Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Declining a dance (a thing that you, Yes, You! are allowed to do.)

So a friend of mine was recently co-teaching a drop-in beginner lesson before a night of dancing; I was watching the door and listening. To conclude the lesson, he said that there were only two rules for swing dancing. Following the obligatory Fight Club joke, he stated that the first rule, was the leads had to ask some follows to dance at some point tonight (and that it would be sad to leave all the lovely ladies waiting). Second, he stated that if someone asked you to dance, you had to say yes.

And then I threw up in my mouth a little.

Can I deconstruct that response for y'all a bit? Why that made me sick even though my personal philosophy still leads to basically same result-- I will virtually never say "no" to getting asked to dance.* I swear to god that I am aware that there will be people who think I'm more than a little "Stop the penis party" with this, but hey, this is my blog and my opinion and you don't have to read any of it that you don't want to.

Now the person that did this is a pretty good friend of mine, so after the lesson, I pulled him aside and asked if we could talk.

When I told him that it wasn't really OK to tell people that they had to say yes to dance, as soon as he thought about it for a second, he realized why it was problematic.  Equally true, as soon as I considered it for half a second, I can articulate why he did it.

He said that in order to facilitate dancing actually happening between pairs of humans who may be socially intimidated and do not know each other. To try and alleviate the askers' fears of rejection-- if everyone knows that you're supposed to say yes when someone asks you to dance, then it's easier for someone to work up the courage to risk the remaining, very small, odds of rejection and actually say the words to request another person dance with you. To give everyone a script. Person A asks person B to dance, Person B says yes, persons A and B dance together.   FSM knows that I found that script comforting when I first learned to dance.  His noodley awareness knows that I still find it comforting now.

The other aspect of this, to culturally encourage everyone to be gracious about asking and being asked, is to make explicit the paradigm shift between the last time any of these people may have danced, in high school or at a club, and swing dancing. In hs or club dance contexts, asking someone else to dance is highly intimidating, because the ask is socially and sexually charged, there's a very real chance they'll say no, and the likelihood is that you don't ask people to dance that you don't know. In swing dancing, the ask does not mean you're sexually interested in the other person (you can add that with your body/language, but it's an add-on, not part of the baseline cultural meaning of asking someone to dance), and asking strangers is common and accepted.

But there is, I think, a meaningful difference between telling people that it's fine for anyone to ask anyone else to dance, and that it's polite to say yes (especially to a first dance with someone!), that "yes" should be the default answer, and saying that you are obliged to say yes.

It's problematic to say "have to say yes," because the askers do not own or have any claim on the bodies of those they are asking. They're asking. A dance is a privilege, a gift. The asker is not a feudal lord informing their possessions or serfs that the time has come to render unto caesar. And the Persons B are human people, with agency and emotion and preferences, and all sorts of completely valid reasons to decline a dance, including 'just don't feel like it right this second' for whatever reason.  To say someone "has to" say yes removes their agency, and that's just a starter objection, without even getting into any truly pernicious reason why a person would not want to dance with another.

And up until now, in this post, I have been deliberately avoiding gendered language in describing scenarios of who asks whom to dance. But the quote wasn't ungendered- it was a man referring to men asking women to dance, and telling the women they had to say yes, which is even more problematic than the general case, because of the way our society has historically/traditionally expected that women react (accommodatingly) to the needs and demands of men on the bodies of women.

I considered titling this post:
"Declining a dance (a thing that you, Yes, You with the Vagina! are allowed to do.) "
but didn't, because while it's delightfully provocative,  that doesn't actually sum up my feelings. Because, obviously, I think that men have every right that women have to decline a dance that they, for any reason, do not wish to participate in.

Don't get my wrong- I still think that it's polite and in one's best interests to have standard operating procedure be: 'say yes when asked to dance.' This goes double (polite and in your best interest) for a first dance with someone you've never danced with before. You have no idea how it'll go, and this is when a type of magic can happen. Because sometimes you are gobsmacked out of the blue, and have an amazing dance with someone whose name you may not even know. And I would personally recommend you leave yourself open to the possibility.  :)

But even if it's not a gob-smacked-out-of-the-blue first dance, I still came to a dance because... I like dancing! I want to dance. And being asked to dance makes me happy, so I pretty much always say yes.  But that yes is a meaningful yes, because I have the capacity to say no.

*Sometimes I will defer a dance ["next song?"], which I don't count as the same thing as a flat, "no," because I try and be scrupulous about finding the person and getting that dance after my inhaler and I or my water bottle and I have had some quality time, or whatever the case may be.


  1. I am enjoying your blorg very much! The first time (it was in Boston) that a stranger (who was a much better dancer than I) said no it was a rather wrenching experience. Boston is known for it's unfriendliness but having someone sitting there primly say "no thank you" and turning their head away and nose up is a real WTF moment for the unprepared.

    There was a good blorg article I read about the etiquette of the milonga here:

  2. (yore reads my blorg!) Glad you are enjoying it!

    And that post you linked is awesome. I agree with all of those: first and last dances are special, don't stalk/babysit, if someone defers back off and let them find you, don't dance with somebody else in a song you've rejected a person during, dont cut in!! (lol), be nice, respect body language, acknowledge the other person if you're snagging a partner out of a conversation, even the shoes-off "white flag"! The only majors being in swing, it's more conventional for women to ask for dances, as well as men. And there's no offense taken by switching parters after every song; that's the default. But I was pretty amused by her breakdown of what it meant to end the tanda early by # of songs. Makes it sound much more civil than some of the horror stories I've heard about tango being super unfriendly or impossible to break into as a beginner.

    That being said, I'm torn between which is worse... being outright rejected by a much better dancer (stings, for sure, but is quick and private), and having them say yes, so you get your dance... and then spend the whole dance obviously wishing they were not dancing with you (drawn out and public).

  3. I think your point about not obligating people to say yes is spot on, but at the same time, I'm disappointed that you didn't go any further with your "saying no" philosophy.

    I personally am an advocate of saying no for a variety of reasons, up to and including the most important one - when you simply don't want to dance with someone. The reason we avoid saying no is because we're afraid of hurting people's feelings, and I think this is a bad reason. Why are our feelings so easily hurt that we can't understand that there are at least some people who don't want to dance with us at least some of the time? Logically speaking, we must know that this is true. So what do we gain by ignoring it and dancing with people when we really don't want to? My answer is that we don't gain anything worth having.

    If everyone felt free to occasionally say "no" when they felt like it, if we felt free to be honest with our fellow dancers and pursue what we want rather than give in to what others want, I think we'd all be better off. The Yes's we'd receive would be genuine, and we might find it easier to accept those dance offers that aren't our favorite, simply because we would feel it was actually a choice.

    The obvious opposition here is that beginner dancers would get turned down too often. But I do advocate goodwill and dancing with people of all levels, as general principles. I simply think that this too should be a choice, and that turning someone down on occasion should not be cause to take umbrage or alarm. Meanwhile, people who do consistently get turned down might seek a reason why - perhaps they're hurting people, or simply dancing in a way that isn't fun for anyone. This, too, is something they would be better off knowing. Furthermore, it's something they should care about if they care about the people they're dancing with. Anyone who doesn't care can take a hike.

    Yes, hearing "no" can feel like a bit of a shock, but this is mostly because it's become a taboo to say. What has this taboo gained us? If we learn to put up with a few shocks, the benefits are an increased ability to enjoy ourselves and dance in ways that are enjoyable for others. And that guy who jerks his partner's hand around for 5 minutes while doing whatever the hell he wants? He'll eventually have to get a clue.

    This seems like an overall win situation.

    Tim Martin

  4. "But that yes is a meaningful yes, because I have the capacity to say no."

    This is a powerful statement, thanks for putting it out there!

  5. I really like your post! While teaching, I started to tell exactly this to my students (especially to the female ones) in a very explicit way. Dancing should be fun for both, so if you don't want to dance with someone, just say no.
    There exist some, to say it in a nice way, socially awkward people (mostly leaders..) around..for example the ones that keep holding the followers during song-breaks (I fear, intentionally) so that the follows wan't say 'thank you' and leave..that's one reason why I think it's really important to encourage the follows (and dancers in general) to make their own choices and clearly state them.

  6. I think a lot of people new to swing don't realize just how many uptight people tend to be at these events. There are high number of socially awkward/maladjusted grad students and very stuff Christian-types who really bring down what could be a very fun and cool scene.

    I believe this is purely because swing dancing (as it was in the golden days) was the 'it' place to be and people were fun and crazy and experimental and just went all out and didn't care about stuff so much. Unfortunately, these days swing dancing seems to have been hijacked by purists who make the whole scene VERY cliquey. These people do genuinely love the swing dancing, but a lot of them seem to (developmentally) not be well-rounded, "cool" and fun people to be around.

    Back in the golden days, people were so open and cool that if there were things like someone's form not being that great and they are jerky or pulling you in weird ways -- people would just say it, and it was never a big deal.

    In swing dancing today, it seems a lot of these socially awkward people are SOO uncomfortable even talking to the other people that they find it hard to say if they are being hurt. And if they do say it, they say it in such a harsh, mean way that just breaks the spirits of the offending party. I've personally been victim to a swing organization that simply was afraid to openly talk and discuss issues with members and would rather meet in secret and ban people. It sounds insane, but this stuff happens! Everything could be resolved and alleviated with open communication, but a lot of these social awkward types find that very hard.

    This post isn't to complain/bitch/moan, but to pry and to be a word of warning to those out there who are getting into swing dancing.

    It may sound like a crazy statement, but so many of the issues that come up in swing dancing would be nipped in the bud if the scenes were run by cool, more compassionate people.

    I personally try to dance every song, unless, I'm about to keel over and die from exhaustion -- and even in those cases, I'll usually grab a dance and just take it easy and use it as a chance to catch my breath.

    Instead of focusing of declining dances, we should really focus more on genuinely wanting to dance with all levels of dancers and having a great time with every dance (regardless of whatever the conditions may be)

    Yes you can decline, but that should feel like you are letting yourself down for not dancing the night away. I think we should be dancing more and declining less. And if you do have some reason, just say it and be open and kind a compassionate.