March 22, 2012

The "New" Etiquette ©

The New Rules to Survive 
Today's Dance Floor
This is Chapter 9 from the book Telling the Truth: The Foundational Articles for Today's WCS. Available on Copyright 2014.

There are some solid rules of etiquette that most of us have been trained in and live by on the social dance floor... for decades.

  • Always say "yes" when someone asks you to dance.
  • If you have to turn someone down because you're resting, in the middle of a conversation or are otherwise "indisposed," then be sure to catch them on the next song.
  • Establish your slot at the start of the dance and stay in it.
  • Acknowledge the spouse when asking their partner.
  • If you sweat profusely, bring a change of top.
  • Don't eat garlic or onions before you go social dancing...

The list goes on and on... and yet most of us can't remember where we first learned them. We just know they exist, and we do our best to adhere to them. These rules have helped new dancers become better, helped keep our dance environment polite, civil and in reality, quite positive.  These rules are held, by many of us, to be both holy and universally known.

I was blessed to start dancing swing, ballroom and country western when these rules were being followed by the entire dance community. Those who didn't were branded as the local meanie or snob and were pointed out to newcomers as the ones to be wary of.

But when I fell hopelessly in love with West Coast Swing and immersed myself in that particular swing scene, I learned a whole new level of etiquette. The men made sure every single lady was walked to their car. Doors were opened for the women and jeans were snubbed as a "dishonor to the dance." The level of etiquette was so high, in fact, that my own husband had to meet with the men in my community to find out what I was used to.

But those days are behind us.

Things have most definitely changed. In a lot of ways. And as such, it can be downright dangerous to follow these rules as we once did. I have said "it's time" to acknowledge that there are Two Dances being danced on the West Coast Swing scene, and now I'm also saying that "it's time" to instate a new etiquette.


Some rules still apply. It's still rude to ignore another’s spouse. It's still polite to avoid onions, garlic and even heavy perfumes before heading to the social dance floor. But some rules most definitely don't apply anymore.

I've worked as a private contractor for a number of small businesses. The number one issue they faced when it came to problems with internal and external customer service was the generational issue. Older generations believed the younger generations knew certain rules and chose to ignore them. But they most often just needed to be told. Nearly 99% of the workforce problems were solved at the companies I worked with when expectations were clearly spelled out to the younger generation. Even simple ones, like 'greet a customer when they walk in the door,' and 'save personal computer use for your break.'

Don’t expect that your rules of common dance decency are known to anyone else. I'm constantly meeting students who are being driven nuts by people who are blatantly ignoring common etiquette. And I tell them... they may not know the rules. Of course, once the rule breakers learn them, they should be held to account. There's no excuse for conscious rude behavior. Be aware and be prepared. Not everyone is on the same page concerning etiquette.

This used to be an unspoken rule, but man, oh, man, have people forgotten it! This rule has been broken in dance classes, in workshops, on the social dance floor and even (seriously?) on the competition floor.

NO. There is absolutely NO excuse to give, as you all love to call it, "feedback" on the dance floor. Okay, fine, there is one exception... and ONLY one: "That hurts." Again, this is about injury... if you are being pushed, pulled, yanked, tweaked, squeezed or if your hair gets caught in a wristband, etc, etc, etc... by all means, say something.

But that's it. And I mean, that's IT.

DO NOT 'help' your partner. DO NOT 'assist' the teacher while rotating. DO NOT 'show' your partner the correct way... do not, do not, do not! offer any unsolicited help, advice or commentary.

Do I have a multitude of stories for you! A million gazillion. Shoot, I even heard that a guy lifted a girls' chin and told her to "look him in the eyes" while she danced with him. Really??? How invading is that? He touched her chin? In order to do something other than leading? And then told her to look in his eyes? Are you kidding? And the worst part is, she was a champion dancer... and was not dancing with her equal. At all. I am consistently shocked at the boundaries that are being crossed out there. Sigh.

Can you tell? This is an extremely upsetting trend for me, and I have to say, from what I've seen and heard, it's a rampant one.

We have become obsessed,

to the detriment of our community,
with ignoring "our side of the street,"
and looking over at "their side of the street"
to see what needs "fixing."

If you have ever ever ever offered unsolicited commentary, then I'm sorry, but YOU have a lot to fix on your own side of the street. Work hard to become the best leader, the best follower and the best dancer you can be... and STOP trying to help anyone else get there. Every teacher I have talked to says that they people who ‘help’ in class are always the absolute last person anyone should be listened to. That’s been my experience too. The people who actually know what they are doing… they are listening in class, not teaching others. It’s an incredibly frustrating trend for those of us who have been teaching for decades.

As such, those of you who find yourself trapped with a "helper," whether it’s social dancing or in class, do not encourage them and do not heed their advice. I've heard the worst techniques and tips shared on the social floor (usually an Abstract dancer trying to change a Swing dancer). It's rude behavior, and anyone who is rude is not worth listening to. Just keep going, wait out the advice, say "I'm okay," or "I hear what you're saying," when they press you for a response, and please... please, please, please, do not thank them for the help! and never say you're sorry. The uber-nice tend to immediately apologize a lot. Helpers love this... they feed on it. And they will only come after you more because of it.

Spare a life, encourage joy and happiness on the floor, and blissfully ignore the "helpful" words of the truly unhelpful dancers.

I can't believe I'm even saying this, but apparently this is a much needed rule... you wouldn't believe the stories I hear. Ladies... if there is an excellent lead in the room who is actually willing to share his talent with all of the rest of the ladies, then show him some respect. Apparently women are cursing, throwing tantrums and fighting with the leads when they say that they have a line waiting. Men… just because you gathered up the courage to ask, does not mean she owes you something. You are also throwing fits, arrogance and obscenities. This behavior baffles me.

Ladies and gentleman!

When you ASK somebody to dance,
then you are open to hearing either a "yes," OR a "no" in reply.
Anything less, and you are DEMANDING a dance.

And that, everyone, is just plain out of line and rude. Never, ever demand a dance. This is not the way to get someone to dance with you. If a man is ever ugly when I turn them down, I certainly do not intend to reward that behavior by actually saying "yes" to them ever again. There is no rule, nor has there ever been a rule, that you deserve a dance before anyone else or at the exact moment you ask for it.

There is only one exception: the spouse. The spouse trumps all. If 'he put a ring on it,' then that lady and/or man gets first dibs, no matter what the line is for their partner.

My husband has seen the worst of this, and so has my partner Josh. They are "the nice guys," and for some reason this gives the ladies the freedom to abuse them somehow. And that's when I see the ugliness... when I dare to ask my husband for a dance. Oh dear, the ladies do lose it! But according to the boys, the ladies are starting to lose it no matter what. They are even asking three or four times a night, no matter how exhausted the men are or how many ladies are waiting.

What's going on? Never demand a dance. Oh... you can run helter skelter across a floor to get to a favorite first, but be gracious no matter what answer you receive.

The issue of videotaping is one I'm blatantly stealing from Kelly Casanova. But it's necessary. Unconstrained videotaping of everyone and anyone, every where and every place, is widespread in our community. This is a new problem. Yes, I said problem.

Just because you can videotape, doesn't mean you should. Witness Protection has had to relocate dancers because a video was posted of them at a dance on YouTube without their knowledge. Teachers are losing income and leaving the dance because students are taping them socially or during class in order to steal moves for other teachers or avoid paying for the class themselves. The list goes on and on...

As with so much in life, just because you can, doesn't make it right. Get a person's permission before filming, INCLUDING the people in the background of your video. And don't be surprised if a pro walks off the floor when you start filming them. It's incredibly rude, invasive and selfish.

So when it comes to videotaping, just be aware, okay? And for those of you who teach, write up some ground rules for videotaping in your class. For example, I don't allow my classes or workshops to be filmed, but I do allow people to film my husband and I dancing a move at the end of class. Sometimes I offer the counts and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I dance it to music and sometimes I don't. It depends on where I am and what kind of students I have, etc. I am very conscious of what I do on film. I can deal with people videotaping for personal use, especially when I travel so often, but I'm very aware of how valuable such an offering is.

It's a serious gift for any pro to allow their work to be videotaped. It's our product, it's our living and we're giving it away for free. Students pay for the workshop, not the 'video notebook.' It lends to less privates, less paid hours, less income and more competition. Frankly, I'm amazed when students believe we pros are "obligated" to put our product on film. No. It's actually a big favor. And for those of us who are extremely talented teachers, it’s a HUGE favor.

Back in the day, if you wanted the move you just learned on film, you went out into the hall and danced it yourself while someone filmed you. There's nothing wrong with that. Having a pro dance it for you, especially with counts and tips? That's a huge gift, so respect it, honor it, and don't complain when they choose not to film, and definitely don't share the video when they do. Yes? Yes.

The rule used to be that you could ask your pro or champion only once a night. But fewer pros and champions are out dancing, and many more dancers are being extremely pushy about getting a dance (see Rule #3). So when you know a pro or a champion that is out and willing to dance... take it as chance for a free private lesson... and dance with them once, and only once, for the entire weekend.

