Judging a Book By Its Cover: Stereotypes and Superficiality on the Latin Dance Floor

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Like most “serious” social dancers, I absolutely cherish my time on the dance floor.   When I’m social dancing I’m not thinking about my problems at work, or about how I need to clean up my house when I get home, or about anything of much importance.  It’s almost as if the part of my brain that generates all of my worries blissfully shuts down as soon as the music begins to play.

However, at times during certain dance events I become vaguely aware that my age and ethnicity may be automatic turn-offs for some of the male dancers in the room.  While Salsa socials and events are often celebrations of diversity, they are not magically immune to the unfortunate intrusion of superficial preferences or cultural stereotypes held by some dancers.  Sometimes it’s a reality that meaningless biographical details such as age, weight, ethnicity, etc., play a part in determining whether or not someone wishes to share four minutes of his/her time with you on the dance floor.

Too Old To Dance?

salsa dance2Recently, I was talking with one of my male friends about a Salsa event I had attended in a nearby city.  I had really enjoyed it, but some of my female friends had a terrible time and told me that they would not be returning to this particular Social.  They complained that they’d spent most of the evening sitting by themselves as very few men had asked them to dance.  I was surprised by their comments as all of these ladies are excellent dancers who are frequently asked to dance when attending Salsa events held in our local community.

When I asked my male friend why he thought these ladies weren’t being asked to dance he simply replied, “You know – it’s their age.  All of those women are in their 40’s or 50’s and guys like to dance with younger women.”

When I pointed out that I’m in my 40’s and that I danced all night long, my friend expanded upon his previous statement, explaining as follows: “Well, you’re a little different.  First – you ask guys to dance and don’t wait to be asked, so that works in your favor.  Also, you don’t look your age… to be honest, if your birth certificate was pasted on your forehead a lot of the guys probably wouldn’t want to dance with you either.”  Wow.  While that was a pretty harsh comment I had to acknowledge that there was some truth in what my friend was saying.

To be fair, it’s not just the male dancers who seem to have a preference for “youthful” dance partners.  While attending certain events I have observed older men sitting alone on the side of the dance floor, seemingly trying to figure out which ladies would be receptive to an invitation to dance.  However, I would note that these lonely “older” male dancers are often well over the age of 60, whereas their “older” female counterparts seem to be any ladies who’ve seen the sun set on their 35th birthday.

Anyway — for anyone who considers age to be an important quality in selecting a social dancing partner, I would urge you to throw this factor out the window.  Great dancers simply don’t have an expiration date.

If you’re just looking for a dance partner, (not a Prom date, Soul-mate, or Baby Mama/Daddy), all that should matter is whether or not your fellow dancer can share an enjoyable experience with you on the dance floor.  Keep in mind that age and experience generally go hand in hand, and that many “older” dancers are some of the smoothest, well-trained, and most musically expressive dancers on the floor.  So –if you’ve been screening out potential dance partners because of prejudgments or preferences regarding age, reconsider your position and ask someone like me, “an oldie but goodie,” for a dance.  You’ll be glad that you did.

Not Hot Enough To Dance?

In my humble opinion there’s nothing wrong with asking someone to dance just because you like his/her physical appearance.  There are a lot of great-looking people in the Latin dance scene and it’s always fun to dance with someone whom you find physically attractive.  However, if you are excluding people from your list of potential dance partners solely based on some aspect of his/her physical appearance I guarantee that you are missing out on some great dance floor adventures.

Recently, my local salsa community experienced the loss of one of our most popular male dancers.  Prior to this gentleman’s untimely passing, he was known for his smooth dancing style and graceful moves on the Latin dance floor.  On the nights when this gentleman showed up at a Salsa event you could guarantee that the ladies who knew him would line up for a chance to dance with him.  However, if this gentleman ventured out to dance on a night where few ladies knew him, or if he traveled outside of our local area, he would often leave early without having a single dance.

Why? Well –this charming man with great dance skills also happened to be morbidly obese.  For the female dancers who knew him, his size meant little, but for those who didn’t, his size seemed to mean everything.  Due to his appearance some ladies would assume that this man was incapable of dancing and would turn him down flat.  Other ladies would just ignore him due to their lack of interest in dancing with such a large man.  The whole situation was really unfortunate.  Not only were these repeated rejections personally hurtful to this man, but many ladies missed the opportunity to dance with one of the great male leads in our community.

