In many partner genres, steal dances and three-way dances (or more) are becoming more popular. In others, stealing has been part of the groundwork of the dance since its very inception. But, with this growing trend and with the adoption of dances outside their home culture, there are considerations of consent, agency, and culture that need to be discussed to be sure that everyone is happy to be stealing.
What are Steal Dances and Three-Way Dances?
A steal dance is when partners trade each other with others. For example, a birthday dance where different partners enter and take over leading/following with a single person are considered a steal dance. Socially, it can be two leads taking turns dancing with a single follow, or two follows taking turns dancing with a single lead.
A three-way dance is when three (or more, in a multi-dance) partners simultaneously dance together. For example, two leaders co-leading a follow, or vice-versa.
A dance can have both steal and three-way elements at different times. In the context of this article, a “steal” covers any situation where a third or additional partners are added to a dance.
Steals and Three-Ways Done Right
When a steal or three-way dance is done the right way, all parties feel happy and excited about the opportunity to dance with multiple partners. It can be exciting, and lead to a lot of creativity for all partners. It can also be a confidence booster that makes the steal-ee feel like a desirable dance partner that is “in demand.”
In some communities, these types of dances are so popular that there are special “steal zones” or three-person competitions set up to facilitate it.
In some dances, steals are part of a long-standing tradition of multi-partner dancing. They may be used to build camradarie, energy, or even inclusiveness of many partners. However, people who are in these styles need to be aware that, even if culturally accepted, not everyone who does the dance may be into them – and certainly not at all times. Steals being part of the culture cannot be used as a substitute for consent – though the culture can dramatically influence the appropriate etiquette regarding stealing within the majority of the dance.
Consent: A Cornerstone of Stealing
If a steal or three-way is done wrong, it can leave the follow and/or lead of the original couple feeling violated, frustrated, confused or just unhappy. When this happens, it’s usually because the stealer did not obtain the full consent of the couple before dancing.
We often think about consent in the context of asking to dance, doing certain movements, or flirting. But, sometimes we forget that consent is still very important in the context of steal dances. A couple consenting to dance together didn’t necessarily also consent to dancing with you.
So, how do we obtain consent?
Option 1: Get Consent Before the Dance
If you’re craving a steal or three-way, you can ask partners verbally before the dance. It’s as simple as finding a partner, and asking if they’d like to dance with you and another person. Ideally, identify both your desired partners first, so that you have a name to give. Then (and this is important), make sure the third person is also into the dance.
Be prepared that some partners may not be down with a steal or three-way. They may ask to just dance with you, or pass altogether. As always, respect the no.
Of note, this approach is the norm in some dances – but not others. It’s important to understand your dance’s approach to steals.
Option 2: Get Consent During the Dance
Some dances primarily use non-verbal consent to establish the groundwork for a switch. But, whether unconscious or conscious, there is a consent process used in most successful steals.
If you’re watching a couple and want to enter as another partner, there’s a few more things to check in about:
- What are the odds that you’re a good steal match?
- Are they reciprocating your request?
- Are they fully engaged throughout the full steal experience?
Let’s break those down.
Are you a good steal match?
A good steal match usually aligns in one or more of the following conditions. While not all of these are required for a steal to be accepted, at least a few of them are usually a good idea:
You know one (or preferably both) partners
If you know at least one partner, your odds of being a good match are better. But, it’s best if you know both partners at least reasonably well. If you are an extremely well-known dancer, you can sometimes get away without this… but it’s still best to be careful.
The dancer you share a role with is generally around your level
If you are significantly stronger than the person you share a role with, they may end up being intimidated or discouraged by you entering the dance. For example, if a world-renowned pro steals my partner, I’m not as likely to re-enter the dance because it may feel like my partner will be happier dancing with that person.
If you’re significantly less experienced, the opposite-role partner may feel like their time with the selected partner is being stolen from them. That’s not to say that they are a dance snob – but expectations for what the dance will be like are often set early on. So, if I’m dancing with My Favourite Lead Ever to a Great Song and I’m stolen by someone who has been dancing two months, it may be a bit jarring even if I would really enjoy dancing with them to a different song.
The person you want to steal is not Super In-Demand compared to their partner
We have all had a dance with a person we are really excited about. Maybe they’re your teacher or idol that you only get to dance with once a year. Whatever the situation, it’s usually a bad idea to cut into a dance where a person clearly is having that once-an-event/year/lifetime dance.
There are certain other high-level partners that may be able to get away with it – but usually this only happens when they are already familiar with the dancers.
They’re not “in the zone”
Sometimes, you’re just in a particular flow with your partner that demands total, undivided focus. Some dancers are almost permanently like this. If you see dancers that are clearly in “the zone” (whatever that looks like in your dance), it’s almost always a bad idea to interrupt. In contrast, if they’re already engaged in a steal dance with multiple partners coming out, or seem to be open and acknowledging others around them, it’s a green light in many cases. Often, this pairs best with more energetic or less intimate dances, where there is more regularly space for a third (or more).
