Anti-Sexist Dance?

Author: Philipp Eigner

Is there such a thing as feminist Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba?

Contact, proximity, tension and flow, dynamics, harmony, rhythm and aesthetics. Dancing is an incredibly fulfilling occupation. For me, it’s the first activity that really captivated me and made me constantly reach for more. More knowledge, more ease, more precise movements and clearer interaction. It delights me and makes me euphoric. Before, during and after. We don’t have to travel far to dance. We hardly need any special equipment. We do not even need special weather. Dancing always works. All this, for me, makes social dancing a captivating activity for every day of the week. I have never felt more fulfilled than when I am dancing.

This is how I feel about it.

However, dance can be interpreted differently. I have personal insight into the dances Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba. Dance is also fertile soil for macho fantasies, sexual assault and outdated gender role concepts. As a man who is gradually learning to think feministically, I often ask myself whether — as a member of the dance community — I am acting against my feminist convictions, carrying on sexism, or perpetuating stereotypes and unequal treatment.

Picture of a dancing couple in sunset

Is there such a thing as feminist dancing of Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba, or is sexism an essential pillar of these dances? Throughout this text, I understand sexism as unequal treatment and judgement based on assumed gender differences.

What’s the problem?

Can something that triggers as many positive feelings as social dancing be problematic at all? I believe YES. On the one hand, it’s indeed possible that both dancing partners enjoy the moment of dancing without any reservations. On the other hand, this enjoyment takes place in a heavily burdened bigger picture. In a mindset that indisputably nourishes from fixed role concepts and attributions.

The basic principle of dances like Salsa is the distribution of roles into leaders and followers. In these dances, this distribution is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, the system of such dances would not work. The way figures are created by action and reaction is based on this distribution. Just as statics and dynamics, which have to apply to make the characteristic moves possible. Spinning, i.e. fast turns of the follower in the rhythm of the music, is not imaginable without clear guidance. Neither are lifting techniques that require a stable foundation to not appear uncontrolled. Without the leader-follower relationship, the dance would result in chaotic misunderstandings.

Some dances do not rely on the distribution of roles or are performed alone. But these will never provide the Salsa/Bachata/Kizomba feeling. This feeling that’s unique for each of the dances.

Now, this doesn’t mean the follower has to be female and vice versa. For the dances to work, it’s sufficient that the roles exist at all. Nevertheless, experience shows that the roles in the overwhelming majority are filled by men and women following the common stereotypes. The assigned functions of leader and follower are often carried out by men and women due to the traditional social narrative of the “natural” qualities of the respective gender. What does this mean?

The necessary functions of the leader in Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba, regardless of who takes on the role, are the following: He*She is the proactive, initiative part. The provider of ideas. Shapes the basic structure. Defines what is danced. Gives the framework. Forms the roots of the couple.

This coincides with many clichés projected onto men in the social mainstream: The man acts and defines; is the subject; is strong and rough.

The functions of the follower, however, are these: He*She is the reacting part. Can decide how the given framework is filled. Is the eye-catcher. Presents him*herself and is presented. Stands for the blossoms of the couple.

This in turn coincides with clichés usually projected onto women: The woman reacts; is the object; is beautiful and presentable.

Thus it’s obvious that a sexist role concept is portrayed and reinforced here. In my opinion, this is no coincidence. I am convinced that a sexist basic idea was always in mind, if not essential, when these dances evolved in the second half of the 20th century. Otherwise, I couldn’t explain how certain seductive gestures and the over-emphasis of bottom and chest entered the aesthetics of those dances. It’s striking who seduces whom, who represents whose adornment. Explicit sexism was more accepted in the old days. But even today the tales of boss and secretary, of rock star and groupie, of football player and football player’s wife are still present in people’s minds. The essential forms of expression of Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba fit into this hierarchical understanding.

Many of us have a queasy feeling about this. In 2020 we are questioning dated social patterns in all aspects of our lives. This also applies to dance.

What can we do to further develop the beauty of our dances and simultaneously throw the sexist ballast overboard?

As they will be frequently mentioned in the next few lines, I would like to once again point out the difference between the concepts sexual and sexist.

Sexual is what in the widest sense draws its energy from interpersonal attraction and reproductive drive. I here include love and amorousness in a somewhat simplistic way. The sexual drive is as fundamentally anchored in the human being as the need to eat or sleep. Although it’s overlaid by culture, it remains present. Still today it’s manifested, e.g. in the attractive or repulsive effect of body odour, in the perception of beauty and the desire for closeness. I enjoy observing the work of these energies and find nothing wrong with them. It’s sexist, on the other hand, to limit people’s freedom of expression based on assumed gender differences, to expect supposedly gender-specific forms of expression from dancers, but also to associate these forms of expression with sexual availability. Furthermore, it’s sexist to carry on social power constellations on the dance floor and to use dance as an excuse for sexual harassment.

Consequently, sexual is a neutral term, whereas sexist is a description of behaviour that’s condemned in our century.

In my opinion, social dancing could be made less sexist on these three levels: Basic agreementsimple changes in behaviour and role concepts.

Basic agreement

First of all, I believe there should be a basic agreement to consider dancing as a sport. A form of social interaction giving people a good feeling, regardless of their position. Dance should create a space for appreciation and respect. For me, this means that I dance at least one dance with everyone treating me with respect and inviting me to dance. Part of this respect is to be cultivated, friendly and not completely drunk. Furthermore not to rip me out of a conversation. At the same time, the sportive way of dancing I am talking about here should be practised without sexual intention. It’s true that feelings arising from sexuality play an essential role in the completeness of a dance, as we will see later. Nevertheless, dance events should be non-violent places where closeness and interaction depend on the consent of each person.

Dancers who use the dance floor for abuse and harassment, who grab, grope and don’t want to distinguish the hip from the bottom, are beyond any discussion I would like to have here.

Simple changes in behaviour

It’s easy to leave out obviously sexist details from the dance if they don’t add any value. This includes suggestive gestures and names of certain figures. Here I am talking, for instance, about moves of Salsa Rueda de Casino, which clearly represent penetration or slaps on the bottom. In the European context of social dancing, they portray nothing else than male domination and assault. As a white German, it’s not up to me to judge the original meaning of the moves originating from the Cuban Guaguancó. Still, I will not use them in my dance.

A second behaviour, which can easily be identified and dismissed as sexist, is the traditional dance invitation: the follower waiting for the leader’s request. This custom from the last millennium has no value for dancing, except stamping the follower as passive once again. In my circle of friends, the one-sided dance invitation already has become history. This makes it easier to treat each other as subjects. As subjects who put themselves into a certain role for a limited period of time and can leave it whenever they want. Invitations can also be refused at any time if the person being invited is not in the mood for it. The person asking must respect this choice.

Role concept

Ifind it more difficult to change the role concept in dance. By role concept I mean here: Who takes on which of the roles described above and consciously or unconsciously fulfils the whole package of expectations associated with that role? The core components of dance are affected by the role concept and the actual individuals playing the roles. At the very top of that article, I have named these core components: tensionflowrhythmdynamicsproximityharmonycontact and aesthetics. Some of them are clustered around the attraction of two people. Tension to dynamics are imaginable without interpersonal attraction. For me, this means from concrete experience: As a heterosexual cis man, it’s quite easy for me to experience these components with any other person of any gender positioning. That means also with people I am not sexually oriented towards (e.g. other heterosexual cis men).

However, to put life into the components proximityharmonycontact and aesthetics, I need interpersonal attraction. Or at least the rejection must not be too strong. How attraction or rejection work is unique to each person and includes gender identity and sexual orientation. Everyone has met a variety of people whom they are not attracted to.

Wait a minute! Why am I writing about sexual attraction here, although this text is actually about overcoming sexism (a cultural phenomenon) and not sexuality (something supposedly natural)? I feel our sexuality hinders us from overcoming sexist behaviour.

It’s the sexual attraction that, in my opinion, makes it possible to let oneself fall entirely into the dance. I think every dancer knows the short falling in love occurring when a dance is perfect. This falling in love, that makes the dancing partners briefly melt together. This is the case even though I have excluded sexual intentions earlier and defined the dance as sportive. That sounds paradoxical! But it makes sense if we acknowledge that it is a conscious decision to exclude sexual intentions. A social agreement and a product of cultural education.

At this point, there is often irritation of outsiders who are not familiar with the dancing agreement. People who see Bachata Sensual or Kizomba for the first time are often convinced they witness a kind of obscene sex with clothes on. It’s true: What is performed has sexual expressions. But as far as I can tell, there is usually no tangible thought of sex between the partners. The dancing agreement allows us to reproduce the supposedly sexual expressions with many different people, even strangers. The best time to observe the dancing agreement at work is in the seconds after the end of the song. Often there is a short hug and then the dancers quickly re-establish their intimate sphere. Thereafter both rapidly go their way. This phenomenon can be observed on social dance floors and also in videos of professional dance couples.

For me, attraction is an important component in fulfilling dance. I guess it’s quite relevant for many dancers with whom they dance. At the same time, the aesthetics the dancing couple wants to feel and express are determined by social conditioning, which cannot simply be thrown overboard. We have seen these aesthetics over and over again in films, YouTube videos and advertising: Sunset. Beach. Tenderness. Face to face. Cheek to cheek. These are just some of the common associations with couple dance. So beautiful, so limiting.

This leads to the following problem: To avoid confirming role clichés, it would be worth striving to dance with one another without regard to gender. That way, all roles would be adopted by all genders. Attribution would be dismissed. At the same time, it would be easier to break with the familiar aesthetic expectations because of the unusual image. New impressions that do not depend on perceived gender could arise: sportyplayfulcircularlinearclearcoolexplosiveenergeticsoft or flowy. However, my sexuality (in a wide sense) hinders this gender-independent performance. Regardless of taking the role of leader or follower, I feel most comfortable dancing with a woman I find attractive (or at least not repellent). And so I return to my Hollywood-Sunset-Comfort-Zone. This way, the most fundamental chance to shake up clichés is wasted.

So I try to at least break with the clichés within my frequent man-woman dances. I like to play the follower-role in dancing with a woman. I can then fulfil all components of the dance… except for the typical aesthetics. For example, I do not want to perform certain gestures which woman traditionally do when they play the follower-role (stroking through the hair or overdoing hip movements, etc.). And when I perform them, it’s meant self-ironic. Hence, the aesthetics of our dance with reversed roles becomes different from the classical one and feels incomplete.

Why do I not want to perform these gestures? Because I feel ashamed? Because I am afraid of people’s judgement? Because I have a problem with what these gestures say? Because I equate attributed femininity with weakness deep in my subconscious and I do not want to appear weak myself?

Then why do I find it OK for women to use these gestures? Am I less feminist than I would like to be? Do I unconsciously demand that women use such gestures and therefore interpret a dance with a reversed role assignment as incomplete per se?

Probably a little bit of everything is right! I still carry expectations inside me which I need to drop. On the other hand, we obviously lack a comprehensible offer of dance aesthetics that can be used regardless of gender. Aesthetics that don’t transport any traditional clichés (such as weakness and sexual availability), yet still feel beautiful and complete.


The development of new aesthetics beyond familiar attributions could be the first step we can start with today. Starting points could be the adjectives I mentioned above (sporty, playful, circular, linear, clear, cool, explosive, energetic, soft, flowy). Possible topic of a workshop: What can dancers do to make the dance look “playful”? Possible topic of a series of courses: How do we create a feeling of “explosiveness” for us and our environment? … There are forms of expression waiting for us which we can’t imagine today within the Salsa, Bachata or Kizomba community. All this requires a long process. Dances are in constant change anyway, but the direction of that change can possibly be influenced by some special focus on anti-sexism.

The aim should be to uncouple dance with its beautiful aspects from power structures and outdated role concepts. At the same time, we should not deny the importance of interpersonal attraction. That e.g. means not to expect a progressive dancer to dance with each and every person. Expression always is highly subjective. One thing is particularly important: everyone must be allowed to stay who they are. From personal conversations I know that many women, even those with a thoroughly feminist attitude, enjoy letting themselves fall into the follower-role. Knowing full well that they do so intentionally, being able to escape this role whenever they want.

We must not mistakenly invent counter-norms. For me, acting feminist means creating a climate in which everyone can be him*herself without being devalued. Every dancer is allowed to express what he*she wants to stand for at that moment. Without aesthetic constraints, without limits. For themselves.

The author was born and raised in East Germany. He is currently based in Bremen/Germany. Philipp says he’s a passionate feminist, dancer and engineer. He’s constantly trying to figure out how privileged people can be part of the solution to discrimination issues.

This article has originally been published here (in German) and here (in English).

WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE OF THIS! How to Make the Music Scene into One Big Safe(r) Space

This article by Robert Franken has initially been published in issue #3 of the Reeperbahn Festival Conference Mag.

Within the music industry, various programs, initiatives and public pronouncements are calling for more diversity, female rights and an end to the tradition of male dominance. Meanwhile, hardly a week goes by without shocking reports of sexual assaults against women at festivals and other events. Digital & Diversity Consultant and self-declared feminist Robert Franken has something to say about this – and he doesn’t mince his words.

It seems we can no longer just look to the Nordic countries to find shining examples of equality and solidarity in society and business. At least not when it comes to the music industry. And most definitely not when it comes to festivals.

After multiple rapes and sexual assaults at this year’s Bråvalla Festival in Sweden, the organizers called the festival off for 2018 (some people are planning to make it into an all-female event instead). Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven told the Swedish daily Expressen: “This must stop.” And yes, it must.

But obviously it doesn’t just stop. Festival season is bringing out the most disgusting display of the often quoted phenomenon of toxic masculinity. And toxic it is, if female festivalgoers have to fear for their lives and their safety when all they want to do is enjoy a couple of days with their favorite bands and their friends.

Some festival organizers are trying to make a difference. When 27-year-old Laura Whitehurst from Manchester was assaulted by two male friends, she wanted to cancel her visit to the Glastonbury festival. But the festival makers made sure she could enjoy her stay by implementing a whole variety of safety measures, including a security letter and special access tickets.

But how can events like music festivals become safer spaces for everyone? Certainly one key part of the answer is: awareness. Everybody, and especially men, need to realize that they have to become part of the solution – otherwise they will forever remain part of the problem. The United Nations campaign #HeForShe could be a leading example of how to involve men in the quest for gender equality. Making festivals into safer spaces for everyone would be one essential and common goal.

The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) offers three key messages to festivalgoers in order to support the idea of #saferspacesatfestivals:

1. Zero Tolerance to Sexual Assault
2. Hands Off Unless Consent
3. Don’t Be a Bystander

This is most definitely a good start, but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that there is a pattern. From New Year’s Eve in Cologne to Glastonbury 2017, from Roskilde to Bråvalla, it sounds all too familiar: Large groups of men, alcohol and other drugs, and a weekend away from the drudgery of everyday life seem to form a very dangerous combination.

So let’s start talking about cause and effect. Horrible crimes like rape and sexual assault are symptoms of a society that hasn’t come to terms with what masculinity is about – or should be about. This is why those men who have taken the right step in the right direction should become catalysts for change. They can influence a new norm: a norm of tolerance, respect and equality. We must start today. And we must embrace new concepts to trigger change. The whole music industry thus needs to reboot its parameters of success. Let’s replace toughness with empathy, for example. Instead of incredibly long working hours, we should consider job sharing models as an alternative. It’s also high time to support gender equality on and off stage. And finally: diversity is key. The more we bring different backgrounds and perspectives together, the better the outcomes will be.


(This article by Robert Franken has initially been published in issue #3 of the Reeperbahn Festival Conference Mag.)

Diversity in the Music Industry and the 30 Under 30 List

Author: Andy Edwards poses some questions to consider in the wake of the 30 Under 30 diversity discussionIf it’s not the Oscars it’s the BRITS, if it’s not the Billboard Power 100 it’s Music Week’s 30 Under 30, the question of diversity within the music industry has boiled to the surface this year. In 2016 this is deeply troubling.Music Week’s front cover featuring 30 people under 30, initially nominated by readers, and then finally selected by MW, was the latest lightning rod for this topic. If the next generation of executives cannot be truly diverse, what hope is there?

One criticism leveled at Music Week is that editorial judgment should have been exercised and a broader list of names proactively sought. Instead, Music Week reported on the candidates whose names had been put forward. Judging by the list of 108 names that did not make the final 30, the total list put forward was overwhelmingly white.

Perhaps any attempt to disproportionately select candidates of colour would have masked the real story and a much broader underlying problem? Music Week did report the facts whether we like those facts or not.

The counter list put forth by DJ Semtex is incredibly powerful. One person came up with 30 alternative names in a matter of hours, a list that was overwhelming colourful and brimming with talent. A further list from Complex made a similar point.

What interests me most of all right now is to understand what is going on and why. In very broad terms, it strikes me the Music Week list is made up largely of what we would consider to be the “traditional” music business, whether that is corporates or established PR and management companies.

In contrast, Semtex’s list – while containing quite a few major label people – skewed much more heavily to the self-starters, the entrepreneurs, those with portfolio careers and the emerging music businesses – the blogs, the YouTube channels, the club nights, and so on. The same was broadly true of the Complex list.

Compilers of such lists have to consider a much broader range of job roles than ever before and a much broader range of organizations and career paths. What constitutes the “music industry” itself can be debated at length.

If the music industry is to reflect the wider world, what is that wider world? The last UK census in 2011 revealed that 13% of the UK population is non-white, but in London that percentage rises to 40%. Undeniably the industry is still overwhelmingly London-centric, but should we be looking at percentages at all? What should our reference points be?

And what of the challenges of a London-centric industry? Moving to London was part of the attraction of being in the music industry, but with rents and property prices at an all-time high, does that also stifle diversity of a different kind? Factor in ever increasing levels of student debt and the problem multiplies. Some have said only the posh Home Counties middle class need apply – probably a blog post in itself!

So we as an industry need to ask ourselves some questions.

The Who and What Questions:

  • Who does the industry employ? What are the numbers by ethnicity?
  • What is the break down across sectors of the industry?
  • What are the emerging sectors that should form part of the music industry?
  • What are the ethnicity numbers by job role? Creative vs Business roles?
  • Does music genre play a role in determining the spread of diversity?
  • What are the conventions and processes that are restraining diversity?

The Why Questions:

  • Why do some jobs attract a more diverse range of applicants than others?
  • Why do people from certain backgrounds want to work in music?
  • Why do people from certain backgrounds not want to work in music?
  • Is the music industry attracting the right mix of people? What is the right mix?
  • Why do employers recruit in the way that they do?

There is a lot of soul searching to be done. Perhaps we all have to ask questions about our own journeys, experiences and motivations in order to make those connections with others. We should constantly question and challenge ourselves.

I grew up in a small town in the north of England. I remember a kid in the playground calling me “Jew Boy” because I had curly hair, a big nose and my Dad worked for a bank. I didn’t know any Jewish people at the time, but I did know what it felt like to be different and I have always been appreciative and inquisitive of people’s differences.

Working in the music business was an opportunity to do something different. I like being around crazy people, but really I’m the commercially focused sensible one. At Sony Music in the ‘90s, I was a Marketing Analyst. No one knew what I did and I always had to explain. So a part of me jumped for joy that the first name on the Music Week 30 under 30 list was an Analyst from Sony Music.

As an indie kid from up north, Sony was also an opportunity to expand my knowledge of black music. With colleagues such as Semtex, Matthew Ross, Adam Sieff and others I filled up on hip hop, soul and jazz. I was clueless but I learned.

Moving around the industry, one learns about the differing professions and tribes. You listen, learn and absorb. As the industry grows more complex a broader range of skills are required. It also means opening one’s eyes and ears to those with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.

But this runs counter to the way in which the industry has traditionally organized itself. The “its who you know” mantra is self-selecting. A female colleague describing an iconic label she worked at recalled, “there was a certain type of person and you either fitted in or you didn’t”. Like attracts like.

On another occasion, when interviewing for an assistant role for a colleague, one candidate spoke enthusiastically about some work they had done for their local church. Afterwards, my colleague remarked “hummm, bible basher”, completely misunderstanding the background and culture of the candidate. Clue: 48% of London’s church-goers are black.

Some organisations deploy more sophisticated recruitment techniques such as competency based interviews or algorithms yet many tech companies have diversity challenges also. These techniques can also be self-selecting and if candidates are not attracted to certain industry sectors or roles, one has to ask “why?

This is not an easy process, whether that is on a macro level or a mirco level. Relaying back to personal experience, the best and most productive working relationships have always been those where I have worked with someone who is the polar opposite to myself. That might not necessarily make for an easy experience but it is always exciting, challenging and most of all delivers exceptional results.

The music industry has to grapple with a much bigger picture on a macro level. It is not just music; other creative sectors such as film, TV and publishing are facing similar issues. It seems no one is handling this well.

This is a topic that is already being hotly debated at UK Music board level for some time. The senior figures within our industry are already deeply concerned and are seeking to understand the issues and challenges, including some of the questions I have raised above.

There will be outreach, through UK Music and its members: the BPI, AIM, MPA, PRS, MMF and so on are all intending on surveying their memberships. Ged Doherty and Keith Harris are looking at this issue specifically. I would ask anyone reading this article to engage and retweet and spread the word. There will be more announcements to come. Watch this space and get involved.


This article first appeared in the Record of the Day weekly magazine. Subscribers can access the archive here.