From Role Reversal to an Activism Movement
By Tiago Adegas – founder of Role Rotation
The Full Story of Rolerotation, how rotating (switching) roles in the middle of a dance became a social dance movement for change, equality, respect, inclusion and awareness in the dance world.
Everything started in 2014 when I moved to Manchester, UK and met Jessica Latham (Instagram: @jessicalathamdance) who convinced me to join a salsa class at a dance school, later adding bachata and kizomba to the mix. Being a ballroom dancer since the age of 12, who had already tried some salsa and kizomba before, the transition to the social dance world was easy and quick. I fell in love as quickly as an ice cube melts in a very packed dance party without air conditioning. As a competitive ballroom dancer, I was fortunate to have coaches who “forced” me to learn both roles from the beginning. It was easier to understand my part of the dance if I knew my partner’s role. We did everything we could to win championships, and knowledge was and still is power. We were faster, cleaner, and better at our roles if we knew what our partner was doing at any moment. I even had to learn my entire partner’s styling, from pointed feet to the very last fingernail.
So, imagine my surprise when I arrived in the salsa world and was told I had to be a leader because I was a man and I couldn’t follow. It felt weird, but I thought, “okay, this is how it works”. Jessica, who already knew how to dance salsa, and I, who was studying to be professional dancers, and I went full-on. From the first month, we practiced more than 5 to 6 hours a day, including weekends and excluding socials. You might think we were crazy, and indeed we were. We were young and crazy. We would both finish what we were doing at 5 pm, and at 6 pm we were in the dance school taking classes or practicing on our own. We quickly became teachers, not salsa and bachata in the beginning, but of “Body Isolation for Latin Dancers.”
Here comes the first shocking thing: as soon as we became teachers, it was now okay to do both roles. So crazy! We never stopped learning both roles, obviously not in classes, but after we would re-learn everything on our own and do the same thing on the other side. We just wouldn’t do it in front of other people because, you know, “it’s not allowed.” But as soon as you become a teacher, “it’s fine”. No one says anything because they just assume you have to know both roles since you are a teacher.
Flash forward; we started growing, traveling, and getting training not just in traditional bachata and Cuban salsa but also in more modern bachata. We were quickly invited to teach both styles. We also experimented with our background dances and how we could fuse everything together. We loved it.
Two years after becoming international artists and starting to teach abroad, the current school where we taught didn’t really enjoy our success. We wanted to grow more and invest, but they were not willing to help us. It’s important to note that at the school where we taught, women didn’t get paid because of, and I quote: “Girls are just there to assist and show the movement, men are the ones who actually teach the class.” Essentially, girls who “assisted” the male teacher were getting access to the classes for free but not getting paid for their work even when they were actually dance partners, both teachers. Jessica was the only one making money because I, as a man, said that if she wasn’t getting paid the same as me, I wouldn’t work for them at all. Long story short, as you may have guessed, we left. We left and never turned back, opened our own classes, and made a name for ourselves.
2017 – The appearance of Role Reversal (currently called Role Rotation)
Here we are in 2017, young and alone, with the mentality that everyone should learn both roles, not just teachers. In the beginning, it wasn’t part of our methodology to teach everything in both roles. If you wanted to, you could, but we wouldn’t make you do it. Only some specific moves that we thought were beneficial to feel how it is to be on the other side. The tipping point came a few months later when a group of, I believe, 14 or 15 people from the previous school contacted us. They asked us if they could come back to be our students again. It’s important to know that these were some of the most advanced dancers in Manchester, not just for skills but also for the amount of time they were dancers. Some were dancers of salsa and bachata years before we even were in Manchester. We said to them that they could, but they would have to go through our 10-week technique course before they could go with our intermediate class. We did that because the school where we were teaching before was mainly focused on teaching moves, not so much technique-focused classes. And by being both of us professional dancers, we love and we believe in teaching technique, not just moves. They agreed, and so we did it.
Just a note: Role Reversal, what we used to call the action of rotating roles, currently named Role Rotation (you will understand later), was just one of those technique classes of that entire 10 week technique course.
But something crazy, at least to my eyes, happened during that course that completely changed my career and the way I saw my path in the dancing world. In one of those salsa and bachata technique classes of that course, before we got to the role reversal class, there was a situation… We were teaching something, and a couple (boyfriend and girlfriend) were not getting it. It just wasn’t working. So here I am talking and teaching, when all of a sudden, they started yelling at each other. It escalated and at some point, he was so loud and sounded so violent that he started to gesticulate way too much. You might not believe this, but it felt like he was going to hit her. Bear in mind, I was 23 or 24 years old, and Jessica was even younger. I didn’t know how to deal with this situation. It was an out-of-body experience, but when I came to my senses, I stopped them in time.
I stopped them, but my blood was running, and I was fuming. I couldn’t believe what was going on, so I stopped them and told them I wouldn’t admit anyone in my classes to talk like that to anyone. I told them I didn’t care if they were friends, partners, or even family; I wouldn’t admit them. I explained that you can’t just assume the fault is from the other person when a move doesn’t work, so Jessica and I forced them to switch roles that day. And it happened. The most advanced dancers in the entire Manchester couldn’t do the basic turn and enchufa in the opposite role in salsa. This developed into a full 20 minutes of me educating these grown-ups on general respect.
In those 20 minutes, I said things in a way that probably teachers shouldn’t talk, but I did. I told them they were terrible. I asked them how they could think they were the best in Manchester if they couldn’t even do basic moves in the other role. Our beginners who started with us were already able to do it (of course, because they learnt technique including role reversal from the beginning). I ask them how they could blame the other person if they had no idea what they had to do. I remember Jessica grabbing, no, squeezing my shoulder to control me, to make me relax and tone down a bit, but I was raging. The class finished, and everyone’s ego was down, and rightfully so in my point of view. I know all suffered from the action of one, but sometimes it’s important to stay humble. I mean, I was a professional ballroom dancer, but I went to salsa beginners. I didn’t jump to the intermediate or advanced class. Dancers need to be humble and understand that it’s okay to start something new from the beginning.
It is actually one of the hardest things for dancers who already know one role well, when teachers recommend, they learn the other role and many can’t handle the ego crash of having to go back to being and feeling like a beginner. It is a mistake to see it like that, but it’s the truth. Being an intermediate dancer in bachata is not accurate if you only know one role. You are either an intermediate leader or an intermediate follower. You are not an intermediate dancer because you are only intermediate at 50% of the dance. And if you are in this position, it is ok, the amount of time it takes to learn the other role will be much shorter anyway. So don’t get discouraged if you now want to learn the other role. It will just click sooner or later. I have seen this hundreds of times, probably thousands. Of course, this is assuming you didn’t start from the beginning to learn both. But I digress, let’s go back to the main story.
When a Dance Path became an Activism Path
Coming back to the day of that situation, I believe it was the day when I sat with myself the most, thinking about how those things were happening and how I could fix them. It was the moment that made me start seeing all the issues that were happening in the dance scene. I started seeing things that I didn’t agree with, everywhere. It was much like when you start playing the yellow car game and then you see it everywhere all the time. I began to notice not only sexist situations, but much more: girls not getting paid, girls not being allowed to talk, male artists being the only ones with microphones, students not being allowed to learn both roles, not seeing men dancing with other men or women with other women unless they were teachers, girls being rejected because of their weight, and a very small quantity of LGBT people dancing social dances. It just opened my eyes to all of these issues that I didn’t think were normal. I just didn’t see them or think about them until then. I thought what was normative was the normality. And this is probably the most important thing I will ever say: Being currently the normative doesn’t mean that it is or should be the normal!
