thoughts on the word “no”


There has been a bit of talk amongst the community about the ability to say “no” when being asked to dance. A post by a friend explains that she has the right to exercise her ability to say “no” to any dance, but particularly to dances with Mr. Oblivious Dancer, whom she describes as a dancer who inflicts discomfort or even pain without even realizing his influence on your body. And if you read that blog or have talked with me recently, this will be a slightly repetitive post.

She complains of being used as a “prop,” which I think is a particularly accurate term: as a follow, I am not here to fulfill your dance fantasy of “being awesome” (whether that is apparent to everyone or just yourself), but as a partner who would absolutely love to dance with you (as opposed to being flung around you). This requires, I believe, two things: (1) communication, and (2) awareness. Communicating the move you wish to do, and being aware of how you are manipulating my body. While these two concepts are seemingly simple, I find that Mr. Oblivious Dancer usually lacks both.

The concept I like most from my friend’s post is the right to not give an explanation. You asked me a question, and I answered it. I think that this attitude should most definitely be used — I should not be expected to sit out the next dance merely because I turned you, Mr. Oblivious Dancer, down. What if it’s the last night of the dance, and I really wanted to dance with  particular guy? What if I really want to dance with someone who can swing out at 200 bpm because this song is pumpin?  I should not need to offer explanation; nor should I be required to sit this song out.


I am in a strange situation in that I recently danced with Mr. Oblivious Dancer, and he hurt me — he pulled my arm down while spinning me at a tempo much faster than necessary, and ended up wrenching my shoulder. I immediately stopped and explained: That Hurt. He apologized profusely, and I danced the rest of the night with  sore shoulder. However, I was most impressed by what happened the next day: he followed up with me. He apologized again, and asked if my shoulder was all right. I thought this was particularly brave, as I was certainly too embarrassed to apologize to Nick when I elbowed him in the chin dancing with him a couple years ago (btw: sorry, Nick). And honestly, it was nice to know that he cared.

While I had originally planned on immediately placing this lead in the “NO MORE DANCES EVER” category, my attitude was immediately changed given his apology, I will certainly dance with him again should he ask. However, I will give pointers if necessary* on how to avoid harming follows in the future (*meaning if he asks, or if he hurts me again). He is clearly concerned with my health, and while it is not technically my responsibility, I am in a position as a more advanced follow in the scene to help him figure out how to lead more comfortably — if only as a service to my fellow follows, so that he will not hurt them as well.

While I think reserving the right to say no without giving a particular excuse is important, I think it does do a disservice to Mr. Oblivious Lead if we do not communicate why he is on probation; similarly, it IS snobbish to keep him on probation if he demonstrates an attempt at or desire for improvement.


Now, moving on to something else in a similar vein: along with Mr. Oblivious Lead, I hope to begin exercising my right to say “no” to Mr. Inappropriate Lead. This is the lead which makes me physically uncomfortable to dance with — not because he is painful, but because he makes me worry about the impending violation of my body. Because he makes me feel like I should have a body guard when I see him in the parking lot. Because he violates my personal space in an inappropriate way, whether or not he is even aware of his violation.

And honestly, while I am ready and willing to help Mr. Oblivious Lead, I find it much harder to find the goodwill (and courage) to help Mr. Inappropriate Lead — for he is often unaware, and he is not technically harming my body through dancing. How do I approach Mr. Inappropriate Lead and let him know that he has been put on probation until he (1) learns to keep his hands in “safe” zones and (2) realizes that he cannot speak to me like I’m the naked girlfriend he’s always wanted? I think it should be more acceptable to discuss “good” and “bad” zones when dancing — for, while it is not appropriate to shout RAPE on the dance floor, it is often my first impulse.


I have seen some discussion about the expectations of leads and follows in the role of asking for and accepting a dance. So here’s the deal: as a follow, I feel that I ask more people to dance than vice versa. I know there are follows to whom this does not apply, but it was practically the only way I could learn, especially as a beginning / intermediate dancer. But more importantly, I know that Mrs. Oblivious Follow is usually the most aggressive about asking leads to dance — probably because they are not often sought out, in reality.

So while I am also not obligated to dance with a lead when he finally asks me, neither is a lead obligated to dance with me! If Mrs. Oblivious Follow comes out of the woodwork, it is equally frowned upon for a lead to turn HER down, even if she jerks him around on the end of the swing out, twists his arms in awkward ways, or elbows him repeatedly in the face (again, Sorry Nick!). While it is generally easier for a lead to control how a follow affects him by choosing to lead certain moves over others, it is impossible to remain completely impervious to Mrs. Oblivious Follow’s lack of awareness.


In conclusion, it shouldn’t be expected of ANYONE to dance just because society decrees you must have a good excuse to say no. While I do think one should be polite and offer a “No, thank you,” or “Not this song,” with a smile, an explanation should not be necessary. We should be having fun when we dance. But we should also be polite to the community we dance with — that is, in fact, the only thing I think should be required.


5 thoughts on “thoughts on the word “no”

  1. Re: your second lead.

    I do not understand why people are so afraid of telling someone that they’re being inappropriate. We’ve gotten so politically correct and overly polite (avoidance) that we don’t call people out on this stuff. We don’t tell people they’re sweaty or stinky or creepy – and we NEED to. Not everyone is going to figure that one out on their own.

    I think as a society we have forgotten how to teach manners – and manners aren’t always something you can just pick up. So please, people: TELL your leads (or follows) that they’re being creepy. Tell them to move their hands up. Tell them that you don’t like that move. Open your mouths.

    They might avoid you for a week or two – but they’ll usually be glad you did. Please stop being afraid to tell someone that you’ll only dance with them after they change to a clean shirt (with a smile, though!), or stopping in the middle of the dance and having a quick “good touch/bad touch” talk with your lead. Of all the leads I have ever known who have been labeled “creepy,” MAYBE 10% were – the rest were just oblivious.

    This public service announcement brought to you by someone who frequently gets to yell out, “Inappropriate!” in her work setting.

  2. I mostly agree with Tonia. The one caveat is that you should always tell people who are violating your boundaries, politely but firmly, exactly what they are doing wrong, before making a bigger deal about it.

    I remember one follow who came into our scene from a ballroom background with the idea that she could somehow jump right in to lindy hop and be at home. She was very stiff and awkward to dance with, but I was trying to be friendly. After trying a couple of other things I realized that about all that I could lead her in successfully, that fit the music, was facing 20’s Charleston. At that point she stopped dancing, and told me I was dancing entirely too close to her. She was at arm’s length – my right arm was extended as far as it could go and still have my hand on her back.

    I thought she was being ridiculous, perhaps even insane, but I didn’t argue with her. I was happy to stop dancing with her and to never dance with her again. But hey, at least she gave me clear feedback. I figure that no matter who you are, once in a while you’re going to run across a dance partner who for some reason thinks you’re creepy. When you do run across such a dance partner, it’s silly to fight it. Just agree to not dance together any more and move on.

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