Gentle Men: May I Have the Next Dance?
Review by Kristen Barber
Sorry I Don’t Dance: Why Men Refuse to Move
By Maxine Leeds Craig
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014
230 pp., $99 (cloth); $24.95 (paper)
Scholarly work on the body often overlooks men’s participation in feminized practices. Maxine Leeds Craig helps close this gender gap by studying both men who dance and men who “refuse to move.” She shows masculinity to be an embodied undertaking by looking at what sorts of men dance, as well as where, how, and why they do so. She also argues that cultural scripts shaping white, heterosexual, middle-class male bodies help naturalize dominance. Her goal for the book—to remind us that how we experience and move our bodies is learned and salient in social hierarchies—makes it an excellent text for the classroom.
Craig opens her book by asking readers to consider how gender informs dance and how bodily movement positions men within contrasting racial, classed, and sexual locations.
The gracefulness associated with dance often feminizes it, and so most men who dance have long emphasized their strength and athleticism. Like women, men’s bodies too are political, with instructors attempting to masculinize dance by attaching it to expressions of power. Focusing on the conditions under which white men often become “sitter-outers” and experience their bodies as stiff and uncomfortable, Craig shows that the status of men is established both on and at the margins of the dance floor.
Dedicating three chapters to a historical analysis of archival data, Craig works through the shifting meanings of dance for men from 1900 through the 1970s. She found depictions of dancing men difficult to locate, but those that do exist show how definitions of good or bad dancers depend less on men’s innate rhythm and more on sociohistorical context. The emergence of an “athletic and outspoken” 1920s woman, for example, created a need to ensure men’s dominance.
And so early 20th century debates about whether boys should dance were rooted in misogynistic anxieties about the feminization of men.
Craig found that a spike in men’s dancing emerged during World War II, with soldiers’ morale supposedly bolstered by government organized dances. Women’s patriotic duties came to include being punctual and pleasant dance partners to men. Reifying the gender order, wartime dance organizers told women there were few other duties as important as “serv[ing] the state by serving men.” But by the 1960s, the jitterbug had faded from popularity and dance increasingly became a solo event that took place in the working-class, gay-associated disco or the Latino salsa club.
In later chapters, Craig draws from 50 interviews with racially diverse men of different class backgrounds and sexual orientations to explore their experiences watching, learning, and performing dance.
She also spent time participating in and observing a college dance class, watching young men coordinate their bodies. While I would have liked Craig to reflect on her own dancing body in the class—and on how her gender, race, age, and professional status affected her data—she paints a nuanced picture of both men’s anxieties around and enjoyment of dance. Craig develops her main theoretical contributions to the study of gender, bodies, and inequalities in these chapters.
By deploying the concept of “dancer’s habitus,” Craig demonstrates that some men cultivate the ability to move in time with music as children. Watching their fathers dance confidently with their mothers and having sisters who teach them to dance, these men learn to move freely. Feeling selfconscious dancing—even while they are alone—however, exemplifies the extent to which white men are uncomfortable being the object of the gaze. Men of color, Craig argues, more often develop a dancer’s habitus that is important to cultural inclusion. Black men can signal racial membership through hip hop and Latino men might use salsa in traditional cotillions. Becoming a competent dancer is thus important to the development of racial identities and categories that bind men to a community.
At the same time, the racialization of the dancer’s habitus upholds beliefs about naturally expressive and uninhibited Black and Latino bodies. Craig argues that a Cartesian interpretation of movement exists, whereby white men become “nondancers” defined by mental capacity rather than corporeality.
She finds that whites also exoticize and even imitate “blackbody.” Testing “racial interactionist theory,” Craig explores how the relationship between gender, bodies, and domination is exhibited through white men’s appropriation of Black style. Teen idol Justin Bieber, for example, attempts “coolness” through the sourcing of “outlaw masculinity,” which is both racialized Black and classed poor. Instead of blurring racial lines, this imitation relies on the continued subordination and criminalization of Black men.
In the final chapter, Craig asks readers to consider what a less hierarchical society would look like. She argues that it would mean reimagining everyday spaces and practices, including the dance floor and how we move our bodies. And it would mean paying attention to how white men who can’t dance engage bodily expectations that are not only cliché but also create unequal differences between people.
Kristen Barber is a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Interested in the social construction of gender, her new book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, will be published by Rutgers University Press in August. She can be reached at email@example.com. This review first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Gender & Society, Sage Journals (http://gas.sagepub.com/content/current).