How Ballroom Dancing Redefined Femininity (for me, anyway)

If I had to summarize my personality in one word, I’d choose “tomboy” — in high school, I played competitive tennis. In college, I bought a motorcycle. No one taught me how to apply make-up and pink, sparkly clothes aren’t my thing. Despite this, I somehow ended up learning ballroom dance. Willingly!

Yale Ballroom Competition 2015: American Rhythm

Photo Credit: Jim Parker, 2015

Though far from Dancing with the Stars material, I dance in three collegiate competitions a year. This means make-up, pantyhose, high heels, and dresses with enough rhinestones to elicit jealousy from the makers of the BeDazzler. How the heck did I go from tomboy to the dance floor?

Some of my friends would suggest that my boyfriend had something to do with it; he introduced me to ballroom. Who wouldn’t want to share some of the more intimate dances — like the rumba — with their significant other? Or, these same friends might say, perhaps my competitive nature plays a role. As a lifelong athlete, I never lack the motivation to dance my absolute best when the judges are watching.

Yale Ballroom Competition 2015: American Tango

Photo Credit: Jim Parker, 2015

Both of these are right, but they’re also wrong. What they’re missing is this: ballroom dance allowed me to break out of my shell. It fostered confidence. Beyond that, and more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to experience femininity with a flair — with a bad-ass, kick-butt edge that speaks to me in a way that girls comparing purses and haircuts can’t (sorry!).

Growing up, I noticed two kinds of women: the delicate Sleeping Beauty and the no-holds-barred Fast and Furious Letty. Cool girls could handle any situation. The girly ones couldn’t deal with a hangnail — or the prick of a spinning wheel. Ballroom dance’s inherent male lead initially fit that old-fashioned gender role I despised, but as my steps became more confident, I noticed a blending of these two types of women. Even though I danced the follower’s part and performed girly spins on demand, those moves required precision, technique, and a whole lot of practice — all very reminiscent of my days as an athlete.

But wait, hang on. Sleeping Beauty’s tiny cut immobilized her; how could girly girls handle muscle aches or foot pain after a grueling practice session? Stubbornness and a little elbow grease were Letty’s department. I was confused. My extreme presumptions about female dancers’ femininity didn’t reconcile with reality.

I began to realize that the world isn’t black and white.

There are girly girls and there are tomboys. And then there’s a whole spectrum in between. Yes, those spins are feminine and graceful, but the kicks and that hip bump bleed awesomeness. I can be feminine and kick butt at the same time; those qualities aren’t mutually exclusive. It sounds simple, but for me, my awareness of the shades of gray between these two opposing images of women revolutionized how I saw other girls — and myself. Ballroom presented me the opportunity to explore femininity; imagining an alternate universe where I refused to dance conjures up the image of a girl applying stereotypes to herself: you’re either girly or a tomboy, no in-between. I don’t want to live in a world that simplistic and rigid.

Thankfully, our world features an exciting array of complexities and nuances: I’ve watched girls dancing lead with other girls and men following men. Ballroom competitions don’t discriminate against these same-sex couples. A number of competitive female dancers even sport short hair — time to edit my clichéd mental image of a girl’s perfectly curled locks springing as she dances. Good thing I’ve always liked editing.

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51 thoughts on “How Ballroom Dancing Redefined Femininity (for me, anyway)

  1. I love this! You summarize my own thoughts and feelings so perfectly. I am the same way – not into the “girly girl” stuff at all but I LOVE ballroom. And it’s been really cool to see how my strength and athleticism can compliment the femininity, instead of clash with it. I hope you don’t mind if I share this on my own blog. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Share away 🙂 Thanks so much for reading – I’m glad the article spoke to you! For the longest time I struggled with what I perceived as a clash between the two; when I stepped back and really looked at it, it was both amazing and relieving to realize that I’d created the clash entirely in my head.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great and well written post! That’s really awesome how you ball room dance, but it’s even more awesome how it changed your view of things! Good work!
    I miss you name twin! 🙂 I hope you’re doing well!

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. I’m going to be brutally honest (and apparently take a long time doing so..) I don’t like the stereotype of, you’re either a girly girl or tomboy. You’re either a cool girl, or you’re just a sleeping beauty. Let me explain: Women have always been looked down on, historically and even still. Consider how much you once looked down on “girly girls” and regarded them as not one of the “cool girls” who “could handle any situation.” Then question: Have you ever looked down on a guy or man nearly that much, for being too gentle or quiet? Not being athletic, etc?

    True, you probably have seen men get ridiculed for not seeming masculine enough – but something about it seems like even the softer guys, are not looked down on, nearly as heavily as gals are. It’s almost as though, women are expected to prove something, in order to (sort of) be set free from being shamed for being women. You’re not good enough to not be looked down on for being a woman, unless you do something to prove yourself for being one.

    While men seem a lot more free to just be comfortable as they are. Not have to be afraid of being looked down on so heavily. As in, not being seen as badly as a “girly girl.” Regardless whether they as a person, wind up being an athlete&masculine. Or whether they’re more delicate, gentle or intellectual.

    Feminist movements made it possible for women to participate in sports if they want to, and have other freedoms. And that was a good thing. Feminist movements still have not fixed everything though. They haven’t yet fixed an underlying expectation on women to prove themselves, in order to avoid being shamed.

    We also live in a culture where masculine ideals and yang energy, are pushed as the ideal in both men and women. I have a theory that the pressure to be masculine, can be just as harmful to women, as it is to men. It’s great that you can do sports as you choose. And I read above how you attempted to see things as not so rigidly girly-girl vs tomboy. Though, honestly, I didn’t think it was enough. Because it was based how you could “kick butt” while performing a feminine role.

    It would be better to dissolve the girly-girl vs tomboy shame itself, at its base. By realizing women don’t have to “kick butt” in order to prove themselves in the first place. They *should * have the freedom to get all bad ass, in such ways. And it’s great if you can enjoy doing that. But that shouldn’t mean a shameful label on girls who don’t seem to be doing the same thing as you. Or girls who are not athletes.

    I’ve found the opposite is true in a different way: I’m a very opinionated and philosophical. I’m small, petite and I’m too quiet. I sense that loud/ aggressive women look down on me. But I also find that the aggressive, sporty types who look down on softer people, though they pride themselves in having a better understanding of how to be the masculine ideal- They’re not so great in another sense-

    They have no understanding of opinions and ideas. When faced with interesting opinions and thoughts, some of them just become bullies who try to intimidate people out of their opinion. For some reason, loud aggressive people seem to discourage independent thinking. And they don’t tend to have any interesting opinions of their own.

    Not all of them, though… But I mean, that’s why it does not make sense to me, why any girl should be expected to be a “cool girl.” vs a girly girl.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right – no girl should be expected to be a cool girl vs. a girly girl. Those things are NOT mutually exclusive. Everyone (male or female) should strive to be themselves instead, to be who they want to be instead of who society tells them to be — the theme of my blog is mindful living.

      The argument I’m making within this article is exactly what you said – no one should look down on either type of girl like I once did. Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a redditor about how people see “girly-girl” as synonymous with “stupid,” therefore girls act masculine to “prove” that they’re not stupid. I never thought of it quite like that before, but back in high school, this was very much how I (unconsciously) felt. What a terrible stereotype! Now that I’m older – and I understand stereotypes – I don’t let them limit my outlook: the world isn’t a poorly-written movie. People are WAY more complex than “girly-girl” and “tomboy.”

      This article was intended to show that transformation in my thought – no, I’m not perfect, but I’m proud of myself for coming to terms with how terribly sexist I was. Once I realized my problem, I did something about it. Now, almost four years since I first learned ballroom, I no longer look down on femininity — and isn’t that what the feminist movement is all about? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. This is a good topic. I really liked it and also I loved the way you describe type of girls..lol yes, there are many but we can’not blame someone who can’t handle any situation. be it a girl or a boy..it’s a human being who is not capable of handling any situation not a specific gender though..overall this topic is good n funny to some extent..:)))) peace.

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  7. I love this – I coach a swim team and while it’s a whole different sport with very little cross-over, I so appreciate that you were able to take your sport and learn more about yourself and how you want to be perceived in the world! Great writing – I hope the girls on my team will find the same inner strength and passions!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing how my sports (ballroom, tennis) have taught me so much about life — way more than I expected when I first picked up a racket or agreed to try some dance steps. I’m sure your girls feel the same way about swimming 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

      Like

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  9. Former competitive ballroom dancer here! Welcome to the insanity! I miss dancing soooo much, but yes – it does cause you to reflect on your own femininity and how you want to translate it onto the floor with your partner!

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  10. Such an interesting perspective – as a dancer in a previous life I don’t think people always realise the strength and discipline that is required to dance. Yes, you get the girly-girls and the costumes / hairstyles can promote this image but most actual ‘girlies’ wouldn’t want to put up with the bruises and snapped fingernails!
    It’s a great form of expression and exercise – I’m pleased people are challenging the stereotypes and experiencing it for themselves. I try to push it with boys at school – they’re usually reluctant until I tell them plenty of footballers learn ballet to improve performance on the pitch. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I love this post! You’re so right and this actually applies to so many things! This well exemplifies the reasons to stop stereotyping. Besides, it always feel good to read about one’s passion, it does read as a so very honest piece.

    All the best,
    Giulia

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I totally agree. I’m kind of in between girly and tomboyish–sometimes I feel like I want to be a boy (not transsexual, though). I love ballroom dance and ballet (did it for several years and quit due to financial reasons). They definitely take more strength and energy than it seems. Thanks for sharing!

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  13. It is crazy how something like ballroom dancing cause you to think so much about gender roles and allowed you to redefine it for yourself. I agree, black and white is an aging idea in contrast with the grey area in between. There is a song I enjoy that describes the grey area quite well, to my understanding. It is by Sleeping at last and is called 101010. The lyric that most applies to what you are talking about says, “Grey is not a compromise, it is the bridge between two sides,” and I could not agree more. Glad that ballroom dancing was that bridge for you!

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    • I like that lyric – I’ll be sure to look the band up. It rings very true – there are many shades of gray and each shade occupies its own place between black and white. Very poetic!

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

      Like

  14. Ahhh I love this. I started salsa last year and the one area I struggle with is the man leading! lol. It’s so odd to be in a position where the man tells you what the next move will be, this is not me whatsoever in real life, so I completely understand that comment. You wrote this like I knew you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad my writing felt “comfortable,” so to speak. 🙂 I understand what you mean, though – it’s odd to never be in charge! Sometimes I try to convince my partner that he should follow and I should lead – this always leads to a good laugh because I’m a terrible leader.

      Thanks for sharing your story! 🙂

      Like

  15. I love your blog! Number 1) You’re a great writer. And 2) I can completely relate to “the spectrum” between Sleeping Beauty and Letty! I once performed a swing/lindy hop routine with a leading girl and the crowd went crazy! Just because 2 girls were dancing together! It was brilliant! Haha! Keep up the good work! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I love this! I am also on the somewhere in-between and I totally love that you had a motorcycle I have ALWAYS wanted my own. Well written and totally hits the nail on the head!

    P.S. I’ve always wanted to try swing dancing…I may just do it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you’re interested, try riding a dirt bike first. If/when you fall, the stakes are much lower and you’re much less likely to get hurt 🙂 As for swing dancing, it truly is. Social swing dancing is very informal and the people who dance it are always very welcome. Look for a dance studio in your area!

      But thank you for your kind words! Much appreciated 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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  18. Woah! You’ve been blogging for a long time now. I admire the way you write and how you keep writing. I’m praying the same would go for me, haha. I’d love to have a long list of blog posts too. Keep it up! ❤

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  20. I am the least girly girl I know (I wanted to be a mechanic when I was 8!) but I adore Ballroom and Latin dance and have been doing it for three years now. I don’t compete anymore but I am still working my way through the levels and exams and two of my three daughters have taken it up as well now. We love our ‘princess dancing’ and it keeps me fit! 😊

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    • I’ve met so many people — in all sorts of places on a femininity spectrum — and it’s amazing how dancing has brought so many people together 🙂 Glad to hear that you and your girls are enjoying it! Rock on!

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Yes I love this!!! Makes me giggle and remember how I grew up in the world of ballet but being horrendously embarassed and not telling any of my school friends for the thought that I would be a “girly girl”. Even while being battered and bruised and always sore! Very well written and great food for thought- thankyou.

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