This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, September 2015: Walk Like a Man issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 15 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Walk Like a Man.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

Men don’t dance. Well, white, straight men don’t dance, and for better or for worse, that tends to define masculinity in American culture. Straight white men don’t dance because we take ourselves too seriously. To be perfectly honest, I am one of them. I don’t dance. Though I might have the rhythm in my soul, it usually has trouble making its way out into my feet.

There are lots of things I could blame on this but high among them is the fact that in our culture, stereotypically, men just don’t dance. Think about the last time you were at a wedding or out at a club. People were celebrating and having a good time, but I bet the majority of people you saw dancing were women. Men are the rare participants, content to remain on the fringe and observe rather than let loose and have fun with the crowd.

Straight white men don’t dance because we take ourselves too seriously.  It would be healthy for us to add dancing back to our vision of manhood.

Even in the arena of high culture, where formal dance tends to be held in higher regard, men are rarely inclined to participate. Ballet schools struggle to find boys willing to take up the practice because it has been so firmly classed as something that only girls do. When NPR’s Weekend Edition did a feature exploring the issue, an academy director explains, “Programs fight to get boys to come to their programs and offer them incredible financial packages, just to come to their summer workshops.”

Billy Elliot, a movie-turned-musical, demonstrates this clearly in its story about a young boy growing up in working-class Northern England who develops a passion for ballet. Much of the power of the movie is in its classic narrative of a boy following his dream in light of family hostility. This hostility, however, has all the more weight because Billy’s dream of dancing is so antithetical to his culture’s vision of masculinity. This is thrown into clear relief when his father chooses to support Billy by being willing to scab in the mines to continue to fund Billy’s dream, even though this breaks the bond of brotherhood in his union. Though this bond is eventually preserved and reinforced by the union’s willingness to help Billy, his father remains willing to support his son in a pursuit that isn’t appropriate for boys by breaking his masculine loyalty to the union.

Interestingly, there are exceptions to this generalized male distaste for dance. In pop and hip-hop music videos, men take a more active role than we would expect by dancing both as background dancers and as main performers. Mark Ronson’s fantastic music video for “Uptown Funk,” for example, has him and his crew hanging out on the corner and then proceeding to dance through the streets in glorious celebration. Likewise, in Jidenna’s recent “Classic Man,” the man of the title, dressed in a sharply tailored suit and equipped with a cane, dances through the neighborhood while proclaiming that he is a true example of a classic man.

These work because music videos as a genre exist in a different, freer, space than our typical tightly constructed masculinity. The videos are obviously staged and choreographed, but they break down in a performative joy that contradicts the cultural constraint of male seriousness needed for respect. Since manhood is seen as a serious competition, anything breaking that seriousness is suspect, but these men are having too much fun to bother.

A decent amount of the gender distinction we do see in these videos (women dancing while men hold back and take a passive role), is due to the presumed male gaze of the audience: Women will put up with sexualized imagery designed for the male eye while the reverse tends not to be true. Magic Mike is still pop culture’s exception rather than its rule.

Interestingly, the genre of music videos where we do see a distinct gender imbalance in dance is country music. Hence, we have the subgenre of bro country, in Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, or Luke Bryan, which desperately seeks to reinforce a stereotypical masculinity rooted in drinking, sleeping around, and a kind of partying which certainly can’t involve an active role for the man in dancing. These tend to promote a strict form of masculinity, leaving little room for variation (Brad Paisley’s “I’m Still a Guy” is probably the clearest example of this restrictiveness). Even though bro country is marked by a kind of immaturity, it is an immaturity which demands to be taken seriously and can’t stoop to the wrong kind of silliness, such as looking like a fool on the dance floor.

Although dancing isn’t a normal part of what it means to be a man outside of the rarefied world of Drake and Mark Ronson, it would be healthy for us to add it back to our vision of manhood. We need to especially initiate our boys into a healthy masculinity that isn’t instinctively nervous about maintaining its status but can relax and enjoy itself.

Dance can provide a physical outlet for boys in a way that, rare in our current culture, isn’t necessarily competitive. Unfortunately, youth sports and adult rec leagues are often organized around competition, which can be healthy but can also keep people trapped in a competitive framework for their entire life. We transition from fighting for advantage in the classroom or in the office to fighting for advantage on the playing field. We would do well to preserve space for non-competitive physical activity that allows us to exert ourselves and relieve some of that pressure.

