Breaking Out Of Gendered Roles At NYC Zouk Festival

It’s been 10 days since the last night of NYC Zouk Festival, but I’m still riding high. There was plenty to praise this event for: the teachers gave great workshops, the DJs played a wide range of fun music, the organizers chose venues that were spacious (for New York), and the air-conditioning did its very best.

What I most appreciated was the way the community (cultivated by the organizers and clearly represented in the people attending the festival) not only tolerated but loudly celebrated dancers performing and competing in roles not traditional for their gender. For me it was especially encouraging to see men dancing as followers, since there seems to be greater stigma or social inertia there.

I will limit myself to highlighting one performance and one competition that made this event truly memorable for me…although I could easily go on much longer!

Performing With Pride

One of the first performances on Friday night was a piece I knew nothing about going into. Two men walked out onto the performance area carrying gym bags and towels. They went to opposite sides of the floor, dropped their bags, exchanged glances, and checked their phones before pointing at each other in recognition.

In what was obviously the story of a locker-room hookup, they danced beautifully together. The performance wasn’t coy or comedic. The technique was fantastic. It was much like many other couple dance performances – showcasing incredible technique as well as the sensuality of the dance.

Luiz Varjão danced as the leader in the performance, but to be honest I barely saw him until the video came out the next day. I couldn’t take my eyes off the follower, Felipe Lara. His flawless technique and sense of showmanship would be reason enough, but I have to admit I was shocked (and delighted) to see a male follower in a partnered couple performance. Especially one of such high caliber – absolutely on a level to rival any of the female instructors at the event.

The audience expressed their enthusiasm from the moment the dancers appeared, cheering for each new feat of athleticism, clapping to the rhythm for a good minute in the middle, and exploding with appreciation while the pair proudly took their bows.

I discovered later the piece is called “GRINDR” – just in case there was any doubt as to how the audience should interpret the piece! I was fascinated to learn it was choreographed by the celebrated author and psychologist Pamela Stephenson-Connolly, who worked with Brazilian lambazouk dancer Braz Dos Santos to write and produce the musical Brazouka.

Mixed Bag Competition

I stuck around after the workshops on Sunday to watch the Jack & Jill finals. After both the novice and intermediate rounds were complete, I was surprised to hear another competition announced: the “Mixed-Bag Jack & Jill Competition.”

The term was quickly explained: a competition for people dancing in roles not traditional for their gender. The competitors were randomly paired. Those who ended up in a mixed-gender couple had to have the woman lead and the man follow. Those in a same-sex couple could opt for each partner to choose only one role to dance, or to trade roles (also known as “switching”). The competitors and audience engaged with just as much intensity and joy as those in the previous competitions had. I loved it!

After the competition was over, I approached the MC, Chris van Houten. He agreed to speak with me later that week, so I could get all the details on this intriguing competition.

Chris is a zouk and West Coast Swing instructor based out of Chicago, who is perhaps best known for working at events as an MC. He was quick to give credit to others for the competition.

According to Chris, the Mixed Bag Jack & Jill was conceived by West Coast Swing dancer Doug Rousar. He often had such a competition at events he organized. “It was always my favorite part of those events,” said Chris. “I love to lead and follow, so it’s fun to showcase that.”

When he suggested having the Mixed Bag Jack & Jill at NYC Zouk Festival, the organizers Leslie Evangelista Tietjen and Ry’el Velandia were quick to approve the idea. I wasn’t surprised, since I have often seen Ry’el following (and his partner Jessica leading).

Chris explained: “There were people that came to NYC Zouk Festival who wanted to do the BZDC Jack & Jill, but are currently not allowed to do that under the rules. It was disappointing for them. That inspired me to suggest this additional competition, and Leslie and Ry’el were open to the idea.”

