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Dancing away from gender roles

In Afro-Latin dance, men lead and women follow. But some dancers are changing the rules.

By Cori Brosnahan

One March night, in a nondescript Boston building that houses a bank, a daycare, and a beauty salon, lovers of Latin dance gathered for a monthly social. Under twinkle lights, they stepped and spun to salsa, bachata, and zouk, moving between friends and strangers.

After a few hours, a performance team strutted onto the floor for a zouk show: four traditional couples, in male-female pairs. The music began — and the couples switched partners; now men danced with men and women danced with women. The crowd went wild.

Afro-Latin partner dances, as the hyphen suggests, come from a merging of cultures in the colonial Caribbean. African percussion and body movement combined with Spanish guitar and French partner dancing to create dances like danzón and rumba, and eventually mambo, salsa, bachata, and more. Irresistible and addictive, Latin dance would spread around the globe, becoming the international phenomenon it is today. Still, one thing pretty much stayed the same: The leader, who initiated the movements, was a man. The follower, who responded to his suggestions, was a woman.

Now that seems to be changing. Cities like Boston are on the edge of a movement, led by the queer community, to transform a traditional, highly gendered art form into something that reflects the world today. There are more and more same-sex couples at social dances. There are more men following and more women leading, including people who don’t identify as queer.

I started dancing bachata a year ago at Havana Club, a lively Caribbean outpost behind an anonymous door in Cambridge. As a straight woman, I was surprised and delighted one night when a woman asked me to dance — even more so when she turned out to be an excellent leader. The more I danced, the more I noticed the number of people who switched between leading and following — some queer, some straight, some I had no idea. I admired their skill the same way I admire people who are bilingual.

Partner dance tends to be oversexualized in the U.S., but in essence, it’s about connection. At its best, a dance is wordless conversation, intimate, playful, and tender. As a follower, I still danced mostly with men, and it occurred to me that I was missing out on a connection with half the population there. I also began to wonder about another missing connection: I don’t always follow in life, so why should I only follow on the dance floor?

People who have been on the Latin dance scene for decades point out that same-gender dancing is not entirely new. People have danced salsa at gay night clubs forever. Dance instructors usually learn both parts in order to teach them. And there have been individual stars who crossed the gender line and found fame on the other side. Seaon “Stylist” Bristol, a gay man from Guiana, became an international salsa sensation in the late 1990s, dancing as a follower. Eli Torres and Yen Dorado were two men whose electrifying performance won the prestigious Mayan Professional Salsa Competition in 2009.

Dance classes often start with an assumption: ladies to one side, gentlemen to another, the instructor might say. But what if you are a woman who wants to lead? Or a man that wants to follow? And what if you don’t identify as a man or a woman?

But talent insulates exceptions, while hiding the reality faced by newcomers or simply the less skilled. Dance classes often start with an assumption: ladies to one side, gentlemen to another, the instructor might say. But what if you are a woman who wants to lead? Or a man that wants to follow? And what if you don’t identify as a man or a woman?

“I would see a lot of queer couples coming into dance schools and feeling put off and disconnected,” says Ana Masacote, a professional salsa dancer and Boston-based teacher who identifies as queer. Now, she trains her teachers to use the terms “leader” and “follower” instead of “ladies and gentlemen” — a trend that’s becoming more common, but still hasn’t fully taken hold.

Others, like Juliet McMains, a dance professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, are rethinking the vocabulary entirely.

“I don’t call it “following” because I think it tends to reinforce a passive identity for the people who do it, which tend to be women,” she says. Instead of followers, McMains uses the term “interpreters.”

As the language shifts, so does the culture it describes — though the change has not been uniform or linear. McMains, the author of the history-of-dance book Spinning Mambo Into Salsa: Caribbean Dance in Global Commerce, believes that mainstream acceptance of same-sex and role reversal dancing is specific to particular locations at distinct moments in time. “It has to do with individuals or small groups of people doing a lot of work in a specific community,” she says.

The Boston-based Zouk on the Docks dance group seeks to create a comfortable space for everyone to dance. Switching roles and same-sex dancing are always welcome. Top photo, Leslie Wilson of Medford, Mass., has been dancing with Zouk on the Docks for about 6 months. Photos by Gretchen Ertl

Tina Cavicchio is one of those people in Boston. A dancer since childhood, Cavicchio grew up in the ballroom scene, where her father was a musician. Four years ago, she started dancing bachata at local clubs, and learned to lead because she wanted to dance with her girlfriend.

“I guess one of us has to do that part,” was her reasoning. When male dancers broke them up, Cavicchio imagined they weren’t being homophobic — just assuming that the women were passing time, waiting for a man to step in. But it still made her mad.

Asking women she didn’t already know to dance was another challenge. When Cavicchio was learning to lead, she went to a dance festival in New Jersey. “I was so upset because so many people said no to me. I was wearing a bowtie and a suit — guys weren’t asking me to dance either. I was like ‘Screw this, I’ll change my outfit and I’ll follow.’ I took off my blazer and put on a different shirt. It was really traumatizing.”

Look up the Spanish word despelote, and you will find a variety of definitions ranging from “chaos” to “hot mess” to “the total rupture of the rules and order within [a] dance.” But to Ana Masacote, it means a joyful letting loose, which is why she decided to name her new LGBTQ Afro-Latin social dance “DespeloteX.”

It was the first event of its kind in Boston — though Masacote had nurtured the idea for a decade, back when she was married to a man. Her own public coming out five years ago coincided with what she saw as a greater openness in the industry in general. YouTube videos of same-sex couples proliferated online and the first queer Latin dance festival happened in the Bay Area. It was, Masacote decided, time for DespeloteX.

Jose Cuadra dances with Matthew Ferrer

On a late-spring Sunday, I headed over to the Hard Rock Café for the party, accompanied by Jose Cuadra, a local dancer and choreographer who helps organize Zouk on the Docks, a group dedicated to growing the Brazilian zouk community in Boston. Cuadra had choreographed the zouk piece that had made such an impression on me. He told me that switching to partners of the same sex had been his student’s idea. The gambit was particularly gratifying for Cuadra, who just five years ago had been on a team that wouldn’t let him dance with another man. He was censored at social dances, too.

“I would brave myself to ask [a guy] to dance,” he says. “They agreed, I agreed. We’re dancing — and my teammates would break us up.”

Other times, he was rejected outright; he has been refused on the dance floor more times than he can remember. But Cuadra, who is the gay son of a Managuan police chief, had dealt with worse. He kept putting himself out there, believing that “there was a higher purpose.” He thought that people just needed to see it was okay.

Now, it seemed like his efforts — and those of others in the queer community — were paying off. At DespeloteX, we signed in and took pictures in front of a rainbow flag with a variety of props.

“It’s like big gay prom,” said the photographer.

“The dream,” said Cuadra.

Cavicchio was there, too, teaching a small bachata class with another woman before the dance started. There was no “ladies and gentlemen” here. People continued to filter in, filling up the space. The music got louder. Another instructor led us through a workshop in Afro-Cuban movement, the dances of the Orisha gods, who were brought to the Americas by the Yoruba people in slave ships.

The Orishas have their own rhythms and movements, practiced by followers of Santeria and salsa dancers alike. There is Oshun, goddess of love and femininity, who circles her hips and caresses the bangles that adorn her wrists. There is Chango, god of fire and masculinity, who wields his axe and brings thunder and lightning down from the sky. Anyone can learn how to shimmy and chop. Anyone can play any part — and that is what we did for the rest of the night.

Except I only followed because I still didn’t know how to lead, which was, by this point, becoming embarrassing. And so, a few weeks after DespeloteX, I scheduled a bachata lesson with Cavicchio, where I would lead for the first time.

In the years since she first danced bachata with her girlfriend, Cavicchio has become a sought-after teacher. (She also gets asked to dance faster than she can ask anyone.) I met her on the fourth floor of an MIT building, whose spacious elevator vestibules are frequently commandeered by dancers. We warmed up by opening our chests. Leading, Cavicchio explained, doesn’t come from the elbow or the wrist, but from the body. Then we talked about the eight count, the basic rhythmic structure of bachata, and what is supposed to happen when.

In position, the hold felt strange, like looking at the mirror image of a familiar picture. I tried to start with my right foot, and Cavicchio reminded me that leaders always start with the left. We practiced right turns, left turns, forward basic, back basic. My arms snapped back to the follower’s position whenever I turned. I felt responsible for the dance; when I messed up and stranded Cavicchio without a clear direction, I apologized in the fumbling way so many leads have apologized to me. It took all my confidence, but it was exciting to decide what was going to happen next and initiate it. As the body goes, the mind follows: leading surfaced an attitude I wanted to take off the dance floor and out into life.

After the lesson, we visited Cavicchio’s friends, two women who were practicing a few floors down. Both of them lead and follow, and they were excited when I told them I had just taken my first leading lesson. “Ask me to dance next time at Havana!” one of them said. I told her I would.

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Cori Brosnahan is a writer based in Boston.


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