Dancing around Gender Roles in Marriage

by Mikaela Bell | December 22, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

I’ll never forget the day my husband finally figured out how to lead and I finally figured out how to follow. We’d been struggling through a year-long class in ballroom dance, and one evening while doing East Coast Swing, it finally seemed to click. The secret to amazing swing dancing, if you’re the woman, is never to take control of your own momentum. If he swings you out, you keep going until he pulls you back in. If you’re the man, the secret is to never lose control. “This is exhausting,” my egalitarian husband complained after just a few minutes. I couldn’t help but sympathize. Having complete responsibility for someone else is draining—and terrifying—for both parties! One misstep, one lapse of concentration, could send me careening across the room. “Imagine if your entire life was like this,” I teased him, “instead of just the dance floor!”

The Truth about Dancing

I’ve been practicing a variety of dance forms since the age of eleven. Irish stepdance, modern, jazz, ballroom, ballet, Scottish Highland dancing, contra, country dancing—I’ve at least dipped my toe into all of them, and some I’ve studied intensely. And I’ve noticed that ballroom dance, figure skating, and similarly derived partner sports are often held up by complementarians as the ultimate metaphor for a godly marriage. They demand that both husbands and wives should act as if they are on the dance floor at all times, regardless of how exhausting it is, or whether or not the man occasionally drops his partner.

For example, take a look at how John Ensor extolls the virtues of figure skating on the Desiring God blog: “If he makes a mistake, she pays the larger physical price; he pays the larger emotional price,” he declares, as if a woman pays no emotional price for being dropped on her head by the man she trusted. The writer continues, “She falls, but he fails! So he has to learn to initiate and risk. She has to help him understand her moves and to endure his learning curve.” Not only do these comparisons show a callous disregard for the woman involved in such incidents, they also show a lack of awareness about both the nature of dance and marital life itself.

First, in any actual competition for figure skating, ice dancing, or ballroom dancing—the performances that tend to get broadcast on tv—there is no “leading,” “initiating,” or “receiving.” Both male and female are, in fact, following. Specifically, they are following the dictates of a higher, outside authority: their choreographer and coach. They are performing the same routine that was taught to them and which they have practiced for probably up to a year by the time it gets performed in competition. Dancers learned to choreograph and practice routines long ago because that is, quite simply, how you get the best results. None of the truly spectacular videos of ballroom dancers, figure skaters, or other competitive partner sports are the result of any spur-of-the-moment initiative (see this link for a wonderful example of the Lindy Hop).

Similarly, in a Christian marriage, neither husband nor wife is making the decisions about what will happen next; they are both responding to the guidance they receive from their own coach and choreographer: God. There is a certain loss of spontaneity, but it benefits their performance. Both men and women have been given freedom and autonomy by God, and both are called to give some of that sacred freedom back to God in order to reach higher goals. But in both cases, the sacrifice is made to God, not from one partner to the other. If you ever get a chance to study partner dancing, try an experiment: only allow the man to learn the dance from the choreographer, and leave the woman to follow his lead the best she can. I promise, they will both pay a steep price in performance quality. Dancing doesn’t work that way, and neither does marriage.

A Better Way to Dance

The second point goes well beyond the question of who does the choreography. Yes, even in a choreographed ballroom dance, the male is still responsible for controlling his partner’s momentum, and the female who wishes to be an effective dancer learns to cede that control to him. But people seem to forget that this is only so because most ballroom dances have been designed that way. Ballroom dance evolved in a society that believed a man’s role was to lead and control and a woman’s role was to submit and follow. The dance form reflects that manmade social ideal.

Dancing doesn’t have to be that way.

In American contra dance, long lines of partners face off. They cross, spin, walk back and forth, come together in pairs to twirl, then separate again, each couple moving up and down the line. Once again, they are following a specific choreography, generally coached along by a caller. But in this dance form, one member of each couple isn’t required to control the other’s movements. Creating a beautiful dance requires that both dancers claim authority over their own momentum and move together through the patterns. Because of the slower pace and greater independence of the dancers, each partner is free to add their own movements, as long as they don’t interfere with the greater pattern (watch an example here).

The options for gender roles in dance are as varied as dance itself. There are the solo dances of Irish stepdancing, which are performed alone. Men and women may wear different kinds of shoes—but both are expected to wield power and grace while skipping through the most intricate footwork imaginable. In other words, some dancers are called to remain single! There is Scottish Highland dancing, where men and women actively compete against each other in the same dances. And quite often, the women win these competitions. Or there is the tango, a ballroom dance famous for its drama, much of which comes from the constant tension and battle for control between the two dancers. And yes, there is swing dancing, where the man manages the woman’s momentum, or figure skating, where he uses his upper body strength to lift her high into the air.

All of these dance forms yield beautiful, if very different, results. But the point to take away is that they are the way they are because human beings created them, in different environments, for different purposes. One is not superior to another. No one form of dance is the ultimate style to which all others should aspire. And the unique human beings who perform them may find that they work best when one partner spends most of the time directing the momentum of both—or they may find that they prefer to share responsibility and use the extra freedom to add a special twirl of their own. They may utilize the man’s upper body strength and the woman’s smaller size to perform spectacular lifts—or they may find that they are too well-matched in body type to make this practical and prefer the swings of Irish figure dancing, where the weight of each dancer is required to offset the other.

Similarly, in marriage, some couples may find that they have different strengths and abilities, and may freely agree to defer to each other in certain kinds of decision-making. For others, the ability to act independently may be vital in building a common life together. In all cases, dancing with a partner means that ultimate authority rests with a higher power, not one dancer or the other. What matters is that other Christians respect these decisions as personal choices and not divine mandates. Every couple needs to be free to dance to their strengths. God, the master choreographer, is perfectly capable of using each to create a beautiful work of art.


Related Reading
The Consequences of Soft Complementarianism
Forget the Husband Trump Card: Why Couples Should Make Decisions Together
3 Simple Rules for Egalitarian Couples