Touch is necessary for social dancing. Depending on your style of dance, it can be anything from an open handhold to full body contact. Those contact points may also change or evolve, and those connection points may ask for specific physical responses from a partner. These touches are a type of dance-touch. They’re how we communicate with each other, for the purposes of creating an interesting, fun, and safe dance.
But, there’s another type: non-dance touch. Non-dance touch is any touch that you don’t feel is part of dancing. It can be sexual, or completely platonic. These are touches that don’t serve to heighten or contribute to the experience of the dance.
Dance-touch is how we physically connect with our partner during a dance. It includes everything from a basic, open handhold to full-body contact. It also includes how we touch – not just what we touch.
This is why the feeling of dance-touch is so subjective. For one person, dance-touch may be full-body connection, breathing together, and intense eye contact. For another, that same contact may fall under the umbrella of non-dance touch.
What you view as dance-touch may also change over time. For example, it can change based on:
- what style you dance,
- your personal comfort levels, and
- how long you’ve been dancing.
For example, new dancers frequently read close body contact as non-dance touch. Experienced dancers may read a full-body connection as a type of dance touch. Or, you can look at the different standards for physical touch between Lindy Hop and Brazilian Zouk.
Non-dance touch is any sort of physical touch that feels misplaced to someone in the context of the dance. Each person (and genre) has their own general threshold for when it veers from dance-touch to non-dance touch.
The most common feeling of non-dance touch during social dancing occurs when something reads as sexual (a non-dance function) in the context of a non-sexual dance that is (for that person).
Sometimes, a behavior can be simultaneously dance-touch and non-dance touch. For example, two people who have a sexual attraction to each other may both have full body contact related to the dance, and start feeling sexy because of said contact.
Each scene and individual has their own barometer for dance vs. non-dance touch. I’ve grouped some behaviors I’ve witnessed or heard of under four headings. Of course, it’s not complete nor perfect, but it may help people understand what behaviors will largely be acceptable.
For the purposes of this list, sensual dances include things like Zouk, Kizomba, and Bachata. Non-sensual dances include most dances in the Swing family. Salsa and Tango can be considered sensual, but have elements of both.
For example, Salsa is danced mainly in open hold but features many indicators of sensuality. Tango has a very intimate connection, but rarely (if ever) utilizes rolls, waves, isolations, etc.
Green (Almost always OK)
- Regular dance handholds and arm touches
- Open hold, or close hold with space between partners
- ‘Syncing’ with your partner in open hold
Yellow (OK with most partners; almost always OK in sensual dances)
- Close hold with some minor body contact
- Sensual movements, waves, and rolls executed with space between partners
- Touching the shoulders, mid-back, and side of hip
- Beginning a dance in close hold, and using it to ‘sync up’ with each other
Orange (OK with at least half of partners in sensual dances; usually not OK in non-sensual dances)
- Full-body connection (as defined by that genre), particularly making chest, hip, or thigh contact
- Breathing together to ‘sync up’
- Isolations, rolls, and sensual movements that make physical contact with your partner’s body
- Forehead to forehead connection (including side of head/forehead connection without a face roll)
Red (Many partners will consider this non-dance touch, even in sensual dances)
- Touching the neck, hair, leg, stomach, or low back of a partner
- Entwining the fingers
- Rolling your face on the other person’s face
Brown (Most partners will find this uncomfortable in most dances)
- Touching the face with your hands
- Running your hands over your partner’s body
- Making your partner touch their own body with their hands
Black (This isn’t dance touch, at all)
- Touching the crotch, butt, or breasts of a partner
- Placing your hand underneath the clothing of your partner
- Biting, licking, or exchanging bodily fluids
- Heavy breathing in the ear, or aroused noises
The how of touch
Often, what you mechanically do during a dance can seem more or less like dance-touch depending on how you do it.
For example, a close hold with body connection can feel melty, intense, or even sterile. Someone who approaches it as a mechanic will almost never be mistaken for ‘coming on’ to a partner. But, they often are less able to reach the apex of the ooey-gooey-awesome-dance connection you get with high-touch threshold, experienced dancers. This is particularly true for dancers from sensual styles.
By contrast, I’ve met dancers who make me second-guess their (innocent) intentions even after years in sensual dances. They can do the same movements as the sterile dancer – but the intensity and way they touch is more charged and intimate. I sometimes call this the ‘sexy hold.’ For lack of a better word, it just feels very passionate. Sometimes confusingly so, for at least a moment.
Depending on how you touch your partners, you may find the majority of people want a higher or lower degree of dance-touch. And, some people are just so good at touching their partner in an intimate-but-not-sexual way that their partner’s threshold skyrockets.
Aiming for a combination of feelings
Some partners respond well to non-dance touch. Often, this happens when people are both ‘into’ each other.
Be careful if you want to tread that line. You need to make sure that you are able to tell when such a touch isn’t wanted. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself driving down your partner’s touch limits. You’d be surprised at how quickly most typical dance-touches become non-dance touch if a partner senses there’s something “more” to the contact.
Assessing your partner’s response
It can be hard to tell if someone is comfortable with a particular touch – whether your intention was for it to be dance-touch or not. It’s also important to note that just because someone follows the touch (or stands there and lets you touch them) doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it.
For example, I really don’t enjoy entwined fingers. It doesn’t really work as a dance hold, so it feels very non-dancey to me. If I’m feeling like it’s too far, I’ll actively resist the attempt. But, if I think it’s tolerable and will be rather temporary, I’ll often still ‘follow’ it.
Even in those situations, it’s possible to tell when your partner has disengaged from a touch. The most common signs of invasive touch include:
- Pushing a partner away
- Leaning away, or resisting a movement
- Eye contact avoidance (where it didn’t exist before)
- Looking at or moving away from the offending point of contact
- Readjusting the point of contact (including physically moving your hand away)
- Disengaging completely, or the sudden appearance of extra tension
- A vanishing smile, or even an actively unhappy face
- Disappearing styling or expression
- Very, very neutral or careful body behaviour
When I say very, very neutral body behaviour, I’m referring to what one friend calls “customer service face”. Think of a diplomatic retail associate dealing with a very irate customer: calm, polite, but very evidently not into it and waiting for you to back off.
You can also think of it as the obligatory small talk of body language: you put up with it, but it’s probably not something you’d choose to do if you could pick.
Acting on the response
My general advice is to try something else if you sense your partner may have reservations. While the reservations can be a shy person who simply needs a ‘push’ to let themselves relax, it’s not always the case. It can be very difficult to tell the difference between the two, even for someone who is very body language savvy.
If you generally have trouble assessing your partner’s body language, I recommend changing the behavior rather than pushing the envelope. It’s a lot easier to ‘up’ the touch level when you have trust and comfort than when you’re pushing through boundaries.
Besides, unless the person is uncomfortable with all physical touch, there are things you can do without them feeling like the touch is inappropriate. Stick to those until they are more comfortable.
Have something to add to the list? Or, maybe other thoughts on dance-touch? Leave your opinion and suggestions in the comments below.