It is not a big mystery why the following role is less celebrated in social dance communities and why followership is obscured in the business world. It’s because the concept of “following” lies on the subjective, internally-referenced, physically-based pole of human experience, what we have collectively termed The Feminine. This pole is grounded in, among other things, feelings and emotions, touch, nature, the home, creativity and art. In contrast, the masculine pole is generally organized around the intellect and analytical thought, the external world, science, work, industry, and vision. Because we currently live in a patriarchal system, anything on the feminine side of the spectrum is considered inferior to or property of the masculine.
We may never achieve a perfect balance of these two ways of being in the world, but historically, efforts to move toward balance have improved the health and well-being of Earth’s entire ecosystem, including the lives of humans. That large numbers of men continue to perpetrate violence against women, nature, and their own emotions indicates, to me, that we are far from balance. To shift the momentum, even just a little bit, steady effort is required, just like steering a ship in the storm. And we need all hands on deck.
The first step of any change is awareness. By awareness I don’t mean just our own private memories, which our minds tend to twist, edit, and rationalize in all sorts of surprising ways. I mean externalized, public awareness, which moves the raw experience out of our bodies and into words and dialogue, where it can be named and acknowledged.
The recent #MeToo social media trend is part of this externalizing step. Those who claim this kind of sharing is pointless may be missing the point. Of course sharing “Me too” is not a complete solution in itself, but it is an important part of the solution. It’s the awareness part, and awareness means we are going to feel emotions through our own memories and through hearing the stories of others. Remember, feelings are labeled “feminine,” and we’ve all been trained to dismiss and ignore those. Maybe that's why some of us think this is pointless? Both women and men need to let emotions be what they are, especially men, for whom it may be harder, but we’ll get to that later.
I also believe that we need to proactively re-envision masculinity and femininity, but we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge where we are first. And here we are, with memories of harm and violation. With feelings of shame, rage, and God knows what else. Me too.
In addition to allowing our feelings to move through us, the awareness raising of #MeToo creates solidarity, acceptance, and belonging through a sense of shared experience. These social forces are what make us feel worthy, remind us that we have a right to defend ourselves in the first place, whether with a strong word or a precise strike to the throat. #MeToo helps to place the responsibility for harm where it belongs, on the side of the perpetrator.
Sharing is a fundamental method of healing and integration for human beings, and integration must happen if we want to change the system we are all living in, even just a little bit. The most extraordinary example of integration I can think of is the following TED talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. If you don’t know it, listen and prepare to have your mind blown.
From awareness, our work actually gets harder, but also more exciting, because shifting our definitions of masculinity and femininity shakes the very foundation of who we think we are, our individual “selves.” Personally, I find the roles of leading and following, borrowed from both social dance and the business world, to be immensely valuable in exploring more expansive meanings for the terms masculine and feminine, male and female.
Because the task is so immense, I try to think of this work as a lifelong journey, one that has so far led me to explore various therapeutic techniques, yoga and meditation, and life coaching. In retrospect, I can even see now how my career as an improvisational dance artist was, on some level, a way of teaching myself about healthy relationship. Reflecting on both my training and my social experiences over the past two decades, I have some thoughts about how to support change in this area, but like all experiments, it is a work in progress. I share it here to contribute to the conversation.
I think that women must look deeply within themselves and ask what it is that they truly want on all levels, professionally, personally, sexually and otherwise. We must learn to step further and further away from the passive role we have been cast in and speak these desires out loud, at least to one person at a time, and take action toward attaining them. The vast majority of women in my leading (dance) classes note how unfamiliar, thrilling, and socially difficult it is for them to do this, to clearly indicate their wishes to another person. Men also struggle with this, of course, but among my dance students, anyway, the struggle seems to be more on the level of physical coordination, not social inhibition.
Passivity is like an excessive condition of following, too much “receiving.” The limit of what we can take keeps lengthening, until the point of death. Again, blame for assault or abuse lies squarely with the perpetrator, and the excess following state (in this context, passivity) has been trained into many of us through social cues regardless of what our actual life experience has or has not been. To the extent that we live on the far end of that spectrum, we can help ourselves by balancing our way of being with small drops of leading energy, or masculine energy. This leading energy helps us sets boundaries, makes choices, set the tone of a conversation. It shifts the pattern of passivity toward the pattern of empowerment. Women don’t become like men when they do these things, they just become healthier women.
I myself work on this daily, not so much in dance anymore, where I have gotten quite good at it, but in my life, and it is shocking to me how challenging it can be sometimes. Mostly, the difficulty takes the form of a combination of shame and inner critique that prevents me from speaking what I want out loud, or from taking action that might bring me closer to it. Money, sex, a cheeseburger, it doesn't matter, really. Am I allowed to have it? Do I deserve it? Will it hurt anyone if I get it? Obviously, all humans experience this, not just women, but I’m labeling it as a masculine, or leading, quality, because I think the framework is helpful in this context. We have to name and go after what we want regardless of what other people think about it.
When I do know what I want and I say it or take some action toward it, I feel the same way I do when I’m choreographing a performance, or painting in my tiny, home studio. That is, I feel so completely myself that whether I’m male or female or something else is entirely irrelevant. I mean, I don’t forget, but it’s not the primary thing that’s defining “me.” I could say I’m in creative flow, or I’m expressing myself, or I’ve synchronized my inner and outer experience. Peak experiences in art, family, and athletics are common places to hear descriptions of this type of flow. I think we all know what it is.
The question I’m more and more interested in is how can we get there in our everyday interactions with one another. How can we acknowledge our sex and gender realities while staying connected to this deeper core of who we are – the part of us that emerges in the creative flow state. Feminism has done much to shift women away from the passive role and toward a more integrated role, but we need to address both ends of the spectrum if we want balance, and that brings us to men.
Obviously, I am not a man, but because I know that lead and follow cannot be separated, and that they rise or fall together, I suggest here that men must also look deeply within themselves and learn not to identify desires, but to experience the depth of their own emotion. I believe that as we women are training ourselves to know and speak what we want clearly, men must learn the complementary skill, to tolerate and allow the internal experience of emotional feeling. Rage, shame, and disappointment may appear, as well as delight and affection.
In this path of integration, men shift away from a pattern of entitlement (excessive leading) to a pattern of responsibility. Entitlement is the polar opposite of passivity. Not only do we want something, we take it by manipulation or force. Entitlement says there’s no situation in which it is ok not to get what we want, so we use various degrees of aggression to secure it. Maybe we fear social ostracization if we don’t get it, or maybe there are far more dire, imagined consequences if we don’t get it. Perhaps we feel our very survival is at stake. Whatever the reason, men (and all of us, but mostly men) need to examine what these are and fully own the feelings that accompany them.
Practicing responsibility does not abandon personal desires and the pursuit of them, but rather re-aligns speech and action with core values such as respect and equality. Our sense of self does not collapse if we do not get what we want, nor will men become like women if they feel emotion. On the contrary, they learn patience, non-attachment, flexibility, contentment, clarity, gratitude. Men become healthier men.
I imagine that incorporating this “following,” or feminine way of being, into a masculine self might even be more challenging than it is for women to identify and speak their desires in the world. After all, as a culture, we’ve been immersed in the masculine way of doing things or a long time. Many women are already very good at it.
Nevertheless, change is always possible. And really, what other choice to we have? As a starting point check out this great article on nurturing as a masculine quality.
Everyone: Top Three Practices for Change
1. Mindfulness Meditation – Headspace or similar apps make it easy with short guided recordings. In my experience, meditation is not about finding bliss, though in time it can feel relaxing and peaceful. For our purposes, I recommend it as a way to train your awareness to recognize and tolerate thoughts and feelings, to understand that "you" are not your thoughts or feelings, that you can choose. Remember, change starts with awareness.
2. Self-Care – Do whatever puts you into the zone of creative flow, even if it’s 10 minutes a day. Exercise, take a walk, eat, doodle, nap, get a massage, cook. Self-care is a radical act in a culture that perpetuates self-loathing. You have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help the person next to you.
3. Journaling - Writing is a fantastic way to externalize thoughts and emotions, especially if you feel confused about either, or have trouble articulating them. The privacy of a journal allows the freedom of no censorship - write exactly what you are thinking and feeling, write letters you'll never send, write your deepest secrets, and then set it all on fire if you want, or use it as a reference in your own process.
Let's keep the conversation going. Respectful comments welcome.