That brought to mind my interview with Larissa Thayane, founding member of the Brazilian Zouk Dance Council. When I asked about the restriction of the roles, she told me: “For now girls follow and guys lead, but we have already been talking about the change of roles. Possibly in the future we will add this option on a separate Jack and Jill division. Our worry is due to Brazilian Zouk having closer embrace, closer dance movements…some dancers won’t feel comfortable dancing with the same sex, which will impact their competition.”

Chris stressed his appreciation for all the work of the Brazilian Zouk Dance Council in bringing Jack & Jill competitions to the world of Brazilian zouk. He was understanding of this gender-role challenge.

“This was a struggle we had in West Coast Swing, and it’s not surprising for Zouk to be dealing with it since the rules from the BZDC were so closely adapted from WCS. For a long time competitions were limited to the traditional gendered role, because it was thought that people might feel uncomfortable dancing with a same-sex partner, or that people might not take the dance seriously. But eventually enough people started pointing out that this didn’t match their idea of the dance or the kind of experience they wanted to have. Enough organizers started saying they were going to do it anyway, so the council [World Swing Dance Council] had to adapt.”

I checked the timeline. The Brazilian Zouk Dance Council had their first competition at Caso do Zouk in July 2014, which meant they created their adaptation of the competition rules sometime prior to that point. The World Swing Dance Council posted about their updated rules a year later, explaining, “Many dancers have developed skills in both roles and requested to be able to compete in either role. Recognizing that competitors are dancers (with whatever skills they have developed), the WSDC’s latest change, as of 2015, has been to allow competitors to dance in either role.”

I wanted to know what the goal of the Mixed Bag Jack & Jill was, since it didn’t follow the normal competition structure or judging method. Competitors were assigned only one partner. Some competitors danced their traditional role some or all of the time. The finalists were determined by judges tapping four pairs in and then choosing the final two couples. Audience applause (or screams) determined the winners: Jerry Lai and Pablo Tommasi.

Chris acknowledged that it might be run differently if it was meant to be a strict competition; probably they would have competitors dance with more than one partner, and they would be restricted to dancing only one role per song. However, “the idea is to let everyone try it… I’m more interested in open expression and celebration of people being able to dance in the other roles.”

Leading And Following

I was eager to hear more about why he encourages people to explore outside their traditional roles. Chris told me, “It’s really important to me to de-gender the roles in social dancing overall. Our whole world has gender roles, and a lot of that is baked into our dance communities, but I think that the way those roles are gendered can be very problematic. For equality overall, it’s important to consider some other possibilities.”

I reached out to winner Jerry Lai, who is also a zouk instructor. He declared: “Learning the opposite role honestly was the most transformative for my primary role. It teaches empathy. You’re literally feeling what the other person might feel when you are leading.”

Of course, some of you are probably wondering how to go about this if your local scene isn’t promoting this idea. What will be the reaction in classes? Who can you dance with at socials?

Chris shared, “I find this [zouk] to be a really open community that embraces that, so it’s culturally equally easy for men or women to get into zouk as a follower, I think. At socials when there are more men than women in the room, I have no problem asking anyone in the room to lead me. Sometimes if I don’t know them I might say, ‘It’s totally fine if you say no.’ But usually there are more women than men at a lot of dance events, so there’s always a piece of me that’s going to feel guilty.”

Jerry had similar concerns about role balance. “Most of the time I feel bad because there are so many followers waiting to dance, and if a guy is leading me, that’s two leaders out of the equation. But when choosing a leader, I generally go for guys that I know also follow, or guys that I see leading other guys.”

Whether you’re interested in dancing both roles or not, I hope we can all support allowing everyone the full range of possibilities in their dance.

What events have you attended that have a similar culture of celebrating people moving outside traditional roles? What made you interested in learning a new role? How do you think competitions can accommodate people dancing in whatever role they choose?

Note: This article was updated to include the color video when it was released. The article originally shared this version in black and white.

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  1. says: Richard

    We generally go with “Mix and Match” now in Swing Dancing. I remember someone asked for a good name to replace Jack and Jill, people liked that and then pretty much every competition after has used the new name. There was no real fuss because we realised the old name didn’t fit the reality.

