Forget about “girls’ roles” and “guys’ roles”: How heteronormativity limits good partner dancing

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-11-10
PUBLISHED ON  2019-01-04
A woman leading a forró dance in Paris. Photo by Chen Kun.

Girls line up along the edge of the dance floor, waiting to be invited. And sometimes they feel ignored and get frustrated.

Guys try to predict who will accept an invitation and dance well. Sometimes the guys dance too roughly, because they themselves have never been jerked wildly about on the dance floor, and don’t know what it’s like.

Sometimes people touch in a way that makes their partners uncomfortable.

And in most forró dance classes there is segregation: Guys learn to lead. Girls learn to follow.

These tropes are of course not limited to forró. They’re seen to different extents in bachata, waltz, salsa, samba de gafieira, samba rock, and so many other couples’ dances.

But it of course doesn’t have to be like this — and it isn’t always. There is a tendency in swing dancing, for example, to use the terms “leaders” and “followers” instead of “men” and “women” in order to encourage dancers to take up whichever role they choose. Tango famously started out as a dance between men only, and there are currently many high-level tango dancers that take on both leader and follower roles, independent of their genders.

Heteronormativity is the idea that cultures enforce norms based on a one-man, one-woman coupling. And oh boy, does forró suffer from this idea. There’s no good reason that a dance should have to be between one man and one woman, but forró norms have taught many dancers to expect this, and it causes big problems.

The Harm Wrought by Heteronormativity in Forró — and the Fun that’s Possible with More Flexible and Open Dancing

These heteronormative expectations — that a “normal” dance is between a man and a woman — are harmful for the forró universe. Here’s why.

  • Flirting is fine, but there are sometimes unfortunately aggressive and uncomfortable sexual behaviors in forró. Encouraging a more open culture, where men dance with men and women dance with women, does not eliminate this, but it does help promote the idea that forró is foremost about the dance and the music, rather than just a strategy for hooking up in hetero-land. A more gender-neutral forró is a forró that emphasizes enthusiastic consent, “no means no”, and “yes means yes”. It is a forró culture focused squarely on forró.
  • This should go without saying, but guys: dancing with a dude will not turn you gay. Good god. Hugging a guy does not diminish your masculinity (as if masculinity were a “good thing” in the first place). And as we should really know by now, there’s nothing wrong with being gay or bi, so even if you were to find a spark through dancing with a forrozeiro and then somehow, magically, decide you love men, great for you, your life is now that much richer.
  • Some women complain that they don’t get to dance very much on forró nights out. In many parts of the forró world, there are more women than men who are interested in learning to dance well. If women learn to lead, and dance with each other, the “there’s never enough guys to go around” complaint disappears.
A spry Italian flies me about at an open-air forró dance.
  • Guys: You can be a better leader by also learning to follow. The steps for following are not that difficult if you already lead, and you can become a more nuanced and gracious leader through experiencing what it’s like to follow. This means learning to let go and simply pay attention to the rhythm and to your partner’s intentions. Girls (and guys!) will appreciate dancing with you more.
  • Girls: You can be a better follower by also learning to lead. Women who learn to lead often feel more confident about how their body moves through space, about asserting their needs with men, and feeling “allowed” to take up the space that they deserve. Leading can also make you a more empathetic follower, with a better ability to predict and respond to your leader’s intentions.
  • Girls: You don’t have to wait to be asked to dance. Unfortunately, even today some forró teachers still tell girls that they should wait to be asked, but there’s absolutely no reason for this. Girls who do the inviting have more fulfilling dance nights. They dance as more often, and with they people that they really desire dancing with. It’s also great to face your fear of rejection, girls, it’s a phase that most boys get over in their early teenage years in heterosexual dating, through boys’ first and inevitable rejections. Girls, if you learn to take the initiative with the dance, you can apply that skill and confidence elsewhere too. Yes, rejection sucks; you get over it and you’re stronger for it. (Also, most forrozeiros will say yes, anyway!)