This was when my background in psychology and behavior analysis, as well as academic research brain, kicked in for the first time towards the dance world. With the help of Jessica, I started trying different things, such as teaching both roles from day one to some groups and teaching one role first and then changing it to another one. We started to experiment and research and, damn, did I learn too. I learned so much and grew so much as a teacher. The more we taught this way, the more I realized that teachers need to start thinking for themselves and try to create their own methodology instead of just teaching how they were taught. We were already doing it with technique-focused classes, but never to that level. We started teaching Role Reversal more and more, but it never grew as much as it should have back then. I believe that happened also because we were known for our bachata fusion classes and style, not for rotating roles in the middle of a dance. In the end, when it came to international classes, we were not teaching Role Reversal or competing in both roles. We were following the normative of men leading and women following when it came to demos, competitions, and festival workshops. Only to our students were we teaching role reversal.
Flash forward to mid-2018, Jessica and I decided to pursue different paths, and I started my solo career, leaving the UK. A side note for those who like drama: there wasn’t any. We had the same goal, but we didn’t see the path to that goal to be the same. We are still best friends, and we will always be. You’ll see us together dancing, making videos, and collaborating in classes many times. So, for the drama lovers out there, sorry!
Here we are in 2018, and my activist heart wanted to change everything that I thought was/is wrong in the dance world. I started to use the complaints of my students as a boost to create classes focused on solving whatever problem they had.
For example, “No one asks me to dance because I’m fat.” I would come up with a 3-hour intensive on how to boost your confidence and keep it. “Everyone says I’m too strong and harsh as a leader,” which was the reason behind my Connection and Energy Technique Bootcamp. “I don’t know what to do with my arms. I feel super uncomfortable with styling,” which led me to create my Solo Styling and Partnerwork Styling bootcamps. Until September 2019, I was touring Western Europe with my 12 three-hour technique bootcamps that later became 11 when I realized that men’s and ladies’ styling made no sense and became just styling (for all genders). Role Reversal was only one of those bootcamps. I used to sell it as “The Weakest Role” because no one knew what role reversal was in 2017 when we first called it that. These tours were much more than just teaching dance. They were already a form of activism. In every class, festival, and social event, I was teaching and explaining to people: how movement has no gender, how we should dance with everyone, how we should learn both roles, how gender equality was behind, and we all should help, how the dance scene had to change, what was wrong and right. My career became much more than just teaching; it became a movement for me. I became an activist.
The Appearance of Felipe
And then September happens! During one of those tours, I stopped in Madrid for two days and met Felipe. We met and danced for the first time rotating roles. Without even saying anything, it just came naturally. I mean, I was doing it in socials with a lot of people, but unless you know them, you always had to ask. At least before. With Felipe, that was not the case. It just made sense.
To make a long story short, those two days became four, followed by one day apart because I had a gig in another country, and then an extra week in Madrid together. After that, I had what was going to be my last solo tour, a one-month tour that Felipe decided to meet me in my last city, which was Edinburgh, for an event called Bachaadiction organized by my dear friend Ami Emirato. I asked Felipe if he wanted to teach with me in that class. Everyone that knew me knew that I always danced with everyone, men and women. I had taught with men and women before and having the opportunity to teach with someone as good as Felipe, I didn’t want to lose that opportunity. We taught a combo, like in all combo classes in festivals, but in the demo, we danced like we always danced: Role Reversal (now Role Rotation).
It was a very emotional demo, not just for us but for everyone there. It’s not every day you see artists dancing professionally and in demos with someone of the same gender. Sure, you see it in socials sometimes, but in bachata demos, internationally or even nationally; who did you have back then? Men? Bachata? None, you know… Plus, the song was beautiful, and everyone knew we were together romantically, so I think all of that came into the equation. I know I’m biased, but it was just beautiful. You can actually see it here:
I knew it was going to be a big moment for bachata and social Latin dance culture in general; I just didn’t know how big that moment was going to become.
One message that changed everything
For months, Felipe and I were together romantically, but we didn’t want to pursue the same career for various reasons. Felipe had a stable job with his regular dance classes in Madrid, and he already had a dance partner, Almudena (@felipeyalmudena), who is also his best friend and a fantastic dancer in both roles. You should check her out too. I was focused on traveling with my technique bootcamps all the time, as well as trying to find a new partner for me.
