Latin Dancing Christian Feminist   Leave a comment

(Sorry for the delay. I think this is my seventh draft of this post? Let’s hope I make it through this time.)

I want to talk about sexy dancing.

Specifically, I want to talk about how my habit of dancing sexily works with my Christian faith and with my feminism.

I first started with the sexy dancing when I was twelve years old. Well, I suppose nothing I did on the dance floor was overtly sexy until I was thirteen. Yeah, I definitely learned how to shimmy and do a body roll the summer before freshman year  (I turned fourteen at the very end of that summer), in preparation for the samba formation in which I was to perform for the studio’s fall Showcase. By that time my competitive teacher was certainly taking some time in lessons to show me “this is how you play with your skirt when you do a lock-step, this is how you run your hand over your hair and down your body, this is how you make a sultry figure-eight with your hips”.

This scares some people.

My instructor, and everyone with whom he surrounded himself, was (is) a paragon of professionalism and integrity, which made things easier. He did everything he could to make sure he wasn’t overstepping his bounds, and he assured us that he never wanted to be like other instructors who put their young female students in dresses that were too adult and routines that were too thoroughly erotic. As I matured, we worked more and more on the artistic performance aspect of dancing, and things definitely became much more sexual, but it was always at a level where I was comfortable. Also, significantly, it was always discussed in the context of the aesthetic and athletic goals of dancesport: portraying beauty in relationships between bodies and between people, through physical movement and emotional passion. These factors allowed my parents, who were (at the very least) sort of uneasy about sending off to learn how to dance sexily, to trust my instructor, and to trust me to handle all the various issues the dance world tossed at my head.

For me, dancing thus became a very healthy way to fulfill my yearning to be beautiful and desired. This way of expressing sexuality was a performance, and personally I found it very satisfying and very safe. There were limits: sexy dancing within the bounds of appropriate times and places allowed me not to worry too much about being sexy at other times and places. And yet I think it still freaked people out, because guess what! The world has PROBLEMS with women and their bodies and their sex lives. And so does the Church, only the misogyny in those problems is harder for many people to recognize and fight because it comes tangled up with some very legitimate concerns about the world’s issues with sex in general. (Also because heartbreakingly few leaders in mainstream American Christianity consider it worthwhile to study social justice in-depth from a comprehensive perspective taking progressive academic thought into account rather than tossing around vague proclamations about love for everyone and unity in Christ. But that’s a different post. Actually many different posts. I need to stop getting ahead of myself.)

Cultures build some messed-up fences to rein in women and our bodies and our sexy dancing. Most of these fences are constructed of shame.

Slut-shaming: it is a major problem. While the classic double standard of “men who sleep around are players and women who do anything more than kiss their boyfriends are dirty whores” is not, as far as I can tell, as intractable and prevalent as it once was, it manifests itself in infinite subtle ways. Anything from the idea of “daddy issues” to rape humor and apologism shows that. We still believe that all women inherently want romantic love more than they want sex, with every partner and in every circumstance; our culture just can’t process that many women might just enjoy sex because it’s supposed to be enjoyable, and that that, in itself, is okay. Our culture professes to be concerned about the risks women face — disease, pregnancy, abuse — in sexual relationships, but when faced with a woman who engages in frequent and varied sexual behavior but successfully and deliberately protects herself aganist those risks, the ultimate reaction is that she must be lying. She must have psychological issues; she must be a nymphomaniac with a hormone imbalance; secretly she wants to become pregnant so her man will stay with her; something has to be driving this because we all know women just don’t like sex, and they shouldn’t because women should be sweet and fresh and innocent and pure, or they should be soft and nurturing and maternal.

For the very small number of women whom we do want to be sexual — the young, thin, super-attractive, straight (or maybe bisexual if they mostly kiss girls because their male admirers think it’s hot), cisgendered, generally white and affluent and able-bodied — they must not be subjects. Again, they can’t actually want the sex. They are the recipient; they can give off signals that they are open to being acted upon sexually but they can’t truly initiate and follow through with encounters simply because they want to. So society shames women who unapologetically claim sexual agency and enjoy it.

