Social Dancing: the perfect space for safe, physical contact with partners. The place where it’s OK to be super close to your partner, with no romantic or sexual inclinations.
For most people who have been social dancing for a long time, the close, physical contact between dance partners can feel like a very natural space. In some dances, that closeness even becomes a symbol of the magnificent ‘great connection‘ we are always chasing.
Sometimes, we forget that not everyone is comfortable with our level of closeness. We forget that the beginner isn’t used to thigh-to-thigh contact, or a body wave. We forget that some people don’t like a lead’s hands on their neck. We may even forget that some leads don’t like a follow giving full body contact.
In short: we assume our default comfort level is our partner’s default comfort level.
Depending on your dance, you may not have as many issues with this. For example, lindy hop and WCS have a lot of room between partners – most of the time. There are very few moves that are actively limited by a lack of body-to-body contact. By contrast, Kizomba, Tango, and Zouk require more physical contact for some of the more difficult movements. However, regardless, of dance, the idea of setting boundaries still applies.
Regardless of your dance genre, it is important to respect a dancer’s right to personal space. It is important for everyone – the very physical and the not physical – to feel respected and safe in the hands of a dance partner. In that spirit, let’s run through some basics of boundary setting in social dance.
Rule 1: The Less Comfortable Partner Sets the Rules
I’ve said this before. No matter your genre or your partner, the less comfortable partner sets the rules:
- The person who is only comfortable with open hold gets to dance only in open hold.
- The person who doesn’t like dips doesn’t have to dip.
- The person who doesn’t like thigh-to-thigh contact doesn’t need to do thigh-to-thigh contact.
This is called respect.
Some people may change their minds about what is or isn’t OK over time. For example, many beginners can’t fathom thigh-to-thigh contact when they start a dance like Zouk, but a few months later are totally fine with it. This is a natural progression for many – but not all. Some people never get comfortable with closer moves – and that is OK. It’s their body, and it’s their right to not be forced to dance in a way they don’t want to.
Rule 2: Don’t Demand Reasons for Boundaries
Some people are OK doing certain moves with specific partners, but not others. This is also their prerogative. Even if you’re one of the people they won’t do those moves with, you don’t get to ‘call them out’ on it. For whatever reason, they don’t want to do that move with you.
This can even apply to ‘no’s for a dance. Some people just don’t have good chemistry with each other. Let it go. Don’t demand that they tell you why they are saying no. If you get a ‘no’ to a move, hold, or a dance, be an adult and move on.
Yes, it can sting, but an ego bruise does not trump someone’s right to their personal security or safety.
Let it go. Respect their wishes. Forcing an explanation just makes it awkward on all fronts, and you’re not likely to get an honest answer. If it’s a problem you have with many partners, talk to your teacher, friends, or mentor about what you may be doing that is making partners uncomfortable. If it’s that one person, let it go; It may not be anything you’re able to control.
It’s also not a social dancer’s job to convince their partner of the magicalness of certain movements, holds, or partners. If something is very useful to a dance, it is up to that person and their teacher, mentor, or friends to talk about and discuss the boundary off of the social floor.
Rule 3: Pay Attention to Boundary Setting
It’s easy for a well-intentioned partner to overlook a requested boundary, since most hints are given through body language.
The best way you can help to respect these rights is to learn how to assess body language. If you’re not sure how to tell, ask. Not sure if you know the body cues that a dip is unwelcome? Ask! What about close hold? Ask, again!
Yes, asking can feel weird in the context of social dancing. The best way to navigate boundary setting is to learn how to read the body language of your partner. I’d encourage you to learn how to do that as quickly as possible.
The best parallel I can draw is getting more intimate with a new romantic partner. Everyone’s favourite kisses are the ones where both people just ‘know’ the other person is into it, and the mood is right. However, not everyone’s that good at reading the ‘mood’ – or the person.
Some people manage to mistake a handshake as an invitation for a full-on smooch, while others fail to read a lean-in with eyes closed as a request for a kiss. If you’re one of these people who can’t tell up from down when it comes to body language, use your words. Always. Yes, asking can feel weird. Yes, it can ‘break the mood’. However, asking is better than forcing a kiss on an unwilling participant.
Same goes for social dancing: asking about close hold or dips is better than making your partner feel unsafe.
Rule 4: Set Your Boundaries
Many people feel like it’s expected of them to be comfortable with the same things as everyone else. It’s important to recognize that you have a right to your boundaries – even if they’re uncommon or rare. If you are the less comfortable partner, you get to set the rules. But…
…If you have boundaries, it’s your job to let your partner know. If you pretend you’re super into close hold, your partner will think you’re into close hold. If you act like dips are the best thing ever, your partner will think you like dips.
Your first line of defense is to use body language. Push yourself away from a close hold. Hold the shoulders tight in a dip. Move away from an unwelcome hammer lock movement. Hopefully your partner gets it.
If your partner doesn’t get it and tries to force the uncomfortable thing, use your words. It’s not shameful to speak up. It’s not your job to suffer for your partner’s ego. Make your wishes known.
Rule 5: Be Nice
Whether you’re a lead or a follow, boundary setting happens best if people are nice to each other. Most people who social dance are not soulless demons. Heck, most aren’t even a normal human possessed by a soulless demon!
Generally speaking, most people want to give their partners a good dance. Therefore, the best way to react when someone unintentionally oversteps a boundary is to be nice. It’s also a best practice to be gracious if someone sets a boundary.
What does ‘being nice’ in the context of boundary setting entail? No eye-rolls. A ‘sorry’ if you have overstepped. A smile. A ‘please’ if verbally requesting a boundary. It also includes accommodating requests.
And yes, I did say to still be nice if someone has accidentally overstepped a boundary. Yes, setting boundaries on your personal space is your right. And yes, it is absolutely your right to be an asshole when enforcing your boundaries. However, it’s not a best practice. People will generally be upset with you, and you’ll be creating negative energy.
So, be nice. There’s always a nice way to set or respect a boundary. Always.
No matter what you dance or with whom you are dancing, respecting individual boundaries is important. It is what allows social dancing to be a safe space, and contributes to the positivity of our scenes. For most, boundary setting seems like a very simple concept. But, for those who struggle with it, it can be distilled into three very simple points:
- Respect your own boundaries
- Respect the boundaries of others
- Be nice when setting and respecting boundaries.
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