Homophobia & Salsa: Same-Sex Couples on the Dance Floor

“Can I dance with you?” 

“Will you dance with me?”

“Let’s dance!”

These phrases are universal in the dance scene, yet the answer differs from person to person: from an enthusiastic “yes!” and smile, to lack of eye contact and a head shaking ‘no.’ And the reasons for these answers are various: fatigue, thirst, I-really-need-to-pee-and-I’ve-been-holding-it-for-three-dances, and so on.

Over time, I’ve noticed a trend in my local latin dance scene: dancers known to be homosexual have been repeatedly turned down. To be more specific, I’ve seen homosexual men walk away from other males who refuse to dance with them. I saw it happen once while taking a song break, and didn’t think much of it. I gave the rejector the benefit of the doubt–he’s probably just tired. In addition to this, just because one male asks another to dance doesn’t mean he is homosexual.

But this topic has been resting on my heart recently because I’ve been hearing more stories of homosexual dancers (men, in particular) being turned down in particularly rude or nasty ways. If conventional female ‘follows’ make the effort to be polite when they say ‘no’ to a dance, I do not see why males cannot extend this same courtesy when being asked to dance by another male–homosexual or otherwise. But yet, I have seen and heard of hurtful looks, huffy attitudes and judging gestures being made towards males who ask other males to dance. This hurts because dancing is supposed to a shared art between all, and its root is in community—especially social dancing.  It wasn’t until a friend pointed out to me that most of these rejected men were homosexual, that I began to see a bigger problem.

I assume the reasons for this recurring rejection to be various–like anyone else saying ‘no’ to a dance. Some people just aren’t comfortable, and that’s okay. Some people don’t care, but just don’t feel like dancing at that moment. Everyone has their own opinion on homosexuality, and thus it is no surprise that these opinions are expressed on the dance floor. One of the wonderful things about social dancing is that all sorts of people, from a plethora of professions and backgrounds, come together to dance. However, this also means that negative and less-flattering sides of people are also on the line to be displayed.

For me, it is a learning experience when same-sex couples dance together. I gaze in awe at the salsera who steps into the birthday circle and leads her girlfriend around the floor (while ignoring the mind-blown eyes of machismo male Leads around her). I laugh when I see two of my guy friends lead each other on the dance floor, especially when one returns to me out of breath, gasping for air and says “Wow, spinning is hard!” (Yes, now try that in 3-inch heels.) Since the roles of ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ are assigned according to gender without a second thought, mixing up the norm proves to be educational. Typically, male leads have a taste of how challenging following is, and female followers get a sense of all the calculating behind leading. And by this action, it is clear that both roles of ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ are both difficult, and require time, practice and thought. The exchange of respect and awareness can be shared by both parties, and all can agree that dancing is hard, laugh about it, and go eat tacos at a favorite past-midnight spot.

When I first started learning Latin dance, it was an incredible struggle to be a Follow. I felt like the gendered and designated roles of ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ were an extension of a patriarchal society that oppresses females like myself. But outside of my college-liberal- minded views, my muscle memory was working against me. With 12+ years of training in other dance styles such as ballet, tap, and jazz, it was strange not to be in complete control of my body and its movement. The styles of my past training had taught me to be self-sufficient in motion, so I resisted being led, and can imagine that trying to get me to follow a cross-body lead must’ve been like pulling an elephant across a raging river.

Dance is a victim of being gendered, and is generally understood to be a feminine practice. Why moving cohesively and gracefully is seen as a girly practice will never make sense to me, because the power and movement of male athletes is a wonder of its own. It’s slowly becoming more recognized that some of our culture’s greatest athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson, have practiced ballet to supplement and improve their physical condition for their sport.

In any case, certain styles of dance are gendered as well: ballet and jazz are considered girly, while hip-hop and tap dancing are seen as more masculine. From my experience, it seems that the Latin dance community often sexualizes females who take the ‘follow’ role,’ and because males are ‘in control’ as the lead, it is acceptable for men to partake in the ‘feminine’ practice of dance, despite the culture’s deep-rooted patriarchy.

But this isn’t exclusive to Latin social dancing.The classical ballet world which I first started from has its roots in the elite French courts where women were portrayed constantly as ethereal, weak, and in need of saving by men (Giselle, Cinderella, and Swan Lake, for instance). There has been much debate about the roles of men and women in dance, which has led to a more creative and diverse world that has produced companies of men in pointe shoes, dynamic same-sex partnerships, and simply, more male dancers.

And of course, there is the age-old stereotype that men who dance are gay.
But there is also the stereotype that gay dancers, are the best dancers.
And to all of these generalizations and assumptions about gay dancers, I say: who cares?

Dance is a common stomping ground. Dancers come from all walks of life, with all sorts of baggage, and personal library of stories. But the beauty and joy that is dance is the movement of all beings, to music, to rhythm, to life. And when we join hands in dance, we are equal in the experience that is motion and melody.