We professionals do talk, you know, and when someone abuses the 'once a night' rule at a convention, or over a weekend, and asks every single night. That's really pushing it. Some of you even ask for help or lessons on the floor. And then we remember you...  but not in a good way. If we ask you, then hey, you're super lucky. Rock it out. But in the meantime, be pleased with your one dance. You can learn so much from it. And it will keep that pro and/or champion from only dancing with their students or staying in their room for the rest of the night.

You might already be doing this, because I've learned this trick from watching others. If you want to dance swing with a partner, wait for a swing song. I've seen both leads and follows just say, "Yes, but not to this song." And then they both meet up later and dance together.

That's just a really smart approach to dancing for both of you. No one loses out. If it doesn't make you want to do swing, then the dance simply won't do either one of you justice. And you will have a harder time learning the dance or even getting better at it if you dance to inappropriate music for it too much. Degrading music degrades your dancing. Waiting for a song that naturally works for WCS only leads to better dancing on everyone’s part, assuming you’re both WCS trained.

People love hearing yes, and when you want to wait because of the song, they know you're not waiting because of themselves as a partner. I've never seen a bad reaction to this request yet. Just do it if you want to. DO NOT use it as a way to say no. That’s passive aggressive. Be honest with your boundaries and mean what you say. Everyone deserves at least that amount of respect.

And, by the way, feel free to start requesting songs from the DJ's. How do you think all the DJ's have the "new" music that they are playing? Most of them are requested by the Abstract dancers. So start requesting your favorite swing song. You'll be glad you did! And a tip in their tip jar helps even more, of course.

Partner dancing doesn't work unless you have respect for your partner. Nissies see their partner as someone to "use." They use you as an excuse to take the front row, to be seen, to show themselves off, to declare judgment on you... they only "use."

I watched one Abstract Nissy dance right in front of a girl having her birthday dance. The crowd wanted to cheer for the girl, but they were so uncomfortable that the guy just went up there and blocked our view of her, that we were all just silent. I wasn't hosting the dance, so I didn't have the willpower to take over and yank him off the floor (ohhhhh, how I wish I had!), but as soon he was done with his partner, he came and asked me to dance with him, before the birthday dance for this girl was over.

I smiled and gave a very firm "No thanks." I will not dance in front of someone else on their birthday dance. I will not say "yes" to a leader who very clearly just wants to seen and requires me to be yanked, thrown and diminished in order to prove he's "better" when he's really just an intermediate dancer (at best.) He didn't want to dance "with" me. He wanted to dance "over" me in front of everyone when they were sitting out in respect to the birthday girl. Why bother? Who in the world signs up for that when they join their first dance class?

Remember. Just because a guy or girl in your neck of the woods has "points" and lords it over you, doesn't mean that they are a better dancer than you anymore. It just means, in most cases, that they have more attitude or arrogance than you, and that they find you disposable as a partner.

Attitude doesn't make for a good dance. Nissies only feed their ego when you dance with them. If they have no one to dance with, they have no one to abuse. Let them dance with each other or go dance somewhere else. Nissies have NO edifying value in any community... they only destroy. It's very subtle, sometimes not so subtle, but you can do you part by refusing to 'feed their need.' And you'll spare yourself an enormous amount of pain and confusion in the process.

I used to say yes to everyone, even after I became a champion. I was known for it. I loved dancing, and I never hesitated to just say... "YES!" No matter who they were. When I run into dancers I haven't seen in decades they say, "oh, you... you used to dance with, used to dance with... well, everyone!"

But today? I'm VERY good at saying "No, thank you." It’s never comfortable for me. It’s always difficult. But it’s very necessary.  Especially when it comes to my bodily protection. And it's essential that you learn the skill as well.

There are times when you are in harms way. And you need to know when those times come and act accordingly. There are two dances, and as I've said a million-jillion times before... it's painful mentally, physically and emotionally when these two dances clash on the floor. Women and men all over California have dislocated shoulders, necks and hips from being "nice" and saying "yes" to Abstract dancers who could care less about taking care of their partner.

Men watch in shock and horror as the women they are dancing with decide to lean... lean... leeeeeaaaaan... and face plant themselves on the floor. Pulling their leaders down with them. And then turning and saying, "Wasn't that cool?" I have now seen this happen on both coasts in America and I have never heard the guy say, "Yeah, that was cool." It makes the man look like he dropped her, and it makes the man fall and often injured. Both men and women have sustained injuries that have kept them off the dance floor from 6 months to three years. There is nothing okay about this.

