Subtle Systems: The Male Gaze in Swing Dancing

Subtle Systems: The Role of the Male Gaze in Social Swing Dancing

I’m watching an invitational, and, as at most events there is not a single follower whose body shape, mechanics, or aesthetic even remotely resembles mine- but why? Why are ‘we’ missing or under represented (among a number of other subgroups based on body types, ages, races, and socio-economic identifiers), it can’t be that all ‘larger’ people of different appearances are incapable making significant contributions to our community or that pursuits in our community naturally ‘re-shape’ larger bodies during the processes of practice and learning. This is a recurring observation and something I’m seeing a number of posts about weight and body issues in our community hint at.

 I think looking at our scene and how it ‘curates’ what is ‘good’ and ‘successful’ on the international, national, regional, event wide, and personal levels in terms of who is involved in competitions & performances, featured in videos, judging, teaching, organizing, dj-ing, and on the personal level who is invited to social events, conversations, and social dances or interviewed on community podcasts or blogs might help clarify SOME of the ways the male gaze is a present and subtle determining factor in the granting access and opportunity.

What is this unfamiliar term “the male gaze”? The male gaze is when we are socially presented with women from the male point of view, particularly considering women (or other genders) only as valuable or worthy depending how attractive or useful our culture SEEs them to be.

Male gaze is when television shows feature male characters who ‘earn’ super model women, or where female characters only matter to a story line in relationship to the male character. It’s in comic books, where male ‘heros’ are super strong (like men are taught they should aspire to be). The women in comics have super sized breasts, tiny waists, curvy hips, barely there battle armor and long, flowing hair to cater to the cis-gender males who would not otherwise find a woman’s story exciting or interesting unless it appeals to their sexual fantasies. It’s the Brazilian Butt Lift workout videos (targeted at women) where all camera shots decapitate the female dancer and zero in on her tight clothes and writhing body. It’s on instagram where a yoga video will have double shares, likes, and follows when they features a slender woman in a bikini selling the fantasy of achieving that pose and physique through a similar practice.

Bottom line, what consumers of media are presented as ‘desirable’ even in our swing dance community is catered in some degree by the socially influenced idea of what ‘men’ want.

Wikipedia defines the male gaze in the following:

“In narrative cinema, the male gaze usually displays the female character (woman, girl, child) on two levels of eroticism: (i) as an erotic object of desire for the characters in the filmed story; and (ii) as an erotic object of desire for the male viewer (spectator) of the filmed story. Such visualizations establish the roles of dominant-male and dominated-female, by representing the female as a passive object for the male gaze of the active viewer. The social pairing of the passive-object (woman) and the active-viewer (man) is a functional basis of patriarchy, i.e. gender roles that are culturally reinforced in and by the aesthetics (textual, visual, representational) of mainstream, commercial cinema; the movies of which feature the male gaze as more important than the female gaze, an aesthetic choice based upon the inequality of socio-political power between men and women.”[8]:14[6]:127

The following section of the Wikipedia page goes on to explain how the male gaze, which is strongly influenced by patriarchal preferences and damaging stereotypes creates a ‘norm’ for the community.

“As an ideological basis of patriarchy, socio-political inequality is realized as a value system, by which male-created institutions (e.g the movie business, advertising, fashion) unilaterally determine what is “natural and normal” in society.[12] In time, the people of a society believe that the artificial values of patriarchy, as a social system, are the “natural and normal” order of things in society, “

This system is made increasingly more complicated in our seeming scarcity situation where women believe they are competing against each other for male partnership or for comparative social validation. Thus we see women altering themselves, their attire, bodies, and actions to greater fulfill and reinforce the social ‘ideal’ so that they stand out as most worthy or most desirable.

I was at an event a year ago explaining to a respected dance friend how I was becoming growingly frustrated trying to find people to dance with and feeling undervalued in the community. This is a personal scarcity mindset and a problem of worthiness/confidence that I am currently processing and working on in myself in addition to ‘recognizing’ what parts of it are coming in from the community. Weather it’s not being asked to dance (like ever) to never making finals or never seeing others of similar body and age doing so- It’s easy to understand feeling unseen and unwelcome in the swing dance community either for body type, race, age, or economic markers*(please see below). My friend then argues in support of the natural prejudice- obviously in an athletic dance an athletic body will be easier to move because practicing the dance has obviously shaped them this way and when choosing a partner dancers want an advantage. I am still (not so silently) fuming.

