Havana Club is a cavernous and windowless room, designed to make patrons of this popular dance venue forget about time as though they’re in a Las Vegas casino. In the summers, the air conditioning and the industrial-size fans in the corners can’t keep pace with the heat generated by three hundred gyrating bodies. Though I won’t be in my forties much longer, on nights out my wardrobe comes from the juniors department: tight gold leggings, a black ruffled top, hoop earrings, and red velvet three-inch heels. (The blouse covers my belly at least; I count the number of revealing items I am wearing before leaving home, and limit it to three.) My Afro is extended to its limits, and my lipstick is the color of dark blood. You might not imagine the transformation that I make if you saw me during daytime hours.
Learning to dance as an adult can be thrilling, terrifying, or both.
Although I wasn’t new to dancing, waking up on a sunny Sunday morning a couple of years ago, I was surprised to feel flooded by those emotions myself. They had to do with a series of dance classes that would begin that evening in Cambridge, Mass.
Bachata is a style of dance from the Dominican Republic once regarded as low-class, “country” dancing; it recently experienced an explosion in international popularity thanks to a new generation of sexy young singers of the music. Today’s stars are men like Romeo Santos, whose face looms over New York City on massive billboards, peddling songs that drip with sensuality, accompanied by blatantly R-rated music videos. (Of course, that’s not unique to bachata music. Santos is first-generation American, and his video influences reflect that.) A loose, global network of dance instructors and performers capitalized on the music, gradually transforming the traditional footwork into a modernized style known as bachata sensual, Spanish pronunciation optional.
In the Cambridge/Boston area, right before pandemic times, over seventy Latin dance classes were offered weekly at homegrown dance schools, often immigrant-owned small businesses that crossed-over to a multiethnic clientele. During my decade in this community, I became comfortable with triple spins and cultivated the ability to be a gracious “follower” to men from around the world dancing in the role of “leader,” with their ever-evolving dance steps.
When it is bachata night at the club, there is a difference in the air from salsa nights. Each song begins with the deep, rolling sound of an electric guitar, as if the instrument is licking its own lips in anticipation of what will come next. Dancers who may or may not know each other take on the characteristic intense embrace, where two bodies undulate as one. In the contemporary style, leaders and followers face each other and travel in unison, four steps to one side, then four steps to the other side. The movements can be compressed—so the couple is huddling in place and barely traveling—or they can be expanded, so that with the swoop of a leg across the floor, the couple’s choreography occupies a space that’s wider than they are tall. I once asked an Australian to dance me around an entire 2,000 square foot room packed with people—in one song—and he did. In salsa, the two dancers pass each other by in a tiny space, back and forth. But in bachata, they merge. Both dances are beautiful, but the latter can feel nearly intoxicating.
Years ago, I knew I was home when I found bachata.
To increase my skills, in July 2018 I enrolled in a new series of bachata classes at my favorite dance studio, Rumba Y Timbal in Cambridge. When I woke up that Sunday, my surprising first thought was: Am I announcing something to the world about my sexual orientation by taking this class tonight?
My plan was to take the class as a female lead—for the first time—in a dance form deeply rooted in a binary gender system. Latin dance styles are based on intricate Afro-Caribbean rhythms and body movements. These are melded with European elements such as the centuries-old custom of leading as “masculine” and following as “feminine,” a tradition which is as beautiful and skillful as it is flawed. Machismo culture also has European origins. The question running through my mind, when expanded, would read: does the role in which someone dances indelibly confirm their gender? And as the transgender movement asks, is someone’s gender expression equal to that person’s sexuality?
For bachateros and salseros who began dancing in the past generation, the image of a woman who could lead was close to nonexistent. Aside from a few female instructors, for many years the only one I knew was Jonna Tufts, a dancer originally from Bridgewater, Mass. She learned to lead as a student of Erika de Leon at the Salsa Rosa Dance Academy while living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in 2004.
“I just really wanted to dance,” she told me, “and didn’t want to feel stuck without a male leader. When then music moved me, I couldn’t stand to sit still.”
