Many people (myself included), for myriad reasons, default into a leadership role when we catch even a whiff of a power vacuum. The challenge for us, then, is to learn how and when to follow other leaders gracefully. Choosing the moment to lead and when to follow is a nuanced skill that requires both self awareness and willingness to be vulnerable – it is, in essence, a lot like learning a structured dance.
Let me begin this tortured metaphor by stating that I am a great dancer on my own. I would venture so far as to say I am the Queen of Unchoreographed Solo Grooving. Long live the Queen. However, Her Majesty struggles when there are steps to learn or if – heaven forbid – we must dance with a partner. Part of my problem with partnered or structured dances is that I invariably try to lead. A friend of mine once tried to teach me how to salsa, and when he pulled me toward him and began to move I literally fell over. When I needed to learn Contra dancing for a play, I continually had to chant – aloud, emphatically, embarrassingly – for myself and each new partner, “I’m the girl!”* to prevent myself from ruining the flow of the dance. I don’t mean to lead, it’s reflexive.
But perhaps it should not be reflexive.
Perhaps, instead, I should cultivate the ability to actively choose my role in a power dynamic: to follow another leader around the dance floor, trusting them to (sometimes literally) catch me when I fall, or just dance by myself. Both options guarantee a certain amount of effort and vulnerability; only one requires that I place my trust outside of myself. The question hovering at the back of my mind, however, when I do choose to follow a leader is, “What if I made the wrong choice? What is my fail-safe if this leader betrays my trust?” On a literal dance floor, the worst-case scenario is ultimately harmless: my partner could drop me or in some other way make one or both of us look like idiots, in which case my “fail-safe” is to find a new partner or revert to dancing by myself. In life, especially in an election year, the stakes are often much higher, the option of “dancing alone” does not exist, and not everyone “on the dance floor” has the same options available to them or is even on the same dance floor (because #privilege is a real thing, y’all).
As ever, examining these terrifying realities through Shakespeare can be both illuminating and oddly soothing. In preparation for our 2020 Actor’s Renaissance, I turned my attention to the embedded stage directions within Act 2, scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing, particularly the exchange in between Don Pedro and Hero that begins “Lady, will you walk about with your friend?” and continues through Beatrice and Benedick’s exit. Here, Shakespeare gives us the complicated task of double choreography: the scene calls for everyone on stage to participate in some sort of dancing and celebration, requiring actors to learn actual dance steps** of some sort; it also requires pairs of characters to exchange dialogue sequentially, necessitating another kind of choreography all together in order to spotlight the right couples at the right time. Yet the only guideposts for either lie in the words spoken by the characters as, presumably, they dance. How the dance begins, ends, and is frequently interrupted is left entirely to the scene partners to decide. Who leads this process? Who leads the dancing? How do we choose? What do we do if we are led astray?
In the end, it is Beatrice’s words that provide one solution to questions with no easy or obvious answers. When Benedick says, “We must follow the leaders” she replies, “Nay, if they lead to any ill, I will leave them at the next turning.”
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*And don’t get me started on how problematic, hetero-normative, and patriarchal most dances already are – and the fact that I had to remind myself to take specifically the “girl’s” (read: submissive, compliant, following) part – that’s another blog for another day…
**Read more here about how early modern group dances build community.