Abdiel Jacobsen and Kristine Bendul’s Hustle for Equality

Leadership looks different if we strive for equality. It requires a give and take – a balance. True leaders know when to lead and when to follow, allowing room for better communication and a more empathic understanding based in a genuine care for those we work with. Abdiel Jacobsen and Kristine Bendul know the importance of this nuanced exchange and its part in creating more inclusive and tolerant spaces on the dancefloor, in our workplaces and in society as a whole.

The dancing duo compete professionally with a gender-neutral approach to partner dance, making seamless shifts in who takes the lead and challenging traditional roles while also spreading a message of diversity, equality, inclusivity and movement. The Red Shoe Movement did a collaboration with them to celebrate the last Tuesday of the year. Watch the amazing video.

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ALINE CERDAN – Can you tell us a little bit about your history dancing together?

ABDIEL JACOBSEN & KRISTINE BENDUL – We met each other at a hustle dance social (party). We had heard of each other through mutual friends in the Hustle Dance community who encouraged us to meet. When we did, it was “love at first dance.” We soon forged a professional dance partnership and made our debut at the prestigious Canada Salsa and Bachata Congress in Toronto. Immediately receiving a standing ovation from the audience, we knew what we had was magical. Shortly after, we were invited to perform as featured artists at several concerts in NYC including at Carnegie Hall: “Link Up” series, “A Celebration of Sono Osato” at the Broadway Music Box Theatre, and the Buglisi Dance Theater’s NY season at Alvin Ailey. The summer following our debut, we decided to compete in our first competition at Disco America in Pennsylvania and won 1st place in the Professional Dance-Off division dancing Hustle through our gender-neutral approach to partner dance.

AC – What inspired you to challenge traditional gender roles within competitive dancing? How has your inclusive and gender-neutral approach to this well-established world been received?

AJ & KB – Although the Hustle dance community was open minded and supportive of us challenging traditional gender roles in dance competition, we recognized that there are other communities in the competitive partner dance world that still prohibited such practices, specifically the mainstream ballroom competition circuit called Dancesport. Inspired by the Hustle dance community’s support of our creative expression, we wanted to encourage other dance communities to explore alternative expressions and methods concerning gender roles in competitive partner dancing. We also wanted to spread the important message of GENDER EQUALITY & INCLUSIVITY.

In 2019 we made history  becoming the world’s First professional couple to compete as Gender Neutral in Dancesport; swapping equal roles of lead and follow in all dances and wearing high heels. Some judges/adjudicators were supportive, and others were completely against it. Our dance coaches, moved by our mission and effort, fully backed us. A few were appalled and tried to deter us from our goal. We understand we are on the forefront of major change in a long-held tradition and know it will take time for those still stuck in conservative heteronormative traditions to accept us. However, we can also say we’ve had many wonderful words of encouragement from audience members and spectators supporting our mission. This means the world to us.

Knowing when to lead and when to follow is key. Learn from these amazing dancers- Photo Credit Ryan Kenner Photography
Knowing when to lead and when to follow is key. Learn from these amazing dancers- Photo Credit Ryan Kenner Photography

When to lead and when to follow: what can we learn from dancing

AC – What did your exploration of these dance styles teach you about being a leader and knowing when to lead and when to follow? What have you learned from finding a gender-neutral approach to these styles?

AJ & KB – We compete in several partner dance styles: Hustle, Mambo, Swing, Cha Cha, Rumba, Bolero – they all tell different stories and have their own unique flavor and expression, which brings out various characters and emotions throughout our performance. When approaching these various styles from a gender-neutral standpoint, we have found that our expression and storytelling becomes much more layered, complex and balanced. Rather than being restricted to one singular heteronormative perspective, we are free to discover other sides of our relationship dynamics beyond those centered in heteronormative gender roles. This expands our creative expression and allows a deeply symbiotic connection to emerge that’s authentic to us.

AC – What are some of the things this partnership has opened your eyes to? What has it shown you about each other’s particular struggles as dancers and humans?

AJ & KB – This partnership has opened our eyes to recognizing the invaluable necessity of representation and acceptance. Gender fluidity, people of color, queer performance and the combination of them are rarely seen. We represent all of these and we know that there are others out there like us. Being visible in a community where we are intentionally shadowed encourages others like us to be brave and stand in their truth. We’ve found pride in honoring our unique and individual voices. Our struggles as dancers and human beings have strengthened us and connected us on an even deeper level. Through our various traumatic experiences with discrimination of gender, race, sexuality, effeminacy and age, we have found a safe place, a sanctuary with each other.

AC – Tell us about the film “Follow. Lead. LOVE!” and the parallels between the world of dancing and today’s society you hope to shine a light on.

AJ & KB – “Follow. Lead. LOVE!” is a documentary about our journey of self-discovery and our mission of advocating gender equality and inclusivity in the mainstream ballroom dance competition circuit. Through learning to both lead and follow we are able to develop more empathy for each other by having an understanding of dancing both sides. This equal and fluid communication ultimately creates deeper relationships based in love and care for your partner. This practice can be used as a direct parallel for society in creating more spaces of inclusivity, acceptance and tolerance. 

Here's a great post on practicing allyship you may want to check out!
They are breaking stereotyping by taking turns to lead and follow while wearing high heels. Kristine and Abdiel do the Rumba- Photo Credit- Ryan Kenner Photography
They are breaking stereotyping by taking turns to lead and follow while wearing high heels. Kristine and Abdiel do the Rumba- Photo Credit- Ryan Kenner Photography

Benefits of alternating roles of leader and follower

AC – What do you think leaders (and society as a whole) can learn from a more fluid exchange of roles in dancing? How can leaders benefit from knowing when to follow? 

AJ & KB – Leaders must learn when to listen and followers must know when it’s time to take the steering wheel. In accepting direction rather than just giving it, you have to be attentive to the nuances you are given while trusting your partner to guide you and by letting go of control. Leaders become less harsh and dominant; more receptive, understanding and malleable. Followers find their voice and ability to trust themselves. In the end, this creates a platform of true equality between partners. 

AC – Your holiday collaboration with Red Shoe Movement was full of JOY, can you tell us a little about this HolidayHustle and your red heels? 

AJ & KB – Hustle is a dance of exuberance. We wanted to celebrate the Holidays, especially this one, with a joyful mood. Last year was difficult for all of us worldwide, having to deal with a pandemic. However, dance has always provided us joy and connection through the tough times. We encourage everyone to continue dancing (safely) to overcome the dark times. Kristine’s shoes were provided by the Red Shoe Movement through Worldtone, which has been fully supportive of our mission. Abdiel’s were borrowed from a friend, but they have also received high heels from Worldtone in the past. The New York and Los Angeles retailer is one of the few dance shoe suppliers that make ballroom dance high heels in Abdiel’s size.

AC – What has it been like to adjust to social distancing as dancers? How have you stayed connected?

AJ & KB – Social distancing as partner dancers has been incredibly difficult. The nature of what we do requires touching your partner, so you can imagine how challenging that has been for us. However, we have not allowed that to stop us from remaining proactive and creative. Utilizing technology, we have been able to create virtual duets and explore new ways of partnering in a virtual aspect. In fact, we even won BestConcept Award in the Buddha film festival for a dance short we made in April 2020, at the height of the pandemic. We continue to stay creative and proactive while practicing dance safely in line with precautionary measures, whether it be outdoors in the fresh air or indoors with our masks.

Kristine and Abdiel role model what it means to know when to lead and when to follow- Photo Credit- Christopher Jones Dance
Kristine and Abdiel role model what it means to know when to lead and when to follow- Photo Credit- Christopher Jones Dance
Aline Cerdan Verástegui

Aline Cerdan Verástegui

Mexico City-born freelance writer, translator, ghostwriter, editor and Red Shoe Movement contributor with a love of live music and graphic novels. Has collaborated with Yahoo!, Blouin Artinfo, Yahoo! en Español, Savvy Heels, Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) among others.

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