In March 2020, yep, you know what is coming. The quarantine happened, and I had to choose between staying in Madrid with Felipe or coming back to my hometown in Portugal. I chose Felipe, but our dance careers stopped. Or so we thought.
Felipe never wanted to pursue the activism route with is dance career, as he had already faced a lot of challenges and discrimination being a male follower and dancer, so he preferred teaching what we call the normative – men leading and women following. But one message changed everything. During the pandemic, a Turkish kid sent us a very emotional private text, telling us that thanks to our demo in Edinburgh, he realized that he could dance as a follower and dance with other men. He said that our demo gave him the courage to talk to his dance friends and come out to them. Felipe teared up reading this, and I explained to him that I was getting texts like this quite often, not just from queer kids, but also from straight people too as well as from girls who felt happier and more confident because of my philosophy. They grew in confidence and didn’t accept the lashback that was happening to them. I know we weren’t curing cancer, not even close, but seeing people lead a better life, be happier, and more confident gave me the strength to accept all the discrimination I faced for teaching like this. All the hate comments I received were worth it because of all the love and change I had accomplished in many people’s lives.
This was the tipping point for Felipe. You might not know this, but Felipe is a machine when it comes to work. He just works like hell and has the capacity to self-motivate. Sleeping only five or six hours because he wants to improve something even though he doesn’t have to wake up to go anywhere. It’s crazy in my eyes. He’s probably a full workaholic, but hey, if it helps people, I’m here for it.
The transitioning to call it “RoleRotation“
Fun fact, Felipe is a linguist. He studied linguistics, and when he decided to accept my offer to be my full dance partner, he said that if I wanted Role Reversal to grow, I had to change the name. At first, I didn’t understand why, but after he showed me that only native speakers or very high-level English speakers could pronounce it, it became clear. No one could say “Role Reversal”. I get it. It is a bit of a tongue twister. This was when he came up with the words “Role Rotation”, while sitting on a sofa that doesn’t exist anymore. We also thought about “role switching,” but the problem is that outside of America and England, when people use the word “switch”, it’s more for when we switch roles for the entire dance, not so much for rotating in the middle of the dance and in some European languages the word “switch” has, sadly, negative connotations. And this was a methodology of teaching both roles and how to rotate between them in the middle of the dance, not just making people know both roles.
And damn, he was right. I mean, it was with the changing of the name that Role Rotation exploded. It exploded so much that it became a movement, not just for myself, like I used to see it, but for many others. Now you see it everywhere. I mean, the number of people creating social media accounts in each country around the world for Role Rotation is incredible in my eyes. It’s beautiful to see that in only three years and a half since we changed the name, you can already see the changes in the dancing scene. The amount of discrimination that is disappearing, the number of teachers already teaching Role Rotation out there, and the most incredible thing of all is that the majority of them don’t see it as the action of rotating roles. They, like us, see it as a movement of equality and freedom by de-gendering dance and teaching it. Seeing people believe that dance should be inclusive and not limited by gender roles and that dance should be a safe space for self-expression and creativity for everyone, regardless of their gender identity, is just out of this world.
I mean, the movement has already gained support from dancers worldwide, and there are now Role Rotation events and competitions held in various countries. We even have our festival that we do twice a year called Terra Livre Dance Festival, which literally means “Free Land,” because you are free to do whatever role you want. When you get your full pass, you don’t have to say if you are a man or a woman. We don’t care. We ask you what role you want to do: leader, follower, or Role Rotation. When you get to the festival, you get a bracelet with the assigned color (Leader – yellow, Follower – blue, Role Rotation – green (the combination of yellow and blue – get it?). I just wish for everyone to at least see once how the atmosphere in the socials and classes changes when people don’t see genders, they just dance. Honestly! It’s beautiful.
Created by Felipe y Tiago Rolerotation
We are encouraging dancers to challenge what people say are traditional gender roles and to push themselves out of their comfort zones, as well as provide a platform for women to showcase their leadership skills in a male-dominated industry.
