If You Take A Feminist
to a Swing Dance

lily weber

There are certain occasions in life when I must extinguish the fire of personalbeliefs, if only to allow experience into my life. For me, that fire is the same flame that burned the bras in 1969, at the Miss America protest. At my brother's wedding, for instance, I had to snuff my inner flame. Now, as much as I want to point out the patriarchal connotations of marriage, I hold my tongue if only to allow myself to witness the uniquely archaic ritual. Say I would've blurted out, during the ceremony perhaps, my opinion on such topics as women taking the man's name, the symbolism of rings, the father giving the bride away, or even the historical significance of engagement rings in relation to the diamond industry. If I had, then I wouldn't have been able to bear witness to the beautiful anarchy that followed, induced by the catalysts of bride-thrown bouquets, copious amount of alcohol, and throwback jams. Truly, I have never been more thankful for keeping my fire subdued than when I was blessed enough to behold a dozen white thirty-something year olds giving their all into an earth-shattering, synchronized performance of the "Wobble" by V.I.C.

Another occasion I was equally thankful for was when I went to swing dancing for the first time.

It was the last day of spring break. My week had been uneventful in a way that I normally wouldn't mind, that is, if I wasn't being bombarded on the daily with social media posts and pictures of other people living better lives than me. The opportunity to try something new presented itself via an old friend who I hadn't seen in awhile, but who I was more than willing to trust with my evening. She wanted to take me swing dancing. It was explained to me that there would be lessons before the actual dance for beginners such as myself, so we arrived early. Upon arrival, I took note of a sign that read "NO SMOKING" hanging next to the door, yet I was unaware that it referred as much to my moral flame as it did tobacco products. Neither of my swing-experienced and equally feminist friends enlightened me.

"I didn't know if you'd want to come if you knew how things were," she had revealed later and in hindsight, perhaps she was right.

The first red flag waved during the division of males and females. Each of us was respectively told to stand in line facing each other across the expansive ballroom. The instructors, a husband and wife, stood in the center of the floor. It was clear that the husband was in charge, his wife taking the place of a prop for his teaching methods, and neither seeming displeased with the arrangement. The second red flag waved during the establishments of roles. Males were forthright referred to as leads and us ladies the follows. My eyebrows rose above my hairline, but as I glanced around at what I thought were my comrades, I was astonished to find I was the only one who was having their activist libido aroused by the language. Follow? We'll see about that! The third and final red flag was when the leads were instructed to cross the room and find their partner. They were the ones who had to ask, we were the ones who had to say yes- even if we wanted to say no.

Now, I can't be sure if it was my resting bitch face that was unapproachable or if perhaps all the other women were simply prettier than me. I do know, however, that I wasn't particularly unhappy with having found myself without a partner. The only other follow found without a lead was forbidden to partner up with me, as there was no follow-on-follow action allowed. We were instructed to watch and wait, promised that we'd all have a chance to dance with everyone, equal opportunity at its finest. As the instruction continued, the follows were directed to move from lead to lead.

Now, I am not the sensitive type, especially regarding anything pertaining to my weight. Years of name-calling and loaded glances have left me with what I like to think is pretty thick skin, no pun intended. However, it doesn't take any amount of mansplaining to tell that the first man I danced with was visibly displeased with my size. His eyes raked my body slowly, appraising it like he would a vintage armoire on Antiques Roadshow. He proceeded to eye the slimmer woman dancing next to us and made no attempt to disguise the pleasure in his lustful eyes. The first move was a trust exercise. We were instructed to hold hands, lean against each other, and then fall back to hold each other's weight. It was a test to see if the lead could handle his follow. I made no attempt to disguise the pleasure in my own eyes as his foot stuttered forward a half step.

As we moved through the seemingly endless motions and positions, each new lead came with their own agenda. The experience was a hybrid between speed dating and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. At any point in the night, the man I was dancing with could be there for a plethora of reasons. The most common answers were usually one of the following: they loved dancing and just wanted to do it; they loved drugs and they were trying to find something new to love; or they loved women and were having trouble finding them. However, I did notice the more experienced dancers, who claimed they were just there for the love of dance, would always catch a glint in their eyes when I admitted my swing dancing virginity to them. Each of them promised that I would enjoy my first time in a way that made me think their love wasn't just for dance, if you catch my drift.

The closing comments of the instructor included some pointers for the leads and follows. Us follows were told to always smile, even if our lead was clueless, if only to spare their fragile, fragile ego. We were also told not to take control, even if we felt we were more experienced and better qualified to lead, as it was apparently the man's God-given right to lead. That was all the advice he had for us, so he directed his attention to the leads themselves now, proceeding to talk about the females in the room as if they suddenly weren't there. Bear in mind, all of us were still, very present.