Within the Church, this dynamic is far more intense and far less subliminal. Young men are shamed for wanting sex and being lustful, though of course we pay lip service to the idea that that’s just how they are. For young women, everyone assumes that they don’t have a “problem” with actually wanting sex so the responsibility to make sure no sex occurs in any romantic relationship — the pressure “not to give in” — is placed largely on their shoulders. If, heaven forbid, they do show signs of having real sexual desire (I mean actual desire, arousal, lust, not just wishing for an intimate relationship with a boy which might include physical intimacy because that’s what boys want), they’re made to feel like hopelessly unfeminine, hopelessly ungodly freaks.

This is just so upsetting to me. I’m not saying that the Church should start promoting casual sex or anything like that. I’m just so frustrated with the shame. I’ve heard from so many Christian young men how a struggle with pornography and lust seems to consume their whole lives, how they feel so horribly guilty that they can’t grow or move forward in relationship with God, how they’re terrified that their (current or future) girlfriends will think they’re weak and spiritually immature, how they’re stuck in cycle from which they can’t escape. Nearly every time I’ve heard a teacher (of faith, meaning a youth leader or Bible teacher or pastor or whatever) speak about sex to young men, it’s in the context of a “battle”: fighting your desires, beating back lustful thoughts, cutting out pornography, violent and negative language ad infinitum. With young women, it’s language of resistance — even after they’ve said men must fight their urges, there’s a sort of wink-wink, nudge nudge, “they can’t really restrain themselves, know what I mean?” vibe when teachers speak to women. You ladies have to make sure you’re not dressing immodestly, wearing too much makeup, moving provocatively, talking about titillating subjects, being too physically affectionate, getting too emotionally intimate with any male friends, language of restriction and resistance ad infinitum.

Some of these things, in theory and abstraction, are probably good things. But they are not good things solely, or even primarily, to my mind, because they will help young men “fight their lust”. It’s not appropriate to be showing off much of your body through the way you dress or move when you’re at a church function, because the point should be giving glory and worship to God and learning m ore about Him, not drawing others’ attention to how good you look.

But listen — when you talk to young men about what might possibly trigger them to have sexual thoughts about a woman, just about every possible type of clothing and movement comes up. The way a girl talks, walks, styles her hair, holds a book, eats her food or carries her purse can all “provoke” “lustful” thoughts. I believe it’s profoundly misogynistic and controlling to expect women to change everything about the way they inhabit their bodies, in order to protect young men from temptation. Frankly, the way some people talk about modesty borders on victim-blaming: actually, it is victim-blaming, blaming victims of objectification for that objectification, and that can easily slip into the territory of blaming victims of sexual harassment and assault for those crimes committed against them.

Yet, of course, it is really hard for men to stop objectifying women. I understand that. I do. I get that because of the way men are taught to think, it’s really tough to break out of a misogynistic, objectifying mindset towards women. The way to combat that, though, is not shame and negativity. The way to combat that is offering an alternative: teaching young men and women to view women as real people.

Young men are wired to think about sex, a lot. It’s how creatures on Earth work. We are sexual. We have bodies. Personally, I really don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Read the Song of Solomon. Read about the apostles healing the sick and disabled. Read about Jesus turning water into wine, dining with His disciples the night He was betrayed, taking a nap when He was tired on the Sea of Galilee. I think God gave us bodies for a reason: because He wants us to know and delight in sensual and sensory pleasure, the physical enjoyment of food, drink, sleep, movement, hot sun and cool ocean, hardwood floors and soft down comforters, even sex.

The body should not be the be-all end-all of our existence, certainly, just as this life is not the be-all end-all of our existence. We’re looking forward to a remade heaven and a remade Earth; we have a hope of and a responsibility to that future. But that future? It’s going to include resurrected bodies. It’s going to include people who are people, not angels or ghosts or spirits, and as I’ve always thought this world is supposed to be the place where we begin to be transformed into the kind of people we’ll be in that future, that should include how we think about our bodies. Our souls are not meant to be divorced from our bodies. So it’s a healthy and positive thing that we as Christians set boundaries to make sure we aren’t hurting each other or ourselves or dishonoring God with the ways in which we enjoy our bodies, because hurting people and dishonoring God does not jive with Jesus’ “life abundant”. However, it seems we’ve gone so far the opposite way, become so obsessed with maintaining those boundaries, that we’ve lost track of the reality that we’re never going to be completely rid of bodies, and we’re not supposed to.

Shame is not an effective incentive. Teaching young people over and over that what their bodies tell them they want is dirty and wrong? That’s not going to stop their bodies from wanting. That’s going to make them paralyzed with guilt over what they want, unable to focus on anything else, trapped in precisely the body-obsessed-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else mentality that we don’t want, that I believe God doesn’t want.

Instead, why don’t we teach young women that it’s okay to love their bodies, to accept that they have desires, to delight in what their bodies can feel and do? Why don’t we teach them about, and show them examples of, treating our bodies well and enjoying them in positive ways that honor God, living fully in the glory of the bodies He made for us?

Instead of teaching young men that they have to fight their own bodies and that they must resist the allure of young women’s bodies, why don’t we teach them not to freak out over the thoughts that their bodies’ desires evoke? Why don’t we build a culture around them that allows women to be — that even assumes they are — full, complete human beings, with many facets, capable of leadership, possessed of agency of all kinds?

Why don’t we tell both sexes “hey people, God made your body to want sex! He did! Because your body is part of who you are, and God made your body good and intended it to be pleasurable for you to inhabit your body! So it is really okay to want sex, just like it’s okay to want food and sleep and friends. You are supposed to. But hey, we also live in a fallen world, and so there are ways in which obtaining what our bodies want can hurt other people and can be selfish and dishonoring to God — so let’s talk about what those ways are, and then let’s talk about better ways to handle things, and then let’s go through the world striving to love God and love each other above all else rather than being painfully obsessed over what our bodies want or do!”

Again, positive alternatives rather than shame are important to how we think about women and their bodies. It’s much easier not to focus on the sexual nature of another human being, even when your body’s yelling “LOOK A SEXY THING”, if your mind and heart have a strong response of “Yes, that is a person who is sexy but more importantly intelligent/funny/athletic/artistic/compassionate/full of integrity/etc. etc. etc.” Let’s work on creating a world where that’s how we automatically view women. That’s important to society at large, but shouldn’t it be even more important to the Church? Shouldn’t we be striving to see people through Christ’s eyes and loving them as He does — as whole individuals, intrinsically valuable and infinitely worth loving?

I think we should. But usually, we’re not.

So let’s get back to the sexy dancing. (Like I said, all this stuff is related.) I’ve already mentioned how dancing ballroom and Latin gave me a healthy, positive outlet for my desire to perform feminine sexuality. For me, it was even more than that. Dancing, even sexy Latin dancing, is both a feminist act and an act of Christian worship.

Competitive dancesport helped me learn to appreciate my body both for how it could look and for what it could do. I watched and experienced how bodies can relate to each other on a physical level through the movement of dancing, and how people can relate to each other through the social act of dancing as well as the artistic performance of passionate emotions in dancing. I saw how beautiful and strong and fluid and sensual bodies can be, and that my body could do that too, and that it was a good thing. I learned that I can control what my body does. I learned that I don’t have to let other people do things to my body that I don’t like — I can say no to dancing with a man who makes me uncomfortable; I can physically or verbally resist a movement that will hurt me. I learned that I feel better, happier, more functional when I treat my body well, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise in ways that I enjoy. And again, I learned that it’s not intrinsically horrible to want to feel beautiful and desired, and that there are healthy ways of expressing that wish.

All these pieces of knowledge, of self-knowledge really, are things our culture works desperately to keep from women. All these things have helped me become a happy, healthy, functional adult, with a strong sense of my worth and my autonomy. This is why it’s been a feminist act, to me.

These things I’ve learned also play into how I see dancing as an act of worship, as well. Fundamentally, I believe my purpose as a believer is to live a life that glorifies God. Clearly, He gave me a talent for dancing; developing it is good stewardship of His blessings to me. Dancing beautifully reflects the beauty of the Lord, showing a little bit of His work to the world. That’s all part of a worshipful life, and so is learning to love myself and celebrate the body that He gave me.

So, in conclusion, à la Sady Doyle [ETA: meant to explain, Sady f’ing Doyle is the blogger at Tiger f’ing Beatdown, an awesome feminist blog]: Sexy dancing! It is fun! And it has helped me think about my body! And feminism! And the Church! Which should really think more about how it treats women’s bodies! Woo!


Posted August 18, 2010 by skreps in Dancing, Faith, Feminism, Gender, Sexism

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