In the 1990s when involved in background research for In and Out of Step, I was struck by the way traditional gender roles were reinforced during the process of learning ballroom dance even though in non-dance environments there had been significant gains in gender equality. Students came to the dance floor as ‘equals in ignorance’ and the ritual of role was imposed on them. As dance novices, girls and women were drilled with, “Whatever you do, don’t lead! Be alert to your partner’s cues and submit to his intent”. This advice contrasted with the reality of the dance floor. Male partners, irrespective of their age, seemed quite happy to let their female counterparts lead if that meant the male avoided the embarrassment of being visibly out of step on the dance floor.
The traditional gender perspective embedded in dance lessons seemed to be contrary to my own dance experience where both male and female dancers responded to music’s rhythm and relied on one another to know the options for steps and patterns. As skills developed among the ballroom dancers whom I knew, dance seemed to be more a conversation and dialogue about partnership than an act of female submission to a male lead. Yet, the traditional gender biased perspective about roles went unchallenged in lessons in the 1990s despite changed societal views, a great example of the unthinking transmission of values from one generation to the next.
My research revealed that, in life and on the dance floor, attuned gender interaction was lost, especially as the complexity of the dance increased, when one person appropriated control and power of the dance and required blind following. In such instances, the dance visibly broke down. Such controlling partners also suffered a decline in the number of willing partners. As an aside, it is interesting that during the second wave of the women's movement that dance styles broke away from male dominated lead to just individuals on the dance floor moving in response to rhythm rather than the codes of a dance.
Consider the YouTube link, this scene represents, at a metaphoric level, the way a controlling figure loses the number of 'willing partners' when he requires 'blind following'. The dance sequence also illustrates that dance is a partnership.
Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom (1992), Jean Auel's The Land of Painted Caves, and my In and Out of Step explore the pressure within a group on participants to comply with the conventions that govern a group's behaviour and to follow the leader. Challenges to conventions by a minority faction within the group can cause conflict and disharmony.
In The Land of Painted Caves, Jean Auel shows that these splits and rifts result in the formation of new tribes. When you think about it, in its broadest sense, it is most probably the reason we have different nations, religions, ethnicity, culture, and war. Strictly Ballroom shows that unthinking adherence to rules and conventions can stifle creativity and innovation. Members of the group become so wedded to the routine that they resent and resist change. When a catalyst arises for change this then can lead to division and alienation. The school subplot in In and Out of Step explores how differences within a group can function as a catalyst for change. For example, when the three women teachers join the previously all male English faculty, the resultant challenges to and change in the culture created a domino effect in conflict.
HSC students should consider tracing the story lines of Coachman, Talbut, Selton, and Van der Huffen to find examples of the escalating conflict and how change occurs. I can't discuss the plot any further as it gives away the story which relies on the tension stemming from interest in what happens next.
You will find the complete discussion in Belonging: A Related Text Companion: In and out of Step. You can buy the companion from this website or fromAmazon