"Fellas, the ladies love to be spun around, y'know? That's why they wear those pretty dresses, so make sure you take the lead and spin them a lot. Also make sure to smile, too, especially if you want them to let you move from open to closed position." This was followed by the type of wink befitting only to an evil villain from a silent film.

This comment is followed by polite, yet severely uncomfortable, chuckles from the more socially awake in the crowd and some rather boisterous chortles from those less aware. I too laughed, though not at his commentary, rather at my own decision to wear pants that night- rather than one of those pretty dresses. My friends rejoined me as the dance officially commenced. The rules were simple: men had to ask the women to dance; women had to say yes.

What at first felt like a Scrooge-esque recollection of the Ghosts of Proms past, soon became a dizzying procession of sweaty palms and personal space invaders. Now I am nothing if not honest, so it is imperative that I be forthcoming. I would be a devilish liar if I were to deny that it was not at all flattering the first time I was asked to dance and each time after that. Sure, I was no one's first choice, usually only being asked after my more conventionally attractive friends were already preoccupied. Nevertheless, the pang of excitement from the positive affirmation, that shot of dopamine, was rather addicting and clouded my better judgement. It didn't take me long to find myself actually enjoying it. With each new song, each new move, a strange pair of hands that took control.

It's sad to say that it took no time at all to completely stomp out the fire. With each front step and back step, I danced through the ashes. I found myself trying to reason with my aggressive conscience; this isn't so bad, right? It's just dancing; it's vintage! Denial became my only confidante and I maintained that there was no need to gripe on the past's darkness and instead decided that I would celebrate the highlights. I found myself deafened by the bandstand and blinded by the stage lights. It all came so naturally to me. The rhythm was no stranger to my feet, to a point where each of my partners commented that they couldn't even tell that it was my first time. The rush was like having your first sexual encounter and being told you didn't seem like a virgin.

Now, I wish I could say the high lasted, that I became wasted on the wine of self-deprecation, that I got lost in my search for approval from these strangers and found myself not wanting, that I transcended my own exhausting agenda of seeking ultimate equality and accepted that sometimes things are as simple as leads and follows, and that I learned to ignore the implications of those ideals. I wish I could say any of that, if only to also say that I am not a slave to my vindication. I cannot, though. The high did not last, and instead it came crashing down quickly, forcefully, and with purpose. The very moment of my own conscientious renaissance is precise.

"So why did you start swing dancing?" I asked my current dance partner, naively. One of the things I enjoyed most about the activity was conversing with my partners, or excuse me, leads. Maybe I was just trying to understand their draw to the activity, seeing if I could then understand my own.

"Honestly, to pick up chicks," he delivered this line, accompanied with a coy smirk, and I half expected him to wink that same evil wink, for added effect.

Just like that the band quieted, the lights dimmed, and I became hyper-aware of his strange pair of hands. One clenched too tightly, and far too low, around my waist. The other gripped my own hand fervently. He had me. The voice of the instructor echoed in my head: "Make sure to smile, too, especially if you want them to let you move from open to closed position."

My heart raced with angry panic. How had I fallen for it? How could I be so foolish to smother the flame and leave myself susceptible to this ancient snare?

"Fellas, the ladies love to be spun around. That's why they wear pretty dresses."

The flame flickered and I was violently shaken from my deliberate, ignorance-induced slumber. I glanced down at my pants, the same pants that for the past few hours served as the very pretty dress I had previously scoffed. My lead pushed my hand, signaling to the rest of my body that it was time to spin. My flickering flame was now a forest fire, the same fire that told me to wear pants to a swing dance, the same fire that allowed me to go to prom without a date, the same fire that urged me to get my tattoo even if it wasn't pretty or lady-like, the same fire that burned whenever I spoke my mind and stood up for myself, the one that allowed me to be "picky" and "bitchy". That very fire took a step between this follow and her lead and as he tried to spin me, my arm stiffened causing the move to fall apart. What good is a lead if the follow won't follow?

Letting go of his possessive hand, I spun away like an untethered astronaut drifting from her rocket ship across the dance floor. Now, I am nothing if I am not honest. I would be telling a devilish lie if I told you that the instructor was wrong in saying that I love to be spun around. Yes, I love to be spun around. Yes, that is why I wear pretty dresses. He was absolutely right. All this is true. Yes, yes, yes- but I will spin myself.



Lily Weber is a Sophomore at Cabrini University. She is a Writing and Graphic Design double major. She enjoys conversations about feminism, politics, and our ultimate mortality as a species. She's also a lot of fun at parties.