A Note from Laura Riva: I don’t normally post guest articles on my blog, but for Trevor Copp I make an exception. For those who don’t know, Trevor is one of the people behind the Liquid Lead Dancing Tedx Talk that took place a short time ago. He is also one of the people I met in my early dance days – before I even knew what Zouk was! So, when he said he wanted to write an article for TDG, how could I refuse…
A socially conscious guy who’s partner dancing in 2016 is doing a bit of an odd tap dance. We’re up on equal rights, but spend a lot of time leading women around. We don’t believe in glass ceilings for women, but we ask them to follow us around the floor. It doesn’t make any sense, but here we are – straddling an old and a new world and trying to find some guidelines – some etiquette – to guide us.
‘Etiquette’ is a loaded term. I heard that ‘ladies first’ originated during medieval castle sieges where women were sent first to flee the castle. This was because if archers appeared, the women would take the hit. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes a point: ideas that are rude or outrageous are wrapped up in words like ‘etiquette’ beside respectful and kind ones – and it’s hard to know the difference. After a decade in the social dance world (Salsa mostly), I’ve been working on some ideas for navigating the awkward moments that arise around the dance floor. I’m pretty invested in contemporary thinking around gender, so the project of updating etiquette – which should be all about giving everyone the tools to handle each other with respect – is appealing. So, here’s a few shots what being respectful Gentle(hu)mans on the floor in 2016 looks like:
Working with beginners
So much ink has been justifiably spilled on deciding what the worst thing is that spoils a dance. Timing gets put on the block a lot: a partner who can’t keep time throws off the sense of safety in the dance. I have been in this situation as a lead many times, and I have noticed that fighting it doesn’t help. Your partner won’t learn the timing from you insisting on it with your feet. Believe me, I’ve tried.
When I thought about it, this insistence on keeping time actually displays a piece of timeless rudeness: you’re teaching on the floor. We all know to NEVER teach anyone who hasn’t asked you specifically for advice. That’s an iron clad rule, regardless of level. By insisting on the timing, you are teaching. You are changing the whole experience back from ‘moving together in fun’ to ‘now you must learn to count.’ Don’t do it. So leaders: your partner’s timing is the new timing of the dance. Unlearn yours. Accept it and go with the flow. You’ll tune out of the music soon enough. When you’ve let go of that bit of ego – that your partner’s timing is ruining everything – you might actually enjoy yourself, too.
A Note from Laura: This same logic applies to followers as well. Especially with beginner leads, be kind with your timing. Dance to their speed, rather than trying to force them onto the right timing in the midst of a social dance. There’s nothing wrong with taking your time and dancing first and foremost with your partner – not the music.
No means no, all night
I’ll talk in terms of women here since they are by far the ones on the receiving end of the problems here. I’ll start with the super-obvious: if a woman says ‘no’ to a dance, that’s it; it’s a no. It takes a lot of guts to say ‘no.’ Assume the best as to why and let it go. I’m taking this further: I’ve adopted a policy not to ask again that night.
Let me explain: when I talk with women after they have declined a dance, I notice that various ‘no’ explanations like ‘I need a break’ and ‘I am getting water’ are sometimes said to soften the blow. Sometimes, they just want water and sometimes they just don’t want to dance with you. We smell, we’re off time, we are crowding them, they don’t like our vibe – there’s a lot of reasons, and none of us click with every partner. I’ve seen a lot of women dread a guy coming over because they are uncomfortable with him but don’t want to say that to him directly. Neither you nor I know if ‘that guy’ is actually ourselves. So ‘no, I need a break’ means ‘no’ to me.
A Note from Laura: I agree with this, but I also want to encourage everyone to be honest about their ‘no’s. There is nothing wrong with a polite but firm ‘no’. We’re all adults; we should be able to handle this when a partner isn’t feeling it.
One corollary I’ll add here: follows, if you are asked to dance – and you want to, just not at the moment – I encourage you to step up and do the asking the second time. Initiating the dancing most of the time totally exhausts me and it’s my least favourite thing about social dancing. So if you mean ‘yes, but later’ then respect the fact that the lead had the guts to walk over and ask the first time. Take the reins and ask him when you’re up for it. He’s already clarified that he’s interested, so that’s out of the way. Which leads me to….
I’m so ready for women to do more of the asking. I think this is generally better in non-Salsa dance scenes. For myself, I hate always initiating the ask. The room is packed with dancers. For every person I ask, I am NOT asking dozens. This is a responsibility that I do not enjoy. I project myself onto everyone standing by the wall for a couple songs and wonder if they are just hating every minute of sitting out. So, when a particularly gutsy woman DOES pluck up the courage to ask me to dance, my only answer is ‘Yes’. That’s it. Maybe I’m tired, thirsty – whatever it is, it can wait. I still think we’re a long way from equality on the who-asks-who front, so I say ‘yes’ and deliver the best dance I can possibly provide while still generally obeying the local laws of physics. In scenes where this isn’t so imbalanced, I can understand everyone doing what they want, but on the way there I say encouragement is needed.
A Note from Laura: I generally advocate saying ‘Yes’ to dances when you’re feeling it – but make sure you’re not doing the ‘Pity Dance!’ Trevor is an awesome human being, and I’ve never seen him look bored or disengaged with a partner on the dance floor. Ever. With anyone. Anywhere. Any style. Any level. Any time. So, when he says he accepts every dance, he accepts every dance with an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ Not an ‘ugh… sure’. If you’re going to be the ‘ugh’ person, just say no.
Much ink has also been spilled in handling the local Mr. Groping Dance Man, but it generally leaves the solutions in the hands of women. Here’s a thought: have you introduced yourself as an anti-Groper ally?
Of course, priority number one is to not actually be a groper. A ‘slow’ dance doesn’t mean ‘close,’ it just means ‘slow.’ If she wants close, she’ll let you know.
Number two: supporting a woman who’s experiencing it. It’s a sensitive case – so make sure that you go with however she wants to handle it. Experienced dancers usually have a way of dealing that works for them. But, if you think it will help, offer support in whatever way she’d prefer. Maybe you know him and can talk directly to him, or be around when she does. Maybe getting someone who works at the place to intervene. Sometimes, upon request, I will interrupt a dance with ‘an important message’ to get her out of there.
My point is: if you have female friends in the dance community and you know it’s a problem, be active in solving it. It’s not just the followers’ problem.
A Note from Laura Riva: Follows, if I may offer some advice… If you get groped (intentionally), say something. We all know accidents happen, and we know when it’s *not* an accident. Be firm. Walk away. Those people have no place in our dance scene. You are not obligated to finish the dance. Let your new friends know that they don’t have to tolerate it either.
Same sex dancer support
I get up and dance with other men when I can and, after years of doing it, it’s still kind of nervy. It’s getting better, but I never really know who’s in the room that might have a problem with it – and being on the receiving end of physical attacks isn’t an unreasonable concern. I can’t speak for the experience of women dancing together, but I see a lot less of men doing it – and it seems to be more risqué in some places. So here’s a thought: when you see if happening, let your support be known. It can be as simple as saying a few words when the dance is over. It can be a handshake, some applause, or a smile. When I see it, I usually will ask one of the men for the next dance, or get up beside them with another male dance partner if I know one who’s up for it.
There are many ways of moving the conversation forward in our scenes. Associating with an old fashioned dance doesn’t mean we can’t make things evolve. Let’s keep up with the world outside our dance floors.