When it comes to most things, but especially dance, superficial judgments drawn or made about people based upon physical appearance are generally pretty worthless.  I have learned over the years that some of the best social dancers come in the most unlikely of packages.  So – the next time you’re out dancing, make a point of either asking or accepting a dance from someone who may not be your physical ideal.  People often have a way of surprising us in the most amazing ways.

                             Too White/Black/Brown/Yellow/Red/Purple To Dance?

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A few years ago I was standing on the edge of a dance floor chatting with a young female dancer.  She was new to our local dance community and was asking my opinion on some of the male dancers on the floor.  I pointed to one of my favorite male dancers who was absolutely killing it on the dance floor even as I was talking with this lady.

I said something to her like, “You see that guy with the green T-shirt on?  You should definitely ask him for a dance.  He is a musical beast and I love dancing with him.”

The young lady looked at the guy to whom I was pointing, briefly hesitated, and responded, “Um…are you talking about the guy wearing the turban thing on his head?” When I nodded affirmatively, she replied, “Well, I’m sure he’s a good dancer but I usually don’t dance with guys like that.  One time I danced with this Indian guy and he smelled so strong of herbs and spices that it kind of made me sick to my stomach.

I didn’t want to initiate a deep discussion about race/ethnicity/nationality at a Salsa social, but I couldn’t stop myself from saying– “So, just because you danced with one Indian guy who smelled like spices, you won’t dance with any other Indian guys ever again?” The female dancer looked kind of annoyed at my question and replied, “Well – it sounds stupid when you say it like that, but that’s just my opinion.” Luckily, at that point our conversation came to an end when some non-Indian guy asked this lady for a dance.

The Latin dance community is a racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse community which most people seem to enjoy.  However, for some dancers their entry into the Latin dance community may present them with their first true opportunity to closely interact with people who are ethnically/racially/culturally different from themselves.  Sometimes this previous lack of multi-cultural exposure can lead to the forming of strange opinions about an entire group of people based upon one or two disappointing dance floor experiences.

Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of head-scratching comments from some of my fellow dancers regarding the supposed dance abilities of a certain ethnic groups.  Some of the comments include:  “Asian men only care about patterns;” or, “Black girls don’t know how to spin; “or, “Mexican men only know how to street dance;” or, “White guys have to count all the time.”  These are just a few examples.  I could go on and on, as I’ve heard comments about virtually every ethnic group made by people of virtually every ethnic group.  While these comments are not exactly malicious, they are harmful as they needlessly erect barriers amongst us.  The heartbeat of social dancing is connection, and anything that disrupts this connection should not have a place on the dance floor.

SUMMARY

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None of us are immune from the lure of stereotypes as it’s often easier to lump “strange” people into groups rather than to consider them as individuals.  However, stereotypes and superficial preferences do not serve anyone well on the Latin dance floor.

While you may not want to date someone twenty years older than yourself, dancing with someone from a different generation really shouldn’t pose a problem.  And, who cares if you’re not physically attracted to every man/woman who asks you to dance?  The way a person looks has nothing to do with the way he/she can rock your world on the dance floor.

Finally, while people who share a race, ethnicity or nationality may have a similar way of relating to music, no two people dance exactly alike no matter what culture they share.  Dancing is one of the most enjoyable and personal ways in which we can share a part of ourselves with another person.  Don’t let stereotypes and random superficial preferences limit your opportunities to enjoy the kind of connective experience that only the social dance floor can provide.

 

7 Comments

  • Mike says:

    I recently was in a big city and attended a salsa night. Some of my best dances were with older ladies who many of the guys ignored probably because of the reasons you stated. It was great for me because I had very enjoyable dances and the ladies really appreciated each dance.

  • Josh says:

    Some of the best dances I’ve had were with older women. Younger women tend to be more focused on how sexy they look/you’re making them look and are too proud to ask guys to dance, whereas older women are just out to have unabashed fun! That’s what the dynamic of social dancing is all about.

  • Andre paige says:

    The article is thoughtful and insightful. Lots of things ring true just reading it. However, reasons a person doesnt get a dance, even after explicitly asking, go deeper than whats offered in the article.

    But something Im learning in this amazing dance scene is that people are still people even on the dance floor. You can tell someone about social dancing etiquette but you cant force them to abide by it.

    Dance is also not just sharing four minutes of your life with a stranger. You are putting a certain level of trust into the person youre dancing with and if that dance goes well, you remember it and you can dance again.

    No matter the reason a person may say no to you – its their reason and instead of personalizing it and trying to change the person you have to learn how to accept things without internalizing them. That way you can let it go and find a person who will dance with you. With no reservations. Those are always the best dancers.

    I am a male lead bachata dancer and I approve this message ;-D

  • Jen says:

    I feel like another title of this article should be “Don’t be petty and stupid people!” Honestly… if people were not as racist and actually cared about the art of the dance they wouldn’t see salsa mostly as a “hot way to find love” which would eliminate most of the issues discussed in the article. This also means that promoters have to do their part to not make their venue flyers look like their venue is a “hot way to find love.”

  • Melissa West-Koistila says:

    Thanks so much to everyone who has taken the time to read this article and write a reply. I greatly appreciate all of your thoughtful comments!

  • DJ Vamp says:

    I would like to add a critical comment.
    In principal, you are right.
    In detail, you are not completely and you oversimplify details in a standard “everybody is the same” positive way.

    People who have bad experiences with other people of a special origin do not necessarily mean it offensive if they dont like to dance with other people of the same origin.

    The problem is that sometimes this bad event predetermines your feelings in a way that you are not free to dance with a person of the same kind which just reminds you of that dance all the time and gives you a bad feeling.

    The other prejudices that you mentioned are also not completely wrong, in contrary, I would sign them almost all. Of course there are tendencies of people of different origin to interpret music a different way and therefore have strengths and weaknesses. What would the world be if everybody was the same.

    But the only thing to keep in mind is that you should not exclude a person from the ability of being different of what you excpect his or her to be just because of his or her race.

    In any case, the result can be seen and felt on the dance floor.

  • Jonny D says:

    Thought provoking article, Melissa.

    It’s sad sometimes that our bias (conscious or subconscious) reflects on the dance floor – but it also serves as a potential action point for anybody who realises that they have said bias, confirmed or unconfirmed, when flagged or challenged directly as you with that younger follower.

    What particularly struck a chord with me was the mention of the morbidly obese lead, as I too have that build. Whilst I haven’t been dancing all that long, within my local community I don’t have much in the way of issues but have a selection of followers who enjoy / seek me out for a dance. This is helped by the local party organiser effectively demanding a very inclusive outlook and vibe within the group – both he and his partner are very quick to stamp out both dance snobbery and mean-spirited attitudes, which enhances the social dynamics in the parties. This also permeates his lessons and is part of the reason why I have continued dancing, even though my appearance immediately makes followers reticent to dance with me.

    One of my most bittersweet social dance memories (hopefully many more to come!) was when I attended a social in a city overseas – it was a fairly small social event with probably about 60 people all together, fairly equal lead/follower split and I arrived a lot later than I’d planned. The female teacher there was injured so couldn’t dance but made small-talk as all good teachers do. She noticed I’d been turned down for a few dances and so asked a couple of her friends to dance with me, all of whom declined. That night, I asked probably 90% of the followers for a dance, the only “yes” responses coming from an absolute beginner who didn’t have the basic step down and a none-too-good follower who openly told me that she would give me a “pity dance.”

    Following all this, and the fact I had been watching the dancing in the room for most of the evening, I was very surprised by the overall dancing levels. There were a few “show offs” for both leads and follows but none looked very good compared to what I was used to. The standard of dancing was fairly poor in general but as I was just about to change shoes and write off the evening as a bad loss, a slightly older lady came over and chatted to me, continuous small-talk, asking why I wasn’t dancing, etc. She told me that she too had some problems with this group – she was considered too old by the younger leads and often struggled to get a dance herself. What followed was three songs in a row of dancing – she was a great follow and everything I threw in there (surprisingly, given how frustrated I was!) just worked. We were both surprised that the other wouldn’t be in high demand, so just kept pushing each other further and further.

    The “sweet” aspect of my experience wasn’t just this kind lady follower but that, after I’d had a chance to strut my stuff, suddenly other followers who had turned me down were queuing up to dance with me. Needless to say, I danced with none of them and wasn’t polite about it. Churlish but I felt, at the time, justified.

    When I relayed my experience to my teacher on my return, he found it a funny story but did give me a decent piece of advice. If you EVER go to a social where you aren’t known, ensure you do the class first. This way, you can show off your lead skills and will most likely get more dances “off the bat.” All I can say is that, even though I’m a big, fat mess of a lead, I do tend get a LOT more demand if I do the lesson before the social event… so worth considering if you’re a decent follower / lead who is often the victim of personal bias! Strut your stuff in the lesson and let them see you know what you’re doing (plus, you can pick up on any people with questionable hygiene before getting lumbered for a whole dance)!!!

    Peace out, folks!

    Jonny.

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