Photo by Chen Kun.
  • Guys: It’s fun to dance with other guys! And dancing with guys who lead well can be a great way to learn new steps and meet more people than you otherwise might; there’s a whole half of the forrozeiro population in your locale that you might not interact with as much.
  • Girls: It’s fun to dance with other girls! Some feel that there’s more complicity and sensuality in dancing with women, and certainly on average there tend to be fewer testosterone-soaked jerks among the female forró cohort.
Photo by Chen Kun.
  • Forró doesn’t have to be a “couples” dance. It’s relatively easy for a leader to guide two followers in forró, one in each hand (easy at least compared to doing so in other dances). Trio dancing is a fun geometric and challenge for a leader and requires more alertness and spacial awareness from the followers. It adds all sorts of options for responding to the music and to each other. It’s fun to dance as a group of three guys, three girls, or whatever other permutation. To avoid confusion, there should be just one leader in the trio, but you can certainly change who is leading during the course of the dance. And for larger groups, of course, there is forró casino.
A demonstration of large-group forró: forró casino.
  • Guys and girls: It’s fun and interesting to have a guy follow a girl’s lead. The guy learns what kinds of steps and moves the girl most enjoys, and learns to respond to her more carefully. The girl gets the opportunity to really show and promote the way that she most enjoys dancing.
  • And most of all: Heteronormative attitudes in forró unfortunately mirror and propagate the idea that there is a “right” way to be in a couple: one man and one woman. Our cultures are starting (or struggling, at least) to progress beyond this and into an acceptance of equal rights for women and LGBTQ-etc people. We’re moving towards valuing all sexualities, the gender spectrum, polyamory, and more — basically the right to love who we want and how we want, and to be who we really are. It’s time for forró to catch up and become more inclusive, and not reflect a constrictive view of possibilities.

Are these enough reasons to show that change is needed? I hope so. Let’s see how we can make that happen.

How to Change Heteronormative Forró Culture

There are some concrete steps that we can take to start to undo the harms cited above.

  • Dance the change you want to see. Men can dance with men, women can dance with women. And so on with anyone, anywhere on the gender spectrum. Anyone can lead, and anyone can invite whoever. If you are in a particularly homophobic part of the world, you may at first need to dance with trusted friends when dancing with your same gender, until the forró culture slowly improves in your area, and negative reactions give way to acceptance of a new normal. You can be part of the process of normalizing a more open culture, and you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.
  • Forró teachers can take a cue from swing teachers by using in their classes the words “leaders” and “followers” (instead of “men and women”, “homens e mulheres” etc.) and encouraging dancers to learn whatever role suits them, regardless of gender. And if you can get your students to learn both roles, they’ll be much better dancers for it.
  • Dancers can learn from each other, teach each other, and be patient with each other as they try out the leading or following roles that they are not as accustomed to and did not learn.
  • People (especially you, Brazilians!) can grow up and stop giggling when they see two men dancing together.
  • Forrozeiras (i.e., women), don’t just stand there waiting; invite people to dance! Often women say that they don’t take this step because they’re afraid of being refused, but such refusals can be seen as a positive. They’re an incredibly healthy way to toughen up and move on to the next partner. Invite someone else. Stop caring so much what others might think. The only way to get past a hang up like fear of rejection is to jump in and do it. If it helps, form a sisterly commitment with female friends to each ask at least five people to dance on a forró outing. With any luck, you’ll get a few rejections that will make you stronger. And you’ll surely also have some very charming forró dances.
  • Guys, don’t try to break up a group of two girls dancing together under the assumption that what they really want is to dance with you. They’ve already made a valid choice; they chose to dance with each other. Same for girls who see two guys dancing together; don’t try to break it up to drag one of them away. Go instead invite someone who is available, and then invite one (or both!) of the guys for the next dance.
  • Encourage a comfortable atmosphere of positive respect and mutual shared passion for the music and the dance. Dança bonito, dança gostoso, diverte-se. (Dance beautifully, dance passionately, and have fun.)
Photo by Leyna Amly.

I’m putting this missive out there as a hopeful starting point; I would like it to inspire more people to share their thoughts on how we can make forró more fun, inclusive, amusing and good for overall attitudes about our bodies, genders, and lives. Your comments and ideas are welcome below.

Our Reviewers’ Picks of Underrated, Useful Travel Gear

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *