Boogie Woogie

Why White Men Can’t Dance, According To Science

Straight white men used to dance well and often, but then World War II ended and everything changed.

Originally Published: 
A white man dancing with his young daughter in their kitchen.
FG Trade/Getty

True or not, there is clear societal bias: Straight white men can’t dance. But it wasn’t always like this, according to Maxine Craig, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. In the early 20th century, dancing was an important part of nightlife for most young Americans.

“Dancing was acceptable in the swing era because the kind of dancing had very, very clear gender roles,” says Craig, author of Sorry I Don’t Dance: Why Men Refuse to Move. “It’s basically about men throwing women.”

After the war, women were sent home from the factories and told to have babies, and men became increasingly wary of displaying less-than-masculine traits. Dancing fell to the wayside. “Performing gender is not only doing certain things; it’s avoiding doing other things. Dance has become one of those things in our culture,” she says.

Here, Craig shares what social pressures have continued to keep men, especially white men, off the dance floor — and how they’re missing out.

Why is dancing considered feminine?

Certain kinds of dance have long been considered feminine. In the United States, ballet has always been considered feminine. Any men who became professional dancers, whether it was ballet or another kind of dance, always had to apologize for it in some way. In the biographies of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, they both say they became dancers by accident.

How did World War II change dancing? What did that look like?

The wartime shook things up — women were in factories, men were off fighting. But when World War II ended, you have this McCarthy era, which was a very, very conservative time. There was this opening up of gender and sexual roles during the war, and afterwards there was this push to get back to normal with more conservative, conventional roles. They told women they should not be occupying a job that a former soldier needs. And it was a period that was more homophobic than the forties or thirties or twenties. I found many court cases where two men could be arrested for obscenity for dancing together. And when the police would go to court and were asked what was the crime, they’d say, “Oh, I saw two men dancing close.”

What were some of the other factors?

After the war, people started getting married really young and moving to the suburbs. And when I say people, I mean mostly white, middle-class people. This means people start living in more racially segregated neighborhoods, and middle-class white people start consuming more entertainment at home now because they have TVs and young kids. This is one of the many forces that kind of tilts nightlife, which dampens dancing during this homophobic period where men start to be more nervous about their performances of masculinity.

All this seems mostly specific to white men. What was happening with men of other races?

As all this was happening in the fifties and sixties, white people, Black people, and Latino people all started listening to different music. Black and Latino people continued to listen to dance music and to think that it was acceptable for both genders to dance. In fact, when white people moved to the suburbs and stopped going to those big ballrooms to dance, they turned into salsa clubs. Then radio stations also started to separate and niche-guard — before that everyone listened to a lot of the same music, but that ended. So you have all these radio stations, and some of it is clearly dance music and some of it’s not. You have mostly white men listening to music that’s not, and dance occasions become this increasingly awkward thing you get drunk or stoned to do.

And then disco came along.

Oh no. What happens with disco?

What really fascinated me with the archival research and interviews I did, what really struck me, was how much guys hated disco. They had real anger toward disco, and I wondered what that was about. It was really about demanding some type of performance of masculinity that they thought was unacceptable. And so they despised John Travolta and they despised dressing up and despised ways of valuing masculinity that they hadn’t experienced before.

If they weren’t required to participate, why did they hate it so much?

People associate disco with Saturday Night Fever, but it really emerged from Black communities and gay communities. It was not a scene white men were ready to be comfortable in, and they rejected it. Now, all of these patterns are complicated, and none of this applies to any group 100%. But there was this “Disco Sucks” campaign at Comiskey Park where baseball fans came and burned disco albums. There was too much hostility for it to ever build up the masculine credibility that swing dancing had.

Was there any type of dancing straight white men were okay with?

There was a period in the 1960s where you go to total, no-technique dancing. Like what people would do to the Grateful Dead. Just get stoned, get out there, and be wild. And there was a certain kind of guy who could do that, but it was associated with drugs and youth and not something you would do after a certain age.

Did age play a role in any other ways?

Some men danced when they were young and dating, and now that they’re married, will never dance again — meanwhile, his wife wants to dance. People who treat dance as a form of play, and not sexual play but fun, they could dance with their sisters and with their mothers. This was more common in Latino families and Black families. Men who totally associated dancing with just touching a woman on the dance floor, they felt very embarrassed doing it. But the more people could treat it as just dancing and not sex, the more they could have fun with it. The more they thought of it as a precursor to getting someone into bed, the more likely they were to give it up once married.

So where are we now?

A form of dancing has emerged that’s very masculine and that’s hip-hop. When guys engage in it, the language around it, they’re engaging in battles, and it’s a very masculine thing. It’s athletic, it’s associated with street culture, women are the exceptions. Mosh pits are the same kind of thing, but that’s more an extension of no-technique dancing. But being expressive with your body is not something boys are raised to do; they are raised to be fearful of being called gay and moving their hips and their bodies. And we’re in a moment where there’s more fluidity, but sometimes not. I think there’s still fathers who freak out when their sons want to go into ballet.

Does this short-change straight white men mostly? How might they miss out?

Dancing has kind of become a way for men to get alienated from their bodies. This man told me he loved music, and I asked what happens when he listens to it. He said it was all in his head. And when you hear a good beat and are not disconnected from your body, you’ll bounce a bit with it. Some guys are raised to really watch their bodies and makes sure they’re not moving too much. That fear of just moving is really a shame.

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