Some people, sadly, have a bit of trouble with the idea that in social dance men lead and women follow. There are still hang-overs from the 1980s with their absurdly assertive women, and the political correctness of the 1990s, which make some people uneasy with anything which suggests that a man might command and a woman obey. These attitudes lead some people to question the way partner dancing is conducted, even that it might not be an acceptable activity in a modern society. These attitudes are the enemy of fun.
If you ever find yourself having to deal with someone who says that it is wrong for women to follow the leads of men in dance, here are a few arguments you can use against them. They should make you feel better, even if they do nothing to convert the person you are talking to.
1. Someone has to lead
In a social partner dance, the object is to get two people dancing as one, without any need for choreography. This allows strangers to dance with each other, and is fun. Someone has to lead, therefore. If both try to follow, nothing happens, and if both try to lead, then contradicting leads will be given and the dance will come to a crunching halt.
2. Men are taller than women
The average man is six inches taller than the average woman. In the vast majority of mixed-sex pairings, therefore, the man will be significantly taller than the woman, and fairly often the difference will be very great. It is a simple fact that it is far more difficult to lead someone who is taller than to lead someone who is shorter. If the follower is taller, then the leader will have to stand very close to her in order to reach above her head, giving her little room to turn and little room for error.
3. Men are stronger than women
There are many moves in social dance, which involve the leader's supporting the weight of the follower. In wild dances like the Jitterbug, the leader might even have to throw and catch the follower. Whereas it is easy to throw someone lighter than oneself, it is blinking difficult to throw someone much heavier. Also, such moves require a great level of trust. The follower has to trust the leader to catch her. If a woman were to lead a dance with a man, then in order to do any of these moves, the man would have to trust her absolutely to catch him, and he probably wouldn't, especially if she were a stranger.
4. It avoids arguments
At a social dance, one does not want a dispute, a clash of wills, or an awkward moment. If I go up to a woman at a dance and ask her for next dance, then since it is an accepted convention that men lead and women follow, there is no argument or discussion over who leads. Instead we can just get onto the floor and start happily. I don't have to ask her if she wants to lead. She doesn't have to feel obliged to let me lead. She doesn't have to admit that she can't lead. We can just dance and enjoy ourselves.
5. Each sex can specialise
If the convention were changed so that men and women were equally likely to lead a dance, then all men and all women would have to learn both the leader's part and the follower's part. Learning to dance takes long enough as it is, but this requirement would mean that everyone would have twice as much to learn, and each part would interfere with the ease with which they danced the other, as all lefts and rights get reversed, and some habits which are good in a follower are annoying in a leader and vice versa. Not only would everyone take twice as long (or longer, and that's if many can be bothered with all this - plenty of people drop out of dance lessons as it is) to learn, but at every dance they attended, they would get half as much practice at each part. The net result would be that everyone would be a lot worse at dancing. If each sex specialises in one part, then the learning period is bearably short, and each sex becomes much better at its one role.
6. Sex is part of the fun
In truth, of course, one often does see women dancing with women, and occasionally men dancing with men (deliberately badly, and with big cheesy grins). Almost always, though, the best dances one witnesses in an evening of social dance will be between one man and one woman. Partly this is because of reason five, above, that each has specialised, partly also because the man will probably be taller and stronger, but mostly because there is something in the chemistry between men and women which means that each dancer raises his level. If a woman dances a "shine move" (one where she struts her stuff independently of him, showing him how good she is) with another woman, she will never dance it quite so well as she would with a man. She will always rein-in slightly, because there is something sexy about dancing as a couple.
7. Men prefer it
Men are show-offs. Men get pleasure from dancing well, not simply from dancing. A partner dance is an opportunity for a man to be masculine, and give a woman a good time. This is surely a good thing for both men and women. If a man is stupid, he might try to show the women how strong he is by shoving her around brutally. She won't like this and will never dance with him again. If he is considerate and sensible, he will look after his partner and she will enjoy dancing with him. If she looks happy at the end of the dance, that is his reward. Men get a big kick out of that sort of thing, and we are, after all, doing this for kicks.
8. Women prefer it
Despite what the politically correct may try to get us to believe, women don't actually find men who are followers in life as attractive as leaders. Weak yes-men do not win the hearts of women, while strong and decisive men generally do. Dancing with a man is an opportunity for a woman to assess him. If she is leading, she will learn less about him, and the sensation of having a man follow her is not as pleasurable as the sensation of being well led by a man who is a decisive and skilled dancer. Deny the biology of the situation if you like, but you won't refute it. It remains true that men and women both enjoy partner dancing most when he leads and she follows (for much more on this sort of thing, see my essay in the evolution section on why men won't dance - you'll need to use your browser's BACK button to return here).
9. It isn't command and obey
In fact, the leader's part is not that of a ruthless dictator, nor is the follower's part that of an abject slave. In reality in partner dancing, a woman can contribute a great deal to the dance, and a good leader will let his follower shine. People do not like to be coerced, but they do appreciate competent leadership. A good leader will keep the partnership in synch, but this requires good following. The partnership is just that: a partnership of two people who are equal but different. The woman plays an active role in keeping the partnership together. A man who is coercing his partner into each move, while dancing with a woman who is simply allowing him to do so, will look like a man shaking a rag doll. Watch a good dance couple dancing together and this is not what you will see. Instead you will see two people each bringing their skill to the dance, each working to maintain the partnership, and each having fun.
10. You need to get out more
This, I suppose, isn't really a proper reason, nor perhaps the best sort of thing to say in a discussion with someone who is already of the opinion that there is something inherently dodgy about men's leading and women's following in dance. I put it in for two reasons. First, it brings the number of arguments up to ten, and second, it expresses to some degree my frustration with people who put correctness above enjoyment. Perhaps there is something bad about men's leading in dance, but I know from experience that partner dancing has a lot good about it, and I'm pretty sure that whatever harm might be done by men's leading is easily out-weighed by the good that comes from the fun people have dancing with each other. If we forbid ourselves to participate in any activity which isn't perfect in every way, then we will miss out on life.
Addendum:The above is the article as I first wrote it in about 1999. In 2010, it became the ignition for some surprisingly heated debate amongst Lindy hoppers on-line. I should not need to defend this essay, because it really is clear enough what it is saying, but for those interested in controversy, I have written a page dealing with criticisms, and adding clarifications. Find there also a link to a Yehoodi radio talk show I took part in about this page.