The second part to this rule? If you say "yes," and discover they are doing a different dance, you don't have to lie and pretend like you're having fun. I'm shocked at how many skilled women feel like they have to make a bad lead feel "good" about themselves. I'm not saying to stare them down, but back in the day, we would watch each other to see if we were enjoying the lead and/or follow we were getting. But now, we all seem to be working hard at lying to each other and saying we're having a ball, even when we're not. This is especially true with the ladies... the ladies of today are in full "nurture" mode... they are on a mission to make the guy feel good... even when the guy is making them feel very very bad.

This helps no one. It makes the men think they are perfect and don't need work, and it makes the women forget what a good lead feels like. I'm not advocating rude behavior. I'm advocating honesty. Don't make the effort to be radiant all the time unless your partner is actually interested in giving you a good dance. You don’t need to have a sour look on your face… I’m not saying that at all. But I’m careful to only say it was wonderful when, well, it was actually wonderful.

To this day I am still happy to say "yes" to all levels of swing dancers. But it has cost me greatly, especially as an instructor. I’ve had to stop by gas stations on the way home to get ice for my hand, my foot, a knee or a shoulder. This is astonishing, and absolutely not okay. So I’ve found it necessary to be increasingly wary.

One dancer in Northern California was so polite when he first started asking me. He was a joy to dance with. But then he stopped taking lessons and started gripping my hand so hard with his thumbs that, despite my requests to let go, I'd end up icing my hands for three days, making my job painful and sometimes impossible. I was very honest with him. I told him this repeatedly, and he just did not care. He squeezed harder than ever. As if to prove a point.

So I had to start turning him down. He was completely unwilling to believe he was causing the massive bruising on my hands, and so... we had to part ways. I still had a hard time saying no, but it was most definitely worth it. Anytime your partner puts their ego above your physical well being it not worth stepping onto the floor with.

Another dancer, years ago, wanted to do a Classic routine with me. He even went so far as to tell others we were partnering, even when we weren’t, to prevent anyone else for asking me. Other professionals were pushing me to dance with him and some were even mad that I never did. I was being pushed from every direction to dance with this man.

But what no one knew, was that during one of our very first practice sessions, he did a move that literally threw my across the floor on my back. We’re talking more than ten feet across the floor… it was a hard smack followed by a long skid. I looked up at him in horror wondering what in the world had happened. And do you know what he was doing? He was laughing. And laughing hard. And he said, with this proud smirk, “I thought that would happen.”

That was it. I didn’t say anything, but I never set up another practice session with him again, and I knew I would never agree to dance with him. My only sorrow, looking back, was that I never told anyone this. I just listened in silence as I was pushed from eight different sides to dance with this man, that I knew I could never trust my physical well being with.

And that was back when we were both doing WCS. I know some current professionals who are willing to put up with this dangerous behavior, just to keep dancing in the Top 5. It makes me so upset when I walk by them practicing and one partner is being incredibly abusive to the other partner… and they just take it. Willingly. You can see that it’s a choice. But they have paid for it physically.

My point is that no one is immune. Newcomers to advanced dancers to professionals… we all have a responsibility to ourselves to go into anything, a social dance, a strictly swing or a routine with eyes wide open. And all of us have the freedom, right and justification to say no at certain times. I repeat:

This rule is not about dance experience or levels. It is about different goals, different dances, health and protection.

Be comfortable saying "No, thank you" when it comes to your mental, emotional and physical well being. No matter who you are and what kind of dancing you’re doing.

And so there you go... new rules to live by. The biggest one of all is having the freedom to say "no," in my opinion. Again, it’s not easy, but then again, neither is becoming injured. When I say “no” I always say it with a smile and I always, always, always just say "No," or "No, thank you!" Never say more than that.

Unless, of course, you really are just looking to dance with them later. If I tell a guy “no” because I really am hurting or tired, I actually tell them that. I clearly state, “I need to sit out a dance to rest, but I’ll be sure to catch you next.” And that’s exactly what I do. Ask around. The only time I say “no” and nothing else is when I don’t want to be asked by them again.

It's imperative that we be choosy nowadays. Not everyone is out for a "good dance" with their partner. Not everyone is interested in being a good lead or a good follow. So get educated. Choose wisely. And become comfortable with the word “no” when you need to.

Put all these new rules into play, and you’ll start enjoying your dancing a whole lot more- and your reputation will improve as well. “Knowing is half the battle,” as they say, and now you know.

Now, go enjoy the dance floor like never before!

This is Chapter 9 from the book Telling the Truth: The Foundational Articles for Today's WCS. Available on Copyright 2014.