A couple weeks ago, I competed as a lead in a fun little Jack & Jill at the Omaha Jitterbugs’ Christmas party. I say ‘little’ because well, there’s probably no friendlier audience and lower stakes than that homey atmosphere surrounded by your home scene. I love that the Jitterbugs hold these from time to time because it gives casual or beginner dancers the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and try competing. I think many dancers see as I do the difference between dancing socially just for your partner and dancing in a competition where your choices and skills are judged. And even as competitions go, the Jack and Jill is right down the middle of social and competitive dancing in that, well, it mimics social dancing.
I was really happy to see some of the newer dancers entering. My words of wisdom? Pretend you’re not competing, and just focus on having fun and dancing with your partner. (Sound advice, I think, for this level of competition and even up into most amateur Jacks and Jills. I think once you go pro or start competing in the pro/advanced circuit more competition strategy is required, but then, well, you’re advanced now. You probably also practice.)
I’ve been dancing since 2001 and Jack and Jills don’t make me nervous anymore. But I had the butterflies this time around because I’d decided that in this safe little Jack and Jill I was going to step out and compete as a lead. I’ve been riding this intersection for awhile, this social lead and social follow balance beam and I’ve always felt very cozy playing that role among my familiar friends. But it’s kind of a controversial issue sometimes. I can’t help but understand that in leading I am committing a political act and gender-bending. What I want is to be watched and considered as any other lead up there, but no matter really what I do I am the ‘Woman Lead’ and my presence there has meaning that perhaps my dancing or intentions don’t. In stepping out there as a lead, in putting my name on that side of the list, I’m notable, or at least that’s the social pressure I perceive. I’m competing as a lead to put my skills to the test, experience a much-loved competition format from the other side. But I think I also competed to show myself and others that I can lead, to perform an example of something different.
I’ve only been turned down once as a lead asking a woman to follow. But I’ve been turned down tons of times as a follow asking a man to lead. The sample size of that really just doesn’t compare so I don’t find it useful. For the most part I get positive comments from the women follows I dance with in classes and on the social floor. Some of them seem surprised that I can lead so directly or firmly. I attribute this to my years’ experience and having been a follow and knowing what feels right – both advantages over the intermediate leads I’m in class with.
I think it’s very significant to note that I am by far NOT the only female lead in the Omaha scene. (I’ve admired Christy V’s leading for years.) I would chance to say that something like a third of the women who have been dancing there for at least a couple of years lead capably and frequently socially, and there was even another woman leading in this Jack and Jill we’re talking about. I am not some strange animal in my scene or in the scene at large, but I am probably the loudest. (The men in Omaha follow from time to time as well, and some of them are quite good at it.)
All that said, I competed as a lead in the Jack and Jill and wowy zowie! What a crazy experience! Jacking was notably different from Jilling especially in the spotlights of the finals. Grow a beard and call me Dumbledore, I have NO idea how to compose a spotlight. See, as a follow, I know EXACTLY how to do a spotlight. I can’t even articulate it, it’s so natural to what I’m used to. I complete and add to patterns, I watch the lead LIKE A HAWK, and stay grounded. I listen to the music in such a way that I am able to bring in expressiveness that my lead can participate in. I don’t know. I GET following. But boy did I have no idea how it felt from a leads’ perspective.
Quick thoughts about leading vs following in a Jack and Jill:
- It makes it so much easier if you just trust your follow. I became so much less head-spacey when I just lead because my partners just followed! They did their part, they really did feel like an equal partner who was taking care of business on the other end. It wasn’t really all that scary or tricky initiating most everything because my partners were on the other end dancing just as much as I was. Maybe that sounds obvious, but experiencing what I know to be true (I handle my shit as a follow.) from the lead’s perspective painted a very clear picture of what it meant.
- I didn’t feel at all out of place or ill-prepared in the ‘all-skates’ parts of the competition. I had long stretches of music to compose to. I could listen and play and had time to get used to what kind of dancer my partner was.
- It’s not cheating: I asked my partner questions and talked to them while we danced. From ‘do you do swing outs?’ to prompts and preparations like, ‘okay ready?’ to cue something strange coming up that I wanted to try. One of my partners was very new to dancing and so I talked her through a bunch of stuff and she was a champion who really seemed to ‘get’ swing dancing already, so it was a real pleasure.
- Oh yay! I got to swing out in the final ‘all-skate’! Like here, like here. I know enough of the California routine as a lead to be a part of that awesome homage to community, history, and just crank out the best swing outs I could.
- I ended up placing second and winning a snuggie.
- There were feelings I had that I didn’t really want to have or acknowledge, but in full honesty, I kind of felt like… a trespasser. Like some kind of jerk for crossing over and taking the chance to win from male leads, who in my brain, had more right to be there than I did. I know these feelings are insecurities that shouldn’t mean anything to me, but they do. They’re the echoes not of the way anyone treated me, but echoes of the social dialogs we hear all the time when men and women cross lines and ‘invade’ the others’ space. Those thoughts were there and made me nervous. There was a part of me that didn’t WANT to make finals and place myself in that political space of who belonged there. But there was also a part of me that wanted to win and ‘show’em all’. But really, who would I be showing? Certainly not the men in my scene – they’re personal friends many of them, good sports all, none of them having ever treated me in a way that made me feel unwelcome. So yes – I had many thoughts about the event, such a small, fun little event. But I had these thoughts just the same. I felt like there were things at work other than opposite footworks, y’know?
- All told, it was a positive experience, and in thinking about why it really boiled down to how fun my partners were to dance with - just like when I follow. The excitement and surprise of what we made together, and that giddiness of something new being created from an inkling of an idea. The completeness of unity between partners and music.
*Photos by Jen Weinlaub.Tagged with: feminism • Lindy Hop