Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

scolding_child

Dancesplain

  1. To provide negative, and typically unsolicited, feedback to a dance partner with an attitude of superiority. Can be given on or off the floor by men or women and conveys that the recipient of the feedback is the sole cause of any problems in the dance.
  2. The gender-neutral equivalent of mansplaining in a dance context

This past weekend, I was teaching a beginner Lindy workshop with my partner, Lindsay. About halfway through the class, she leaned over and whispered to me “there are a lot of guys telling the follows what to do, can you say something?” I got on my soap box for a minute, made a little speech about it, and class moved on. But given the number of times someone has mentioned something like this to me in the last month, I figured it was worth putting into post form.

Let me preface this by saying I do not think this behavior is limited to men. I have seen women do the exact same things in a dance, and other contexts. It just so happens that I have heard complaints on at least 4 or 5 separate occasions in the past month of leads, without establishing any permission, telling follows they are doing a move wrong. I will give some benefit of the doubt and say that this may sometimes be people thinking they are being helpful, but it’s rarely as helpful as they think it is.

And a caveat, the following ideas should be superceded in cases of physical danger.  If someone is hurting you, you have every right to tell them without asking permission and if they don’t listen, I believe you have every right to end the dance immediately.  That said, there are still more and less effective ways to have that conversation that will be discussed below.

The Issue

I think there is an underlying fallacy that “If I know better than my partner, then I should help by telling them they are doing it wrong.” The problem with this is that it assumes you are doing things perfectly. This assumption is just inherently incorrect, you can always do things better. And the better you do something, the more naturally it sets you partner up to do their part better. For instance, I spent years watching body flight (ie. continuing momentum) be drilled into dancers and thinking it was just something follows had to be told to do. In recent years, I have started to recognize that there are ways to follow through that even most complete beginner follows interpret as “keep going.” If I hadn’t continued to refine my leading, I would have just kept assuming that every partner I danced with would have to be told to travel through. It reminds me of something Michael Mathis had said to me years ago, “I find that as I become a better lead, my partners just seem to magically be better.”

One_way_signsIn addition, immediately blaming your partner builds a wall between you. Rather than two people having a conversation, things become a lecture. And the typical accompanying tone of these lectures is scolding. When you tell someone, unbidden, that they are doing it wrong, you break down the partnership and lose out on hearing what your partner has to say.

I find blaming your partner and teaching on the floor tend to happen more often with dancers (and teachers) who have stopped growing. If you are a very predictable lead, your regular partners knowing your moves can make it easy to think that you have totally nailed leading them. And if you are a follow with the attitude of “I can follow perfectly if I have a good lead,” you may not notice that those good leads are making a lot of subtle adjustments to make the dance work with you. Both of these archetypes place blame squarely on their partner and, in a sense, minimize the importance of skill in their own role. Approaching  dance with this sort of attitude turns it into a binary system of “one person is right and one is wrong,” with a corrolary of “I always do it right, so guess who the wrong is…”

The Underlying Issue

Similar to mansplaining, I think the underlying issue here is abuse of a power differential. That is to say a perceived difference in skill (I’m the better dancer) is used to keep the other person down (You’re doing it wrong) rather than help them to be on the same level (could you try this, I would appreciate X, etc.) The sad part to me is that it happens often enough around me that it made sense to come up with a word to shorthand it. I have had follows come to me saying they had 6-8 guys in a night tell them they are doing something wrong. And before you think this is limited to bad dancers, I’ve seen rockstar dancers treat their partner or students similarly at times too.

I think the core of this is typically that when something doesn’t work, the conscious mind goes into overdrive trying to figure it out. The job of the conscious mind is to parse things down and put them in boxes with labels. A couple of the more readily available labels for problem situations are me/them and right/wrong. Since it doesn’t feel good to put the wrong label on me, we look for somewhere else to put it. Having someone dancing a different role right in front of us makes it that much easier to slap the “wrong” label on them, saving the embarrassment of putting it on ourselves. What we forget in doing this is that partner dancing is not just a me/you dance, but it’s an us dance and if we start using me/you labels, then we break the us. And in breaking the us, we often end up giving ourselves permission to crap on the newly labeled them.

Creating a Better Way…

So how can we move towards creating a shift? When I look at how mansplaining is being approached, I mostly see a continuation of the us/them mentality. It’s easy to lash out and call a dancesplainer an asshole and perpetuate the cycle. It is challenging but potentially much more productive to address the issues in a way that leads back to an “us” solution. With that in mind, here are a few communication skills I think are particularly effective in enhancing my own learning and effectively communicating with dance partners when there is an issue.

Look to Yourself First

One of the most effective tools for advancing my own dancing has been the idea that I can always do something better. As I lead, I look for where I may be miscommunicating or temporarily stopping/losing communication with my partner. Early on it was easy to get so wrapped up in what I was doing that I had no spare attention for my partner. The more I have worked on finding the holes in my connection, the more it has also made me better aware of what I am actually leading versus what I assume myself to be leading.

The same things goes for following. “He’s not leading it,” is legitimately true sometimes, but it also can become an easy out from figuring out how to connect better. When I’m working on following, my general goal is to work on sensitivity and reaction. If a move isn’t working, I do my best to follow what I perceive in the lead so that we can get a sense of where things are breaking down. The same way I have found holes in my connection as a lead, I’ve been able to find and improve on my communication as a follower by focusing on what I can do better first.

I try not to think of things in dance as your fault or my fault. In a sense there is only our fault. Looking to what you can fix first is not a matter of taking blame, but rather looking for what you can contribute to improve the situation.

Establish Permission

It’s generally kind of shocking to be dancing along and have someone, out of nowhere, tell you you need to fix something. Not only that, but it can easily shatter whatever happy bubble you’ve had yourself in, which has a tendency to piss people off. So even if your intent is to be helpful, unsolicited feedback often raises the fight or flight response and runs a risk of coming off as an asshole. We all blurt things out occasionally, and I know I’ve had occasion both to irritate and be irritated by friends when one of us just assumed feedback was welcome. It can help a great deal to find ways to prep for feedback and allow it in without breaking the happy bubble.

Both as a teacher and as a student, I have found it is often really helpful to approach first with a question along the lines of “Can I make a suggestion?” If he or she says “yes,” then we can proceed to having a discussion about it. If he or she says “no,” then I keep my opinion to myself unless that person is causing serious harm (in which case I might have led with something more direct like “I need to talk to you”). The act of asking for permission can feel a tad cumbersome but it respects the other person’s boundaries and gives them a moment to adjust to a state of readiness to hear feedback. It is the dance class equivalent of inviting someone to a performance evaluation rather than barging into their office and telling them they need to shape up or ship out.

Use Positive & Open Language

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

“You’re doing this wrong,” is a rather unhelpful statement and has a strong tendency to make the recipient feel lousy. It also introduces a level of certainty into the conversation that very few of us can truly live up to. Again, the conscious mind looks to be able to slap a label on something, but if you convince yourself you already have it figured out, then you shut down the opportunity to learn. Instead of approaching with a “You are/aren’t doing X,” wording, you can open a dialogue by describing what you feel or simply expressing that something doesn’t seem to be working. “I feel like we are losing connection here” or “I think we are are behind the beat” are far more friendly wordings that invite your partner to explore the issue as an equal.

If you approach things as equals then you can give feedback as a potential experiment rather than a command. “What happens if you lean back more?” is a sentence full of possibility and potential avenues for learning. “You need to lean back more,” shuts down the possibility that anything other than your idea could be correct. When you use an open question or statement, it creates space for both you and your partner to learn together. When you make a closed statement, you not only are shutting down your partner’s opportunity to explore, but you are effectively saying you have nothing to learn from the situation.

Building Something Beyond Yourself

We all dancesplain occasionally. I’ve certainly done it and times and had it done to me. The world we live in is rife with opportunities to make one group right and the other wrong. But when we do this, we drive a wedge between ourselves and our partner. Judgmental feedback can cause people not just to take issue with us, but to fear judgement from every lead or follow they dance with. If you want to help your partner grow, then help them to feel safe and free to play and grow and you will reap the rewards of having great partners to dance with. And if you can’t say it with respect and love, then please don’t say anything and ask for help from someone more skilled in giving feedback, because the fear of judgement has a far more potent effect on most people’s dancing than any bodily technique point you can offer them.

In the last two years I have talked to a lot of long-term intermediate/advanced dancers and noticed a great trend towards self judgement and less talk about loving the dance. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think the more we treat each other with respect and love, the more the dance will grow. If we treat each other with judgement and fear, noone’s going to want to dance with us. That said, I’d like to leave you with a talk from one of the great lovers of this dance, Dawn Hampton (click the link below to hear Dawn deliver this as only she can):

I really want you to love the dance, to love the music, to love yourself. The only thing that I can say to you is when you get out on the dance floor, is let go.

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Comments on: "No Dancesplaining, Please" (10)

  1. Margaret said:

    As a short follow, I often run into the issue of leads holding my right arm too high. I was taught that the lead should hold the follow’s arm at HER waist level regardless of height, and after 2 or 3 dances of being held too high my arm starts to get sore. This only gets worse during the course of an evening. Since most leads don’t hold the arm at their follows’ waists, what would you suggest is the best way to approach this? I don’t want to “dancesplain”, but it hurts to have my arm yanked around too high for more than a dance or two.

    • Well, along the lines of the post, I would probably suggest looking first to see if there are ways you could reposition your own arms for better comfort. I think even if it sacrifices some connection, it’s fair to do that in the name of not having your arms fall apart by the end of the night. There also may be some ways to hold your arm in stronger ways that won’t make you as vulnerable. Hit me up offline and we can kick it around a bit.

      In terms of saying something, I would probably go with something like “I’d like to dance with you but it’s going to hurt my arm pretty significantly if we can’t figure out a way to hold this lower. If we can’t figure out a way to do this, then I can’t risk wrecking my arm to dance with you right now. I’d be happy to play with it a bit off the floor, but trying to figure it out under combat conditions isn’t working.” If they are willing to work on it a bit off the floor and figure out something that’s amenable to both of you, cool, and I’d suggest focusing on positive feedback for anything that helps make it better. If they don’t, then I would probably just go with “Thanks, but I don’t have a good way for us to dance together without my arm getting hurt, maybe we can try it again sometime when one or both of us have some new ideas on how to make this work.”

      Or for that matter you can always just say, “hey, this isn’t working and I’m not sure how to fix it, can we ask someone who might have a better idea on it?” Willingness to bring in a teacher/mediator/etc. seems to be one that a lot of people overlook.

      • Or how about, “Hey, does it work as well for you if we hold my arm at this level where it’s more comfortable for me?”

    • I’m hesitant to add a second post for fear that I’ll come off as some expert which I am definitely not.

      That said, I’m guessing that the sore arm is due less to hand height than it is to something else you said – yanked around. I’m going to try and post a link here and see if it works. If not, you can paste it in. Tommy Blacharz and Emily Hoffberg in Grenoble.

      Three things that I see in the video are – the hands are chest high even though they are similar in height, Tommy leads with his body, and Emily Jo is always in motion, even when she’s not being led.

      • Margaret said:

        There is usually some yanking involved, but not always. What I’ve noticed over the years is that when a lead holds my arm lower, he’s usually a more experienced/good dancer, who also doesn’t hold a lot of unnecessary tension in the arm (and therefore connection), as well. Most of the guys on the floor, however, are either newbies, or just don’t seem to know better, so there’s a lot of extra tension in addition to the height. I’ve actively tried to keep my hand lower, but they keep pulling it up to my chest level where 1) it hurts, and 2) there’s almost no feelable connection.

  2. I agree that this is a very sensitive issue for dancers at a class or workshop and I’m glad you brought it up, Jason. Some people can offer constructive feedback graciously, others come across as – “I’m better than you are and you are messing up.” (and when the latter person has a critical comment for every person in the rotation, the feeling of superiority is magnified)

    At the same time, I do like to get helpful feedback. After all, a workshop is a place for learning and, if I could be doing something better, I’d like to work on it.

    I wish there were a hard and fast rule for offering feedback graciously but I don’t know what it is other than.. if you approach it from the viewpoint that you’re doing things perfectly and the other person is doing something wrong, you’re off to a real bad start. If there’s a way to introduce a sincere ‘we’ into the quest, you’re miles ahead.

    One of the things I learned early on is that when a new movement is not going well in class, the problem probably usually has something to do with both parties (and seemingly more often that not.. ME). So I am slow to say anything at all and more apt to view it as a team effort.

