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Everything About Dancing That Nobody Ever Talks About

by Dave Goldman

(This article was originally published on paper, an antiquated medium of communication and information exchange left over from the 20th Century.)

Ask most callers about "partner interactions" and they'll start talking about allemandes and swings, eye contact and giving weight. However, a lot of partner interactions in the dance hall have little to do with dancing, and beginning dancers seldom hear these issues discussed during dance workshops. For that matter, some of these topics are almost never discussed by any of us. But ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away.

When you fill a room with a hundred people of both genders, a wide range of behaviors will result. Some of these behaviors will surprise a newcomer, but seem perfectly appropriate to experienced contradancers. Others exceed the bounds of appropriateness, but go unchallenged because the victim is unsure of what's considered normal in this community, or doesn't know how to react. In rare cases, the perpetrator may not even be aware of his or her error.

This article borrows from some recent discussions on the Usenet newsgroup <rec.folk-dancing>, as well as from scattered conversations over the past several years at dances, parties, and camps. Our goal is to stimulate more open discussion of these issues within our community. > We welcome your responses, either via e-mail or on <rec.folk-dancing>.

[Note: for syntactical and statistical reasons, we usually refer below to perpetrators of inappropriate behavior as "he", and their victims as "she." Please feel free to share anecdotes of events where the genders sorted out otherwise.]

Look and Feel

Something that you do hear mentioned at dance workshops is eye contact. Contradancers definitely like to stare into each other's eyes, a practice that can be unnerving for newcomers.

Some people maintain major eye contact because they've found it keeps them from getting dizzy during swings and quick allemandes. But most of us also enjoy looking into our partner's eyes as one part of the friendliness of contradancing.

The next step up from being friendly is flirting. This behavior, too, is an established contradance tradition. But flirting is a two-lane highway - it's not appropriate for you to be racing along at sixty if your partner has chosen to remain idling at the curb. And making your partner uncomfortable by outright leering is definitely not within acceptable bounds.

One ocular behavior that we shouldn't need to mention as inappropriate - but which, apparently, we must - is staring down a woman's dress. Please remember that the tradition here is eye-to-eye contact.

Which leads directly to a topic of recent fervor in the Internet's rec.folk-dancing discussion group, the contact of women's breasts by their partners.

Surprisingly, there is a spectrum of behaviors even here. Not infrequently during a swing or waltz, an inexperienced female dancer will turn away from her partner in such a way that his right arm is forced across her chest. Or her left arm will press down on his right, squeezing it against the side of her breast.

On the other hand, there are some experienced male dancers who frequently manage to force their partner into one of these positions. Women should not dismiss these men as merely clumsy.

Then there are the totally-accidental contacts when one partner or the other is coming out of a wild allemande or spin. These can happen very occasionally to anyone, and are probably best handled by an appropriately sheepish expression.

But there are a few men who seem to have a lot of these accidents. This exceeds the bounds of probability, sheepish looks or no.

Something that didn't come up on rec.folk-dancing was derriere groping. (Well, actually one club square-dancer did describe a local trend of butt-patting in a certain dance figure.) But looking at our tradition, the position of the woman's right hand on a courtesy turn does seem defensive. Which is not to say that there aren't many times when it's appropriate for a man's hand to land on his partner's waist. Lower than that, though, is by mutual consent only.

Defense

If you find yourself the recipient of unwanted ophthalmic or tactile attention, you have available a range of appropriate reactions. The most common is to ignore what just happened. Unfortunately, this does nothing to prevent a recurrence of the behavior, to yourself or to others.

At the very least, note and remember who has just done something inappropriate. Then you can defend yourself in the future, whether by refusing to dance with that person or by being on guard next time you see him coming down the contra line.

It is certainly appropriate to point out to someone that they've done something you found uncomfortable. You may have the chance to speak to a partner right away, even as the dance continues. Or you can take him aside at the end of the dance, or seek him out later in the evening. If this is one of those situations where the perpetrator actually was unaware of his actions, then your words may end up benefiting the entire community. And even if he was fully aware of what he was doing, being told that his behavior has been noted may discourage its repetition.

One reaction that one woman suggested in the Usenet discussion, but that we have never witnessed in practice, is to emit a loud, outraged exclamation or shriek immediately upon an unwanted touch. This does indeed seem like a potentially effective maneuver.

Don't forget that we are a dance community. If you identify a person who routinely behaves inappropriately, share this information with other dancers! This will help others defend themselves.

Finally, you can speak to the dance organizers - in the case of a PCDC event, that means any of the Board members. This does put the organizers in a somewhat awkward position, and one for which there has been little precedent. Still, a dance organizer should feel sufficiently empowered to walk up to a dancer and quietly inform him that there have been reports of certain specific behaviors that have made other dancers uncomfortable. There is no need for the "accused" to "face his accuser," or for any sort of adversarial confrontation. The goal is not to determine guilt or innocence, but simply to allow us to all dance together happily in one room.

Avoidance

Suppose that there is someone with whom you do not wish to dance (perhaps for reasons covered above). What can you do if that person walks up to you and asks for the next dance?

A common belief is that either you must accept, or else you must reply that you are going to sit this one out - and then actually do so.

The common belief is wrong.

Now, there certainly are some good arguments for never turning anyone down. New dancers need to learn to walk up to strangers without fear. Feelings of rejection do not promote the sense of community that contradances are otherwise so good at creating.

Still, let's face it. There may be a couple of individuals with whom you're just not comfortable dancing. And they should not have the power to force you to sit out a dance. You have several options.

So much for the easy alternatives. Now suppose that despite your best intentions you are surprised by an undesirable invitation to dance. Here is a perfectly acceptable response: Really. You can simply decline. No explanation is required, and you are welcome to seek out another partner. Depending on circumstances, you might decide that it would be more beneficial in the long run if you were a bit less terse:

Though maybe it's simply a matter of timing. "No thanks. I suddenly see a chance to dance with someone I've been lusting over all evening. But I'll look for you later."

You alone can decide on the appropriate level of tactfulness. But I suggest that you stick to an honest statement, however you choose to phrase it. (Of course, the community as a whole would probably be better off if you refrain from overly honest statements. Such as "You scum! I would rather dance with a St. Bernard who's been rolling in dead fish! I spit on you!")

Rejection

Suppose that you have just asked someone to dance, and been turned down without explanation. What can you conclude?

Your immediate reaction should be to accept the rejection with a minimum of lamentation, and then quickly go look for another partner before everyone's been taken. Save discussions and deep analyses for another time. (Note, however, that a brief but sincere display of extreme desolation may in some cases improve your future odds.)

If you find yourself repeatedly rejected by one or more people, though, it's probably time for some reflection. Is this that woman who has been wearing a cast on her arm for the past three months, ever since you showed her that new way of twirling? Is this the guy who made such a funny noise after you kicked a little too high on that balance last week? Whatever the reason, if you did do something wrong to one partner, you're probably still doing it to others. On behalf of contradancers everywhere: please stop.

Dance Romance

There was once a time when you wouldn't just walk up to a stranger and ask for a dance. Proper introduction by a mutual acquaintance ensured some degree of social safety. Now though, you're usually on your own.

Many of us enjoy an evening of dance with old and new friends, and then leave them all behind until the next dance event. Others find a contradance to be a relatively safe place to meet interesting people, and look forward to romantic results that will extend beyond the dance hall. A contradance certainly does have advantages over a singles bar - for one thing, it's much easier to come up with an opening line - and many wonderful relationships have started at dances. [One can also learn a lot about a person from how they treat others, especially random strangers--KW]

But like a singles bar, a contradance series can attract a few individuals interested not in commitment, but in conquest. These predators will pounce on a newcomer, exuding friendliness and well-practiced charm. In the mildest cases the newcomer comes to believe that the predator has special feelings for her in particular, but then has her hopes dashed after another few evenings of dance when her novelty has worn off. In more serious cases, though, an out-of-dance-hall relationship ensues. Only after weeks or months does the victim realize that she is merely the latest in a string of conquests - or maybe not the latest.

Once burned, many victims do not return to dances.
Meanwhile, the community's image is also hurt by this chain of events.

There are ways to protect yourself from predators. Some are no different from techniques used in singles bars. For example, while there's nothing wrong with someone asking for your phone number, you're never obliged to provide it. If you're uncomfortable with someone's insistence on walking you to your car, feel free to ask another dance acquaintance to come along.

But the dance scene also provides ways to learn about people before going out with them. Are they really part of the community, or do they just come to dances looking for fresh meat? If you see someone routinely staying after a dance to put away chairs and tables, or someone who volunteers as a board member, then that's a point in their favor. Of course, there are many unselfish people who don't do these things because of time or other constraints. And there are some predators who will doubtless demonstrate a brief flurry of volunteerism after this article appears.

The best way to assess a member of the opposite gender, though, is the one least often used by new members of the community: make friends with as many members of your own gender as you can. Contradancing doesn't automatically promote this - most men know the names of more women dancers than men dancers, and vice versa. But if you go out of your way to strike up conversations with others on your own side of the fence, you can quickly get the lowdown on many of the more notable characters on the other side.

If They Dance, They Must Be Trustworthy

It's very tempting to assume that anyone who regularly comes to contradances must be an honest person. So when a dancer claims to be a great auto mechanic, or handyman, or computer guru, we tend to believe them. But there are damaged vehicles, leaky dishwashers, and malfunctioning laser printers out there that should guide you otherwise. You really must check a dancer's references as thoroughly as you would anyone else's before letting them mess with your stuff.

Not convinced? Then consider something that happened right here in Portland, Oregon. One regular dancer offered to check something on another's car. He borrowed her keys one afternoon while he test-drove the vehicle. Months later she discovered that he had used this opportunity to surreptitiously make duplicates of her entire key ring, including the keys to her home and her office.

Forearmed Is Forewarned

My intent in this series has not been to scare you off the dance floor. Really, this is one of the safest places in town, with some of the nicest people. But it's time we openly discussed some of the unwritten rules of dance hall etiquette and shared techniques for dealing with breaches. These articles are just a starting point.

Dave Goldman <dave@rsd.com>


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Last updated on July 30, 1996 by entropy@prismnet.com (Kiran Wagle)