Dance Etiquette

(Heads up: I use gender normative language about lead/follow roles in this post because it’s a post about gender normativity.)

I think it’s reasonably fair to say that most partner dances (I know parts of swing are moving well beyond these norms), are gendernormative. In dance, typically, we behave according to antiquated notions. We follow the gender norms for men of being strong, tough, assertive leaders; we follow gender norms for women of being receptive, submissive, pretty objects.

Each dance has a rich history, and in this history, leaders have traditionally been male and followers traditionally female. Men choose the moves; women do the moves. Men create the dance; women make it look pretty. Men watch out for other couples on the dance floor; women acquiesce. Men lead; women follow. I can’t tell you how many leaders have told me “it’s my job to make the dance and help followers feel beautiful.”

There is an idea (and it’s not held by everyone, certainly), that a good lead is someone who creates an interesting, fun, or good-looking dance, and a good follow is one who artfully does what she is told.

When I first began partner dancing, this was pretty all right for me. I come from a background of 20 something odd years of solo dancing, so learning how to strictly follow was a fresh and exciting new skill. I wanted to be able to do anything a lead threw at me, and well. I aspired to be what I have written about here as a pure follow. I thought that if I followed well, then I could convince the men I danced with to love me. I was also going through a tough time, so being able to shut off my brain and just do what I was told was therapeutic for me.

After years of both healing and also observing the dance scene, however, I began to lose my taste for it.

Nowadays, when I go to socials, and particularly in bachata, lambazouk, and kizomba, I stand against the wall and watch men telling women what to do without giving any fucks for what the women might want, PATRIARCHY EVERYWHERE.

Now, for me, of necessity, being told what to do is not a bad thing in and of itself. The pile of various toys and restraints next to my bedside table is pretty strong indication that on occasion I rather enjoy it. But I only like being told what to do under one condition: When I choose to speak, I must be listened to.

This past Saturday at a bachata social, I walked in with the concept of play  on my mind. I had been thinking for the last few weeks about why salsa in London appealed to me so much more than any other dance. I thought that it might  do with the fact that when I dance salsa, I am often dancing with people who are communicating with me. When I dance salsa, there is laughter and surprise and co-creativity. When I dance salsa, there is play.

I decided, at this bachata social, that I would try to play with my leaders.  I would inject more frequent ideas of my own into the dance. Historically, I have always been quite good at integrating my movements within the lead’s chosen movements, and not interrupting. I have been told this by many advanced leaders. And on this night, I still did not interrupt, hardly at all. But I did attempt to put an isolation, an arm movement, a playful hop, a mini lead, into conversations with my leaders. And I got literally nothing back. I got no smiles. I got no laughter. I got no recognition that I said something emotionally with my body that mattered. Mostly confusion, that Stefani Ruper of all people was being a proactive follow. The leads were focused on executing their movements, and had no interest in what I had to say at all.

Now, to be fair, in a traditional lead-follow dynamic, this is all well and good. The men are doing what they have been taught: crafting a dance. And in order to do so they don’t have to listen to what I have to say. They don’t have to be in dialogue with me.

But this is precisely my point: it’s hierarchical and patriarachal and sexist and I more than bored of it. I am disgusted.

I used to hate the idea of ladies styling, especially in sensual bachata. I would go to bachata socials and roll my eyes. I still do. I find the overly dramatic and sexualized movements of sensual bachata to be kind of hysterically ridiculous. But I also used to hate the movements because they were disconnected from their leaders. I saw them as selfish. I saw them as bad following. The women who styled were pushing their own agenda, rather than listening. I hated that. But now I understand that this was literally the only way women could have a voice on the dance floor. There was no means by which they could speak and be listened to, or communicate with leaders. The way in which we teach lead-follow roles simply doesn’t entail that sort of thing. So they voiced their own ideas and movements in a way that was antagonistic to the lead. For this, they have my forgiveness, and maybe even now my respect. It’s not an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination. But with the rigid, deaf lead-follow dynamic that’s been handed to us by history, I understand that it’s hard for followers to find their voices.

Dance, unfortunately in many different styles, is not about communicating. It’s not about suggestions, and responses. It’s not about listening. it’s not about having a conversation with one another. Instead, it’s about glibly acquiescing to rather traditional gender roles. It gives men power to assert and do as they please. Women have the choice of either submitting meekly or shouting back.

People often say that the solution to my disenfranchisement is to learn to lead. Yes, they have a decent point. And I am working on my leading, slowly. But I do not think this actually solves the problem. I don’t care altogether what gender the person with whom I am dancing identifies with, nor do I care if they are leading me or following me. What I do care about is that when two people interact intimately, such as on the dance floor, that they pay attention to and listen to one another. This is not unlike, again, participating in BDSM. Learning to be both submissive and dominant is a great thing that not many people do. But the solution to having great sex is not necessarily to be both. The solution is, no matter which role you are playing, to be cared for, listening to, appreciated at a part of the conversation.

All of which is to say this:

I have spent my entire life resisting being trampled by the male will. It happens in conversations when I am interrupted; it happens in presentations in which I am man-splained; it happens with friends on sofas who want to touch my body; it happens at pre-parties with men who think they’re hot shit; it happens at congresses with friends who have had too much to drink; it happens when a bunch of old white men in suits draft legislation. On the dancefloor, I refuse to be trampled. I refuse to be meek. I refuse to not be heard.

Does this make me bad follow? I don’t think so. To the contrary: many leaders  (especially in swing, salsa) confess to me the great joys they experience from communicative dances. And I do still listen very avidly. I almost always follow the leads given me. But I prefer that they are given as suggestions, and that when I have an idea, the leader holds it with respect.

A solution?

For the time being, I will simply continue to dance salsa in London and across various cities in Europe. I have found that salsa can be an incredibly playful and communicative dance, especially if you’re in the right pockets.

In the long run, however, I would hope that we could come to fuzz the edges between lead and follow roles. I would hope that both leaders and followers see each other as a human being worth listening to, and worth contributing to a dance. I do of course believe that lead-follow dynamics need to be in place for dances and especially fast-paced ones to take place; but it is eminently possible to revise them, as dances such as west coast swing and now somewhat salsa are beginning to demonstrate. All is takes is the courage to be open-ended, vulnerable, and present with another human being.

 

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In the wake of last week’s viral post on the sexualization of bachata, I have one very important thing I’d like to say to all the dancers out there. It is this:

It’s okay to say no.

Of course, I understand why you might want to say yes to every invitation to dance.

And I do acknowledge that some reasons to do so are perfectly valid. You may wish to “pay it forward.” You may wish to develop your scene. You may wish to strengthen the community. People who emphasize the community aspect of dancing in particular often strongly believe that egalitarian attitudes “at the top” are what help improve the dance community. When experienced dancers are willing to dance with less experienced dancers, they help show them the ropes as well as give them hope and inspiration for their own dancing journeys.

I am all about this. I am, especially if you still give yourself the space to say “no” if you feel like you need to conserve your emotional or physical energy.

But there are many other reasons to say yes that I do not support. If you say yes to dances because you “just don’t like saying ‘no’ to people” (especially for women as many women feel the pressure of being the ‘submisive’ or ‘receptive’ gender), or if you’re just trying to be nice, you are doing yourself a massive disservice. You may also be doing a disservice to the person with whom you are dancing, too.

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Why do I so strongly believe in saying no?

I believe so strongly in saying no in part because because I typically think about dancing like I do about sex. Dance is an intimate, communicative act between two (usually two 😉 ) people. When I dance I am myself, emotionally and physically. If the person who asks me to dance is going to make me either emotionally or physically uncomfortable, just like with sex, I will always say no. Always. And I do it, a lot. I will even say no if it is probable or even sometimes possible I will be uncomfortable.

