you're doing is recognised.
This is an inherently social form of dance, that it's with a partner, often within a dancing school and I think that's one of the reasons why sociologists should be interested in it.
Extracted from Thinking Allowed, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 20th April 2011
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Originally published: Thursday, 28th April 2011
Last updated on: Thursday, 28th April 2011
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