This is why a healthy local dance scene, in terms of both studios and venues, can fill some of our need for this social, aesthetic, and physical health. With a healthy infrastructure, we can teach boys and expand our vision of masculinity by normalizing men’s participation in these places.

More than this, social dancing can provide a structured way for boys to relate to women that isn’t necessarily demeaning. Much of our modern literature on a “crisis in boyhood” bemoans our current lack of a cultural script to define relations between the sexes. Especially during puberty, there is an overwhelming sense of difference between the genders but little cultural guidance on how to relate to the other without being demeaning. Social dancing can provide a literal bodily script for relating to the other in ways that are healthier and can give room to improvise and grow.

Of course, many of our current styles of social dancing do demean women and a healthy dance culture doesn’t necessarily rule out sexist attitudes and actions. Still, when combined with a feminist pedagogy in other ways, this can give boys a way to relate to girls and, hopefully, sidestep some awfulness. Anything with the potential to make high school better deserves to be tried.

Most important, men who dance would stop taking themselves so seriously. Pop and hip-hop music videos, though ridiculous at times, show how dance can be a way of putting yourself in a vulnerable position in a fun and liberating way.

A healthy, relaxed masculinity includes a willingness to be vulnerable enough to enjoy dancing with others, which just may include looking a little foolish in the process.

The Atlantic’s “End of Men” cover story from 2010 details our society’s anxiety over the crisis of masculinity. In the article, Hannah Rosin, tracing the gains that women have made in the economy and family, sees men as being disempowered as a gender and thinks manhood itself is in trouble. To this concern, we have two possible responses: We can demand our boys be more serious and have more power, or we could redefine masculinity to include much healthier aspects of manhood. The former leads to the weakness that grasps after power as a defense; the latter leads to the power that comes from accepting weakness and imperfection. A healthy, relaxed masculinity includes a willingness to be vulnerable enough to enjoy dancing with others, which just may include looking a little foolish in the process. What if we taught our boys that they could dance and still maintain their credibility? What if we could make dance a normalized, not scary, part of our culture? We could have a freeing, rather than restrictive, vision of what it means to be a man.

I still have an uncomfortable relationship with dance. This summer, though, my personal goal was to grow in comfort with it, not only for all of the reasons listed above but also, and mostly, so that I could stop being so serious.

My own status anxiety needed to be broken so I could live more easily in my own body and relate physically with others in a healthier way. So, I worked at it—taking classes and opportunities to go out with friends who are into dancing. The only way to break down walls of pretension is to assault them head-on. What helped me in this quest has been to see other men who are confident and strong in their masculine presence who still enjoy dancing and can model doing it well (even when, at times, looking foolish).

It was a worthy though challenging task. I’m still growing in confidence. Writing about this publicly is a way to commit and give myself no excuse not to go out on the dance floor (and please, dear reader, keep me accountable). This is where I’m currently pushing back against our limited cultural construction of manhood and attempting to grow into a more complete human being by embracing the part of me that can relax and just dance.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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3 Comments

  1. How does any of this lead one into a closer relationship or imitation of Christ? There is a French song by the artist Stromae that speaks to the French youth tendency to use dancing as a drug, much like alcohol, to forget the turmoils of everyday life. It is not a joyful song and carries along a sense of weighted-nearly depressed- resignation(to best understand the song find a translation of the original, the English version twists the original message into an unrecognizable American hip-hop dance anthem).

    1. I think the author’s point was to broaden our understanding of Christian manhood. To break away from trying to be so serious all the time. Which could lead to more joyful praise, something often associated with dancing in the Bible, most frequently in the Psalms (150:4; 149:3 to name two). And King David himself loved to praise the Lord through dancing (2 Samuel 6). So certainly dancing, like anything else, could become something sinful by being taken to an unhealthy extreme, but I think most Christian men have a long way before that becomes an issue.

  2. I think that dance is just part of the artistic limitations that society has placed on men. Most people think of other art form such as painting or theatre as things that only “girls” can participate in. Art can be used to glorify God and I believe that we as Christians need to promote more of it within the church. Art tells a story and everyone has a story to tell. Dance is just one of the many mediums that can be used to glorify Him.
    As far as dancing within social functions, we as men should learn to loosen up. Society has decided to place us in boxes and then proceeds to label us if we attempt to step outside of those boxes. It all boils down to men learning to be vulnerable and eliminating the preconceived walls of masculinity that society has drawn up.

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