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Stepping Up: “Ask me to follow.”

December 4, 2009

A moonlit night and an empty, marble-floored room conspire to patch up all misunderstandings between frustrated lovers by pure force of atmosphere – at least, in the pros’ world.

In this climactic scene from The Gay Divorcee (1934), none of the characters’ accumulated faux pas (so to speak) are actually ironed out. There seems to be no time for that. Instead, Guy (Fred Astaire) furnishes the proof of the words he uses to court Mimi (Ginger Rogers) – “You are the one” – with their bodies.

As she’s about to leave the room, he spins her into his space so they’re walking in step. After a few moments of holding her in this intimate harmony of motion, he loosens their position so they stand side by side. He locks eyes with her but gives her body space, pointedly making contact only with his hand on hers. While their relationship so far has been his to pursue and hers to rebuff, in this moment Mimi transitions from guarded to on board. Given space to leave, she now continues to dance with Guy. A smile passes over her face as she witnesses herself dancing by his side, an equal partner in crime, not merely an object of pursuit. He’s called her bluff. They dance on.

From The Gay Divorcee at youtube=

Astaire and Rogers’ ten films together, made between 1933 and 1939 except for the final film, in1949, chart an eager-to-please Astaire and a self-possessed Rogers battling with barbs, navigating confused identities, and moving almost accidentally – yet indelibly – into a cathartic dance scene that proves they’re destined to be together.

The playful gender dynamics in their iconic musical films may come as a surprise to modern viewers. Their films consistently reverse roles and lampoon power dynamics and social conventions.

Astaire usually plays a successful but dissatisfied international performer, the butt of jokes made by men with “real” jobs. Rogers’ character is always otherwise occupied/inclined/engaged. Her confidence is so great that her genuine annoyance at Astaire’s persistence doesn’t crowd out her enjoyment of a good shutting-down, which she delivers at regular intervals.

Photo by John Miehle, from

Backed by the insouciant songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin, their performing partnership still leads by example for romantics who want to look like they know what they’re doing.

Enter the hopeful college student.

Molly Wenig Rubenstein is the president of Yale University’s Swing and Blues club.  “A lot of my job is community organizing-like,” she said in a phone interview. “How do we create a welcoming, pleasant, friendly scene?” Rubenstein has herself been dancing socially for almost nine years, beginning as a young student in New York City. (Full disclosure: I went to high school with Rubenstein, and have enjoyed, particularly as her occasional partner, a handful of classes and nights out at dance studios with her).

The “welcoming” Rubenstein speaks of is multilayered. The complex dynamics of social dancing have particular concern for her in terms of queer and straight community relations. Rubenstein’s mother’s partner – the rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a New York synagogue focusing on the gay and lesbian communities — has been in her life since preschool, as one of her moms, and Rubenstein grew up a part of the gay community.

On November 13, the Yale Swing and Blues Society held their second event of the year aimed at remixing traditional gender roles in partner dance. At the Swing & Choose Outreach dance, participants are rotated through different gender and role pairings, learning both lead (traditionally male) and follow (traditionally female) parts. They can sport “ambidancetrous” buttons and compete to show their dexterity in the non-standard role.

To Rubenstein, partner dancing has a powerful capacity for restructuring our relationships to ourselves, to our personal history, and to others. Social dancing is fundamentally a confrontation of people’s relationships with bodies. Particularly in blues dancing – a sensual dance with a close hold, whose loose-hipped gyrations  capitalize on the deep bass lines of blues music – that fact abuts with people’s long-held conscious or subconscious reservations about physicality.

From evrimicoz at

“Because it’s about body, and because body is so taboo, when dance is discussed there are very specific things you ‘can’t’ say – you ‘can’t’ talk about sexuality in dance,” Rubenstein explained.

Partner dancing is a type of Bizarro World, granting the participants permission to do things that overstep the boundaries of their relationships in, as it were, civilian life. That’s why in Astaire-Rogers movies, the defining dance scene between the lovers often arises from muddled intentions and imagined betrayals. At the height of awkwardness, dance allows the couple to begin an honest relationship.