For my physical health, this is crucial. At many socials there is a high likelihood that a dance will be a bad one, because of the number of, say, for example, inexperienced leaders who can be a bit rough, especially at a clubby party in a dance like bachata or zouk.

Worse than simple inexperience for me is a leader who is also thoughtless about the state of their follower (which, unfortunately, is a huge number of people). These people can hurt your back, or squeeze your hands too tightly, or do any number of harmful things. I really love my back, and I’ve broken both of my hands. I categorically refuse to put them at risk.

Usually, if I dance with a new dancer and he squeezes my hands more than I would like, I shake my hands slightly. They know that this means to lighten up. Occasionally, the leaders take this well and we have a lovely dance. On rare occasions they do not, and I quit the dance. If a leader can’t abide a follower who stands up for her wellbeing, I’m not interested.

For my emotional health, this also matters. This point I think is hugely important, and most dancers and blogs about this sort of thing ignore it. People usually accept off the bat that physical safety is a must. For  some reason I can’t quite fathom, however, people ignore the element of emotional comfort, too. Perhaps because it is less easy to justify.

Here’s the thing. I don’t like when leaders impose unwanted intimacy. I don’t like when leaders are selfish, and don’t connect with me. I don’t like when leaders just throw me through turn pattern after turn pattern (well, except sometimes). I don’t like it when leaders don’t appreciate dancing as a rather sacred kind of care-taking interaction like I do. I don’t like when leaders do not appear to prioritize caretaking for their followers. This is entirely fair.  I will say yes all day long to an inexperienced dancer who is self-critical, who touches me in a way that is safe, who is fun, who is connected, who tries their best to care for me. It is not too much to ask to want to be treated with kindness, dignity, gentleness, or whatever it is you need in order to feel safe and well connected.

I will also say this, about emotional energy: At certain points in my life, dance was literally all I had that was keeping me alive. Dance is very healing for me, if I do it with the right people. But sometimes, a dance – and especially a dance with a rough or less experienced dancer or someone I don’t know very well – takes more emotional energy than I particularly feel like I have to give. I try and understand that other people may be the same, and need to manage their emotional energy on the dancefloor. I try not to begrudge people their emotional or social needs, as much I would hope that the people with whom I interact do for me.

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Dance is also like sex in terms of soliciting consent.

I take enormous issue with men who walk up to me and grab my hand and pull, just assuming that I will dance with them. This has a similar feeling to the many times in my life in which I have been sexually assaulted. It is an assumption of my will, of my person, of my body. It happens pretty frequently, and of course more often at clubby venues than at socials (though still at socials).

I am not okay with it. I typically quickly retract my hand and shake my head no. Usually they just walk away. Sometimes, the types of men who ask like this will get angry. Once, one yelled and called me a selfish bitch. Yes, if standing up for my right to assent to a dance or not makes me a selfish bitch, then I am more than happy to be one.

The consent aspect of dancing also means, for me, that both of the people dancing need to be happy and having a good danceBoth dancers need to actively want to be participating in the  dance.

We’ve all danced with people who don’t like us all that much. It happens. They stare over your head; they break away into shines a lot; maybe if they’re good they’ll look at you and smile, but you can tell it’s fake. Why on earth would anyone want to dance (or have sex!) with someone who doesn’t  really want to be dancing with them, too? I would much rather someone politely declined than gave me a ‘charity’ dance. This is why I said, a few paragraphs above, that when you say ‘yes’ to a dance that you don’t really want, you are not only doing yourself, but also the person with whom you dance, a disservice.

Perhaps, if you say ‘no’ to someone (kindly), then you are actually saving them from the unpleasant experience of dancing with a partner who isn’t really into it. Perhaps you can get into it. But if you can’t, you can’t.

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That being said, how do you do it? How do you say no

Some people I know want to say ‘no’ to dances sometimes but simply don’t know how! They rarely say no in their real lives so they are very unpracticed. I really sympathize with this. I know a lot of people like this. A lot of them are women but a fair number are men, too. Some of my friends reading this will chuckle because I go out of my way to help them say no, and also try to encourage them to do it on their own.

One thing you can do if you don’t want to dance is step away from the floor, or turn your back to the floor. If you are feeling low on physical or emotional energy this is a great way to take yourself out of the picture and demonstrate disinterest in dancing.

If that doesn’t work, or if you do want to dance but it’s just a particular person you don’t want to dance with, then stay near the floor but do one of two things: 1) talk to friends and use them as a reason to stay off the floor, or 2) simply woman up and reject them. Try saying ‘no’ once, and see how it feels. It’s not impossible. It’s not the end of the world, I promise.

Many people, when they say no to a dance, find it easier or important to explain themselves. You can say “I’m tired” or “I need a break” or “I’m thirsty” or “I’m hot” and people will understand. If you do not intend to go back and find this person later, don’t say, “I’ll find you later.” That is a lie and unnecessary. It’s like when a person asks for your number and they text you and you never text them back. If you had just said no in the first place it would have been easier for everybody in the long run.

Yet, I do find this kind of explanation bit superfluous, and for two reasons. 1) If I like the person asking me enough, I will say yes even if my feet are bleeding. so if I say “I’m tired” to someone, what I’m actually saying is, “I’m too tired to dance with you.” This is fine – a reasonably harmless offense – but still not the best. and 2) you simply don’t need to explain. Of course I would hope we’d all treat each other with humanity, love, kindness, etc. But a simple “sorry, no thank you” with a kind expression on your face is enough. This is all very context dependent. But I think you get my point. You can explain yourself, but you don’t have to.

Perhaps people reading this post will be upset about all the “no”. I have written posts before about asking etiquette (I believe in the hierarchy: 5 reasons I never ask pros to dance, and My one rule for asking people to dance) that people have disagreed with vociferously. In the end, to be clear, I like saying yes to dances. I want to say yes. For people whom I know are dedicated, earnest students of dance, who love dancing for dancing’s sake, and especially those who attempt to care for their followers, I will do so all night long.  

Yet in the end, what I choose to do doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t.

In the end, all I really want to say to you is this:

When you dance, it is your body at stake. It is your person. You owe nothing to a person who asks for a dance. Every four minute song you give to someone is a gift of yourself. You can choose to give it. But please, if it would hurt you for any reason to do so, then protect yourself. Hold yourself dear, and wait for dances that are truly safe and nourishing. Certainly, on the dancefloor, you are the best – and maybe the only – one for the job.

 

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rule for asking people to dance

I recently wrote a contentious blog.

I had no idea that it was going to draw as much fire as it did. I thought people might disagree – I didn’t anticipate how emotional everyone would become about it.

In the blog post I believe in the hierarchy: 5 reasons I never ask pros to dance, I discussed my views on asking etiquette.

In the post I made the case – though honestly I think it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be made – that more ‘advanced’ dancers frequently enjoy dancing with other ‘advanced’ dancers the most (and intermediate with intermediate; pro with pro… though most people always enjoy dancing “up”). This is the case because technique and familiarity with the dance (as well as experience with musicality, creativity, etc, gained over time) facilitate a unique kind of connection. Having a reasonably equal skill set means that people can communicate at the same degree of precision, subtlety, and creativity.

This does not rule out enjoyment of “lower level” dancing by any means. It simply says that people tend to match up well at similar levels of technique and familiarity in the dance. It’s like playing any one-on-one sport, like tennis. People can enjoy playing with anyone at any level, but particularly enjoy when they can match skill sets.

And we should take these factors — in addition to many others — into account when we ask people to dance. We should do this in order to best be sensitive to the emotions and needs of the people around us. It’s perfectly okay for someone to enjoy one kind of dancing or another. I see nothing condemnable about that.

Why this is a contentious idea

People were disturbed by my post for many reasons. I cannot infer all of them, but my impression is that the most common causes for concern were:

-I was promoting an attitude which discourages beginners from the dance

-I was disrupting the credibility of instructors who for the sake of their business require their reputations to be egalitarian

-I was promoting coldness or hostility on the dance floor

-I was denying that people have more to contribute to a dance (such as musicality, or emotional connection) than technique (I wasn’t, to be clear)

-I was saying that less experienced dancers should never ask more experienced dancers to dance (I wasn’t)

-I was advocating for a world in which we pay attention to differences based on ability (I was)

I could respond at length in an attempt to refute each point above, but instead I think I’d like to just simplify the matter.

I can actually distill this idea into one specific rule.

This is the rule:

Only ask people to dance with you if you think, with your most objective and self-aware best guess, that the person you ask to dance with you will enjoy it.

That’s it. That’s all I make sure of when I ask someone to dance. Before every single dance (without fail) I ask myself the question:

“What are the chances that this person will enjoy dancing with me?” Sometimes I get a clear answer – such as 1% or 99%. Most of the time it is more ambiguous. I follow a 40% or a 75% or what-have-you based on the context.

Many factors go into my calculation of these odds. Very many. Most of them have nothing to do with technique, skill, or experience level at all. They can concern someone’s mood, social environment, or level of exhaustion, for example. But some do. Some factors most certainly do take experience into account.

Here is a small sample of questions I consider when evaluating each potential dance partner (and usually it just takes seconds): 

Do I know this person? Have I danced with them before? Did they indicate they enjoyed it or would like to do it again some time? (Examples of this would be asking my name after the dance, engaging me in conversation, appearing to be genuinely smiling and engaged with me in the dance, having open body language with respect to me both on and off the dance floor) Do they regularly ask me to dance? Do we ask each other to dance at roughly the same rate, or am I always the one asking?

Has this person had a chance to ask someone she personally wants to ask recently, or has she been asked repeatedly without a chance to choose? Does this person have a queue of people waiting to dance with her? Does she appear to enjoy it or would she rather go be among friends or take a break?

When watching this person dance with others, does she appear to enjoy or seek out dancing with people at my “level”?

Is this person surrounded by a group of friends, and does she appear to only want to socialize and dance with them specifically? How close is she to the dance floor? Is she looking about the room for a partner to do this dance with, and NOT scanning for one person in particular? Is she tapping her foot, itching to get out on the floor? Or does she appear tired? Is she sitting down, drinking water, combing her hair, or otherwise disengaged from the floor? Is her back turned to the dance floor? Is she in an intimate conversation with someone? Is she talking to or dancing with someone who looks like she’s really into them and it would be an obnoxious cock block or interruption for me to ask her right at this moment? Has this person clearly detached from her previous dance partner and moved on, or is there a chance she wants to do another with them, or talk with them as she is walking off the floor? By my best guess, is this person possibly my equal in skill, creativity, or some other important facet of dancing that would make them really enjoy dancing with me, even though we don’t know each other yet?

I literally consider each of these factors when asking someone to dance, whether it is a close friend or a stranger. A close friend might have a lot going on or  feel tired; a stranger may simply not be interested. In any case, I want them to have, at this moment, what they need or want the most. If dancing with me is not near the top of that list, then I see no reason to ask them.

Because the thing is this: everybody has different preferences, and finds themselves in different situations on the dance floor. As in life, you never really know if someone wants you until you ask. But very many people feel obligated to say yes to a dance, even if they don’t particularly want to.

So I always try to guess before I ask, in order to best take care of both of us.

Of course, I am not always right. How can I tell? I can tell by how much eye contact they make, by if they are smiling, by how earnestly they thank me after the dance. If I guessed wrong when I asked someone to dance, I feel a bit bad, but I apologize to the universe (or to the dancer, honestly, depending on the situation) and move on.

Very often, the people who do not enjoy dancing with me are better dancers than I, professional or not. This is in large part why, as I indicated in my earlier post, I rarely ask “pros” to dance. I am waiting until they (and everyone else) are just as excited to dance with me as I am with them. Sometimes people accuse me of having this perspective because I now consider myself a hotshot dancer, having learned a thing or two. I want to rationalize saying “no.” This could not be further from the truth. I have felt this way from my very first dance several years ago. My allegiance to this principle is more about respecting the needs of the people I ask than it is about protecting myself. Dancing for me is like sex. I won’t do it unless both of us are excited.

So that’s my rule: I only ask people to dance if I believe there is a reasonably good chance they will enjoy dancing with me.

What do you think? Still contentious? Let me have it. 🙂

 

 

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Last week I wrote a post diagnosing 9 ways in which we subconsciously participate in sexism in our dance communities.

(You can read it here.)

This week I want to follow up on a highly related topic. I cannot address everything that needs to be done to remediate sexism. But I do want to get the ball rolling by talking about feminism — and what role it might play on and around the dance floor.

So I ask the questions: What should the role of feminism be in dances that come out of heteronormative histories? 

What can we do to promote equality and safety in our dance spaces?

First to address: what do I mean by ‘feminism’?

I mean – wanting equal rights for both genders. I mean – liberating ourselves from gender norms. I mean – being a woman who doesn’t have to be submissive and demure. I mean – being a man who doesn’t have to be the emotion-less, alpha-male breadwinner.

I know a lot of people think that feminism means something else, something more, maybe something about hating men – but they are by and large incorrect. I think my definition is probably the most broadly accepted definition by feminists and dictionary writers alike these days.

(And I do also, very much so, endorse an intersectional feminism, which means, learning from and attending to the situations of women and all people beyond white, middle-upper class women.)

Here are 15 ways in which I believe we should use feminist insights to improve the quality of our dance spaces.

1. Detach gender from lead/follow roles

As I addressed at great length in last week’s post, our communities associate men with leading – which gives them an aura of dominance, strength, and ability – and women with following – which gives them an aura of meekness, weakness, and obedience.

First, we need to do away with the idea that those things are necessarily true about being a leader or a follower on the dance floor.

Second, we should dissociate men from leading and women from following. Men can do both; women can do both. Men can be strong; women can be strong. Men can be leaders; women can be leaders. Men can be followers; women can be followers.

We can do this by discontinuing language around The Man and The Woman roles. I do that on this blog and I admit that it can be a challenge – it makes my grammar unwieldly. But I do it anyway because it’s important. Instructors can also stop addressing ‘men’ and ‘ladies’ in class and instead call them ‘leads’ and ‘follows.’ Even in classes in which all the leads are male and all the followers are female, it would still be helpful to use this terminology to help everyone subconsciously shift their gendered perceptions of the dance.

2. Ask.

Ladies: Women are used to being chased. We are used to being pursued. We are used to being asked for our attention. If we have to go up and ask men for attention in a bar or on the street, often that signals some sort of desperation (or feels like it does). At the very least, standing back and waiting for men to do the acting is simply a habit for the vast majority of us.

The reality however is that in partner dancing, any male leader whose worth even the tiniest bit of salt is ecstatic to be asked to dance. Men are turned down all night long. Even some of the best male dancers I know profess to being regularly turned down.

So being asked for anyone is actually a very pleasant experience.

If you’re afraid of asking, start safely. Ask people you know. People you’ve met in class. People you’ve danced with before. If someone has asked you to dance before, there’s a pretty good chance he enjoys dancing with you, so he is a reasonably safe bet. And if you get rejected, shrug your shoulders and move on. You have no idea what’s going on for this guy – why he might not want to dance right now. There are so many fish in this sea, just go grab another.

Men: Ask! Keep asking! And be aware of how you react to women asking you. If it turns you off, ask yourself why, and see if it has anything to do with latent, silly notions of gender normativity sitting in the back of your brain.

