There are two truths I’ve learned in both dance and life about relating to people:

  1. Being assertive about your needs, wants, and rights is important; and,
  2. Being kind, polite and respectful is one of the best ways to deal with people.

Several dance communities have recently been having a very important discussion of the role of consent, personal space, and our ‘rights’ as dancers. This is a long-overdue discussion – but I want to highlight one risk we run in our quest for assertiveness:

We run the risk of becoming unnecessarily mean or rude.

Before I continue, I must specifically mention that I’m not talking about situations that involve a threat to personal mental or physical safety. However, these scenarios are far from the ‘average’ situation.

The Mythical Exclusion: Polite/Kind OR Assertive

In many places, there’s a battle between asserting yourself and being polite and kind to others. For example, confusing the right to say ‘no’ to a dance without explanation for the need to be ‘rude’ to the asker.

I’m all for the right to say ‘no’ to a dance – or anything else, for that matter. It’s always the less comfortable person who sets the rules. Always.  There’s nothing ‘lost’ for the more comfortable person, except perhaps a little pride. For the less comfortable person, it can be a sense of personal security at stake.

But, this right to say no and set boundaries is not synonymous with a license to be rude or mean. It is simply a right that you have to maintain your personal happiness, comfort and safety.

Example 1:

I have a ‘right‘ to only say ‘yes’ to professional dancers, and to decline every dance with new dancers. But, I don’t. Why? Because I want to be open, kind, and nice. I want to foster others to grow and contribute to this magnificent community.

Am I obligated to? No. I have the right to only dance with people I absolutely want to dance with.

Is it a good thing to do? Yes. Dancing with beginners (with a good attitude) fosters community growth.

Example 2:

I will not follow movements that are uncomfortable or put me at risk. If I can compensate safely, I will. I will say something if I am in danger and can’t compensate – but I try to use my voice politely. For example: “Can you please not squeeze my fingers? It is uncomfortable!” or “I’d love it if you could be a bit more gentle with me!”

Am I obligated to? No. I can enforce my personal safety however I want.

Is it a kind way to treat other (well-meaning) human beings? Yes. I know they’re not trying to hurt me, so it’s a lot nicer to be kind about the dance – even if I’m spending my time compensating.

Being Rude has No Benefits

Unless you have a significant, real issue with a person (as a person – not just an irritating dance habit), you teach them absolutely nothing by being rude, mean or dismissive. The only thing you have taught them is that they should not try to associate with you.

  • The lead who grabs your hands too hard will not know that you’re refusing dances with a scowl because of a habit that is easily fixable. They will likely assume you generally dislike them or their dancing.
  • The follow who throws their body into dips will not know that you look angry because of their dips. They will likely assume you have that face because you feel that you are ‘better than’ them and giving them a ‘pity dance’.
  • The person you reject with a frown and no explanation because you really hated the song doesn’t know that it was the music. They will likely assume you have no interest in dancing with them.

If you really want to help a person understand why you are saying ‘no’, use your voice to tell them why. If you want a partner to change a habit that is hurting you, tell them – with your body or your voice. That doesn’t give you a license to rip into them; you always have the option to be kind with words and actions.

If you have an issue with a habit that hurts, say something. If it’s not something that is hurting you, let it go. It’s not your fight. Look past the irritating thing in that moment; choose to see the person trying really hard behind it.

If you know a person is not trying to hurt you, be kind with words. If you say something, temper it with politeness. It’s not your obligation, but it’s what nice and generous people do.

The Most Effective Asserters

The most effective asserters know how to assert their rights without ripping others down. If you learn how to do this, you will draw people to you and be comfortable in the majority of situations you encounter.

The most effective asserters are people stand up for their rights – without attacking their partner. They will say “I prefer a bit more personal space than we have currently” before “I don’t want you in my space like this. Back off.” They recognize that the entry-point to asserting rights should be from a gentle place.

These people know the value of apologies and thank-you’s. They know the value of offering a suggestion without criticism. They recognize that most people aren’t out to get them or trying to hurt them.

But, they also recognize the occasional necessity to scale up the response. They recognize that the 3rd boob grab is not accidental – and they will say that they don’t want it to happen again. If they need to, they will dig in their heels and go head-to-head. But, it’s not their first resort – it’s their last.

Responding to Assertions

There’s a second side to this coin: the people who have had someone put up boundaries.

If you want people to be nice about setting boundaries, you need to be nice about accepting those boundaries. If someone says ‘no’ nicely, don’t demand reasons and hound them. Don’t scowl at the follow who tells you their fingers hurt because of your grip. Don’t roll your eyes at the lead who tells you they can’t support all your weight in a dip.

Accept it. If necessary, apologize – even if you didn’t mean to hurt your partner. Apologize without a justification. You’d be astonished what a simple apology can do to diffuse a tense situation. You don’t have to explain a ‘why’. If you are honest in your apology, the fact that you don’t choose to ‘justify’ it will actually strengthen the apology.

You also need to respect the boundary going forward. If the person doesn’t like dips, don’t dip. If they don’t like close hold, don’t do close hold. If they ask you not to do X, don’t do X. Respecting their wishes is the best way to show you care about their needs and well-being.

Apologies are even more important if the other person enters the conversation in a hostile way. If a person enters a conversation ready for a fight, the best thing you can do is to be nice and considerate. Then, there’s no reason to fight.

Think about it: if a partner aggressively says “back off – I don’t want you in my space!” and your reply is “Oh, sorry; sure, I’ll create more room,” there’s no further fight. Usually, the other person will calm down (and feel a bit silly for being so aggressive against such an understanding partner).

Basically, if you can control the urge to get aggressive in response, you stand a *great* chance of creating a positive experience going forward.

(Of course, this only works if you didn’t mean to do the hurtful thing – which I’m assuming most people don’t. If you are just sorry you got caught, your sorry isn’t good enough.)

Gender and Assertion

Assertion should not be the domain of only one gender. It should not be a thing that only men or women do – it should be a thing that good people do. To me,  it is no more acceptable for a man to be rude about an assertion than for a woman. I expect men to give the same courteousness to their partners as women. We should all expect that. It is also not my desire to see women as meek, polite partners who do not assert themselves for fear of being impolite.

To Sum it Up…

Politeness does not mean timidity. Politeness means treating people nicely – it is not equal to being a doormat. When we’re dealing with dancers in our social circles, we should strive to cultivate kindness and politeness – but also protect the ability of people to assert their rights and needs.

The next time you need to assert yourself, come from a place of kindness and non-judgement. If your partner will not listen, state your need more directly. If they brush you off or confront you, then it’s time to scale-up the response.

But, until you meet that person who just won’t listen, be kind. Be polite. Be assertive.


Have thoughts or comments? Share us on Facebook, and leave your responses below!


Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios