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?
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!