Also be mindful about who you ask to dance. Do you only ask women in short skirts or under a certain age? If so, you’re missing out on a whole lot of dancing – perhaps the best dancing you could get – from women who simply choose to dress humbly or who are older and have a wealth of amazing dance background. Many advanced dancers know this and actually will gravitate toward older women.

It’s also reasonably common for male leads to ignore female followers if they have sexually rejected them in one way or another. Get over it. This is both immature and signals to followers that you only value them sexually.

3. Say no.

Some people make it a rule for themselves to always say “yes” to a dance.

Some don’t want to say “yes” but do anyways because they feel uncomfortable rejecting people.

To which I can only say: bullshit.

Say no.

If you don’t want to dance with someone, for whatever reason, that’s completely fine. Personally, if I ask someone to dance, I’d rather them say “no” to me than dance with me if they’re not 100% into it. It’s like sex. I have no desire to be with someone who’s not into it.

And if you end up in a dance that you didn’t know was going to be so uncomfortable in one way or another, change it. If your leader grips your hands too tightly, shake them so they loosen up. If your leader holds you too close, back up. If your leader really doesn’t get the point and is hurting you in any way, drop their hands and walk away.  I mean it. We might have this crazy idea that we need to suffer through uncomfortable dances… but if we all communicate empathetically and like adults, it’s completely unnecessary.

4. Be okay with no.

When someone says “no” to you for a dance – this goes for everybody, but I’m particularly looking at you, fellas – accept it.

Accept it the first time they say no.

Don’t tug on their hands. Don’t say “c’mon.” Don’t give them a puppy dog face. Don’t be stroppy and storm off in a huff.

You have no idea why this person said ‘no’ to you, and it’s none of your business, anyway.

5. In fact, try to get excited about “no.”

We shame people a lot in our community for saying “no” to dances. I think this is wrong, though I do understand where that impulse comes from.

But imagine if we were all empathetic communicators, and when we said “no thank you” we still did so with love in our hearts. And imagine if those who heard the words “no thank you” were actively glad that the person was honest with them, and stood up for their own needs?

When I ask a friend to dance then notice he looks tired I am very glad that he hesitates to say “yes,” because it means I can insist he sit down and take care of himself. Sometimes we don’t get what we want, but others do. We can be glad for them (I do recognize this is easier if they are nice about it).

6. Followers: Don’t follow everything.

As you follow… as a woman or a man or whatever you like.. you don’t have to follow everything. That’s an over-simplified, rather sexist view of how the roles and genders work.

Following doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – blanket submission.

I prefer to think of following as an active yes. In every move of the  dance, the leader gives me an option. The leader says: here, this is what I think is cool at this moment. Don’t you agree? And 98% of the time my answer is yes. I acknowledge that this dance needs a clear lead and a clear follow in order to function. I enjoy following so much. But every once in a while something comes my way that I don’t want to or can’t do, so I simply don’t.

You don’t have to follow everything. If something makes you uncomfortable; if a leader is too close; is a move is too sexual… straight up don’t do it.

And leaders – if your follower rejects a lead, or asks for a different quality of connection or move, that should be reason to be glad, too. Don’t take it as a burn – take it as a compliment that a human being who has needs is willing to be vulnerable about them with you.

7. Women: If you don’t want to wear high heels, don’t. But do if you wanna.

A lot of women think in Afro-Latin dancing that you have to wear high heels (and/or dress a particular way) because people will think less of you otherwise.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

At the beginning, it might seem like the best dancers all wear super spikey heels and slanky outfits. But as you progress in the dance you learn that what actually happens at the very highest levels of dancing is freedom. No one cares what shoes you wear so long as you dance well.

Now, I talk a bit in this video about why you, for the sake of your technique, may want to choose to wear high heels. But I also talk about why it isn’t necessary. If you dance better in flats, wear flats.

Leaders like quality follows who connect well with them when they dance. That’s it.

8. Let same-gender partners dance together

I think probably 100% of the time I dance with other women, men come up and try to intervene. “You should be dancing with me!” “Don’t you prefer to dance with men?” “I’m here to save you from dancing with each other!”

Actually, we are very happy to be dancing with each other.

Leave same sex dances alone. If they wanted to be dancing with different genders, they would be. .

9. Learn the opposite role

It is still very common – for people to cat-call and holler…or, more usually, giggle… at same sex couples on the floor. 

This kind of behavior indicates that people think this is “weird.” If you learn the opposite role, even just a little bit, however, you will help de-stigmatize it. You will help make the dance floor a more comfortable place for people who enjoy dancing opposite roles. You will also learn what is good and what is challenging about the opposite role, and perhaps develop more empathy and respect for people who ordinarily dance it.

10. Dance with people who have learned the opposite role

It’s reasonably common for women to dance with women. Just like with sexuality, we in the West find this fairly acceptable. We do objectify it—men will watch with lustful eyes and make lewd comments—but we accept it, most of the time.

It’s much less common for men to dance with men. And it’s quite common for men to feel very nervous or even repulsed by the idea of dancing with other men.

I understand that we all grew up in a culture in which cis-heterosexual men are not supposed to have any kind of physical contact or emotional intimacy with other men. But this is wrong, and times are changing. Other men aren’t an attack on your masculinity. They aren’t going to molest you. They are simply guys who enjoy following and think you might be fun to dance with.

11. Make space for your follows to contribute to the dance

Some leads give moves and expect you to follow them and that is that. And that’s great – I have no problem with this. Sometimes, all I ever want to do is follow, follow, follow. I do enjoy that aspect of following – the “obedience.” If you are a musical leader, I will be happy as a clam.

Other leads, however, think about ways to draw their followers into the creativity of the dance. They might give them space to shine, or pause on a few beats to let them improvise, or listen to their bodies and their movements to come up with leads better suited to them (to be clear, the followers still don’t have to take up the offer if they don’t want).

Both methods are great but only the second one feels empowering. Only the second is co-creative. Only the second makes you feel enchanted by your follower’s brilliance. If you lead, perhaps consider thinking about how you can listen better to your follower to meet them where they’re at.

12. Take stock of who you patronize 

Many of us (most likely all of us) have a subconscious preference for male instructors, DJs, and promoters. This comes from Western culture at large, from the culture of dance specifically, and also from the natural tendency to give deference to the lead in the lead/follow dynamic.

But female organizers in the scene can also be super talented, super smart, and super badass. Ask yourself: Which instructors do you like the most? Which DJs? Do you think that there may be some subconscious sexism lurking in your preferences? Try deconstructing your views and giving female experts more of a shot.

13. Communicate

One important thing we can do to help create safe spaces for each other is to communicate openly, honestly, and empathetically.

This means off the floor – such as when we have discussions about feminism, or when your friend informs you that you drunkenly took advantage of her while dancing the night before.

It also means on the floor – such as when your leader dips you but you have a bad back, or when you’re feeling drained and would like to have a more simple dance.

If we can all respect each other’s opinions and desires, and support one another, than we can help everyone take care of themselves as well as better connect with one another.

14. Emote

At the heart of feminism is the desire to erode gender norms. A part of that is telling men that they don’t have to be cold, burly, manly, or whatever. Women don’t have to be anything specific, either. We can simply be human beings. We can have emotions. We can be vulnerable.

So much of what holds us back from expressing ourselves when we dance or truly connecting with our partners is fear. Fear of being rejected. Fear of letting go. Fear of appearing silly. Fear of doing traditionally female things like displaying emotions. I see people holding back on dance floors all over the place.

Daring to emote while you dance – to really express yourself or to really emotionally connect with your partner – can help you break your own walls. It can teach you that it really isn’t all that scary. In fact, it’s actually quite thrilling – to be personal, exposed, and vulnerable in the company of strangers.

15. Take care of one another 

It should go without saying, but we should all want the best for one another, and should stick up for each other. I have altogether too often (really, multiple times) been sexually assaulted by a friend at a congress and had others just sit back and watch. Of course I can fight  for myself, but if we were all on the same page together about supporting each other’s autonomy, it would be much harder for those of us too drunk on booze or dance to take advantage.

I think this also means calling each other out on shitty behavior in our day to day lives. Sometimes we don’t treat each other all that well, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we are disrespectful. Sometimes we are judgmental. Sometimes we are dismissive, or treat people with indifference to their feelings. We should of course try to not be these things. When we suck at that, though, if our friends called us out, we would be held to a higher standard of respect both on and off the dance floor.

 

Or something. 🙂

 

And… that’s my list. These are the insights I believe feminism has to bring to our dance communities, and the ways in which they can help bring about a more safe – and exciting – space, for all of us.

I am super curious about what you might think about this. Let me know in the comments or elsewhere. <3

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sexism in salsa

The partner dancing that we do today – whether it be salsa, or west coast, or bachata, kizomba, or zouk – has emerged out of a long tradition of sexist behaviors. This is a simple fact of history.

Fortunately, paralleling great feminist strides in our culture as a whole, that tradition has really begun to collapse. One great example of our progress is the fact that women, once shamed away from asking men to dance, now ask men to dance all of the time. Quite literally all of the time.

This is cause to celebrate! Progress is happening!

However: this progress is by no means complete, nor necessarily as quick or transparent as we would like to believe.

In today’s post I elevate for discussion several ways in which we subconsciously participate in and perpetuate sexism. These habits of ours are all quite different and I am certain that no one will agree with me on all the points. But that is precisely what I am hoping to do with this exercise – I want to bring up some potential ideas, get feedback, and talk about what needs or does not need to be done.

What follows are 9 ways in which I believe we accidentally participate in sexism.

*(For the sake of making some of the points about sexism in this post, I use heteronormative language. We associate leading with men and following with women – so I wrote this post associating leading with men and following with women, something I do NOT do in the rest of my blog posts. You will also note that some of the critiques did not apply to women but to following; however, since by and large following is still associated with women and that which is feminine, I believe the critiques are at least helpful starting points for discussion on gender norms in dance.)

 

1. “Ladies: don’t think, just follow.”

“Ladies, don’t think, just follow” is a common piece of advice. It might be, in fact, the most common piece of advice given in group classes. It is a piece of advice I have given many times myself, and which I repeated to myself constantly in my initial months and years dancing. “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.”

Yet there are two problems with this piece of advice, and specifically with associating it with women.

First, it is in some sense factually incorrect. Even while it is important as a follower to avoid anticipating moves, thinking is still an incredibly important aspect of following. While I dance I am constantly aware of my surroundings, noting habits in my leader, and attempting to attune my dancing to his. Sometimes I do close my eyes to better follow. I do try to stop actively engaging my conscious mind. But I a) am still concentrating like crazy, just in a different way, and b) do not do this all of the time. I do this as a choice, which I strategically make with my thoughts, based on my active judgment of what’s going on in the dance and the kind of following that is required.

Secondly, this phrase reinforces negative stereotypes. The brilliant London-based salsa instructor Toan Hoang recently asked me: “what do you think that does, time and time again, hearing instructors shout over the music in classes: ‘ladies, don’t think, just follow?'”

This is what it does: it subconsciously reinforces the idea that leading–the “male” role–requires thinking, and following–the “female” role–does not. It tells us that men should think and women should not.

2. Polarizing leading and following

We tend to think of leading as just leading and following as just following, but there are nuances to these roles that are often unfortunately lost on the surface.

As much as leaders choose which moves to do, high level leaders will also spend a significant amount of energy listening to their followers. They will get a feel for what works for the follower, and will be able to pick up on signals in her body regarding what kind of movements would work best on. This, in some senses, is a bit like following.

Followers, in the other role, do by and large follow the movements provided by leaders, but they also suggest. They also subtly guide the course of the dance. They also, at high levels, use specific movements and kinds of tension in their body to indicate to the leader what they would like to do. They sometimes hijack and it is appropriate.

If we taught leading and following like this from the get-go — as a pattern that was more interactional and less polarized than we think of it now — we might be able to help people have dances which are more like communicative exchanges and less like strictly “male”/”female” role play.

3. Forgetting the power of ‘no’ and misconstruing power dynamics

In partner dancing, by and large, yes, leads (men) are “dominant” and follows (women) are “submissive.” Nearly every person who partner dances will tell you that this is a part of why they enjoy the dance.

But it is important to be wise to an important facet of the typical dominant/submissive relationship.

In BDSM communities, it is well known that even though doms appear to have all the power, it is actually the sub that is the most powerful person in the relationship. That’s right. Doms look like they have the power, but they actually don’t.

Why? Because no matter what the dominant person suggests, it is up to the submissive to say if it is off limits or not. The safe word is the key to power dynamics in the bedroom. It enables the submissive to call the shots and to ultimately set the boundaries around what happens.

In partner dancing, we don’t have a safe word. But we don’t need one. The follower can simply deny a move being led. All we need to do is to recognize that right. This means, among other things, getting rid of the follow everything being given to you mindset, and it means not just accepting but being actively glad when followers assert what they are and are not comfortable with. This would enable us to inhabit lead follow roles, and even in a gendered way if we want, without sacrificing the nobility and power of female followers.

4. Ladies Styling

It is often said in partner dancing that men are the support, and women are the beauty.

Or that men are the frame, and women are the painting.

Or that men are invisible, and women are showcased.

This results in classes being, by and large, for men to learn moves and connect, and alternative classes in “ladies styling” being for women to learn how to be pretty.

This is bollocks. Complete fucking bollocks.

Men can be aesthetic, too. Men can move fluidly and beautifully while they lead. Men can shine. Men can dance. 

And women are most certainly a part of the power and structure that make a dance look–but more importantly feel–good.

In fact, I would argue that focusing on “ladies styling” actually detracts from the quality of the dancing. However much energy women/followers devote to their styling is exactly the amount of energy they can no longer be spent on listening to and connecting with their leaders.

5. John y Jane couples

Daniel y Desiree. Ataca y Alemana. Sergio y Gaby.

Jordan and Tatiana. Hugo and Stacy. Kyle and Sarah.

There are a small number of teaching and performing couples who go by the female name first, but by my best guess (scanning congress websites and the like) they constitute no more than 10% of performing couples. I am being generous with that number. I’d bet my life savings it’s actually no more than 5%.

This is a norm we inherited from the rest of our culture – to always say Mr. first and Mrs. second. But that doesn’t make it right. 

And I want to state here, unequivocally, that I do not blame this entirely on the couples. Sure, they are the ones who choose their names, but we are the ones who consume them. I am 100% positive that we subconsciously admire and patronize male-led partnerships more so than female-led ones. If we want our leaders to step up their game and represent gender equality then we, as their patrons, have to step up ours, too.

6. Teaching moves

Most lessons, especially those offered right before a social, are designed mostly for men. They teach “moves.”

The instructor might say dozens of times in the lesson, “leads do XYZ, and the followers will just know what to do.”

Um, no. The follower won’t automatically know what to do. There is a distinct skill set – a distinct ability to read what a leader is intending – that following requires. Classes very rarely talk about this.

Placing the emphasis in classes on moves gives priority to men’s (leader’s) education in the dance and leaves women in the dust. It also turns the dance into a set of directions the lead gives the follower, instead of a two-way line of communication between them.

If instead of moves we taught “how to be good partners,” classes would be good for both leaders and followers, and we would think of men and women as equitable partners in making a dance go smoothly.

(I talk about these ideas at great length in the post “Is it always the leader’s fault?” Also, for an example of things that I think could be taught in beginner classes, see Maximizing the Purity of Your Connection)

7. Male instructors dominating classes

I have only once personally ever gone to an Afro-latin dance class taught by a couple in which the woman spoke more than 50% of the time.