Regarding male follows, there was a tiny handful of skilled guys who sometimes partnered with male leaders. It seemed to be an indication that they were totally badass dancers, or they were hipsters from New York City—not that they were gay, which the Latin dance community chose not to discuss. These men were hands-down my favorite dancers to watch at the clubs, because it took so much talent to dance in the “opposite” role, their dancing was gorgeously executed, and I found it completely hot.
I also found it a thrill to dance with Jonna as my leader. To be clear, I was in a serious romantic relationship with a man; I had long established my identity as a woman who would be happy to be in a monogamous relationship with either sex. I was in my thirties, and I wasn’t hungry for sexual contact with anyone other than the mate I already had. When I danced with a female leader, or watched an amazing male follower on the dance floor, I found it sexy in the same way traditional male-female dance couples were sexy. Any two partners who could turn dancing into a visual art were exciting. The same-sex couplings added a subversive edge that provoked the brain by doing something which, at the time, was startlingly unexpected.
Just a couple of years ago, more women leads began stepping out onto nightclub floors. Since early on in my dance journey I’d wanted to do the same, but always came up with excuses not to. Then that summer, a new series was starting at the dance school in Cambridge. The beloved director of the school, Roberto Figueroa, was a former member of the El Salvadoran military whom I thought of as, well, macho and somewhat intimidating, but the best technical instructor around. The only class that fit into my schedule was Beginner Bachata, in which I could choose to learn to lead.
When I was a teenager, my family had not been able to accept me and my sexuality. The loss, fear and rejection I felt never fully went away. Decades later, on the first day of bachata class in 2018, I wasn’t expecting those to be my initial thoughts of the morning. But they were what I woke up to, and I felt uncontrollably panicked about facing the day.
Why did I wait more than ten years to learn to lead? For starters, we’re a species that does as we’re told.
Nationwide and until recently, nearly all ballroom, Latin, and partner dance instructors could be heard to say “men, do this; ladies, do that.” The first time I heard anyone say otherwise was in 2017 when Eli “Lady” Pabon was teaching a large public salsa class outdoors in the South End neighborhood of Boston. She said “it doesn’t matter what gender you are. If you want to lead, stand here, and if you want to follow, stand there.” I was confused and didn’t fully trust what I’d heard at first. Like others who’ve lived through an era of persecution, it was hard to actually let myself feel safe.
When we learn to dance as adults, we’re usually in a heightened emotional state. We’re excited to inhabit our bodies if we’ve been out of touch with them for a while. We’re hoping not to make total fools of ourselves. Huge numbers of people feel they require an alcoholic beverage before being relaxed enough to get onto a dance floor. When an instructor tells us what to do according to our gender, we’re so wound up about everything else that it doesn’t occur to most of us to question the logic of it. And then we spend years perpetuating a culture where only men lead… and what men are only allowed to do is lead.
And where women, of course, do the opposite.
Even in today’s world, giving up gender roles means unraveling years of conditioning. Tanya Karen is a dancer who has described her “experiment” during visits to bachata dances in Berlin and London, in which she explicitly asked all potential male dance partners whether they would prefer to lead or follow.
“Every so often, I wonder what I’m doing dancing,” she said. “I experience so many outdated gender norms and often feel objectified.”
Her experiment produced a number of awkward moments for her and her dance partners, but she says it was worth it. “Because when men said ‘yes’ [to breaking norms] in this experiment, I finally felt like I belonged on the dance floor.”¹
On my first day of bachata-as-leader, the instructor Liliana Jimenez called out, “Who’s going to be leading?” so everyone could identify their options for choosing a partner.
The guys and I raised our hands, and the women looked around in the semi-panic of having to connect with someone on the dance floor for the first time. I started to walk toward one of the women, and then another. It genuinely felt like they couldn’t see me—not that they were willfully ignoring me, but as though they didn’t realize I’d been serious when I raised my hand to be a leader. They glanced around for the expected maleness of their potential partners and looked straight through me.
Finally, I found myself holding hands with a cheerful, encouraging young lady named Jessica. Then I awkwardly tried to figure out where to fix my gaze.
Dancing with men, I normally look them in the eyes and smile widely. The majority of them glance around the room and don’t make eye contact while dancing. Other women, however, are likely to do what I do, and stare back at my face. Maybe that’s why guys have learned to look away, because now I see how intense it is to have a stranger suddenly locking eyes with you from a foot away. First I tried resting my eyes on Jessica’s necklace, but that felt a little too close to staring at her chest. Next I tried focusing on her ear, and then her shoulder, while still feeling acutely aware of her beaming smile. I hope I don’t seem rude by not meeting my follower’s eyes, but there’s no obvious comfortable place to look.
Female followers are well-aware of the large range of leading styles among men, from those who touch us so lightly that we’re unable to tell what steps they’re signaling, to men who nearly break our hands with their grasp, to those who get it deliciously just right. Now I would have the chance to experience things from the other side.
On a Tuesday, two nights after my first bachata leader class, I go to the club. As I settle into a seat, it dawns on me that Liliana told us we should practice in between classes or we wouldn’t make progress. An irony of gendered partner dancing is that most of my acquaintances here are guys, since that’s who I dance and therefore mainly interact with. I know a few women, but I don’t see any here tonight that I’ve ever spoken to, and it doesn’t occur to me to pick one at random to ask to dance. I spot Vladimir out of the corner of my eye. He’s one of my current favorite dance partners, gruff and silly at the same time, with a highly precise dance style.
I hesitate. I will need to plow through a dozen people to get to Vladimir. He shifts in his seat and it looks like he’s about to get up to ask someone else to dance. I seem to have missed my chance to dance to this song, and I feel disappointed. A couple minutes later I realize the song is a long one, and I glance over to his seat again. He’s still there, and I could’ve asked him to dance after all. I’ve missed my chance twice in one song, and it comes to an end.
Surely Vladimir will take advantage of a new song starting, and he will ask someone near him to dance. When he doesn’t after the first several bars of music play, I propel myself in his direction and stand facing him in a way that almost feels confrontational. I’m nervous. The expression on his face is inscrutable.
“Could I lead you?” I stammer. He hesitates, as he appears to digest a question he wasn’t expecting.
“Of course,” he says.
“Do you know how to follow?” I ask, once we’re on the dance floor.
“Yes,” he replies sternly. “I mean… a little.”
Every sentence feels awkward and strained between us. I start to lead the basic bachata step from right to left, the opposite of what I’m used to. It only takes a few seconds though, for Vladimir to correct what I’m doing.
“You need to keep a stiff frame!” he bellows at me with a Slavic accent, from underneath his thick mustache. I stiffen up, but it feels like I’m arm-wrestling him with all my strength, which is a losing proposal.
Finally, when I’m about to collapse from the effort, I say meekly, “I feel like I have to push really hard to lead like this.”
“No,” he replies. “Don’t push. Just lean with your whole body, this way.”
“Like this?” I say helplessly, sure that I’m not going to be able to master Vladimir-style bachata.
“That’s… fine,” he says. I’m going to assume that “fine” means it will do, and I try to move on.
It’s tempting to try to execute my new moves by counting the eight beats of the dance out loud, and trying to remember exactly where Liliana said to place my hands and feet. But the more I think and concentrate, the more slowly I recall what to do. I decide to have faith in my muscle memory instead. I move Vladimir through a series of left and right turns, then spin myself, as I willfully push the rational instructions out of my brain. It manages to work. He smiles, and a look of surprise appears on his face, which also has the effect of slowing down the flow of suggestions he has. I know a total of about five moves so far, and I use them up in time for the song to end.
“Thank you!” I practically yell as we finish.
“I’m happy to be your punching box anytime,” he says.
“Punching bag,” I correct his English with a laugh. He gave me a backhanded compliment, but that’s typical of his style and I’m going to take him at face value. I’m excited that now I have at least one follower I can ask to dance whenever I’m at the club, because it feels like there’s no model for how to do this as a female lead.
Later that month, I ask an unfamiliar woman to dance, and I invite a man I just met out to dinner, all in one night. I have never done either of those things before. I’m beginning to notice how issues of leading and following manifest in other areas of my life.
As a young girl, I was encouraged to lead in outward pursuits such as school, but there was very little talk about how to be healthily assertive in intimate relationships. When it came to romantic partners, I spent a lifetime being an object of pursuit or abandonment. In spite of the gains of feminism, it felt deeply unacceptable for me to be the one to get a relationship started, or to end it, and I couldn’t see a way around this. Most of the time, it felt like relationships “happened to” me.
Often, my passivity (and, you might say, my inability to lead) has interfaced with my lovers’ dominating personalities, with negative results. This was heavily modeled by my own parents. When we deny girls the skills to take the lead in our closest relationships, it isn’t a small thing. In cases like mine, a personality can become stunted for a long time. After separating from my long-term partner a few years ago, my next relationship was with a bachata dancer whose demeaning behavior seemed normal (based on my lifelong patterns), and didn’t set off alarm bells for me right away.
It’s too soon to say whether becoming a dance lead will dramatically change the rest of my existence, but I am curious to find out. I’m not just learning to move my feet in reverse. As simple as it sounds, what I know so far is that I’m feeling a deep and newfound sense of my own capabilities.
And I’m wondering why this was kept from me all my life.
There’s a difference, too, between leading a male or female dance partner. A person socialized as female brings qualities to the dynamic such as responsiveness, receptivity, eagerness to please, and self-blame when she makes a mistake. When I dance as a leader with men, I perceive something different. Men who are newer dancers, and don’t yet have the body memory to be solid leaders, are often enthusiastic to experiment, seem relieved to give up control for once in their lives, and are willing to trust that I know what I’m doing.
On the other hand, experienced male leaders are in the position of going against their training when they follow, and they can be defensive about their mistakes rather than apologetic. I feel a greater need to be gentle with them or I fear they will quit after only a couple of moments (which has actually happened). One of my favorite male leaders tensed his forehead, and said in a plain and chilly voice when I asked to lead him, “I don’t do that.”
The best technique I’ve discovered so far is to simply start by leading a man in the “basic step,” the eight-count from side to side, over and over before anything else happens. All other steps flow from that. You’d think the basic step would require the least practice, but I’ve found that the opposite is true to establish a secure foundation. (Maybe this approach can be applied to intimate relationships, too.)
When there’s no pandemic, as a part-time job I take tourists to salsa and bachata clubs, usually first-time dancers. They come from many parts of the world, although some of them are local to Boston. We start by grabbing dinner at Zuzu restaurant, during which it’s my job to calm their nerves and paint a mental image of the details involved in having a comfortable debut at a dance club. (For example, although they may feel anxious, I encourage them to line up in the front row of the dance lesson, under the spotlights, because it gives them the best view to learn the steps. I tell them how large the crowd will be, teach them how to ask others to dance, and hand out breath mints and earplugs.)
I only have a few minutes to explain gender roles in Latin dance to my guests. Here are some of the ways in which I’ve tried: “When you participate in the dance lesson, the old-fashioned approach is for men to be leaders and women to be followers. However, that’s been changing in recent years, and you can take whichever role you choose.”
A week later I’ve found myself saying, “You can choose to dance in any role that you’d like, but it’s easier to learn if you take the traditional gender roles. That way, when the general dancing begins and people start asking others to dance, they will be able to tell which role you can dance by looking at you.”
One of my guests responded by saying, “Really, why is that?”
“Because of your gender,” her friend replied with a frown and eye-roll. “But when I took lessons from Liz Nania, she taught without being gendered about it.”
She was referring to a local ballroom instructor who runs classes aimed at the LGBT community. A housemate of mine took classes from Liz for years. I was experimenting with ways to explain the shifting norms in dance to my tourist clients, but I felt that I was failing at figuring out how to do it without making someone uncomfortable.
The advertisement for my tourist events says “singles and couples of any orientation welcome.” When a same-sex couple attends and wants to dance together, one of them will be required to take the “opposite” role. That usually goes smoothly enough. Interestingly, when male-female couples hear me say they can take any role, a number of them have excitedly decided they want to reverse roles. The vague idea of doing that appeals to them, even if they don’t know what it means to lead or follow in any technical sense as a dancer. I think it’s a great sign that not just a few outliers are interested in these options.
There’s a dance pro at the club who leads a large group lesson. After the lesson, I continue teaching my guests one-on-one or in a smaller group. And although I can dance well as a follower and sufficiently as a leader, I don’t yet have the mental bandwidth to teach a group where gender roles have been totally abandoned, without becoming confused myself.
