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.
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.
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 dance. Both 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.
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.