In this clip from Top Hat (1935), Astaire innocently engages a seething and conflicted Rogers, who mistakenly believes he seduced her while concealing his marriage to an old friend of hers (seated at the table). Rogers’ character struggles with her feeling of being wronged while indulging, through a transformative dance, her synchronicity with Astaire’s character.

From “Top Hat” at

While Astaire and Rogers’ characters undoubtedly reach a kind of abstracted sexual union in some of their dance numbers (the first clip in this article cuts off just before Astaire offers the speechless Rogers a cigarette), Rubenstein maintains that the most experienced dancers can “dissociate” partner dancing and sexuality, because as she says, dance can have its own life as an art form.

BluesBlaze instructors Emily Schelstrate and Michael Lenneville. Photo by Leslie Carpenter (

That said, Rubenstein has closely observed the implications that social dynamics in dance have for social dynamics in sexuality. “As a teacher, I’m helping people overcome their discomfort with touching another person – and these things are huge. If you don’t deal with them consciously as a teacher, they start coming out in other ways.” Part of the motivation for the Yale Swing and Blues Society’s Outreach dance event, is Rubenstein’s personal experience of an arm’s-length relationship between gay and straight communities in the settings she loves.

“I feel like I’ve crossed a lot of my own boundaries – crossed the distance between self and body, between me and other people – and it bothers me and [the Yale Swing and Blues Dance community] to feel that that’s just not as available to the queer community. It’s different to participate in mainstream offerings. It can be socially awkward.”

As awkwardness is a two-way street, Rubenstein sees the equal-opportunity lead/follow events as an exploratory space for both straight and queer communities; “No matter how welcome you say everyone is, if only the gay people are doing certain things, it’s not that comfortable.” She draws a vivid comparison between the unspoken social taboos of bodies and prejudice: “I think a lot of homophobia comes from similar places, with the discomfort of our bodies, of being touched.” Individuals as well as communities do turn against parts of themselves.

The Society’s website says that their Swing & Choose Outreach dance “congratulates men who follow and women who lead, and welcomes the LGBTQ communities of Yale and New Haven. We’ll be bringing back favorite features of last year’s dance, like the ‘ambidancetrous’ t-shirts, the ‘ask me to lead/follow’ buttons and the Jill & Jack role-reversed social dance competition.” This year’s event brought in plenty of new dancers locally and from as far as Montreal and California.

Ultimately, for Rubenstein the practice of individuals learning both lead and follow parts comes down to pedagogy and dance technique. She maintains that people improve as dancers by knowing both parts. Beyond that initial exposure, there’s great room for discovery:

“Some women will be better leads, some men better follows. They’ll be happier on the dance floor if they can just acknowledge that and not worry about what that means about their femininity or their masculinity and their sexuality.”

In her 2008 on-point review of the reality TV series “Dancing with the Stars,” The New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella observed that while “Female stars are often congratulated on getting in touch with their inner ‘hotness,’” the male stars who dance competently (as leads, of course) are “treated as a pleasant surprise.” Acocella says of the Miami Dolphins’ defensive end Jason Taylor “On the dance floor, he looks endearingly baffled, as if he had just discovered that he is good at shucking oysters, or something else equally unrelated to his pride.”

From “Dancing with the Stars” at

Rubenstein routinely leads male participants when they’re first learning a swing or blues dance, as a way to teach them the basics. While the participant may be mentally willing, she often feels a resistance to following. She finds that persistent, and unsurprising: “I have very strong intuitions that that’s a social construction form a young age – you feel it in your arms, you feel a body that’s reluctant to relax,” she said.

While such romantic models as Astaire and Rogers may cast a hulking gender-normative shadow on novices’ first flirtations with dance, Rubenstein has mixed feelings about the possibility of divorcing social dancing from the popular zeitgeist of romance.

“As much as there’s an activist part of me that wants to remove romance from dance in order to free if from a lot of things, I wouldn’t want to… For me it’s become much bigger than that, partly because romance has expanded in my mind since I was 17.” That expansion, she said, embraces the kind of creature comforts usually passed over in popular culture.

That’s not so vanilla when fluid gender roles and sexual diversity are welcomed into the expanded definition of what it means to hold someone in your arms – whether in private or very much in public.

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