Liz Nania, the LGBT dance instructor, has been teaching for more than two decades, along with hosting dance parties specifically for that community. But it’s been barely a couple of years that members of the presumably straight Latin dance community have come out as LGBT, and begun the process of integrating the two communities.
The process is accelerating though, and faster than I would have expected. In Boston in 2017, an instructor named Tina Cavicchio went from having bra-length hair to a crew cut, and started using the word “queer” in the mainstream dance community. She doesn’t see herself as an activist, just someone who leads by example (pun unintended). Her students adore her, and she creates integrated spaces simply by drawing people to her who feel safe around her, whatever their orientation. In 2018, the salsa icon Ana Masacote came out as part of the LGBT community in a Boston newspaper and on the radio, after maintaining an internationally-successful dance career for over fifteen years.
Just over a year before the pandemic, I started taking lessons as a beginning leader, then took a short break. When I came back to the next series of classes, I was now one of four female leaders, instead of the only one. Will we soon wind up with a completely gender-free Latin dance community? What would that be like? When women learn to lead in relationships, whether on the dance floor or at home, a source of power is unleashed in them. It is an incredible feeling. It would change not just how women feel about themselves as individuals, but it also change the dynamics of the dance community.
I’m not saying everyone has to be bisexual and androgynous, free of gender or sexual preference altogether. (That should be one of the options.) Given the freedom, perhaps most members of society will stick with their traditional roles anyway. Even so, it should be voluntary, not enforced. When an entire gender feels that their only option is to be a follower in life, then we’re all being stifled psychologically.
Some days, I’m bewildered to see the changes happening so rapidly. My friend Celia celebrated her birthday at Havana Club earlier this year, and there were so many women lined up to dance with her that her male friends stood aside, good-naturedly joking about not being able to dance with her. It feels like it happened in the blink of an eye, but it took a decade. In fact, it took more than a generation.
Having grown up in a harsher time, there’s a part of me that’s envious of people who are newly enjoying these freedoms without (I find myself assuming) having had to suffer. When election season rolls around, one of my family members reminds everyone that people died so that we could vote today. Lives were also lost on the road to embracing variations in gender and sexuality. This feels like a celebration I’ve been waiting for my whole life, yet it also can trigger a lifetime of painful memories. For me, there are moments when it feels like what I imagine revolution feels like—upheaval, joy, fear of the unknown, shock, destruction of the old, and sitting in the rubble while everyone laughs and cries all at once.
Back in 2016, I began dating a Latin dance-lover named Jaime. He held orthodox religious beliefs, and although he had a history of bisexuality, he felt guilty about having any kind of sex. Nonetheless, we got along well for a while. During the early months of getting to know him, I was also getting reacquainted with the dance scene after a few years away.
One night we stood on the sidelines at the club, and two men danced skillfully together nearby, dazzling me as I remembered from a decade ago. I asked Jaime if he’d ever danced with male partners. “No way,” he answered immediately. “I guess I’m not that secure in my sexuality.”
“It’s not a sign of sexual orientation,” I said. “It means you’re a badass and can do something really hard.”
His eyebrow shot up and he pursed his mouth. “Um, that’s not what I thought,” he said, as our eyes met and we mulled each other’s perspectives.
Maybe I’d thought the day would never come when people who were interested in the same sex romantically could express that on the dance floor, so I assumed it still wasn’t the case.
As I began to witness some of the new developments in the Latin dance community, it dawned on me that both Jaime and I were correct. In the past, variations in gender and sexuality seemed completely invisible in Latin dance, while now they’re sometimes on display. However, today it’s just as possible that a group of straight sorority sisters are trying out the scene and having fun dancing with each other, or a man had a progressive dance instructor somewhere who asked students to learn the opposite role in order to master the craft. They might be women who began training in salsa or bachata during the last couple years and simply want to be able to dance with their female friends, never having known a time when it was practically unheard of. And, of course, it still could mean they’re badass hipsters from New York City—the kind who couldn’t care less about gender roles and won’t let anything inhibit their joy of dance.