Dance Partnering and the Concept of Gender Identity

Some of you may know that I am quite passionate about ballroom and, to a lesser extent, latin dancing. While I have been the university second team, I made some observations which I decided to share in this post. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, my observations are related to the subject of gender identity.

Let us start with some definitions of that concept from Wikipedia:

  • gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these characteristics may include biological sex (…), sex-based social structures (i.e., gender roles), or gender identity” [1]
  • gender can refer to either social roles based on the sex of the person (gender role) or personal identification of one’s own gender based on an internal awareness” [2]
  • gender identity is one’s internal, personal sense of being a man or woman (or a boy or a girl)” [3]
  • gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women[WHO]

I must admit I struggle to make sense of the above definitions; they seem to me barely coherent. But I still want to assume the best about the positions I do not agree with. If you think my interpretation is incorrect, or came across better definitions, feel free to drop me a message.

I am convinced that „one’s internal, personal sense of being a man or woman” cannot refer to the sense of being a biological man or a biological woman. In this case we would be clearly dealing with a trivial error, a delusion, a contradiction between one’s beliefs and reality, and any debate would be utterly pointless.

Therefore I take it for granted that the words man and woman are being used in their biological sense. Rather, the expression should be paraphrased as „gender identity is one’s internal, personal sense of being a gender-male or gender-female”. But we still need an explanation of what or who is a gender-male or a gender-female. Obviously, we cannot say „gender-male is a person who has an internal, personal sense of being a [gender-]male„. Such a definition doesn’t explain anything! It’s like saying „Who is a daxxy? A daxxy is someone who believes (s)he is a daxxy.” In the same way, it is a useless tautology to say „gender can refer to the personal identification of one’s own gender„.

Unless, of course, we also have an independent definition of gender.

Perhaps those definitions that I haven’t yet mentioned do a better job? We still haven’t discussed the following ones, which will be of interest: „gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity, [including] sex-based social structures”; „gender can refer to social roles based on the sex of the person” and „gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women„.

I think all the above definitions are essentially the same: they identify gender with the roles, behaviours, etc. that the society deems appropriate for men and women.

I will try to clarify this a bit. The concept of a gender role is this: that a subject who is male/female is expected to behave in such and such a way. I used the words expected to behave on purpose – a gender role, arguably, does not aim to impose a binding duty; it is something weaker than a duty – it’s just something that a society considers apprioprate, something that may be seen as a guideline. I will not be discussing whether such guidelines should exist or what is their purpose, as it’s not the subject of this post.

For brevity, I will refer to „roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes” as properties. Thus, in accordance with the definitions I quoted, which identify gender with the said properties, I can declare that:

The concept of a gender, or more precisely, a gender property is this: that a subject who is male/female is expected to have such and such properties by virtue of the subject being male/female.

Now, let me interrupt this lengthy digression and go back to where I started: ballroom and latin dancing.

In the university team it is often the case that women are heavily overrepresented, with the female:male ratio oscillating around 2:1, excluding advanced dancers, where the ratio is close to 1. (I guess female students are more interested in this sort of physical activity.) In order for everyone to have a partner, some couples must be same-sex (female only¹). In such partnerships², one of the girls takes the role of the leader, the other becomes a follower (as in any partnership). There are, of course, differences between leaders and followers:

  • Leader’s and follower’s steps are distinct.
  • The leaders usually take responsibility for choosing the direction, they avoid walls and other dancers, etc. Of course, if a routine is not predefined (for example in social, noncompetitive dancing), it is the leader’s task to actually choose the steps in real time and lead the partner.
  • In the ballroom frame, positions of the partners are not exactly symmetric: the follower’s left arm rests on top of the leader’s right arm, while the leader holds the follower by the shoulder blade.
  • In latin, followers perform more spins and turns, while leaders tend to be more „stable”.

„Dance Argument” against the concept of gender identity

Traditionally, the leader = man, the follower = woman, and this rule is observed almost universally whenever a man dances with a woman. The association „leader = man, follower = woman” obviously constitutes a gender role. (The man is expected to take the role of the leader.)

What happens when a woman becomes a leader, either because she is dancing with another woman or because her male partner fails at the task? Does she become a gender-male for the short period of time while she is dancing? Of course not! I don’t see a reason why we would need to adopt such a category.

So, a woman-leader is still a woman. If she wants to keep dancing as a leader, so be it – as implied before, gender roles in dance are suggestions which do not impose a binding duty, and therefore a woman may assume the role usually associated with a man, and vice versa. My key conclusion here, which I’m sure you agree is very intuitive, is that this can happen without any change in the subject’s identity. A woman-leader is still a woman, not a gender-male.

More generally, if a person wishes to acquire gender properties normally associated with the opposite sex, in most cases it is probably ok (or it might not be ok, but that’s not what we are discussing). But it doesn’t follow that we should consider such a person to have changed their gender identity or start refering to them by a different pronoun.

An altogether different problem with the definitions is that according to them, one’s gender is objective (a gender-male is a person with masculine gender properties, which are objective), but gender identity is entirely subjective (based on one’s awareness of their gender, and that’s a subjective concept). Therefore we still face the delusion problem, although slightly different: a person has an internal sense of his/her identity which does not correspond to the gender properties he/she actually does have.

In conclusion, I think the mistake of gender theorists lies in the assumption that to change some of your gender properties requires or implies an underlying change in the identity. This is essentially why they created an entirely new (previously unknown) ontological category of gender identity, a category which is:

  • Entirely counterintuitive (based on the example I gave above). To suppose that a (biological) woman who follows gender roles associated with men becomes a gender-male is to suppose a very bizarre thing indeed.
  • Useless – if a man wishes to have female gender properties, so be it, but I see no benefit in henceforth calling him a woman. This category does not improve our understanding of the world, as all good categories should do.
  • Based on a reverse logic. By that I mean that ontology is mistakenly based on subject’s accidental properties, properties that merely correlate with subject’s identity (sex) instead of defining it (I initally wanted to elaborate on this point, but realised this is really a digression).

These considerations complete an outline of the reasons behind my refusal to use the concept of gender, a concept that was created relatively recently in a heavily abstract disciplines of postmodern philosophy and feminist studies. Although most, if not all, categories of thought are created by the human mind, not all categories are useful in our lives or conducive to our understanding the world. I think the category of gender identity does not pass these tests.


¹ I think only once have I ever seen a male-male partnership in a competition.

² Just to make this clear: I do not find anything inappropriate in the fact that two persons of the same sex dance together. If the numbers in a given team are unbalanced so that no partner of the opposite sex can be found, this is probably the only solution!



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