My only hope is that we can improve on the ways we communicate with each other, verbally or otherwise, on and off the dance floor.

Disclaimer: All views and opinions in this piece are mine. I welcome readers to comment and share their thoughts/experiences below.

***What is your experience with same-sex couples on the dance floor? Comment below to share your thoughts.***

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  1. says: Emma T

    This is probably prevalent in most social dances. Although in the events I go to for modern jive, guys who want to follow usually ask the men who they’ve seen leading other guys before. I’d really hope that anyone refusing did it kindly.

    I’ve danced with a few women who’ve asked, but I don’t really enjoy it (unless it’s friends and we’re having a laugh or a chat while we dance). I’d just rather dance with men, and while I can follow or lead a woman well enough, I can’t relax into it or the music like I can with a guy, whether they’re a stranger or not. I don’t think I’ve ever refused a request to dance from a woman but as leading doesn’t appeal to me outside of class, it just puzzles me that women would ask other women to dance who they don’t know, and probably wouldn’t have as good a dance.

  2. says: Phani

    I am a straight guy and primarily a lead. But I have been following too for some time now and have faced the issue mentioned in this article. Its OK for a girl to lead but not guy to follow. Of course I am well known in my salsa scene that no one is rude to me.
    But back to following. I love following… the technique that is required is the challenge and the fun that can be had is immense. So I found a simple solution for the problem mentioned here.. I am encouraging all my female followers to start learning to lead. So now I now follow all my favorite female follows at least once or twice in a social. And this seems to be working. In fact I can proudly proclaim… Around the world any salsa social that I go to I would be one of the better followers…. HEH HEH

  3. says: Lyla

    I think the problem with a male asking another male to dance, and for him to say no is not solely because of homophobia. It could also stem from the male not knowing if the man asking wants to be lead or followed. And that can be difficult to know. Should i assume that the “asker” will automaticall be the leader, and vice versa. I am a girl when another girl ask me to dance i always assumed i am going to be lead, and whenever i asked a guy to dance it is understood that i will follow. Is not that easy for the guys. And I think that could have something to do with not seeing so much male-male dancing.
    Just my 2 cents.

  4. Wow this is really interesting I been around salsa(Cuban music)for 30 years and this young generation of dancers really goes over board… I agree with guys dancing together in the same environment,gay salsa nights which I don’t think it’s any in LA
    and this editor should probably educate people about the purpose of leading a female when it comes to salsa instead of making a stereotypes about guys dancing together… Let’s all start by knowing the salsa it’s always been about getting girls,but again you better be a good lead otherwise girls will say no about dancing with you;our new generation sees salsa as a sport and they don’t even drink and with a few step they believe they’re the new sensation.educate yourself it’s always different if you don’t understand the language or meaning of each song…trust me on this one.I love my gay friends don’t take me wrong but guys dancing together I am sure it’s part of another culture that probably is new to the environment or don’t have a clue about the culture
    and the real meaning which is dancing with the opposite sex.
    Good luck to all of us and let’s keep it the way it’s always been.

    1. says: Jazley Faith

      Hi George,
      Thanks for your feedback. I hope you don’t misinterpret the heart of the article: which is a simple request for all dancers to extend a courtesy to each other when asking, accepting or refusing to dance with each other. I am not trying to argue what the “real meaning” of dance is, but rather, am trying to call attention to a trend in the dance scene that is not exclusive to salsa.
      I understand that you have your views that “salsa it’s always been about getting girls,” and that male leads often handle a pressure of looking good to attract feminine attention. However, this often shadows that women who follow also have a special skill set that requires time to master. I don’t necessarily “see salsa as a sport,” in fact, I started salsa dancing to get away from the formality of other styles of dance I was trained in. And in terms of two men dancing, Argentina has a deep history of men dancing with each other during tango, which although it is not salsa and not where salsa originated, is another Latin style of dance with a culture and history of its own that embraces two men dancing together.
      My only hope is that you don’t see my writing as an attack on salsa–because I have developed a genuine love for it. I hope you can keep an open mind as our world expands and cultures will continually crossed with each other.

  5. says: Tessa

    Really great post!
    I lead and follow (with a natural proclivity to leading) and really enjoy both. Often with a skewed lead:follow/men:women ratio at social events, this means I get to dance more often and other women get to dance more often!

    I think it’s easier to be a female asking a female than a male asking a male … Another level of disparity exists there. But I wish that people would be more open to the experiences … I’m a better lead because I know how to follow – I don’t actually see how male/non-following teachers can teach to lead or follow without understanding both. The more experiences I have, the better dancer/teacher I am. I once danced with two leaders: they had to sync into a rythym of co-leading and I had to be extremely on-pointe with following! … Such a cool experience for all of us!

  6. says: Audrey Williams

    This was a great article. Thank you for sharing this. I agree that it’s way more accepted for two women to dance together than 2 men. I would just hope that if a man is asked by another man to dance that he just politely decline and keep it moving. No need to be rude or insulting.

    As a female lead who happens to be gay I am usually very careful about asking other women to dance. I’m pretty comfortable asking women I know from dance class if they would like to dance. They all know me and they tell me all the time that I’m a really good lead and they enjoy dancing with me. Getting the opportunity to dance with a variety of female followers is great because it has really helped me approve my lead skills. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be in a dance community so accepting of me and my partner.

    If I’m at an event where I don’t know anyone I generally just dance with my female partner and I won’t ask other women to dance. It’s difficult for me to gauge whether a woman I don’t know would be comfortable dancing with me so I just avoid it all together. My hesitance is because I am not sure if the woman (or her male companion if she has one) will be threatened by my appearance. I tend to dress in very male-inspired attire, so because of this I’m never too sure how someone may respond to me.

    The cool thing that has happened on a few occasions is that some women (whom I don’t know and I assume are straight) have asked me to dance because they saw me dancing with other women. I think the bottom line is that they want to have fun dancing, just like I do. In the end, it’s about dancing and having fun.

    Thanks again for sharing this article Jazley. And thanks for listening to my $.02. ?

    1. says: Jazley Faith

      Audrey, thanks for leaving such an insightful experience and sharing your “$.02!” I am so glad that your community has been supportive of you and I only hope that more women ask you to dance!

  7. says: Carolyn Segovia

    I loved reading this, well done Jazley. I am a straight female (married) follow, and I have the mindset that, no matter who asks, I will say “yes” to a dance, unless I have a concern I might be physically injured by the lead or follow asking me. I don’t have the same life experience as a straight male or homosexual male/female, or any of the other related identifiers. I appreciate and admit that there are different viewpoints stemming from society’s influence on us in our different upbringings that may make the choice to dance with a same-gendered or other-gendered person harder or more difficult for someone else. There is definitely more room for discussion and I hope that, more and more, gender norms will be discussed as they relate to the dance floor.

    1. says: Jazley Faith

      Thank you so much for your feedback, Carolyn. I have the same rule about saying “yes.” I’m glad that you are so open-minded and can admit that there are larger forces in society that effect our dance decisions. That is my hope too–to bring awareness and start conversations.

  8. says: Luis Perez

    I am a straight male salsa lead and I have danced with maybe two or three guys in my life, outside of a class setting. I had a great male instructor who played follow in class, always to giggles. At socials or, less so, clubs, it’s always been with a guy I know well. Its always an advanced dancer who wants to understand the mechanics as much as I do. This is the whole point, and the challenge. Laughter and alcohol are involved, and the company of our clique (an ambiance of trust). Only once was I asked by a guy and said no. I barely knew him. This was back when I was a very new beginner. I was bewildered by the request (at that stage I would have only seen the value of dancing with a seasoned male dancer). I have gay friends I care for, but I don’t feel comfortable mixing it up with salsa. As this article noted, the lead/ follow roles are gender based. If I personally don’t bend traditional gender roles, why should I dance that way?. Salsa is a sexy, passionate dance, after all… Now, if I had a gay friend who danced and I knew respected my boundaries, I would dance with him! Most guys I know probably wouldn’t. From what I see, this is all completely different for women, and that makes sense. I agree with the poster who said gender should be included in the poll (I bet nearly all of those “absolutely” votes were women lol.) Lastly, I have no problem watching men dance. I see it from time to time here in south florida. (Saw some great male/male performances as well). They always know eachother well. usually they are teachers or seasoned dancers en route to becoming teachers. It seems trust is neccessary to overlook the gender roles. Great article, nonetheless. Btw, I can lead with my eyes closed, but following isn’t a picnic!

    1. says: Jazley Faith

      Wow, thanks for sharing your experience and insightful feedback Luis! It is so interesting and great to hear people’s unique thoughts and ideas. I find it encouraging that as people grow with their dancing, they will take on different dance roles, regardless of conventional gender assignments.

  9. says: JeaneL

    Isn’t it easier as a follow – I will have no problem following a female lead? In fact I’m sure it’s a good learning experience for the female lead and she really knows how a follower is feeling. But I would feel a little out of my element if they ask me to lead her instead. I’ll try, but I know my weaknesses. So in this sense, I’m sure many male leads will not be comfortable to suddenly play the role of the follower.

    1. says: Jazley Faith

      I think it’s beneficial for those who usually lead to follow, so that they can understand how important it is to have a clear and comfortable lead. I understand though–I usually follow and I don’t think I would do very well in the Lead position. But following is also a skill–I wouldn’t rank one above another.

  10. says: Daniel Rivas

    I think the poll should include whether the voter is male or female, since gender is a part of this article. I feel that females are much open to dancing with each other (and I see this on a regular basis), whereas men generally would not.

    1. says: Jazley Faith

      Hi Daniel! Unfortunately, I did not make the poll–my editor did. But I do agree with you that gender should be included. Let me see what I can do.