Unfortunately, a lot of misguided people think RoleRotation is a queer movement because the founders are two men. But it is not. A lot of queer people don’t even start Latin dance because they don’t feel invited or welcomed here since they are not allowed to dance with who they want.
Roles in dance, even if you don’t believe it or haven’t seen it yet, are way more linked to personality traits than actual genders or sexual orientation. The majority of women who say that they hate leading are women who start dancing as followers and for many years only dance as followers and with men. The same goes for men who say they hate following. In all these years that we have been teaching Role Rotation from day one, two things are consistent. The majority of beginners, I don’t want to lie, but between 80 to 90% prefer to follow – men and women, straight or gay, etc. And then the more they dance, they end up having a favorite but always liking both, and it’s all about personality traits. You have those people who are more used to leading in their normal lives, and when they get to dance, you end up having the ones who just want to relax and prefer following, but you also have the ones who just feel more comfortable leading because, and I quote: “it just feels more natural to me”. And then you have those students who tend to be more artistic, spiritual, and usually more relaxed who are just more naturally followers.
Saying that, the more students we have, the more we see that each student is their own dancer. And if you are a teacher and you are already going through the mentality of saying, “Nah, I don’t agree with this,” I invite you to start a class of beginners from zero, with a normality of 15, 25, or 35 students and teach them equally both roles from day one. Try it with two different groups until they get to intermediate, and you will see. Don’t defend anything without trying because honestly, I have been there, and it doesn’t help. This is experience and research talking.
Side note for teachers: If you are a teacher and cannot imagine how to teach both roles from day one, or if you already have a class of people who only know one role and you don’t know how to change their mindset or role, text us at Felipe at @felipeytiago_official. We will respond promptly and can even provide assistance over the phone. We want everyone to learn both roles so that they can eventually be free to choose the role they prefer or to do both roles. 😊
In the end, the Role Rotation Movement sparked a conversation about gender equality in the dance world by emphasizing the importance of de-gendering dance. It’s not just about learning and teaching steps, but also about fostering a community that respects diversity and empowers all dancers.
The importance and the future of RoleRotation
The Role Rotation Movement is significant for the social dance world because it challenges the status quo. Many believe that you need our permission to teach role rotation, but you don’t. If you are a teacher that knows both roles and how to teach them, as well as rotating between them, you can teach it. We created the concept of “Role Rotation” to start this conversation and this fight. We obviously made it our brand and teach it everywhere, but bigger than all of this, what Role Rotation is in reality: it’s a movement and we cannot wait to see everyone teaching and doing it.
In the end, what we really want is for people to feel comfortable dancing with anyone and stop sexism and unnecessary “postureo” around the dance world.
We want people to see dance as just that, dance, and not just a place to find a partner for the night. Don’t get me wrong, I found my life partner in the dance scene. That is not wrong!
- What is wrong is when people say no to others because they don’t match their ideal prototype of beauty.
- What is wrong is when female teachers are not allowed by their partners and promoters to speak in class.
- What is wrong is when women are not paid the same as their male partner, and this includes some famous artists.
- What is wrong is when LGBTQ+ people don’t feel comfortable or safe in many environments.
- What is wrong is when people are not allowed to dance with their same genders siblings in some classes because that means they will have to dance with someone of the same gender.
- What is wrong is when two men or two women who are dance partners and artists do not get work because of their gender and not their skills.
- What is wrong is that we haven’t even start to have a conversation about trans and non-binary people in the dance scene. We don’t even talk about disabled people either, for goodness sake.
- What is wrong is when teachers are fired because they allowed a male student to be a follower in one class.
And if you don’t believe that this is happening, there are many articles at www.rolerotation.com where you can read all about these issues. This is still happening, and this is what the Role Rotation Movement will eradicate. I am certain of this.
Together, we will create a better and more respected social dance world. I never thought that when I started doing both roles and rotating at 12 years old, it would later have its own name and become such a large and important movement 18 years later. But here we are, and with your help, we will do our best for the Role Rotation methodology and way of thinking reaches everyone, everywhere. I promise!
By Tiago Adegas –Role Rotation