Have you ever had an unpleasant dance? Maybe your partner squeezed your hand too hard. Maybe they were generally off-time and a bit rough.
What did you do? Did you fix your face into an unsatisfied scowl to teach them a lesson? If you did, you have engaged in what I call passive-aggressive feedback.
What is passive-aggressive feedback
Passive-aggressive feedback is when a dancer uses body language (or, in extreme cases, even words) to indicate to their partner how unhappy they are with the present situation, but does not offer any constructive information as to what the issue is or how to fix it.
Common examples include:
- Overdramatizing mistakes
- Refusing to respond to anything less than the perfect execution of a movement
- Scowling, pursing the lips, or rolling the eyes
- Mentally “checking out” of the dance or ignoring your partner
Passive-aggressive off the dance floor
We generally accept that passive-aggressive feedback in our personal lives is (at best) unhelpful and (at worst) destructive. If you come home and find the dishes unwashed, rolling your eyes and being snarky for the rest of the night won’t help you or the culprit. Instead, the culprit will get frustrated and upset that you’re treating them badly- and you get frustrated that they haven’t figured out the reason you’re angry.
A more constructive approach is to tell the person if something is bothering you. Sometimes, you have to tell them the same thing multiple times. And sometimes, you may actually have to have a heated discussion about it before something changes. While ultimately you may resolve the issue, passive-aggressive behaviour will not be the remedy.
So… why do so many of us think that passive-aggressive feedback will fix dance issues?
What We’re Hoping For
Many of the people who engage in passive-aggressive feedback do it with the intention of teaching their partner a lesson (without actually “teaching” on the floor). The idea is that your partner is doing something bad, so you’re going to show them how much you don’t like the bad thing. Once they realize you’re not happy, they’re going to stop that behaviour and adjust to your needs.
(Except this almost never happens)
The (Typical) Results of Passive-Aggressive Feedback
Instead of the desired result (bad behaviour being corrected), passive-aggressive feedback usually results in one of the following:
If you engage in passive-aggressive behaviour, your partner may get angry at you for your attitude. Why? Because there’s very little discernible difference between “dance snob” behaviour and passive-aggressive feedback. Both of them involve an unengaged or unpleasant person who makes their partner feel like crap.
When a person gets angry at passive-aggressive feedback, it usually means that the feedback has failed because the person doesn’t understand that it’s the result of something they’re doing “wrong”. Instead, they view it as you judging their ‘worthiness’.
In short: they view it as your standards being too high instead of their dancing being uncomfortable or wrong.
Passive-aggressive feedback could also totally crush your partner’s spirit. This is especially true with new or insecure dancers, who may be really, really intent on doing well but just aren’t “there” yet.
In these cases, your partner realizes they’re doing something wrong – but they have no idea what to fix. All they see is an unhappy partner who clearly is having a bad time because of them. And, because they were already feeling vulnerable and shitty, they take this as confirmation that they shouldn’t be dancers. They may even leave the scene completely if this happens too often or at a bad time.
In these cases, the passive-aggressive feedback has led to someone feeling like crap because they didn’t understand how to fix whatever was the source of their partner’s displeasure.
Panic usually happens when the passive-aggressive person is perceived as an expert; frustration is a similar result that happens when the passive-aggressive person is not thought of as an expert. Essentially, someone sees their partner is unhappy with their dancing. So, they decide to try really hard to fix it because they really want to give that person a good dance.
There’s just one problem: what they think the cause of your displeasure is may not actually be the problem you had in mind.
For example, a lead might think “my dancing wasn’t interesting enough” or “my lead wasn’t strong/clear enough” when the passive-aggressive person was thinking “I feel like they’re wrestling me around”. Unfortunately, to fix their perceived mistake, they decide to try even harder to do cool stuff. Stuff that often involves more (not less) arm leading, extra force, and extra speed. Plus, they might panic, which further compounds the problem (and can even create new ones, like gripping too hard).
On the other hand, a follower might think they’re not following “well enough”. From experience, I can tell you that the death of good following very often happens when a follow tries really hard to be a “better” follow. The tension and expectation often leads to backleading, stiffness, and general unpleasantness.
As a result, the passive-aggressive feedback has backfired and has actually worsened the issue.
An Alternative to Passive-Aggressive Feedback
In my opinion, it is far more useful to learn how to give appropriate verbal and physical feedback to a partner. For example, gently repositioning an uncomfortable hand or resisting an uncomfortable movement. If those cues don’t work, learn how to use verbal cues to help your partner understand what will make your dance experience better.
For example, if it’s too much too fast, ask for your partner to take it a bit easier on you. If you’re not into doing a dip, tell them. If their hands are a bit squeezy, let them know.
This doesn’t mean you have to explain the mechanics on how to fix a problem. The idea is that you’re just letting them know if there’s something simple that is really interfering with your ability to relax and enjoy the dance.
For experienced dancers, this may also involve letting people know that you’re not up to doing all the crazy stuff they’ve seen on YouTube. For example “I’m a little tired; can we just dance a bit more gently tonight?” can help your partner understand to tone it back instead of trying to keep you “entertained”.
Giving feedback isn’t limited to the more experienced partner, either. Beginner dancers can do the same thing if they have an advanced partner who is going a bit too hardcore for them. For example: say “I don’t think I’m ready for ___ yet.”
You vs Team
The key to giving this type of constructive feedback is to approach the dance as a team. I start with the basic assumption that my partner is not out to hurt me. If I assume my partner is not out to hurt me, my next assumption is that whatever is making me uncomfortable is unintentional.
The next thing I assume is that we have a mutual interest in having a good dance. This means my goal isn’t to “fix” my partner to please me, but rather to make our partnership stronger. If there is something that my partner is doing that impacts my well-being and that I can’t manage around, it’s something worth addressing.
Distinguishing Preference from Need
It’s important to distinguish something that you need in a dance vs. a preference you have. For example, I prefer a very clear, unambiguous lead. However, I don’t need a perfect lead to have a good dance. However, I do need a partner that won’t hurt me or make me physically uncomfortable, and who is not dancing in a way that is pushing me beyond what I am comfortable doing.
This informs what aspects of a dance I will make accommodate around, versus aspects of a dance I will address to my partner. I don’t try to verbally address deficiencies in connection or technique unless they’re dangerous. Instead, I manage my own dance around those deficiencies to give us both a good experience. If I have a significant skill advantage, I may use those moments as an opportunity to help the partner understand what a good preparation or execution feels like. This can help them get a feel for where things should have been without having to verbally express the issue.
Some examples of things I don’t address verbally:
- Off-time dancing (though, I may use my body and steps to subtly indicate where the timing is, or help beginners find timing by tapping along on their hand or shoulder)
- A lack of distinct lead that is still discernible and not dangerous
- A lack of frame in a follow or lead
- Wrong technique, provided it isn’t dangerous
- Backleading, unless it’s a risk to my or their safety through things like uncontrolled dips
What I do verbally address are things that, if left unchecked, I am not able to protect myself against or that directly interfere with my ability to contribute to a decent dance.
- Dips, lifts, or drops I don’t feel safe executing (as a lead or follow)
- Painful or uncomfortable behaviours (clamping hands, feeling an erection)
- Rough leading or following (usually by asking to dance a bit ‘easier’ or ‘slower’)
What about hygiene issues?
In my opinion, hygiene issues are something that directly impacts a dance that is usually easily rectified. Therefore, I will address them whenever they arise.
Yes, it’s awkward to bring up. But, think about yourself: if you smelled, would you rather everyone simply avoid you, or tell you that you probably need to refresh your deodorant? I’d always pick knowing – sooner rather than later.
If you don’t know how to start the conversation, this is a phrase I would recommend:
- “Might I offer a suggestion?”
- “You may want to [freshen up in the bathroom/pop a breath mint].”
The universal response I have gotten to this approach is “thank you”.
“What if my partner responds poorly to feedback, or doesn’t change?”
Provided that you gave appropriate, well-meaning feedback, your partner’s reaction to the information is their responsibility – not yours. For example, if you ask for an easier dance and your partner tells you no, you probably should end the dance.
Keep in mind that sometimes, depending on the issue, you may have to raise the problem several times within the course of the song. For example, a partner may be trying to correct squeezy fingers, and need multiple loosens depending on their anxiety level. Provided that they maintain a positive and willing attitude towards your need, there’s no real reason to walk away from them.
There is also a line in terms of intent that each person has to navigate with regards to uncomfortable behaviours that may or may not have a sexual undertone. For example, some people’s close hold may be a bit squishy and uncomfortable because of tension (a common culprit is applying pressure to the spine of the partner, rather than connecting through the shoulder blades), and they may need multiple reminders throughout the song to not squeeze so much or to change the point of contact. This is very different from a person who refuses to dance more open to accommodate a partner’s desire for space or less body contact.
“It’s not my job to fix them. They should go take a private lesson!”
You’re absolutely right; it’s not your job to fix any partner. However, it is in your best interests to learn how to communicate your needs in a way that gives you more, better dances. It’s also a generous approach to realize that not everyone has access to quality training, and that you may not know all the factors that are impacting a person’s ability to learn.
Giving appropriate feedback and learning to have comfortable dances with a wide array of people creates a happier, safer, and more inspired community on multiple levels. While it isn’t your job to teach your partner, it is your responsibility to communicate your needs in a respectful and clear way.
Let’s leave passive-aggressive feedback at the door, and pave the way for better, kinder, and clearer communications between partners in all dance genres.
Super kind, smart, useful suggestions! Thank you.
I’m just finishing up my first semester of Cuban salsa classes, and one of the leads is super rough, to the point where I’ve come home with a bruised shoulder because he yanked my arm so hard. For some reason I’m finding it really hard to speak up enough (beyond just an involuntary “ouch” in the moment and the occasional “can you go easier, please?!”) since it’s a pretty small class and most likely everyone would notice and it would feel like I was criticizing him in front of the whole class. Any suggestions for how to handle it? I’m definitely getting into passive aggressive territory when it comes to this guy – I have exactly no poker face and really dread dancing with him. ?
Are you still practising and have you found a trick ? ^^
I have 2 ways…
– the funny way : “is the massage included after thé dance ?… Because you are pushing a bit hard” to be said between two laughs of course
– the soft one would be before the dance : ” i think that I hurt my arm/shoulder/wrist during a previous dance.”
It does not say who and when, could be the night or the week before, and it also suggests that it is partly your fault and not 100% the fault of a leader.
Whatever the comment, I suggest to never put all the fault on the side of the other, and better to go “I think that we are doing something wrong, because I cannot grab your hand…” instead of “you are doing wrong, you should manage to grab my hand at 4”. Most probably, you may actually be partly responsable for this “mistake”, although the error seems to come from the leader.
In a tricky combination in class, it still happens to me that my weight is not strictly well balanced, for instance after a turn, I would land in the middle instead of setting my weight on the left/right. It is not easily visible from outside, like for other dancers. But for my lead who feels everything, it will be confusing, and in a tricky combination, although he is counting, he is most likely to do the next step in the wrong direction (ie left instead of right for instance). Anyone around could tell him “no, it is the other way” without noticing that I firstly induced the error…
You are such a great person Laura ! I can’t imagine how a great dancer you are…
Some people complain “I don’t like dancing with this guy because he is too stiff, or sticks too much, etc”.
Me I tell it ! I prefer to tell it than to refuse a dance ! I try to say it in a funny way, or making him understand that it makes me uncomfortable. It is very difficult, because sometimes the guy has been dancing like this for years, and even worse, thought the girls actually liked his tricks (rubbing his belly against yours !?, rubbing your hand in his hair when turning, head down on you and watching with insistance in the eyes…) because the ladies said nothing but remained as cold dancing Queens actually practising their passive-agressive lessons…
And then if the guy manages to change his attitude during the dance, I show that I recognize his effort with a big continuons smile and I let myself enjoy the dance. Most probably I will have to tell him again at the next dance, but I prefer that than refusing the dance…
I can only recommend to try both roles, lead and follow, to understand the “battery limits”.
Thanks Laura your articles are just universal…
Hi Laura -thanks for the article. I found it after reading an article on the corona virus & the effects on social dancing. I have a background in microbiology & immunology. Your article is well worth reading & gave me some useful insights. I dance mainly modern jive & ceroc in the UK, with some blues & “expressive” (if that’s the right term!) I have been on the scene for about 8 years, started at 65! It is great to find somewhere that discusses some of these things. I would love to have more people (dancers!) connecting & reading articles like this. I tend to find it challenging to learn new moves & routines. There is seldom any insight given to adjusting to matching the follower’s experience & maybe gently extending this. I will look out for more articles!
Hi Laura, I am so extremely grateful to you for writing this! Thanks to reading many of your articles now, and especially this one, I will work harder on learning to speak up and to let go of my passive aggressive behavior. I think I need all the help I can get on learning how to be tactful and kind in communicating feedback, because it’s something I never do (giving verbal unsolicited feedback, that is). I usually have the resting-bitch-face when I am really unhappy with and I sort of shut off, I also make very pained faces when guys hurt me doing painful dips or are too rough in other ways, but they never seem to notice and I just keep staying silent about it!
I love dancing so much and I really need to take matters into my own hands to try to improve the time I have dancing. I don’t want to grow resentful and stop going to classes/socials! I would love to read a more detailed article or see some discussions online on the best ways to give feedback this is kind, helpful, and will most likely get through to the lead. Thank you so so much for all of your content! It’s so wonderful to have found your website and to read your amazing perspectives and insights learned through dance!