A while ago, I wrote an article about the many reasons that professionals don’t always social dance. However, beyond that, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect both in how advanced dancers treat newer dancers, and the way that new dancers treat their dance idols. In many places, this has led to a strange dynamic where advanced dancers almost shun newer ones, while new ones create dance queues and demonize advanced dancers who are not super generous in their dances.
As a social dancer in some styles and a professional in others, I’ve been on both sides of the divide. I have been in situations where I’m getting dance-stalked without reprieve. However, I’ve also witnessed the clique of high-level dancers who chat together for hours, casting frosty glances at those who dare approach. It’s not a nice feeling – on either end.
The use of “Average”
In this article, I will refer to typical social dancers as “average”. This is used to refer to anyone without some form of celebrity status or renown in a dance community, rather than a reflection of a specific skill level. “High-level” is used to include anyone with a sense of positive dance notoriety, whether professional or just a sought-after partner.
The Creation of the Dance Monkey
Some average dancers have developed a habit of treating high-level dancers as a dance monkey. They want high-level dancers who are always engaged, always kind, always say yes (to them), always have energy, and always want to dance with everyone. If there’s a line-up, they better not take a break for a glass of water. After all, the next person in the line has been waiting 20 minutes for a dance with them. They can get through that next song; it won’t kill them.
Imagine if you were in a room full of very new dancers. Everyone demands at least one dance with you. They’ll ask you when you’re talking to someone, when you’re getting water, or when you sit out a song you don’t like. If you say no, they get upset. They question you why. They start talking about how you’re an asshole.
The room has turned you into their dance monkey. This is how a lot of higher-level dancers (and particularly pros) end up feeling in an event or congress environment.
The Birth of the Cliquey Dancer
Imagine how you would feel as one of these dance monkeys. How you would react. Maybe you’re someone who does (or did) enjoy dancing with beginners. But now, given all of the obligation, it’s suddenly not fun anymore. So, maybe you begin to avoid making interpersonal connections with new dancers or people you don’t recognize. You retreat to your clique, where you feel like you can have some agency over when and with whom you dance.
It’s not that you’re trying to be mean. It’s just that you’re really having fun talking to your friends, and you’re worried that if you’re nice to that random person that just came up, they’ll pull you away into a dance you really don’t want right now.
The Cyclical Nature of Cliquey Dance Monkeys
The problem with the creation of dance monkeys and, subsequently, cliquey dancers is that it is cyclical. Unfair expectations create a dancer who feels like they are being exploited by their community. Then, they become cliquey in an attempt to shield themselves from those expectations.
As a result, the average dancers develop a worse opinion of the cliquey dancers, become more forceful in their attempts to draw the person out, and therefore cause the person to retreat more into their clique. Maybe that person even stops social dancing 90% of the time, and then gets called out for not being social enough.
Further, the expectations from average dancers then often also get projected onto the “new” high-level dancers, thus turning them into the next generation of dance monkeys.
What has to change?
I think that there are two lacking components at the center of the cycle: empathy and communication. I think that if we develop these two components, we can dismantle this cycle, dissolve the cliques, and stop people from feeling like a dance monkey.
At our core, we all want to be seen and respected. Often, the “dance monkeys” feel seen, but their personal boundaries are trampled. Meanwhile, the “average” dancers feel invisible, and are seeking to be seen by the people they admire. If we start meeting the needs of the other side, we can start to reduce this cycle.
Empathy is something that both the high-level and average dancers in our scenes need to work on.
For average dancers, it’s recognizing that people can’t be “on” all the time, and listening to the voice in our heads that tells us that someone probably isn’t looking to dance at that moment. For example, if you see a high-level having a drink with friends by the side of the floor, maybe that’s not the best time to interject and ask for a dance. And, it’s recognizing the obligation we place on people when we ask them while they’re clearly not in the shape to dance.
For the high-level dancers, it’s recognizing that we do function as a sort of celebrity for many other dancers. Even if we don’t dance with someone, we can really improve someone’s feeling of belonging and acceptance simply by having a 5-minute conversation or saying hello. It’s recognizing that purposefully avoiding eye contact and a ‘hello’ can be more damaging to a person than simply declining a dance.
On the communication side, we all need to get better at communicating kindly and in accordance with what we honestly feel. This is particularly true for advanced dancers.
As noted above, ignoring average dancers is often more damaging than simply declining a dance. This is particularly true since the people likely to be damaged by this behaviour are the ones that are trying to respect your boundaries. They’re the ones who try to make eye contact, and pass by when they see you won’t acknowledge them. They’re generally not the ones forcefully intruding on your circle to drag you to the dance floor, or the ones who are angry at you for declining a dance.
What we can do to change the dynamic is to recognize the people who are not intruding on our boundaries. We can also learn how to say “no” in a kind way, so that acknowledgement does not become synonymous with being willing to dance.
For High-Level Dancers: Taking ownership of “No”
At the end of the day, the most effective way to change the dynamic from the advanced dancer’s end is to change the paradigm from acknowledgement = “yes”, to “yes” = an honest desire to dance. And the most practical way to create this is to get used to saying “no.”
Right now, with average dancers, there is a scarcity associated with the opportunity to dance with high-level dancers. The dominant ideology is “I must ask when I see they have any free time, otherwise I will never dance with this person.” This encourages people to ignore social cues that indicate someone is taking a break or isn’t up for dancing.
In short: all the signs that normally mean “I don’t want to dance” become the opportunities to get a dance.
When high-level dancers say “yes” in these situations, it encourages this behaviour to repeat. After all, the aggressive dancers get the opportunity. The respectful ones sit quietly and never get to dance with them. Meanwhile, the high-level dancers start feeling stressed and objectified. Instead of getting to enjoy seeking out new partners, the only people they get to choose for themselves are their friends.
Now, if we made a habit of specifically choosing our dances (rather than responding to the “Yes” obligation), we could change that paradigm. We could take back our enjoyment of dancing with new, unknown dancers by having some of those dances on our terms. For example, the next time you get pounced on just as your last dance is finishing, make it a point to say “no”, and explain that you were hoping to ask a person you saw sitting alone on the sidelines.
This sets up a new paradigm: you want to sometimes choose who you’re dancing with, regardless of the partner’s level, and you are also paying attention to the social cues around you that indicate who would like to dance. Further, you create the expectation of an inclusive paradigm that invites people off of the sidelines and onto the floor.
You can do the same thing by clearly modeling behaviour when you do or don’t want to dance. For example, if you need water, go get some. If you’re chatting with a friend and get asked, say that you are actually in the middle of a conversation you’d like to finish. Take the opportunity as a celebrity of some sort to teach the community the etiquette you’d like them to model.
Including people – without a dance
There’s one additional step that high-level dancers can take to encourage a healthier social community: separate the act of sharing a dance from the act of acknowledging a person. For many social dancers, being acknowledged by someone they look up to is almost more important than having a dance with them.
For example, there are events I go to with many artists I look up to. I may not dance with them all in that weekend – but I sure remember when I have a moment to chat with them and get to know them as people. That doesn’t mean having a giant, in-depth conversation (especially for you introverts out there). It can be as simple as smiling and waving at someone who makes eye contact, or saying hello to someone who is standing alone near you.
Even if you acknowledge and share a conversation with someone, I think you can still kindly say “no” to a dance. This can help to educate our communities that including someone as part of our world does not necessarily mean we ‘owe’ them a dance. This makes us free to be kinder and more inclusive without giving up our own boundaries.
For Average Dancers: Developing empathy and getting dances in our current climate
One of the most difficult things right now is that in our current social climate, the most aggressive social dancers and the people who stalk the pros are rewarded. Those who are very conscious of body language and reasonableness are usually the ones who “miss out” on the dances with high-level dancers.
First, if you are someone who finds yourself missing out because you want to give people space for their own dances, thank you for being so aware that everyone does have limits. If you are one of those people, there are some things that you can do to still maintain your empathy and respectfulness, but make it clear you want to dance. The simplest way to do this is to ask when you see an opportunity and the high-level dancer isn’t otherwise occupied. For example, you can also stay near entrances to the floor, so that you can see the opportunities when a high-level dancer is approaching the floor and is therefore likely open to a dance (as opposed to trying to escape).
However, another really powerful tool is making yourself known to the high-level dancer, which will increase your chances of them seeking you out for a dance. For example, you can bring an exhausted pro (that you’ve met before) a glass of water. You may also want to consider getting to know them during the day away from the social floor, so that they recognize you during the social. You can speak to them while they’re grabbing a glass of water, just to say hi. This doesn’t mean stalking them or guilting them into a dance. Rather, it’s predicated on the assumption that you would actually like to talk to them, but if they happen to recognize you during the social, it’s a nice bonus.
It is also entirely appropriate to ask them to save you a dance while you are 0ff of the dancefloor – but couple it with a caveat: if they happen to run into you while they feel like dancing.
All of these things show that you’d like to dance, but you also respect that they may not feel like it.
If you tend towards the aggressive
If you tend towards the more aggressive side, I get it. It’s more effective in the current climate. But, the more aggressive you are, the more likely people will be to pull back.
For example, there are certain people who I can count on to ask me for a dance (or several) every single night. I can see them watching while I have conversations, grab water, etc. I know that the second I acknowledge them, they’ll ask for a dance, regardless of my conversation or telegraphed desire to dance. They’re dance-stalking me.
If you do this to me, I will decline the dance. However, not every higher-level dancer will do this. Some will simply ignore you until you go away, because they’re uncomfortable saying no. Some will say yes, and then will grapple with feeling like a dance monkey.
What I truly wish is that these people would simply say hi, and let me ask them for a change. I don’t mind talking and making new friends. And, very often, when they don’t ask me for a dance, I’ll naturally reach that point when the music turns into something I can’t resist, and I actively want to dance with them.
Please note that dance-stalking is different than watching to see when someone becomes open for a dance. Dance-stalking is when you specifically, and intentionally, hang on the peripheries of a particular person with the expectation they will eventually given you an “in” to come ask for a dance. For example, standing and directly observing a conversation for 5 minutes.
I would love to see a shift socially towards all dancers being more empathetic, average dancers being respectful of social cues, and high-level dancers learning how to take control of their communications and interactions to influence appropriate behaviour.
For my social dancers, please remember that the more advanced you get, the less opportunities you get to ask for dances. For a newer dancer, being asked is a source of joy and inclusivity. For advanced dancers who constantly have queues and a barrage of requests, it turns from a joy to an obligation. For them, the joy comes from those rare opportunities where they get to pick their dance partners.
Let’s start rewarding kindness, empathy, and communication in our requests for dances – rather than aggressive dance objectification. I’d love to see that shift, so that high-level dancers get to feel respected, and average dancers get to feel included and seen.