(In swing dances it happens much more often.)

Sometimes even in classes when following is being discussed the male instructor does the talking… even though he is not the resident expert on following.

Men simply dominate the hell out of teaching class. In part this is because the emphasis of the class is on “moves” and men are the ones teaching how to lead them, but this is also because we simply don’t make space for women to talk.

8. “Hijacking” and the language of hijacking

Hijacking is what happens when a follower doesn’t obey the lead, and instead does whatever she feels like doing. This is a serious sin in most dance communities. It is nowadays however much less so in west coast swing.

There are two important issues having to do with the idea of “hijacking.”

First is the act itself. What’s so bad about hijacking? Done tastefully, safely, and occasionally, “hijacking” can be a great way for a follower to be playful and musical with her leader. This might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I do know a lot of advanced leaders in the Afro-Latin dances who are on board with this sort of thing. In swing nowadays, though it didn’t used to be, this kind of behavior is actively expected and even beloved.

Second is the language of hijacking (another great idea of Toan’s). To “hijack” is to do something negative. It might even be to do something violent. It’s to interrupt the natural, good flow of things. It states unequivocally that the lead has the right thing in mind and the follower does not. This kind of language can be especially problematic if the follower “hijacks” in order to protect herself.

The language of hijacking might be less problematic if leading and following weren’t currently so divided along gender lines. But as it stands, it helps create a sense of the woman overstepping her bounds on the floor.

If we change our language around “hijacking” we may be able to shift this kind of moralistic duality. We could also perhaps migrate the act from that of “taboo” to that of “skilled art one engages in smartly once more experienced in the dance.” I suggest using words more like “making a statement,” “being proactive,” “playing,” “exercising agency,” “changing the direction of the dance,” (Toan’s favorite), “contributing to patterns,” or my favorite, “co-creating.”

9. Catcalling, ogling, or giggling at female-female dancing (and male-male dancing)

(This item does not really apply to swing dances, which have by and large normalized same sex dancing)

When two women dance together, we cat-call. It’s a sex show.

This is terrible because it fetishizes female-female coupling.

When two men dance together, we stare and laugh. It’s funny. 

This is terrible both because it derides the connection two men can have together (indeed, it makes it laughable that men can connect at all), and also because it finds the idea so funny that a man would stoop to the “female” role of following.

Seriously get over it, everybody. When same sex couples dance together, it’s because they want to dance together, not be a show. And if they happen to want to be a show for the sake of being a show, it shouldn’t (usually) be. For the sake of disrupting our culture’s fetishisization of same-sex dancing, I suggest ignoring attention-seekers.

(If, on the other hand, you’re laughing at your friend because they’re so hysterically bad at the role they are trying to play, then by all means, be my guest.)

 

 —–

From same-sex couples to ladies styling to re-thinking lead/follow dynamics, I have gone through a diverse array of ways in which we subtly promote or at least participate in sexism within our dance communities. (I talk about ways in which we can remediate it here.)

I do not mean to say that we do this on purpose. This is just like when people are casually sexist or casually racist in their day to day lives. No one wants to be the bad guy. None of us necessarily are. It just so happens that the world we inherited was not very nice, and sometimes even doing our best we fail to see the ways in which we oppress one another (and ourselves).

Also, I want to be clear that there are many ways in which we are sexist that I did not talk about. I chose to focus on sexism that is unique to dance and left more of the “standard society stuff” alone. Some “standard society” instances of sexism include, for example, pushing beyond a follower’s comfortable levels of intimacy while dancing, getting drunk and groping/assaulting followers, the often disrespectful hookup culture at congresses, deferring to male promoters in the scene more than female promoters, or considering men more as authorities on how to dance than women.

I will most certainly be discussing those topics in future posts.

Yet for now I would love to hear what you think here. I believe these are some really important issues. And a lot is at stake here, including how we define “leading” and how we define “following.” So it’s a big deal. But change is coming anyway. We may as well be mindful about it and do what we can (such as take steps I talk about in this post) to facilitate thoughtfulness and comfort in our dance spaces.

 

 

To stay up to date find us on facebook. 🙂

 

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angels in dance

I have a friend who leads like I imagine the angels do.

I can just picture it: Gabriel, Peter, and this sweet guy from Jersey, all chilling in the back of the club with a queue of ladies and gents waiting to dance.

This leader, my friend, is angelic in the most real and important way. He once told me that he consciously tries to make every dance as amazing as possible for the followers he is with. I know this sounds simple, but a whole hell of a lot goes into it. For any given dance he takes note of the qualities of your initial connection, gauges your emotional state, and crafts each move of the dance in a way as to help you feel safe and happy. He is committed to not just your pleasure but your comfort and joy. This, he says, is the essence of a good leader.

I agree.

What about a good follower? A good follower does much the same. A good follower listens. A good follower responds. A good follower tunes into your  emotional energy, feels your interpretation of the music, gauges your type of connection, and provides the kind of response that is satisfying for you – the leader – on those levels. A good follower, like a good leader, meets her partner where she is at.

Dancing with these kinds of people can be heaven.

Being one of these people can also be heaven…

But you know what else it can be by the end of the night?

Exhausting.

Being a caring dancer can be really fucking exhausting.

Partner dance is care

Partner dancing is an intimate act. It’s two people, moving together. It’s communicating. It’s being present. It’s relationship. It’s teamwork. It’s union. It’s sex, but better.

What distinguishes partner dancing from solo dancing is the relationship you have with your partner. Dancing is as rife with opportunities for mutual positivity or mutual negativity as any other time two people interact with one another.

Any time you interact with someone, from passing completely random strangers on public transit to making love to your own spouse, you have the opportunity to show them love and make them feel better, or not. You have the opportunity to smile at them, or not. You have the opportunity to be empathetic, and to listen, and to respond lovingly, or not. You have the opportunity to embrace a human being, and to make them feel at home in the world, or not.

Partner  dancing – like any act between two people – is an opportunity to take care.

Taking care is giving energy

Yet the thing about taking care of people is that it’s hard work.

We all only have so much emotional energy.

Say you wake up in the morning feeling springy. The sun is bright, and the sky is blue. You bounce out the front door. “Life is beautiful,“  you think. You buy a few dozen roses, and you pass them out to all the strangers you pass on the way to the office. All of these people smile brilliantly at you… they’ll probably remember this moment all day. You put positive energy out into the world. You showed them love. You took care of them.

But what if you passed out roses all week, and no one expressed any care or even gratitude for you back? You might be able to get by feeling good about it for a while, bolstered by your sense of virtue and good ethics, but after some time of constantly putting all this energy out into the world, you will probably really start to yearn for some back. We are, unfortunately, limited human beings, who require as much nourishment from the world as we put into it.

At the end of a long, caring week without feeling cared for back, you might feel a little bit tired and a little bit sad. You might not feel like you could do much at all. You might not even feel much like you could buy one or two roses.

All you want to do is lay down and sleep.

Or better yet have someone come give you a rose of their own.

Emotional exhaustion on the dance floor

When I dance, I want to give 100%.

I want to be fully present with my partner, and I want them to be fully present with me.

I want to take care of my partner, and I want them to take care of me.

I want to love my partner, and I want them to love me.

I have noticed over the years however that if I cannot find a happy meeting ground – if I cannot find reciprocal energy of attention and care in a dance – I leave it feeling emotionally drained. If this goes on many times over the course of the night I go home feeling exhausted and sad.

This can happen for any number of reasons. My leader is indifferent. My leader doesn’t pay attention to me. My leader never makes eye contact with me. My leader is physically rough with me. My leader doesn’t seem to know or care how the quality of the lead affects me. My leader puts me through turn patterns without giving much thought to musicality or my experience. Perhaps most commonly – my leader is caught up in their own world.

It also happens when my leader doesn’t notice – or cannot appreciate – the kind of care that I can give or am giving.

I don’t care if it’s someone at their first lesson or a pro whose been at it for decades. Even though the ways in which people can be caring vary based on technique, anybody on the dance floor is capable of care. Anybody is capable of demonstrating appreciation for you as a dancer and as a human being, as well as connecting with you and trying to give you the best experience possible. They might not be particularly good at it, technically, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the love that counts.

Takers and givers

A friend of mine once told me that she thinks about people in the world in terms of givers and takers.

On the dance floor, the angels, the ones who care, are givers.

People who are oblivious to care are takers.

If you don’t go into each social and try to nourish and connect with your partners where they are at, you are a taker.

But if you go into each social with a big open heart and a desire to connect, support, and show appreciation to your partners, you are a giver.

Should you consent to dancing with a taker?

I don’t typically consent to dances that I think will be emotionally draining.

If I have boundless emotional energy to give, I’ll say yes to everybody (who appears to be respectful). If I think the leader who asks me to dance is well-intentioned but clueless about this sort of dynamic, I’ll still say yes. I don’t feel drained by people who are loving in whatever capacity they can be.

If I am not feeling particularly boundless, or simply having a rough day, I will say no to anyone who doesn’t make me feel cared for. Sometimes I literally cannot bear my emotional energy being drained any more. Sometimes I need to feel cared for more than I can summon the will to care for others.

But if I dance with a giver…

If I end up with a partner who connects with me, finds my strengths and weaknesses, supports me, smiles at me, enjoys the music with me, or attentively makes art with me, then I feel cared for. I feel loved. I feel safe. I feel happy. I feel energized. My energy increases.

This is just like if someone makes me dinner, or opens the door for me, or simply smiles at me when I pass them on the street. It is a gesture that sends a message of openness, intimacy, and love.

This is super cool – the energy we get from gestures of love – it’s one of the best things in the world. We all experience it every time we go dancing, or simply walk down the street, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

Here’s what’s even cooler, though:

Dancing when both people are givers.

If I get into a situation in which not only does my partner care for me, but also in which I care for them back, my energy does not just grow, but grows exponentially.

I feel actively energized in being able to care for an angel – for someone who is a giver.

I give; they give. Then I give more; then they give more.

And this isn’t just me, this is everybody. It’s human nature. When we care for people, we feel needed. We feel important. We feel reciprocal and connected and alive. We actively want to do good.

Caring reciprocally magnifies itself.

This is exactly the stuff that magical dances are made of.

It’s each person doing everything they can, putting in 110%, to make the dance good not just for themselves but for each other.

You tune in to your leader; your leader tunes in to you. You settle into their frame, and they embrace yours. You figure out how to support their balance, and they support yours. You touch them lovingly just so, and they smile or touch you lovingly back. You wink, they smirk. You don’t just get comfortable with one another, but you transcend that. You become joyfully at home with one another.

There is nothing in the world more energizing than this: when you can dance for someone else, and it means that you are nourishing yourself at the same time.

There is no longer a push or pull, a him versus her, a fight for safety or peace.

There is, instead, only mutual love, and something I think of as genuinely healing.

So I recommend…

That when you go out dancing, you think about dancers not just in terms of their technique, or even their connection, but rather their attention to and appreciation of their partner.

Perhaps pay attention to your own heart and dances. Take note of when you feel the most drained, and when you feel the most enlivened.

Nourish yourself on the dance floor. If you’re feeling exhausted, let yourself be exhausted. Perhaps seek out a dance with one of your favorite angels, who could help restore you.

Nourish others on the dance floor. This means taking care of them while dancing with them, but then it also means providing space for them to care for themselves. This may mean letting them seek dances elsewhere.

And maybe most of all take note of the people who have really cared for you (and others) over time. Express your gratitude. Give back. Recognize that a good dance is never really just a good dance. It’s a relationship full of focus, attention, support, care, and love.

Be an angel. It’s what you, your partners, the community, the planet, need.

 

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ataca y alemana

(Photo credit)

Pretty much any article you find online about social dancing ettiquette will tell you that we all need to support each other in our efforts to learn how to become better dancers. They say, we all started somewhere. I agree.

Yet these articles often also say that this means that beginner dancers should frequently dance with advanced dancers and with pros. Advanced dancers and pros should say yes to their queries, with a smile. Advanced dancers and pros should be genuinely excited about having a novice dance.

I also often hear circulated the idea that the best of all dancers are those who are advanced but who also “can have a good dance with anyone.”

Sure, this is a wonderful skill. These dancers are assets in the community.

But I personally organize my social dancing in a different way.

I believe that we should not frequently dance with dancers far above our level. Obviously it varies by the individual and the circumstance (and the type of dance you do), but by and large, for me, social dancing occurs around my level and below. 

Here are my reasons why:

1) Your own desirability as a dancer is up to you

We all need to bear responsibility for our own level of experience, and for our journeys to become better dancers.

A lot of people tell me they enjoy dancing with pros because it helps make them better dancers. I do agree–this can be a great learning tool. (But honestly often it is not.) Yet pros work very hard to be at the level they are. Why is it their responsibility to give you a learning experience on the dance floor?

It’s not.

No one owes us anything.

Basically, I believe that we all need to put in our own work, resources, energy, money, and time to become the level of dancers we aspire to be – to be the kind of dancer pros and the like actually want to dance with. The most surefire way to get higher level dancers to dance with you and enjoy it is to become good enough that they want to dance with you, too. Nothing good in life is free.

2) Dancing gets more fun (or at least different) the better you are at it

I think something a lot of dancers don’t pay attention to is that dancing develops new, better ways to be fun as the degree of skill required increases over time.

Of course an advanced dancer can still enjoy a beginner dance for other reasons. Of course. 

But there is a particular deliciousness to a dance that is perfectly well calibrated to suit your level; that meets you where you are at; that challenges you just the right amount; that thrills you in the degree of connection and communication; that has the exact right amount of subtlety; that meets you toe to toe for balance, precision, musicality, and fluidity.

Have you ever seen the difference between the way pros smile when they dance with each other, as opposed to a beginner or someone like me? It’s different and that’s because the quality of dancing is different.

Knowing that there exist levels of technique and enjoyment in dance at higher levels than I am at which I do not yet even know what they feel like humbles me. I know that I simply cannot have that experience. I cannot. Not yet,  at least. Not yet. I can’t just ask an advanced dancer and expect that kind of experience to just happen. It won’t. have to put in time. I have to work hard to get there.

This brings us to point number three…

3) We should have humility and respect for the amount of work dancers have put in to achieve a certain level of dancing

Many thousands of hours of dancing is required to become a good dancer.

No one was born one.

It has taken sweat and blood and tears for everyone to get to the level that they are at, particularly the most advanced dancers.

I respect that.

In some ways, I feel like I haven’t quite earned the right to dance with higher level dancers, because I haven’t put in the same amount of time and effort as they have yet.

I recognize this disparity, and I keep my distance. I let them enjoy their level of dancing, while I enjoy and work on mine.

4) There is a place for learning from more advanced dancers… it’s called a classroom, and money is exchanged

Pros have a lot they can teach you, yes. This is why they  teach classes and give private lessons.

Of course, a lot of learning happens on the social floor. A very significant portion of my own learning does. Nearly 100%. But I keep that to myself, and I work within my own level and place on the hierarchy to achieve it.

Social dancing is meant to be social. I cede that the social floor can be a good opportunity to dance with a pro or a teacher, if everybody’s having fun and they’re into it, but perhaps it should be social for everybody first and foremost. Just because a pro teaches classes during the day doesn’t mean they need or want to be teaching anybody at night.

Pros have a lot to offer in the way of technique, skill, and learning. This is a highly valuable asset, something they’ve worked hard for. To expect that it be shared with you for free is presumptuous. Like any skill, they certainly can share it with you, on their own terms. But they are by no means obligated, and I would never in a million years expect them to use their skills in the service of education without being compensated for it.

5) A good social dance is only truly good if your partner is into it as much as you are 

I am the world’s biggest fan of consent.

And I don’t mean consent as in, she said yes. 

But  I mean consent as in, she said yes and she smiled so big it bowled me over, and was clearly very enthusiastic about dancing (or talking, or having sex, or sky diving, or drinking tea, with me.)

Basically – I don’t ever want to do something with someone unless they are equally as psyched to be doing it as I am.

This, ultimately, is the primary reason I don’t ask people far above my level of dancing to dance. If there is a reasonably good chance that they will not enjoy the dance with me as much as I do with them, because I cannot, as in point #2, meet them where they are at, then I simply don’t ask. 

There is no thought in the world more abhorrent to me than being stuck in a dance with someone who isn’t into it. I detest the idea of being a burden, of making someone uncomfortable, or of them being bored with me. And, sure, it may be their fault – sometimes your dance partner never gives you a chance to really connect with them, which I do definitely believe is their fault – but I still don’t want to have that experience.

We’ve all been there. The partner is looking over our heads, scanning the crowd, averting their eyes, leaving us alone to shine the whole dance, sighing when there’s a break in the music but the song doesn’t end. It sucks. It sucks. 

Sometimes, often, pros and advanced dancers feel this way but they hide it because it’s their job and you’ve asked them. You can tell by the fake smile plastered on their face.

Often, my friends will ask pros to dance, and justify doing so because it’s their job. Who wants someone to be dancing with them because it’s their job? To be clear, if we are keeping with the sex analogy, this is what prostitutes do for a living: interact with you on an intimate level because it’s their job.

You can avoid this if you simply don’t ask, and wait until you’ve ascended to near their level to have that dance.


At this point, you might be thinking: “Damn. Stef, this is a pretentious view, even for you.”

Or perhaps: “You obviously have a pretty high view of yourself as a dancer. You probably disdain beginner level dances now because you think you’re hot AF.”

You would be wrong.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have ever asked upper level professional dancers to dance. And, frankly, I have regretted every single one of them.

When I walk into a dance space, I can tell immediately which people are somewhat near my dance level. Of course there is no real clear distinction, but I think everybody kind of gets it. There is a range of people with whom you have compatible, easy, and fun dances because you are situated at the same level of technique and experience with the dance.

These are the people I ask to dance, and almost never anyone else.

If I do in fact approach someone whom I believe is a better dancer than I am, or whom I know has a high reputation in a certain dance scene, I do so with humility. In fact, I approach 100% of new leaders with humility. I have no idea what sort of situation they are in or what they are looking for in their dances. I wait until they appear ready to dance but don’t have a partner, and I ask deferentially, making it clear that I am okay with the fact that they might say no. If they hesitate even the slightest bit, I tell them, explicitly, that I am perfectly okay with them saying no.

I do also definitely, definitely, ask people ‘below’ my levels of technique and experience. I love dancing with people who love to dance and who are earnestly passionate about the craft, working hard to become better dancers. I love dancing with them more than anyone else.

But I most certainly believe that cultivating an appreciation of where all of the dancers on a social floor are coming from, and what they may be looking for that night to make them happy, could do us some good.

It’s not wrong to enjoy dancing more at a particular level than at others. If we acknowledge this perhaps we can cut through some tension and embarrassment on the dancefloor, and help everybody socialize more freely and be empathetic for one another’s needs.

 

All right. I know this is a contentious idea. Please tell me why I’m wrong!

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One of the most common beliefs in the Afro-Latin dance scenes is that mistakes are always the leader’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been on the dance floor, experienced some sort of miscommunication with my leader, and said “my bad” only to have the leader positively insist that it is always the leader’s job to make the dance go well. They always say, “no, no, no, it’s my bad, it’s always the leader’s fault.”

I think this statement could not be more wrong. I always fight back. I roll my eyes; I shout over the music; I say, “I’m allowed to fuck up, too.”

The whole idea of it is just blatantly incorrect. It’s plain wrong. I know that everyone wants leaders to be chivalrous, and in charge, but that completely misses the point. Sure, a leader can assess a follower’s skill and attempt to adjust for it. I know that. Some of them are experts at it. But I know extremely talented leaders who still sometimes get smacked in the face by an errant arm. There is no way they can anticipate every move a follower makes.

One time I hit a guy in the head with my own head… while we were shining. How could that have possibly been his fault at all? It most certainly was not.

There are infinite ways in which followers can make mistakes. I could step forward on 1 instead of back. I could be off time. I could throw my weight into a dip unexpectedly. I could lose my balance on a spin. I could collapse my frame and let my elbows go behind my body. I could backlead. I could let go of my leader’s grip. Leaders can sometimes anticipate these things, especially in the case of advanced leaders dancing with novice followers, but not always.

Sometimes – often – it is simply the case that mistakes are the follower’s fault.

What’s more, I find the whole idea to be rather insulting. Saying that everything is the leader’s fault denies that followers bring any sort of agency or skill to a dance at all. It says that the quality of the dance doesn’t depend upon what the follower has to contribute, but instead upon how well the leader maniuplate’s the follower’s body.

It’s sexist.

If we are going to continue to do these dances but do so in a way that honors equality, we need to acknowledge that followers have agency and skills that make a difference.

In the examples of followers making mistakes that I listed above, in every case, the leader can surely compensate for them. For example, a leader could lead dips that are less deep. A leader could more carefully guide a follower’s timing. A leader lead turn patterns equal to the follower’s level. But there is still a very big skill set that a follower can bring to meet the leader half way. A follower can learn how to do a better dip, can fix their frame, can learn timing. Leaders pick the moves but these moves are selected and executed in part based on what the follower contributes to the dance.

Let me be accountable for my own mistakes, leaders, and we can make a better dance together.

If you do so, perhaps most importantly of all, then we can all become better dancers. 

If we constantly tell followers that mistakes are not their fault — and if followers then get in the habit  of blaming mistakes on leaders — then followers literally have zero impetus to become better dancers.

One major component of quickly becoming a badass social dancer is constantly evaluating and correcting oneself on the dance floor. I am constantly in a state of self-correction on the floor. Every time a hiccup or mistake occurs, I immediately think “what could I have done to have avoided it?” There are always many different answers. Maybe I could have better balanced myself. Maybe I could have better connected with my leader’s frame. Maybe I could have stepped more evenly in the line of dance.

If I thought “oh he could have led that better” every time there was a mistake in a dance, like our culture apparently wants me to do, I’d never learn what mistakes I was making. I’d never improve. It is 100% because I consider myself culpable and responsible for the quality of a dance that I have managed to become a better dancer at all.

People often say that leaders should be able to read followers and craft a dance that matches their skills… but followers can also read leaders, and tailor their skill set to fit within the context of that particular dance. This is an important quality of being a good follower, perhaps the most important. None of us will ever get good at it if we expect the burden of communication and execution to lie on the leader’s shoulders alone.

Ultimately, my greatest fear here is that teaching dancers that it’s a leader’s job to fix things prevents followers from reaching their true potential.

So the answer to my initial question of whether mistakes are always a leader’s fault is no. It is not always the leader’s fault. Dances are not composed of robot leaders and robot followers — masters and puppets — but rather human beings who communicate. This mean that a complex set of both leading and following skills are necessary for a good dance, and that everybody is accountable for the talent that they bring to a dance.

 

I have a feeling you disagree. Go ahead, let me have it. 🙂

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