    I follow for 3 reasons. It’s something to do when i’m getting bored of my own dancing on a long night, it makes me a better and more understanding dancer and I get to actually meet and talk to the other men.

  2. says: Regan

    Men are men, and women are women.
    To ask men or women to behave in ways that are unnatural to our gender seems to challenge the natural order of things and to put us in an unnatural, divisive, and ultimately, self deprecating position that may challenge the construct of our hormonal and natural states.

    Is this the world that we are inviting? One where men are emasculated?

    1. says: Marius

      Well, actually the general principle of partnering/communication is not lead&follow, but the role free interaction.

      So what we will be inviting in the end has nothing to do with “men” or “women”, it will be the dancing of two humans together, each one in their own desired personality. You will be You and I will be I.

      How do you think about that?
      Thank you in advance 🙂

    2. says: BRYN

      Regan, I disagree with you on this for multiple reasons and although I am certain others will chime in with more experienced viewpoints, I didn’t want to leave your comment unanswered. Leading and following are roles played in a dance, not something inherent to a defined gender. Whether somebody is happier leading (being creative and playing the dance architect role) or following (interpreting, being in the flow, or playing in someone else’s dance design) can vary based on so many things, some of which might include a person’s mood, physical state, or mode of expression at that one point in time. I am a follower 99% of the time and also identify as female. Following is a strong preference for me and what I feel I am best at but sometimes I like to play as a leader too. I think it helps make me a better dancer overall and also gives me a greater range of possibility to express myself on the dancefloor. Following isn’t emasculating; at its core it takes a great deal of skill, knowledge, musicality, and technique to do well (none of which are gendered qualities) and I think could be done with any gender expression chosen by the follow. Choosing to dance either role is a personal decision and therefore clearly mutable.

      Also, P.S. to all the leaders who are also amazing follows. You are some of my absolute favorite dance partners! Dancers who dance both rolls are often incredibly talented and empathetic leaders 🙂

    3. says: David

      One of the dances that is among the top of my list of most memorable in its awesomeness is one where the ‘lead’ flowed effortlessly back and forth between myself and the person I was dancing with throughout the dance. She actively contributed as much of her flavour to the dance as I did. The dance expanded upon every addition from each of us, and became better than I thought possible. I was not confined to just leading, and she was not confined to just following; we co-created. In fact, many of my most memorably awesome dances are co-creations.
      If you perceive unnaturalness for a male to understand or be able to follow (and for a female to understand or be able to lead), that it challenges your perception of what the order of things should be, then don’t follow. Nobody is forcing you to.
      But I’m looking forward to the next co-creation.

    4. So many interesting comments!
      Regan, I think talking about “the natural order” doesn’t make sense for gender roles. There have always been different roles for people over time. Today most people agree that there’s nothing disruptive about women owning property, voting, driving a car (with a license), or choosing whom or whether they will marry – all of which once challenged societal order in Western countries.
      David, I also really enjoy switch dancing, where we each at different times take on the roles of leading and following. However, I would challenge the idea that co-creating and switch dancing are the same. I think within a dance where one person leads and the other follows, the pair can co-create.
      Marius, I don’t agree that partnering means role-free interaction. Most partnerships do have defined roles. Certainly partnered social dances rely a lot on some level of role definition. However, I love the idea of negotiating those roles, rather than accepting some set package laid on us.
      Bryn, thank you for sticking up for the role of following! I love your definitions for each of these roles and I completely agree that following isn’t emasculating. We can take this out of the realm of dance, too: even back when business and military were the domains of men, there were always a majority of them who were following leaders (and sometimes doing much more difficult work as a result).

      1. says: Marius

        Thanks for your response! I would regard every normal conversation between two people as a role free interaction. Like the one we are having now 🙂 And maybe we could regard the co-creation mentioned above just the same way, if our mind wasn’t trapped into believing that partner dances rely on having roles defined. What if they don’t? Just some thoughts 😉