  3. I feel things are not always as clear cut, advising a categorical “no spontaneous feedback” policy seems too radical to me, there are lot of grey situations.

    I am a beginner leader, I love when a more advanced follower goes through the effort of respectfully formulating why she or he thinks something feels wrong and how it could be improved. I’ve already had a few “Aha” moments thanks to that and I’m always grateful. I believe this is especially true during dance classes, when most teachers I’ve had give at best a general appreciation of the whole students group and when your partner’s comments are your best chance for personal feedback.

    Also, I believe that not all unsolicited explanation is equivalent to “blaming the other” nor to a superiority relationship, it is sometimes the case but there as well there are lot of grey areas.

    Now I agree with the general feel of what you write, untactful or too frequent corrections are annoying, sometimes contre-productive and often out of place on the social dance floor. Also sometimes we just want to dance without feeling forced to get everything perfect. Dance is supposed to be fun and such comments can come in the way. I agree with all that.

    I just disagree with the conclusion that because some (or maybe most) feedback is inappropriate, then all of them should be removed.

    I love the cheerful sharing feeling that comes with swing dancing, I would not like super formal situations where all my mistakes are noticed but remained unspoken like some taboo subject.

    Communication is key 🙂

  4. This is great, I have to say that dancesplaining is something that really gets me down and takes the joy out of dancing. This post isn’t saying all feedback is inappropriate, it’s saying that it’s inappropriate when it isn’t requested (unless someone is hurting you, then as the author pointed out, say something). I’ve been guilty of it on a couple of occasions, and seeing the facial expression of the other person made me immediately regret giving the unsolicited advice, no matter how well it may have been intentioned – if something is really bugging you I think it’s good advice to ask the person first if it’s OK to give feedback. I had one woman confide in me that she didn’t continue dancing after one class due to dancesplaining.
    Another option is to mention to the teacher that *insert issue/s* are coming up, and then they can bring it up if they choose to do so with the whole class, so no-one is singled out and everyone benefits from the feedback/instruction (as we all tend to make the same mistakes). I did this once in a beginners class when a few leads were being overly forceful with the hand holding (a pretty common/understandable thing for beginner leads to do) and it was getting a little uncomfortable. The teacher gave the feedback to the whole class in a very skilled and humorous way, all the leads/follows learnt from it, and no-one walked away feeling bad.
    I recently had an experience when a lead dancesplained on several occasions at a workshop, until I eventually said ‘let’s let the teachers do the teaching’. Thankfully that put a stop to it. I do think his intention was to be ‘helpful’ but my having to say this did make later interactions awkward (I suspect for us both!). I’ve even had a couple of leads ‘dancesplain’ at a social dance! Seriously, don’t do it. Dancing is meant to be FUN. We’re all learning, and we all need to feel like it’s OK to make mistakes, an important part of learning/taking risks/experimenting (and it’s very hard to take when at times it is largely the other but they lack the insight/experience/humility to recognise this, or both of you contributing to the ‘mistake’, but by dancesplaining you need to understand that you risk the person feeling blamed-criticised).

    • First, this post is great! Feedback is important to grow in any skill, but learning how to give and receive feedback well is a skill in and of itself.
      As a short follow, I have the same issue Margaret referred to. One thing that helped for classes was progressing out of the beginning levels/maybe not taking every single class at every event I attend. Just as I hope I’ve shed some of my annoying habits as I’ve learned more, so have my classmates. In social dancing, typically the lead holds out his hand and I will sometimes respond by holding my hand at my waist level and looking absently off in the distance until he finds it. Maybe make a joke about how the weather is up there? Another strategy if my hand gets pulled up high is it let my arm be heavy. Yes, my arm is small, but sometimes this is convincing and it definitely helps me feel what the lead is doing in an overly tight connection. And the third level is to gently shake my right hand in his. Oftentimes I don’t realize how tense I’ve become and a little tiny shake helps brake that. Some people might find it rude. But so is holding my hand above my head and squeezing it. Anyway, those are my adaptations for the social floor to avoid having to say “I’m shorter than you are and this particular position is painful. We need to adjust or find alternative partners, unfortunately.”

  5. […] the dance more about roles and less about humanity. It also makes it much easier for things like dancesplaining to occur and for dancers who feel they are in the less powerful position to be less likely to hold […]

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