Tell me “no.” For my sake as well as yours, turn me down. I don’t enjoy being rejected, but the momentary sting is far less painful than dancing with you when you’re uncomfortable.
Because that’s the thing: I want you to want to dance with me. I want you to enjoy those moves or that role.
I have danced with partners who have been uncomfortable and I have hated every single moment of it. Yet I know that the only thing worse than an uncomfortable dance partner is being that uncomfortable dance partner. Let’s put us both out of our misery: let’s start vocalising what we do and don’t want.
Any Reason You Want To Say “No” Is Valid
We have the right to feel comfortable. This means we have the right to say “no” to anything we don’t want, whether it’s a dance with someone, a dance style, a move, a move with that particular partner or on that particular floor, a hold, facial or torso contact, being photographed or videoed, giving out our number or social media details, a lengthy post-dance conversation, a string of dances instead of one, dancing to specific song, dancing in that particular moment… or whatever other thing it may be that makes us uncomfortable.
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Following Is Not Incompatible With Setting Your Boundaries
I have heard many teachers say that “followers should never say ‘no’” and “if you lead this move right, a follower has no choice but to do it”. Personally, I disagree with this idea of “right”.
There are two ways to understand the traditional one-leader-one-follower dance partnership: someone indicates a move, someone else interprets it. Or, someone decides the move, and someone else obeys.
The first dance style is fun. The second is not okay.
There’s a thin and, from the outside, often-invisible line between interpreting and obeying a lead, but it’s an important one. When we interpret a move, as followers, we are responsible for our own actions. We choose what we do. We can add styling, musicality, body movement, and maybe even some extra footwork. We can choose to follow a move exactly as the leader intended or we can resist or amend it (assuming it’s not led so roughly that resistance is painful or dangerous). We can flat-out say “no”.
When we obey, on the other hand, we give up the right to set our own boundaries, along with the right to enjoy the dance. Remember: someone else’s enjoyment shouldn’t come at our cost. And our partners shouldn’t want that to happen.
Whether you are a leader or a follower, if your partner is more upset by the idea of saying “no” than by the idea of you not being comfortable with something, then that is a problem.
Leaders, You Have The Right To Say “No” Too
When we think about people feeling uncomfortable in a dance, we often picture female followers. But leaders and male followers can also feel uncomfortable. You too have the right to say “no”.
Establishing greater distance in the hold, reducing sensuality in movements and styling, refusing to support a partner’s weight, being too tired or hot to dance, not feeling comfortable with the number of dances someone requests, not wanting to dance to a particular song… there are numerous reasons why you also might want to set your own boundaries.
Earlier this year, I was dancing bachata as a follower. My male partner suddenly broke the movement and said, “Stop. You’re giving me more sensuality than I’m giving you.” Later that evening, he came up to me to say goodbye and I went to give him a hug while he offered me his hand. I awkwardly stepped back and shook his hand as he told me: “Don’t be so sexual. Not everyone wants to hug.”
My intention in the dance wasn’t to be sensual. In my culture, handshakes are only offered in business meetings. Yet that is irrelevant. What is important wasn’t how I felt in that dance or that conversation but rather how he did. And his assertion of his boundaries was a positive thing.
Dancing is often compared to sex. Let’s take another rule from sex: you should only be doing it if both people want it.
How To Become Comfortable Saying “No”
We are socially conditioned, including in the classroom and on the social floor, to say “yes”, to follow without thinking, to connect and dance as much as possible. This makes saying “no” difficult. Quite often, we need to work at it.
I’m not a psychologist. I am, however, a people-pleaser who had to learn how to say “no” on the dance floor. Here are some of the things that I found helpful:
- Remind yourself that you have the right to say “no”.
- Remind yourself that your partner probably wants you to enjoy that dance, and so you expressing that you don’t want to do something will help them as well as you. (And if they’re one of the minority who don’t want you to enjoy the dance, why should you care about what they want?)
- Think about ways you can say “no”, either non-verbally or verbally. Having a few responses ready makes it much easier to start asserting your boundaries. You may even find it helpful to practise saying them or imagining situations in which you’d like to say them.
- If it makes you feel more comfortable, use softening phrases, such as “I would prefer to not do be videoed” or “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not dance, actually.” You can also pair setting your boundaries with more positive statements: “Yes, I’d love to dance with you, but only if there aren’t too many spins.”
- Focus on what you’d like the dancer to do instead of what you want them to not do: “Could you move your hand a bit higher up my waist, please?”, “I’d love to dance bachata, but not sensual. I prefer moderna or Dominican.”
- Make it about your boundaries rather than their behaviour. Opt for “I would like to dance, but I’m not keen on dips because often people do them unsafely” rather than “You shouldn’t dip me because you don’t know if you can do it safely.”
- Stay friendly and keep smiling, even if you’re saying a direct “no, thank you”. It makes it feel less like a rejection and more like a simple statement of what you want.
- If it’s easier for you, begin by saying “no” after the dance. For example, “I enjoyed our dance, thank you. I’d love to dance again, but next time, can we use a more open hold?”
- Leave room for misunderstandings and misinterpretations: “It feels like you’re trying to flirt with me; am I misreading this?” or “I’m not sure you realise, but your hand’s too low on my back.”
- Talk to fellow dancers about saying “no”, not from the perspective of being rejected but of asserting your boundaries. It might surprise you how many people are open to the idea, especially when they’ve had time to think about it.
Note: Some of these suggestions might rankle for more readers who are more confident at saying “no”. I’m not saying that we should say (or feel) “sorry” for not wanting to dance. However, these may be useful ways to help some of us find the confidence to do so. Pick what works for you and leave aside what isn’t as helpful.
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Stating our boundaries and preferences isn’t always easy, but the more we practise, the more natural it becomes. And this is something that is better for all of us on the dance floor. After all, what are we here for if not to enjoy ourselves?
It’s time to change our attitudes. It’s time to start feeling comfortable about saying “no” to dances and moves that we don’t want.