I want you to imagine an absolute beginners walking into their first dance social. They see all these people moving together on the floor – nothing like what they’ve seen at a dance club. Their first impulse?
“Wow! Everyone here is an amazing dancer!”
Meanwhile, their advanced dancer buddy may look at the room and think how wrong that beginner is. To them, out of the 40 dancers in the room, at least 20 of them aren’t good partners.
In fact, most of those 20 partners are barely tolerable. 7 of them are too rough, 7 of them aren’t clear with their movements, and 5 of them can’t keep time. Then, there’s that one person you should just never, ever dance with.
Out of the remaining 20, 10 are passable. They’re pleasant enough, and some are old friends. But, really, there’s only 10 people there who the advanced dancer wants to dance with. They can’t help but hope their friend realizes how sucky those first 20 partners are.
Except, 10 of those people ask the beginner to dance. Out of those 10 partners that the advanced dancer disliked, the beginner LOVES 9 of them. I mean, they DANCED. To MUSIC. How awesome is that???!!
Why are these two dancer’s perceptions so different?
Starting From Zero
When we’re an absolute beginner, it’s a fairly good bet that almost every person in the room is a better dancer than we are.
Beginner follows don’t get that hauling the partner across the floor isn’t leading – all they know is that they felt the lead do something and they went somewhere. Therefore, anyone who makes them do something is good. As long as they don’t get hurt, they remain blissfully unaware that one partner is leading through frame and one through their arms. They can feel something is different – but both are good for now.
Beginner leads don’t understand how to control their role in the dance, and don’t understand what they are missing. Therefore, a follow who predicts their movements seems like they’re following. The girl who is styling everywhere seems like they’re dancing. They’re good because they do something. They don’t understand that some of the follows are responding to their body and some are just dancing on their own – it’s all the same, unless there’s a really extreme situation.
But, after this beginner phase, dancers start to discern more about connection, timing, and partnership. They start to develop preferences and opinions. They start to learn – and with that learning comes awareness. Sometimes, that awareness backfires by turning ‘good’ partners into ‘bad’.
The Enlightened View
An advanced lead is able to tell when their follow isn’t truly following, is on autopilot, or is out of control. The lead may find this follow downright unpleasant. Common complaints can be:
- Dancing on their own
- Styling too much
- Too heavy/light; either ‘not enough’ or ‘too much’ pressure
- Not listening/doing whatever the follow feels like, rather than dancing as a partnership
- Being ‘jerky’; going in the wrong direction
- Being off-time, slow OR fast
- Not listening to the music
By contrast, advanced follows may be able to tell when a lead is not leading fully through the movement. Common complaints include:
- Being off-time, slow OR fast
- Being ‘jerky’; not finishing movements
- Using too much/too little force
- Leading ‘from the arms’
- Not giving ‘breathing room’
- Just pushing the follow through things, without regard to the partnership
- Not listening to the music
Both the advanced lead and follow have the insight to also understand how these shortcomings interact with things like floorcraft, dance safety, and etiquette. They possess an enlightened view, through which they know more than a dancer who is currently dancing at a lower level.
The stronger these dancers become, the harder it is to ‘ignore’ the faux-pas of dance. The more advanced we are, the ‘pickier’ we are in deciding what constitutes a ‘good’ – or even moderately pleasant – dance.
This is where the danger is.
The Dance Inversion
If we are a weaker dancer, we have a lot of partners that we consider comparably ‘good’. The stronger we become, the fewer dancers will meet our definition of a ‘good’ partner. For ease of reference, I’m calling this the “Dance Inversion”.
And thus, a cry rises:
“Where did all the good dancers go?”
Upon pressing further, some of these dancers lament that when they go out dancing, they’re surrounded by incompetent, dangerous dancers who put them (and other dancers) at risk.
Part of the ‘safety’ concern is totally legitimate: more advanced dancers are more sensitive (generally) to the idea of creating, maintaining, or having a ‘safe’ dance. This is extremely important – and more advanced dancers generally have a larger share of the burden on creating a safe dance because they have the skills and awareness to do so.
But, some advanced dancers use the idea of ‘safety’ to encompass everything from a minor annoyance to actually dangerous behavior.
Someone who holds hands a little too tight suddenly becomes an imminent danger risk – despite the fact that most advanced dancers have the tools to minimize or eliminate that problem with most dancers. Someone who over-styles becomes a liability to personal injury, even though advanced partners usually have the ability to anchor an out-of-control styler.
Perhaps I’m living in a wonderful dance-bubble, but I don’t see huge amount of downright dangerous dancers. Even in the case of dangerous dancers, there are only a few where I feel I am incapable of protecting myself during the dance. Those select few are the people I choose not to dance with, or I talk to them about the problem.
I do, however, see a lot of non-dangerous habits that can be irritating.
Differentiating Dangerous and Irritating
The amount of actually dangerous dancers in our social scenes is relatively low. Unfortunately, there are some – and these people do need to be dealt with. Communication is the key to managing dangerous partnerships.
You don’t have to be mean about it, but raising your concern is the best way to diffuse a dangerous dancer. If you feel unsafe for any reason and you cannot (note that this is different from ‘will not’) compensate for the issue, say something. If they won’t listen, leave the dance. This is important.
However, make sure that the behavior is actually dangerous – not just irritating. Sometimes, people squeeze my hand. It is irritating and uncomfortable. Rarely is it dangerous. Same thing with people who are dancing ‘too big’: it can be dangerous, but most of the time it’s just irritating.
If it’s irritating, compensate. Find a way to negate the issue. If you can’t, and you really can’t get past that irritating thing, ask your partner (nicely) for what you need. You can also reinforce the things you do like instead of focusing on the things you don’t.
When one or two partners in a night are ‘Bad’
If you generally have good dances with most people, you’re doing well. Usually, people have a handful of dancers that they either can’t connect with, or for whom they can’t compensate. No matter what you try, you just can’t get it to ‘work’ with these people.
This is normal. No one connects well with everyone. Don’t sweat it; move on to partners that you enjoy your time with.
When most of the partners in the room are ‘Bad’
If you are a person who walks into a room and feels like most of the partners are bad, you may need to reflect inwards. If this happens once in a long while, it could be a fluke. But, if it is a regular pattern that you find happening to you, it’s time to re-assess the situation.
Feeling that most of the partners in a room are ‘bad’ does not mean that you are doing something ‘wrong’. You may be a very, very skilled dancer – but easily annoyed. You may be someone who is unwilling to deviate from your idea of a ‘good’ dance. You may just be very picky.
This is fine; it’s your call. But, you’re eroding your own dance experience. The stronger a dancer you become, the more often this problem will surface. If you’re going to have longevity in the dance scene, you need to find a way to be happy with the majority of partners.
Basically, you have to overlook the ‘annoying’ things. You have to find other things to enjoy in dances with the ‘bad’ partners to make them at least ‘tolerable’, but preferably ‘fun’.
Turning ‘Bad’ partners ‘Good’
My advice would be to work on your ability to compensate. If you find a partner who is musical but technically terrible, see if you can focus on feeling the music together. If you have a partner who is using too much force, do what you need to protect yourself – but see if you can do this in a way that provides room for your own enjoyment.
For example, a partner who over-powers may be a great person to work with for things like counter-balance based moves. Or, perhaps that is a person where it is best to dance more slowly to prevent too much energy buildup. The more advanced you are, the more options you have to explore how to work with a weakness to minimize its impact.
Honestly, putting yourself mentally on the same wavelength as your partner can solve a lot of bad-partner problems out there. I know it’s hard – but it can be done.
At the end of the day, partner dancing is about enjoying a relationship with another person. The more flexible you are with your definition of a ‘good’ dance, the more ‘good’ dances you will have. The more rigid you are, the fewer you will get.
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Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios