I’ve been in several dance classes where students are told to make eye contact with each other. I’ve also had some creepy dances where my partner stared into my eyes for the entire dance.
Where is the line between ‘not enough’ eye contact, and ‘too much’ eye contact?
According to some articles, people regularly hold anywhere from 3-10 seconds of eye contact depending on the situation and the person. Intimate couples tend to hold eye contact longer. Additionally, eye contact usually becomes ‘creepy’ when the eye contact doesn’t match other non-verbal cues, or when the eye contact is considered too intense or intimate for the current situation.
But, naturally, I could not find any articles or studies that cover eye contact while social dancing.
Social dance exists in a bit of a conundrum. We often dance with complete strangers, but develop 5-minute personal intimacy. Our physical cues can be read as sensual, even if intellectually and mentally there is no actual sexual attraction between the partners. We’re also often quite close to each other and have physical contact, upping the intimacy levels. We are also having a physical conversation, rather than a verbal one.
It therefore follows that the normal rules of eye contact don’t really ‘fit’ with the relationships present in social dancing.
When I make eye contact
Obviously, I’m not an expert in the psychology of eye contact. However, I can tell you what has worked for me and other social dancers around me. I have found eye contact to work when:
- I’m greeting a partner, or thanking a partner for a dance
- During a musical ‘break’, when both partners are upright
- At the beginning or the end of a movement sequence, rather than the middle
- In funny moments, or after little mistakes or unexpected moves
I frequently use eye contact to fill the ‘pauses’ between one movement sequence and the next, as a sort of reset button. For example, if a partner and I have hit a break in the music and are both standing upright, it’s a good chance for eye contact and a smile. Or, if I’m setting up/waiting for the next lead, it provides a great way to reconnect with the partner.
I also use it at the end of the dance as we are saying goodbye. I find it helps to solidify a good connection I had with my partner during a dance, especially in conjunction with a smile.
It’s also a great way to cut tension if something goes wrong. For example, that time a partner and I were experimenting with a split-drop and I ended up on the floor. Giggle about it, make eye contact, and smile. Life happens, and eye contact can help alleviate the pressure.
When I do not make eye contact
I personally don’t make very much eye contact during:
- face-to-face contact
- close hold
- super-sexy movements (unless it is funny-sexy)
Close hold is just not the time for eye contact. It’s way too intense. Maybe if you’re dancing with a romantic partner, but even then I find it easier to close my eyes or look at other parts of the face. The closer your bodies are, the more intense eye contact is. Use it sparingly, if at all.
I also find it awkward to add intense eye contact if a movement is already more sensual. That takes it from sensual to sexual, and that’s just not my happy place in social dancing.
The caveat here is funny-sexy. If it’s a parody or a make-fun-of-the-music move, then eye contact plus uber-sexy works. Why? Because it’s not intimate in the slightest. For an example, see almost any WCS Jack n’ Jill to an overtly sexual song.
How long is too long?
Sustained (+5 seconds) eye contact is (almost) never a good idea. It’s creepy – plain and simple. If you notice your partner specifically trying not to make eye contact with you, you’ve probably gone too far.
Many ‘creepy’ dancers in the scene tend to do this. Rather than having ‘natural’ eye contact, they look straight into your eyes with a straight, serious face for long periods of time. It’s just not comfortable. I would hazard a guess that some of them are trying to follow the ‘make eye contact with your partner’ idea, but are simply way overdoing it.
I usually only hold eye contact for a couple of seconds maximum. That does not mean I’m looking down the rest of the time – it means I’m looking somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ can be anything from the next direction of travel to my partner’s shoulder. It doesn’t have to be a big shift; just enough to take the pressure off of an intense eye-to-eye connection.
Note: don’t make the new direction a female partner’s chest. Yes, I know it can happen unconsciously. Make a conscious effort not to let it happen.
There are some other factors that can affect how much eye contact you can comfortably make with your partner.
For example, if you have an unreciprocated crush on a person, I’d suggest less eye-contact. By contrast, if you and another person are flirting actively with each other, the two of you may make more eye contact.
Additionally, if you have a super-serious face all the time, eye contact may become overwhelming. By contrast, non-serious, smiley or funny people can generally get away with more eye contact because it does not read super-intensely.
The style of dance you do may also influence how much eye contact you can have. I generally see way more eye contact in Salsa, Lindy and WCS than in Zouk, Bachata, or Kizomba. This may have to do with the sensuality level of the dances, which affects the perceived intensity of the eye contact.
There are exceptions to every rule. There’s a guy in Zouk who uses a lot of eye contact. All the time. During every type of sexy movement.
It works for him. I’m still not entirely sure how, but he just happens to be the right mix of theatricality, sensuality, approachability, skill, and funny to make it not creepy. Instead, it comes across as super-engaged and fun.
He isn’t the norm. If 99% of other Zouk dancers tried this, it would be creepy.
Please: don’t use exceptions to tune your idea of eye contact. They are exceptions for a reason. If it’s not already a ‘natural’ setting for you, it’s not going to become more natural by trying to mimic the person.
Think of it like you do natural funny-people. It’s not the joke they tell, it’s how they tell it. Some people get trained on how to do it, but most people who are considered ‘funny’ also possess a sense of natural comedic timing. The same jokes in the hands of other people could be awkward, offensive, or just fall flat.
Do you have anything to add about eye contact? I’d love to hear some other perspectives on the matter.
Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios