It all began when I decided to sign up for a weekend of swing dancing hosted at a local university. I hadn’t done any type of formal dancing since my own college days, more years ago than I’d care to count. But my social dance lessons had been fun, and my favorites were tango, swing, and salsa. When I found out I could take workshops from professionals all weekend long, I decided that it would be fun to start back.
Fun isn’t exactly the word that would describe that weekend. Don’t get me wrong: swing dancing is fun. Learning to do something that’s difficult isn’t necessarily enjoyable.
Compounding this difficulty was the fact that I am more introverted than I seem, and it raised my anxiety to have to spend an entire weekend interacting with strangers. Also, dancing all weekend is not for the faint of heart, and my entire body hurt from over five hours of constant exertion on the dance floor.
Not only was I older than most of these strangers, with children of my own now and my college days far behind me, but I was also painfully shy, which made rotating partners more difficult than I thought it would be. I had a favorite, and if I could have danced with him all weekend, it would probably have been fine. But it wasn’t, and that’s how I found myself out on the dance floor with toxic masculinity.
Picture it: a light-filled dance studio with students in varying degrees of athletic apparel and vintage dresses. It looked like half of us had wandered in from a film set and the other half from yoga or pilates. Vintage jazz and swing classics were playing in the background, and a few students were already showing off their dance moves with partners. I was in the corner with my cell phone and water bottle, waiting for class to start when I was asked to dance. I looked at the hand extended to me, flaccid and sweating already, and then remembered social dance etiquette, which is to always accept a dance whenever possible.
Five seconds into the dance, I realized this was a mistake. I introduced myself to my partner, and he muttered his name in response. I informed him that I had only had a one-hour dance lesson the previous day and didn’t really feel comfortable yet with all the steps. He told me he’d been dancing for two years already and then preceded to criticize every single step I took on the dance floor, compounding the anxiety of the situation for me.
As an introvert, I was already uncomfortable. As a newcomer to social dance, I was insecure. As a sensitive person, I didn’t want to be dancing with someone radiating clearly toxic energy. All of these combined to make this the most awkward two minutes of my life, and after being berated the entire time, I politely excused myself, citing my lack of skill and desire to watch and learn instead. I sat back down while he glared at me and continued dancing by himself.
This may not seem, at first, to strike you as being an example of toxic masculinity. This man didn’t seem overly masculine. He wasn’t some well-built gym rat or particularly handsome. He wasn’t some Gaston to my Belle. But that’s not always how toxic masculinity appears to us, although it may be the classic example.
Toxic masculinity is being a male and a lead with two more years of dance experience than his partner blaming that partner for not knowing what they’re doing. It’s being a lead dancer who is incapable of leading and incapable of accepting responsibility for that failure. It’s having all of the benefits of experience and still blaming a novice for being terrible at dancing.
Keep in mind, the sweaty, flaccid hand holding mine was accompanied by a sweaty flaccid hand at my back that was not leading me around the dance floor like it was supposed to. Not only was I not getting direction from the hand that’s meant to guide me, but his feet were barely moving. I’m not kidding: I couldn’t even see them lift off the floor, so I had a terrible time trying to stick to the same beat when I couldn’t even see that he was moving at all.
Everything about the encounter reeked of toxic masculinity. Throughout the weekend, dance leads rotated, and I stood in the line of followers dreading my next encounter with those sweaty hands and that muttering, critical voice. Maybe I wasn’t the best beginning dancer to ever hit the Classic City Swing dance floor, but at least when I do the steps, my feet move, and I manage to get through a dance without criticizing my partner.
It seems that I can’t even attend a dance weekend without facing the evidence of a patriarchal society and how it has bred toxicity into men like this. Despite his sweaty hands, I could have enjoyed a dance if he’d been anything resembling courteous or had admitted that he didn’t know what he was doing rather than expounding on the fact that he was an expert and pointing out every flaw in my own footwork, all the while moving like a broken automaton and failing to lead me on the dance floor as required.
Toxic masculinity doesn’t look one particular way, and it doesn’t exist in every man. I had numerous dance partners over the weekend, and most of them were very pleasant. Some were good leaders, and some weren’t. Some were good dancers, and some weren’t. Most were kind about it and able to admit their own mistakes as easily as I could admit mine. None of them radiated out-and-out toxic masculinity like this guy who thought he was an expert and that everyone else was responsible for his poor performance.
Perhaps if you’ve been in dance classes for a couple of years and still can’t figure out how to lead, you might want to swallow your pride and whatever homophobia is probably working under the surface and switch to a follow position rather than a lead. Doing so might help an ineffective lead learn what is helpful (and what is certainly not) when it comes to dancing with a partner. It might just not have been my fault that he was such a spectacularly bad dancer.
I didn’t set out for a weekend of learning the Lindy Hop and East Coast Swing with the idea that I would be partnered up with toxic masculinity. I just wanted to have a good time and maybe make a few new friends. I wanted to break out of my routine and do something that would be both a physical and mental challenge. I just wanted to enjoy the event.
Overall, it wasn’t too bad, despite my anxiety. But I’ll be honest: if that same guy shows up at the next swing dancing event, I’m likely to decline the dance and educate him on toxic masculinity rather than accepting his offer and spending the next song wondering why we’re not actually moving anywhere on the dance floor while he blames it all on me. I’m never going to learn to be a better dancer by choosing a partner who is unable to admit his own insecurities on the dance floor.
Don’t think this just applies to dance either. Even in relationships, we need partners who are able to admit their mistakes rather than blaming us for their every personal failure and unhappiness. We need familial and platonic relationships where we’re not blamed for someone else’s failure to succeed. We need to be able to communicate openly and with some vulnerability rather than leading with our ego, dance pun intended.
We need to start confronting that toxic masculinity wherever we find it. Maybe we bump into it again on the dance floor, or we find it mansplaining to us at the office or at a local sporting event. Maybe we slam right up against it in classic manslamming fashion when a man refuses to step aside when a woman is walking down the street, expecting her to be the one to give way (manslamming is when she refuses and lets him run right into her to highlight this behavior). Maybe it’s being talked over by a male student in class or interrupted by a man at a meeting. Maybe we see it out on our dates or even in our existing relationships.
Wherever we find those threads of toxic masculinity, we need to start shining a light on them. They aren’t hard to find because they infiltrate our streets and workplaces and dance floors. They’re the men who question sexual assault allegations on our social media pages and the men who defend male strangers online without knowing anything about the circumstances.
In short, they are everywhere.
If I could have spent all weekend dancing with the guy who knew how to lead, complimented me when I did well, and offered helpful suggestions when I was struggling, I would have. He was capable of admitting mistakes, and he made dancing fun rather than work. He was comfortable in his own skin and allowed me to be comfortable in mine while effectively leading me through every spin, turn, and triple-step required.
It’s funny how my dancing improved every time I was with him and faltered every time I had to touch those other flaccid, sweaty hands. If I could have avoided dancing with the poster child for toxic masculinity, I certainly would have done so. But I know next time, I will be happy to fly in the face of social dance courtesy and decline to partner that kind of toxicity ever again.