To some degree, smaller agile appearing bodies are likely assumed to be easier to MANIPULATE or exert the leaders’ physical will upon if leading and following were based solely on stereotypes- man leads, woman follows. With good leading, cultivated timing, partnership and CONSENT (teamwork) people of all genders, body types, races, ages, and economic markers are capable of dancing (following) with excellence. As a teacher I have seen undeniable evidence that everyone has the potential to develop both mobility and skill. 

Aside from the argument that dancing a physically demanding dance may* eventually result in an athletic body and therefore athletic bodies ARE more capable because they (*may) be an outward result of practice and experience- There is an opportunity-based gap that often develops because of the male gaze and fat phobias/prejudices* (see below).  If we as a community primarily or even slightly favor asking people to dance based on our attraction to them or perception of them as inclined to be good visually then we have created a community in which followers (or leaders) conforming to the socially constructed ideal are sought out for the opportunity of dancing with a partner more than people who do not fit the social ideal.

Add to this a situation where leaders (particularly those who are outwardly validated as good) are less available than followers at that same level (this is changing as more people are being empowered to learn both roles) and whose skills make (arguably) more of an affect on things like competitions and we have a situation where opportunities can feel scarce and where the choices of the few seem to determine what’s available to the community. (Please see my post about why seriously putting time into my leading has opened so many doors for me in terms of ways of working on my dancing and having opportunities).

To help illustrate how the male gaze creates an opportunity gap in our community- I find this analogy useful:

Lets imagine you are a seasoned soccer player who must pass the ball to score but in order to score you must pass the ball to a single team-mate. Both of your options are of EQUAL level and experience and are standing in on open position at either side of the goal. Player 1 looks visually agile, is slender and athletic in build, they are wearing soccer cleats and standard apparel and perhaps they are visually signaling that they have shared interests with you that your economic status and history have afforded both of you-like say, an interest in gaming or world travel. Player 2 is heavy set, they are marginally older than you, they are potentially a gender you are not attracted to, and are wearing shoes you don’t normally see and attire not typical for soccer. You must decide in a split second based on this visual who to pass to and your goal is to score a point…

Who do you pass the ball to knowing that you will also be equally (or sometimes entirely*) credited for the score should one occur? The majority of people will act to set themselves up for the likelihood of success by choosing to pass to people who fit their underlying, subconscious and socially constructed idea of what makes a ‘good’ or ‘able’ teammate.

The thing we may not consider is that even if we could prove that Player 1 and Player 2 started with the same potential- over time, the slender, young, well dressed, familiar player gains more and more experience from all the opportunities: all the ‘passes’ they were visually preferred for.  What if an already recognized and experienced player falls in love with Player 1 and passes the ball repetitively to Player 1 as a demonstration of their devotion and enjoyment of interactions with Player 1? It then appears to both the passer and those watching the game that, that in comparison Player 2 didn’t have the same natural ability or desire to learn.

Over time, Player 1’s appearance and technical preferences become the ideal and standard of the game.  Player 1 is later recognized as MVP and gets invited to games where they continue to be preferentially treated and given access to information, fellow players, and opportunities that Player 2 must self-finance and is not preferred for.  Occasionally organizers or teachers tell Player 2 that they cannot be included because there is no one of equal level to pass the ball to them.

To be clear and specific- dancing is as a means of artistic and personal expression can be difficult to extrapolate from our sense of self. I am NOT advocating for any one of any gender to deny the longing of their soul in their pursuit of a love connection in addition to a dance connection. And I am not saying that you cannot or shouldn’t not dance with WHOEVER THE FUCK YOU WANT TO DANCE WITH- you do not OWE anyone ANYTHING.  Instead, I’m advocating for us (all) to look at how factors like race, age, gender, body type and economic status affect how we select partners for social dances and competition. I’d like us to consider the preference of the male gaze in how what we are presented as ‘good’ is influenced by preferences normalized by society and how this affects our selection of finalists in competitions and in selecting judges, teachers, students, partners, or people to invest in.

As a community- we might consider the following:

-Including a greater variety in what we consider to be ideal (of course balancing this desire with what we currently value in the dance). 

-Making space on our personal dance card for a greater variety of partners.

-Creating opportunities for levels to mix, collaborate, and interact more productively

-Allow roles where there is scarcity to dance with multiple partners in a single competition (We are already allowing people to compete as multiple roles- why not open opportunities up more?!)

– Verbally praising those of different shape/race/age/economics than us.

