Commentary Magazine


Clean Dancing

Among the many targets of the revolutionary cultural spirit of the 1960′s, the original and arguably most important were sexual roles and the relationship between the sexes. And in the 1980′s, among the many signs of a wish to return to pre-60′s cultural styles—nostalgia for the music, dress, and design of earlier decades; the revival of realism in painting and more formal styles in the other arts—the most significant has probably been the at least partial restoration of traditional sexual roles. In the 80′s, even feminists have come to extol the feminine virtues, the importance of motherhood, and the advantages of withholding sexual favors.

One minor but instructive example of the 80′s turnabout is the return of ballroom dancing—social dancing, as it was once significantly called—signaled be the success of the unattractively titled but pleasantly nostalgic movie Dirty Dancing and the Broadway show Tango Argentino. Tours by companies who perform ballroom dance exclusively (including one that recreates the dances from Dirty Dancing) and the public-television broadcasting of the United States Ballroom competitions add to the unmistakable impression of a revival.

Couples dancing, it is true, has not been restored to its role as a social ritual, or a means of meeting members of the opposite sex, and actual participation in dancing has so far been limited to a few dance-instruction studios, a few reopened nightclubs, and—typically enough of the present age—a few health clubs where dance instruction has been introduced for its exercise benefits. The restoration of Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room, with its revolving dance floor and its two continuously playing dance bands, attests at once to the nostalgic attraction of social dancing and to its relatively limited appeal. Similarly, the sympathetic press coverage of the room’s reopening may indicate a climate of approval for social dancing but nothing like a return to its former status as an entrenched institution important enough to come under attack.

For the social-dance couple that was split up in the 60′s was attacked, and in an apparent spirit of liberation. The woman was freed first from the male lead and then, as dancers began casually switching partners and couples began to join one another in foursomes and larger groups, she was unbound from her dependence on a single partner altogether. Nothing better expressed the breakdown of the old relationship between the sexes—or, rather, expressed the 60′s view of that relationship, namely, that it was male-dominated—than the separation of dance partners.

But in social dancing, as in so much else, the 60′s view was wrong. True, the male initiates the steps, but the apparent significance of that fact is always belied by what happens in practice. As in life, so in the dance partnership, things work out far better for the woman than outward formalities would seem to indicate.

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The defining bond between man and woman in the social-dance partnership lies in a dynamic that is invisible to a casual observer. Though the man appears to be holding and controlling the woman, the two of them are actually together constructing a “frame” or circle with their arms. Each exerts a degree of force on his side of the frame, slightly pushing against the other. When the man moves forward, the woman moves back without diminishing either the shape of her side of the frame or her counterforce. When he moves backward, she pushes forward on the thrust of that same force. In other words, not compliance but resistance makes the male lead possible.

To be sure, it remains true that in dancing the male and not the female is always the one who leads. But if the woman thereby gives something up, the compensations are considerable. This is because the purpose of the male lead is to guide the couple toward a space on the dance floor that will permit the woman to step out and execute those attractive maneuvers that social dance reserves for her alone. Somewhat in the manner of the male ballet dancer, the man in social dance puts his partner on display. He guides and physically supports her, himself melting into the background. Unlike the ballet dancer, however, he does not have his own solo.

In dancing since the 60′s both sexes are put on display, and in obviously sensual ways. In social dancing, by contrast, the male not only has no such role, but also is little able to turn his attention to the erotic displays of other men’s partners. Having the lead in itself obliges him to concentrate on the steps and patterns he plans to execute. As he initiates a movement, he must address himself both mentally and in physical attitude toward his partner, surveying the floor only briefly and in a general way to avoid a collision. His partner, meanwhile, can be casually looking about the room much of the time. She has a lesser obligation to focus on her partner. (In a dance such as the tango, the convention calls for her spurningly to look away.)

It might be supposed that the male lead at least offers the advantage of self-expression by conferring a monopoly on the man to choreograph individual steps and decide where the couple will move. But even here the man is for the most part constrained by the necessity to replicate a given set of patterns. It is much more the role of the woman, when she is sent out into a turn in the waltz or let go of to dance alone in the mambo, to improvise. Between working out his patterns, avoiding collisions, concentrating his attitude on his partner, and providing physical support for her flourishes, the male leader proves to be an absorbed, even trapped, figure. He has been placed in charge, but has not seized power.

In contrast to the 60′s model of ostentatious equality, if not androgyny, expressed by separate dancing, couples dancing enacts a complex mutuality between the sexes. Each partner accepts the constraints and enjoys the prerogatives of a frankly sex-stereotyped role. The woman accepts that she must follow, and for certain maneuvers she is physically supported by her partner. But she has the more desirable steps and a degree of freedom from care. The man, as the performer and teacher Paul Pellicoro admonishes, must “take care of the lady,” that is, transmit his lead without either forcing or hesitation, ensure that her display movements will be graceful and attractive, not let her be bumped as she moves backward. His is a role of responsibility, as it was once universally believed to be his sexual role in life. Her role is to make it possible for him to lead and thereby help him provide her with pleasure, as it was once universally believed to be her sexual role in life.

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One understands how the formality and fixed roles imposed by social dancing can have grated on the equalitarian sensibility of the 60′s. But the casual and often unstable relationships that were entered into in the spirit of 60′s-style dancing are perhaps themselves a sufficient comment on the advantages of sexually determined roles and constraints of the kind adumbrated in the social-dance partnership. Admittedly, it is always harder to return to structured relationships than it is to abandon them. But the partial revival of social dancing does seem to express a longing in such a direction—a longing, that is, to accept a role, determined by sex, according to which one expects to give one’s partner a different order of pleasure from that which one receives. Reflecting such an arrangement as they do, the rules of social dance tap deeper sources and enjoy a greater authenticity than does the easy equality of separate dancing.

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