Dr Vicki Harman, a sociologist at Royal Holloway, has interviewed social dancers and amateur competitors to find out just what it is about the traditional ballroom dancing that appeals and discovered that much of the draw is down to traditional gender stereotypes.
For the women interviewed, it was the chance to dress in sparkly glamorous outfits, to feel attractive and to be led by a strong male partner. While for men it was the chance to parade an attractive woman around the dance floor. Both men and women also enjoyed learning a new skill, listening to the music, regular exercise and making new friends.
Dr Harman says: “In ballroom dancing it is the man that leads the woman. It is all about the woman looking attractive and being shown off by their male partner. This mimics traditional gender stereotypes of a powerful male and an attractive but less assertive female. In everyday society these stereotypes are considered very dated yet they continue to be acted out on the dance floor.
Each year, the return of Strictly Come Dancing prompts men and women up and down the country to head to their local dance class to take up ballroom dancing. But, despite the rise in popularity, there is still a shortage of men resulting in the few men at the classes having the pick of the women.
Dr Harman adds: “The relative lack of men in ballroom dancing puts them in a more powerful position in terms of partnership selection. While women can and do partner women, having a male partner was seen as the ‘ideal’.”
One dancer interviewed revealed that she would rather dance with an inexperienced male than to dance with an experienced female partner. “You want to dance with a guy, even if they’re not very good,” she said. “It’s nicer, you just feel like a girl. You want to be led. It sounds ridiculous, but there’s a whole kudos. It’s better to dance with a guy.”
However, despite the norm that men lead women round the dance floor, Dr Harman found that women did not always blindly follow their partner’s lead.
“If the guy goes to do something wrong, you just instinctively try to drag them around the right way,” revealed one female dancer. “And if they don’t move fast enough into the timing I’ll just leave them behind! OK, so it doesn’t work so well when you’re doing a competition because you have to, you have to work together. You can’t just dance off on your own, but I find that really hard.”
Dr Harman believes that Ballroom dancing offers a clear example of the ritualised performance of gender. “Ballroom dancing is orientated around male-female partnerships with cultural emphasis on the importance of the male as the leader,” she says. “Given the changing nature of gender roles in society, it is very interesting to examine the elements of continuity and change on the dance floor. While the popularity of Ballroom dancing cannot on its own be seen as evidence of a desire to return to traditional roles, gender continues to be an important factor shaping people’s experiences of learning to dance.”