-Creating more classes that allow flexible gender role opportunities (for switching)

–Teaching vocab and moves to followers as well as leaders

-Encourage people to value each other and the gifts/specialness of each ‘level’ of learning

-If you are a professional photographer or videographer working for ‘free’ or artistic trade consider also involving ‘different’ people in your projects J

-Prioritizing the contributions of followers in competitions instead of writing off a couple based on poor choices the leader determines….

-Accepting the awesomeness that is you and your own aesthetic and choosing to validate, love and explore via dance despite differences you might see between you and others in the community who have achieved goals you are also pursing

 I’m also low key advocating that in arenas where we select members of our community to hold up as ‘successful’ (like finals in a competition) we make more of an effort to include people of a variety of races, body types, genders. I would be good if people coming ‘up’ in our community do not only see majorities of Player 1’s as normal and ‘able’ or ‘good’. This will mean, to some degree expanding the definition of what we consider ideal to include others not socially constructed as attractive. It may also mean departing from the familiar and maybe even *some not all of the traditions we inherited visually. To do this we’ll need expanders and outliers to be VISUALLY included and equally discussed in our community.

We all have to power to help build more understanding of how different bodies create different mechanics and aesthetics and finding ways to see these aesthetics as both mobile and beautiful- it might feel disorienting at frist. We might need to ‘pass the ball’ to someone who doesn’t score and some level of disappointment might be instrumental. In fact, it might look or feel like walking into a contemporary gallery and asking ‘is this really art?’. It’s going to take a conscious set of curators to say “YES! THIS IS ART, this is GOOD and this is what I see here that makes it good”- for those who struggle with my analogies these ‘curators’ would include and not be limited to: level checkers, judges, community writers and thinkers, organizers and hiring committees.

Ideally, it might also be wise set up ways in our community for those who don’t compete or who do not have partners to advertise themselves as instructors or judges so we aren’t limited to only the options that have been hand picked for their attractiveness and are almost entirely selected from competition videos.

Women (traditionally followers) tend to be the main organizers in our community (I suspect because this is largely unpaid, thankless, unseen, community preserving work). I also think that making a priority to hire other women (typically followers) and allowing them to pick their leaders- versus reaching out to the leaders first. I do see and suspect cases where follower/organizers focus on hiring leaders that they want to work with because having them in their scene means that they ‘get’ dances and chances for private lessons. Again I want to emphasize that it’s your time and your money and you need to take care of yourself first but also: as organizers our choices create the conditions that support the types of community we want to see.

I think it goes without saying that the ‘male gaze’ is not the only influence in what happens with talented and skilled people of both roles in our community. It’s just the single focus of this discussion and something I’ve been seeing a bit more clearly in light of relationships, and experiences I’ve had recently.

This is just my short, imperfect, and not all-encompassing list of potential steps, both personal and communal where I see opportunities for us to influence our community. I do plan on writing a post later unpacking how economic or education privilege affects dancers viability and also another article on the types of external validation available in the swing dance community and how these might affect senses of self worth or retention and involvement in the community. (If someone has already done this, please let me know so I can link/refer to their article/or just share or comment versus going through the emotional labor of examining these systems).  I want to also mention that despite the fact that I have high level of education I have always struggled with run on sentences, grammar, and spelling and do not have the money to hire an editor for these discussions as I am not being paid to write them (want to help? let me know).

If you are interested in reading more on this topic here are a few quick links:

“Taking Back the male Gaze, Feeling confident:

“The Male Gaze in Contempory Art”

“Why Representation Matters”

What Are You Looking At? The Complication of the Male Gaze in Fin de Siècle Cancan and Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity Jenn Ariadne CalvanoDepartment of Theatre Arts, University of Louisville, Louisville,
 , PhD

*Fat phobia/ Fat judgement: Noun. fatphobia (uncountable) (neologism) Fear and dislike of obese people and/or obesity. Fear or obsessive avoidance of consuming fat. Can also be judgments we make about the moral character of those who are overweight.


Ability to afford to attend both workshops and dances at an event

Ability to take time off work

Ability to purchase vintage or ‘swing style’ clothing

Ability to have manicures, pedicures, or nice hair cuts (tailored appearance)

Ability to afford a $180 pair of Remix shoes or other dance shoe

Ability to fly to events

Ability to afford hotel stays

Ability to go out to dinner with a group

Ability to dance if not able to afford insurance in case of injury

Available free time to make friends to split rooms or dinners with

*on crediting only leaders for success in finals and showcases: let’s please FUCKING STOP doing this. K- thanks.

*may – when I say that dancing may affect the body physique of the dancer involved- so do a number of other factors including diet, medications, disease/health, genetics, lifestyle, stress, job –etc  and the ability, skill or pre-determined