I have always advocated strongly for dancers to speak up when something hurts, or when they’re uncomfortable. I still think it’s very important for dancers to learn how to use their voice.

But, part of understanding our current social dance culture is also understanding that some people are not yet confident enough to speak up.

No “Blame” (Usually)

While we don’t like to think about it, sometimes we might be the person who made someone uncomfortable.

There are very few (if any) people who actively want to make their partner uncomfortable. Most of us strive for the opposite. And, one of the thing that stops many uncomfortable people from saying something is that they know that. They’re assuming you’re not trying to make them uncomfortable, so they feel guilty if they say something.

In addition, recognizing that at some point you may have made someone uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re a bad person – or a bad dancer. It means something  in that dance caused a miscommunication regarding each partner’s desires and limits.

Why Partners Don’t Say Something

There are several reasons that a partner may not say when something is making them uncomfortable:

They’re New

New dancers often don’t know ‘the rules’ in social dancing. For example, they may not realize that any pain is unacceptable in social dancing. As a result, they may think it’s their fault for not dancing ‘well enough’ if they feel pain.

New dancers may also not understand how many dances is ‘normal’, how close is ‘normal’, or that someone touching their butt is not normal. As a result, they often push feelings aside and assume they’re in the wrong.

When you’re dancing with new dancers, assess their reactions and vibe. If they tense or start getting awkward in a close hold, create more space. If they seem tentative about a second (or third, or more) dance, ask them if they’d like one. If you notice them struggling to keep up with you, relax and come to their level.

Their Partner is New

In reverse, some dancers accept bad behavior from new dancers because they assume the person doesn’t know right from wrong. This is a fair assumption, but when it comes to bad behavior, this is the time to (kindly) use your voice.

I’ve had lots of conversations with new guys who put their hands in the “wrong spot”, or started treating the dance floor like a pick-up club. I’ve gone up to people who walked in off the street and started fist-bumping in the middle of a crowded social dance floor to explain that it was probably a better idea to stand off to the side. And, I’ve also had to explain to a new dancer that their thumb was really hurting me.

If you are a new dancer in a scene, feel free to ask about things you’re not sure about. This is different than asking someone to teach you the steps, or correct your technique. For example, “how many dances is normal?” or “am I gripping your hands too tightly?” are quick answers that a partner can give you.

You can also learn to recognize body language in dance scenes, which can help you assess whether there’s something going on that is making your partner uncomfortable.

They’re Shy (or otherwise don’t want to say something)

Shy people often have issues ‘speaking up’ when they’re uncomfortable, but often give non-verbal cues of discomfort. For example, awkward smiles, uncharacteristic reservedness in their dancing, and tension in their body.

While shy dancers should be encouraged to communicate, doing so can sometimes make them feel more awkward. If you want to be the best partner you can, you may choose to learn how to read their body language.

For example, shy dancers will often not verbally reject a movement, but they may simply not follow it. Or, they may follow it with extra tension in their body as a way of ‘indicating’ they don’t want to do it. This can include dipping halfway, pushing on the inside of the shoulder in a too-close hold, or subtly leaning away from a partner.

While partners who aren’t trying to indicate discomfort may exhibit some of these behaviours, I generally try to work on the side of caution.

If I know the dancer well, I may verbally try to understand what is happening. Just keep in mind that not everyone is confident enough to actually tell you what they’re thinking.

There are also a few subtypes of the shy-ish dancer:

The one who doesn’t want to cause a scene

Some dancers are very scared about being disruptive, and therefore tolerate uncomfortable behaviours. For example, they may be worried that you’ll react badly and draw too much attention to the problem. Specifically, they also don’t want people to think they did something wrong.

The one who hates conflict

These dancers are less scared about being the center of attention, but more scared about creating conflict by saying something. They’ll suck up discomfort just to avoid direct confrontation – even if the dance itself feels uncomfortable to both parties.

The one who is otherwise enjoying the dance

These dancers enjoy dancing with you – but there’s just one or two things that are making them uncomfortable. But, they don’t want to risk the rest of the dance relationship by telling you what’s wrong because they don’t want you to feel like they don’t like dancing with you. So, they choose to suck up the couple uncomfortable things.

The one who isn’t confident in their voice

For some shy people, the shyness comes from a lack of confidence in their own voice. So, even if something is uncomfortable, they choose to not say anything and hope that you’ll notice that there’s something they don’t like.

These dancers will often not tell you what’s wrong – even if you ask. As a result, both parties often end up frustrated.

There’s an External Factor

Sometimes, a dancer won’t say anything because an issue just isn’t your fault. Basically, they decide it’s just not worth raising. For example, some dancers will put up with movements that are painful but well-executed because they know the limitation is in their body. They may have an injury or illness, but they don’t want their partner to think it is their fault. Or, at times, they may just be private about it.

If you notice that a person seems to have an issue, ask about it. Many dancers will wear a brace, KT Tape, or other indications that they have an issue. Or you may realize that they have some issues with walking or mobility. You may see them breathing heavily, or having issues with balance. All of these indicate that a gentle hand – or verbal confirmation that everything is OK – is needed.

Of course, if you notice someone bailing on certain movements, don’t keep trying to do those. Bailing repeatedly on movements is often a sign that something is uncomfortable or wrong.

There’s a Power Imbalance

This often happens when a less experienced dancer dances with a pro or ‘in demand’ dancer. Often, they’ll accept a lot more bad or uncomfortable behavior because that person is a ‘big name’.

If you are in a position of power (whether you are a pro, or just highly regarded), it’s expected that you know the rules of the floor. It’s also expected that you are able to tell in most cases when a partner isn’t fully ‘into it’, whether that ‘into it’ is a dip, close hold, or flirtatious gestures on and off the floor.

One of the reasons that this is an expectation is because it’s known that newer dancers look up to the veterans of dance. Just like a teacher, doctor, or lawyer is expected to maintain boundaries and be responsible for maintaining a relationship, so is the well-established dancer.

Yes, we may have more touch. Yes, we may have more friendships, and relationships are acceptable. But, we still have a duty when dealing with less experienced dancers to recognize the dance power imbalance and adjust accordingly.

The Need for More Communication

It is absolutely fair to say that people who are uncomfortable should speak up. But, the reality is, those of us who are more involved with the dance scene are likely to feel more comfortable doing so.

Yes, it would be great for those people to find their voice. But, we can also meet them halfway by learning to look out for indications that someone is uncomfortable. If we do this, we may be able to improve the experience of some newer, less-comfortable dancers who need time to learn that it is OK to say something when they are uncomfortable.