Last week, I wrote about the benefits of follows learning to dance as lead. Afterwards, several people asked me what were the challanges, so that’s what this post is about!

To recap, I’ve been dancing as a follow –the traditional role for women— for the past five years, but on-and-off. I danced more diligently in the past year or so when I took all of Richard Powers‘ three Social Dance classes and History of Waltz. I enjoyed them so much that I decided to take them again as lead — the traditional role for men. Luckily, I got to do so in Social Dance 2 and Unofficial Social Dance 1.

Some main challenges I quickly discovered are:

1. Overcoming preconceptions

At the beginning of the quarter, I had to regularly explain that I’m a lead. First of all, I had to turn down other leads asking to dance with me. This made me feel bad because I generally have a policy of saying yes. Then, when I asked a woman to dance, I was met with a look of confusion. I sometimes had to repeat multiple times “I am a lead” and wished I had a nametag that said “Jammie – Lead.”

Thankfully, Richard will ask people who are taking the class in non-traditional roles to identify themselves at the beginning of the quarter, so that decreases the number of these confusions. Yet people are quick to fall back on old habits of identifying roles by gender, and sometimes still get confused for a few seconds before remembering I’m a lead even though we’ve been dancing together three times a week for 10 weeks.

Over time, people started identifying me as a lead, so it has gotten easier with the same group of people. However, when I go to Friday Night Waltz or other places that have drop-in classes where students are not regular attendees, this process of explanations starts all over again.

2. Filling in “gender” gaps

Gender gaps refer to when there are more men/leads than women/follows or vice versa. Gender gap should be renamed to role gap, but dancing terminology hasn’t caught up with modern world. Often, dancers show up to classes or socials by themselves or with friends of the same gender/role. As a result, there is an imbalance between the roles, so either extra leads or extra follows are waiting by the side until we switch partners.

Since I’m in the Silicon Valley where demographics skew more male than female, there’s often an imbalance with too many leads and not enough follows. Then I am sometimes asked to return to my traditional role of follow. Still other times, I want to be nice and fill in as follow without being asked, because I feel bad about taking a lead spot when there are too many leads. However, this comes at a cost. I am taking classes that I’ve taken before so I already know all the follow steps, and I am essentially not learning much when I return to dancing as a follow.

Of course, I’ve seen male leads fill in as follow when there are too many men. Yet female leads are much more likely to do so. Perhaps male leads are less likely to know how to follow, but wouldn’t this be a good chance for them to learn? Or perhaps people ask female leads first because that’s their traditional role?

3. Mixing up my steps

While I’ve enjoyed learning to dance as lead, I also enjoy dancing as follow. Thus, I often switch between roles at a social dance event. When starting dance with a new partner or song, I have to double check whether I’m using the correct handhold.

Also, I’ve been follow for several years, so many steps are in my muscle memory. Thus, I sometimes fall back into follow steps or handholds when I get confused. For example, after a spin in Waltz, my partner may have to correct me because I’ve changed back to follow’s handhold. Or during a fast dance like Hustle, I might revert back to follow steps after a turn.

Part of the challenge is that students don’t learn to switch roles as a basic skill. Typically, role reversal is taught as a variation once in a while. But I did see a female lead switching roles in class last year. Instead of not dancing when she was one of the extra leads, she would find another extra lead and dance as a follow until we switched partners and she found a follow. The other extra lead still stood by for one partner rotation, but she got to practice switching roles. So that’s a net gain, right? I tried to pull this off this year, but was asked to remain in one role.

Despite all the challenges, I still found learning to lead to be a rewarding experience. Not only does it make me better dancer, but it also teaches resilience because I have to overcome these challanges. Taking on a nontraditional role also changes people’s gender expectations. So I plan to continue dancing in both roles — lead and follow.