Are they reciprocating your request?
Let’s say you’ve decided you’re a good enough steal match to propose a steal. What comes next?
For leads, this usually involves positioning and eye contact. For follows, this normally involves mimicking the led movements and dancing in parallel to the other follow. That, or another socially-accepted indicator within your genre, is your request to steal.
The next thing that happens is very important. If the partnership is open to the steal, they should both make eye contact and/or shift their body language to facilitate the steal. If either partner does not facilitate the steal, do not proceed. This can include not making eye contact, shaking the head or saying no, positioning the follow away from the steal, or even just ignoring the request. These should all be treated as a “no” immediately – and you should move on.
Fun Fact: I once found myself inside a specific “Steal Zone” without realizing it. You know someone is doing consent right where, despite the location specifically being designated for steals, they back off when they realize you’re not into it.
The Vulture is what many dancers call the person who hangs around the periphery and attempts to steal a partner when it’s not welcome. In one case, I had a lead who harassed my partner and I for a full minute and physically tried to steal my follow through a clearly defensive dance and head shake. When he finally gave up, he told me I was “no fun” and a “killjoy”.
While that is a super extreme version of consent violation, your goal is to find out if it is a ‘no’ or ‘yes’ as quickly as possible. If you’ve been circling for more than a few seconds, you’ve been there too long.
Important: Check in with both partners
Follow consent often get overlooked in the context of steal dancing. Leads may make eye contact and coordinate, but the follow just turns around and… wham! New lead. If the follow isn’t into it, this can be a very jarring, violating experience.
“But what about it being a nice surprise for the follow?”
A steal can be a nice surprise. But, this should only be done if you’re basically absolutely sure they’re into it. Kind of like a public wedding proposal: if there’s any doubt of the “yes” or their joy at it being a public demonstration, do not proceed. The possible good surprise is not worth the gamble of a bad one.
In short: a follow’s consent to a dance shouldn’t be taken for granted, any more than a leader’s consent. This includes surprises.
I’ve had experiences where suddenly I’m being led by someone who I usually have to physically prepare for to avoid injury, or someone I’m not comfortable with as a person. I’ve also had experiences where the stealer is fine, but I was really enjoying my dance with the other person. It’s very disruptive and causes many follows to disengage from the moment altogether.
In contrast, there are specific people I would feel confident stealing from as a surprise. But, they’re very limited in number. For example, my dance partner and dance wife would be a couple I’d feel confident interrupting, as well as a few other close friends (depending on their partner, of course). These are the exception – not the rule.
Are they fully engaged in the dance experience?
If you do initiate a steal, it’s still important to check in and make sure you got it right. If you see the stolen-from partner disengaged from the steal experience, give the partner back immediately. If you see the stolen dancer disengage from the dance in any way, also give them back immediately. Bonus points for a quick apology. This allows it to be a minor interruption rather than completely just derailing their dance.
It is possible that someone will enjoy a steal outside of what I’ve listed above. But, again, these are exceptions – and you need to know what you’re doing. I’ve had a great steal dance where two of the leads were new to me – but both were very respected and renowned dancers, and there was the opportunity for me to engage with it before it happened, and my partner was close with both of them. That made it a memorable dance instead of a frustrating one. In general, err on the side of surety.
Inviting someone into your dance
Sometimes, one of the partners in a dance will invite someone who is sitting or on the sidelines into an existing dance. Provided that they have done so with the consent of their current partner, this is usually received positively. After all, the person on the sideline has the option to decline, and if there is a decline, the dance continues as normal. For example, dancers may do this in a social where there are a lot of people sitting out that they want to invite to the floor.
The difference in tone can be summarized this way: If proposing a steal to an existing couple is asking if you can come to their party, you inviting someone to join your dance is inviting them to the party. The dynamic is vastly different.
What to do if your boundaries are violated
It’s likely that, at some point, you’ll encounter someone who steals you or your partner against your wishes. In most cases, this is because they erred as opposed to some sort of malicious intent. What is important here is to stand up for you and your partner’s boundaries – verbally and/or physically.
This can include:
- Dancing in a way that prevents steals
- Shaking your head, or saying “no” if that is not heeded
- Verbally asking your partner if they’re OK with being stolen/entering a steal dance
All of these are ways to keep you and your partner happy – but also to educate the other person that they’ve misread the situation. It doesn’t have to be punitive, but it does have to make it clear that the way they engaged was not welcome. This helps them do better in the future, too!
Keep Steals Fun!
I’m very glad steals are a part of social dancing. They can be memorable, exciting twists on social dances, and bring a lot of joy to those that participate. In some dances, they can be an important cultural element, too. But, like anything social dancing, consent is a cornerstone of how we need to operate to keep everyone safe and happy.