“I don’t get it,” my friend says, their face wavering between distress and indignation. “It was an actual dance move. I wasn’t being a perv. Why would she tell me not to do it?”
My friend didn’t want to make their dance partner uncomfortable. In fact, they were trying to create a beautiful dance for that partner: showing off their best moves, working with the music, and making good use of the floor space.
But, whether we’re a lead or a follower, we can do all this and still make our partners uncomfortable. And this doesn’t mean we’re a “bad person” – but it does mean we need to start talking about personal boundaries on (and off!) the dance floor. Even more importantly, we need to talk about how to talk about personal boundaries.
On the receiving end of this? Read Rachel’s guide to What to Do When You Are Uncomfortable!
Personal Boundaries in Social Dancing
Most people would agree that we always have the right to say “no” to something – whether that something is a dance move, an invitation to dance, or the expectation of friendship or “something more” as a result of that dance.
But let’s look at this another way: when someone says yes to a dance, they’re not necessarily saying yes to every dance move in our repertoire. They’re not necessarily saying yes to close contact. Nor are they necessarily saying yes to hanging out afterwards, receiving online messages, going on dates, or anything else.
“I said ‘yes’ to a dance. I didn’t say ‘yes’ to five dances,” a friend complains.
How often do you ask your dance partners if they’re comfortable with a close hold? Sensual styling? Dips and spins?
When we dance, our everyday boundaries can become blurred. This means we have to put more effort into understanding what our partner is comfortable with.
“But… you always make eye contact and smile,” a partner says, still on the dance floor, after trying to kiss me mid-bachata. “I thought you were into me.”
Taking the time to check that our partner’s comfortable isn’t awkward. It’s respectful.
My Partners Never Ask Me to Stop – So I’m Fine, Right?
While we should speak up if we’re uncomfortable, many people don’t. This is especially true when dancing across different cultures. (In fact, sometimes someone might be telling us “no” in a way that makes sense in their culture, but that doesn’t sound like “no” in ours.)
We need to remember that saying “please don’t do that” mid-dance is intimidating. Not only does the person have to find the right moment, without breaking the flow of the dance, but they also have to battle a whole host of anxious thoughts: “I don’t want to offend them or make them angry”, “They’ve already done it so it seems pointless”, “I don’t know if they’ll be able to hear me over the music”, “I don’t want to make a scene”…
Partnered social dancing, especially in places where dancing is the main goal of the night (like the UK and the US), also breeds an unusual type of behaviour. With normally uneven numbers of leads and follows, we’re essentially competing for dances. And that encourages us to be accommodating.
“If a lead is too close, grinding or pushing against me, I don’t say anything… I feel uncomfortable telling them I’m uncomfortable. I think we are conditioned to be polite and not speak out,” a friend says.
But I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading this article, you want your partner to enjoy dancing with you. You’re not one of “those dancers”, who have mastered the skill of pulling their partner in close despite physical resistance, or gyrating their hips against their partner’s groin.
In fact, I believe you would never want to dance with someone who’s silently uncomfortable (regardless of whether you think they should also say “no”).
So, here’s what we can all do to avoid these situations.
How to Ensure Your Partner Is Comfortable
1. Understand that everyone’s personal boundaries are different
For some people, sensual moves are uncomfortable (especially in those awkward moments when you can, ahem, feel your partner’s excitement). And sometimes those moves are fine – when danced to the right song, with the right partner, or for a certain percentage of the dance.
For other people, it’s close contact in general. For some, it’s dips and lifts. Then there are those of us who don’t like too many spins.
“I hate it when people don’t ask before doing dips,” a friend rants. “I once told a bloke that, if he did that again, I was going to walk straight off the dance floor.”
For me, personally, I don’t like it when people touch my face, hair, or neck when dancing. And although I will now follow a neck roll fine, when I first started dancing, I would freeze with fear every time I felt that hand on the back of my neck.
“You really don’t like these neck rolls, do you?” My friend laughs. “I’m going to break that habit of yours.”
Other people don’t want to be videoed, or to exchange phone numbers, or to dance with the same person too many times in case they “get the wrong idea”.
Everyone has different boundaries. Respecting our partners starts with accepting this fact.
“I’m happy to do dips, but I’m even happier if I’m asked first,” another friend says.
No-one has ever been offended by being asked “Are you comfortable with dips?” or “How do you feel about sensual bachata?”
Oh, and let’s follow the policy of enthusiastic consent. If someone says “Yeah, it’s all right… I guess”, they’re probably not that into it. They won’t complain if you do it but they might enjoy something else even more. And isn’t it our goal, as dancers, to ensure that we all have as much fun as possible on the dance floor?
3. Start small, build up
Perhaps someone likes dips; that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be dipped straight after a triple spin. Similarly, someone else might enjoy sensual bachata but only if the hold isn’t too close. Let’s start gently, see how our partner reacts, and progress from there. Again, no-one has ever complained that tarraxinha didn’t happen in the first 30 seconds of a song.
4. Pay attention
“If someone starts using kizomba as a chance to grind, I just go wooden. I stop moving with them. They can tell what I’m doing,” a friend says.
Of course, nothing can be clearer than a firm “no”, but we’re dancers. We communicate through our bodies and our ultimate goal is to connect with our partner and the music. So, let’s pay attention to what our partner’s body is saying. If they’re tensing up or trying to put distance between us, let’s tone things down a notch.
“If a guy is too close, I make sure I change my position and try to push away from him,” another friend says.
In my experience, this generally comes more easily to those of us who are followers since we’re used to reading our partners’ body language. However, that doesn’t mean we’re not all guilty of overstepping boundaries, sometimes. If the lead keeps putting distance between us, whether through doing turns or simply changing the hold, let’s respect that.
Facial expressions can also be a useful guide to how someone’s feeling, but remember that, sometimes, a smile is just politeness.
“I feel like I owe my partner a smile as a ‘thank you’ for dancing with me, but that’s all it means. It’s frustrating when people read things into it,” a friend explains.
5. Check in
Get the impression that something’s wrong? The solution is simple: go back to number two and ask.
And if they say that actually, no, they’re not happy with something? That brings us onto my next point…
Criticism Hurts – But We Need to Listen to It
“A few times, I’ve told someone not to do something and they’ve argued back with me,” a friend says. “Usually, they’ll say something like ‘I’m trying to lead you’ and sometimes they even try to do it again before giving up. Obviously, I avoid them for the rest of the night.”
Being asked not to do something stings. It’s easy for us to hear “please don’t do that again” as “I think you’re a bad person”. But really, this request isn’t about us. It’s about our partners. And how we react to these requests is crucial.
If we respond negatively, we make it harder for our partners to say something similar in the future. It’s when we do this that we actually cause harm, intimidate people, and quite probably lose friendships.
So if someone says they’re uncomfortable, take a moment to breathe. Acknowledge that it stings. Then accept that the experience is probably even more difficult for your partner, who not only was made to feel uncomfortable but also is forced to say so.
And then say, “Sure. Sorry about that and thanks for letting me know.” Don’t try to explain yourself because it’ll just sound like your arguing.
Your partner will think better of you for this response. They’ll appreciate your respect for their boundaries. And this minor hiccup, rather than ruining someone’s night, will soon be forgotten.