Lead or Follow?

Queering salsa one step at a time

Left: Instructor Subhashish Mandal demonstrates a move at a queer-style salsa workshop. COURTESY SANDIP KURIAKOSE
01 January, 2012

ON A CHILLY NOVEMBER EVENING, two men completely engrossed in dancing the salsa effortlessly lead and follow each other across the dance floor. The older of the two men twirls the younger on the spot and pulls him in close. They are oblivious to the spectators who may have been wondering, like me, how it feels for a man to follow another man’s lead while dancing the salsa—a dance known for its rigid gender binary. They shift their weight from right to left, and hold their arms just so, demonstrating the syncretic dance form to an eager group that has come to take part in a “queer-style salsa workshop”—one of the events at Delhi’s annual Nigah QueerFest.

The older man is Subhashish Mandal, or Subbu, an enthusiastic, graceful salsa instructor who, between teaching the basic steps, reminds the participants of the workshop to enjoy themselves. “Sometimes, in the advent of thinking queer, one forgets to just dance and enjoy the music,” he tells me during a brief chat before the workshop begins at The Attic, a large gallery tucked away in a corner of Connaught Place. The gathering is open to queer and queer-friendly people, and during the first session, I find myself in the company of three seemingly heterosexual couples and a few unaccompanied men. We all regard one another with a friendly inquisitiveness: a glance that stumbles out of the inevitable unspoken curiosity about our respective sexual orientations that makes it, perhaps, a little difficult to just dance and enjoy the music.

Subbu grins when he is asked about queer identities that emerge while dancing. “That depends a lot on the setting,” he points out. “Here [in a non-regular class], you’re bound by the fact that you’re queer, and it changes the dynamics between people. Your struggles, social acceptance, values and needs go against stereotypes. You can’t watch queer couples dance salsa and think of men leading and women following.”

Perhaps not, but Subbu is clearly aware of the average heterosexual willingness to conform to traditional gender roles. When everyone gathers on the dance floor to pair up, he tells us that in each pair, one will lead and another must follow. “I assume here,” he says, glancing at the man-woman couples, “that the men will want to lead?” The response is a collective, almost relieved “Yes.” I opt to lead the man I’ve been paired with. Subbu and his assistant are encouraging, but my partner shoots me a quizzical look.

Subbu, who conducted a salsa workshop at the Naz Foundation’s drop-in support centre in Lajpat Nagar a few months ago, says he enjoys watching people pair up to dance in a queer environment. “It’s fun when you see the dance politics transfer onto people. I leave the partners to decide. Either you’ve fought about it at home, or perhaps you decide to lead if you’re feeling more butch today, whatever works!  Sometimes, I get the partners to flip the lead as in the end it’s not about typecasting genders.”

The workshop is light, engaging, and covers the fundamentals of salsa—we learn at least six different steps, including the ‘basic’, the sidestep and the hairbrush. Subbu works quickly but patiently with each couple, and tells my partner to allow me to lead him. The typecasting of genders is very much in swing, largely due to the participation of “queer-friendly” people. Would their presence change the safety of a space for queer people? One wonders. “My friend told me to watch out about coming here, because people might think I am ‘like that’,” someone confesses to me in a whisper before the workshop begins. I resist the urge to ask “Like what?” and reply, “It is a queer workshop.” “Of course,” comes the retort, rather defensively, “But I’m not.”