Why I Hate Dancing with You

Author’s note: Specific examples use gendered language because they are true stories.

I am leaning against the wall, thinking about how pretty my friends are as I watch them dance together. He approaches from my left when I’m looking right, and he holds out his hand so assertively I unconsciously assume my peripheral blur will resolve into a friend. Decades of muscle memory kick in, and I move to place my hand in his before he begins to say “Would you like to dance.” It ends up being not a question; he pulls before I say anything in response. Muscle memory again: I let him carry my hand away from the wall but “Not friend — unknown” registers just in time to not immediately move my body. He hits the end of my arm like the end of a leash, and I let him experience resistance before I say, “Yes, what’s your name?”

I am soft shoe tapping with my eyes closed when he taps on my shoulder to ask if I’d like to dance. I inform him I am already dancing.

I just watched him finish a dance with a woman whose face makes me think amount of force he was using was not welcome. I am sitting on the stage when they finish, she and I lock eyes and I upgrade ‘think’ to ‘know.’ He swaggers to me and says only, “Dance?” I say no thanks and get a dirty look in return but at least he walks away.

A familiar song begins and I am sitting in the pew near the front of the venue when he asks me if I’d like to dance? “Not to this one, but thanks.” I make an effort to smile. He sits down next to me, and it feels like spawn camping. (Are you waiting to see if I’m gonna dance with anybody else?) An ex lover joins me on the opposite side because it really was the song I wasn’t feeling, and we giggle at the campy and exaggerated performance his housemate and her dance partner are putting on for us, in keeping with the campy and exaggerated nature of the song.

“Not friend — unknown” tells me his name and smirks through the entire song. I don’t think he noticed the resistence in my arm before I followed him onto the floor. He dances me like dictating to a 1950’s secretary and he seems to think he’s doing me a favor. He also appears to have accomplished his definition of showing off, looking around like he’s seeking eye contact, anywhere but in my face. Because yes, I can follow all those turns, even with my hand way too far above my head and even though you planted me into a single-leg spin and input a change of directional momentum in a direction I wasn’t facing and even though if you drew the force vector you could use the two points of my knees to make the line and the arrow would point directly away from my only foot that I’m not already standing on. Even though he doesn’t notice, because I’m still in the place that he needs me to be, at the time that would allow us to do anything reasonable with the music, because I can also hear the music. I dunno if I’ll dance with him if he asks again.

Lightly-unpleasant interactions like these happen all the time. Leaders who think they’re doing me a favor by asking me to dance. Who it doesn’t occur to that my dancing matters. Who it so profoundly doesn’t occur to that I might care about what song is playing, that they kind of don’t believe me when I say so. Who resent that I might say ‘no’ to them. Who treat my skill, if they notice or value it at all, as merely better articulation for their puppet.

I spend a lot of time not dancing even when I’m out dancing because I don’t get equal enjoyment out of dancing with any possible partner, and I mostly choose to dance with partners I am confident will be on the positive side of the pleasant/unpleasant scale. On many nights lately, I solo dance as much as I partner dance.

What do I enjoy about dancing with someone? Human connection, physically expressing myself with music, and the absolute magic that happens when our mutual attention to the music is the foundation of our attention to one another. If I hate dancing with you, it’s because dancing with you doesn’t involve any of those things. If dancing with you isn’t going to involve any of those things, I would prefer to dance alone, as that at least allows me to express myself with the music.

He had just danced with my friend, and she looked happy the whole time, so when the song breaks, I ask him if he’d like to dance. “Sure!” he says. He says it’s his first night out! I laugh with his enthusiasm and say welcome! We step back and forth and he often falls into following my rhythm, so I try to keep it clear and steady. But when I do add a tiny flourish, just a little bit of extra lag in my body, a suspended moment of resistance in the first half of the next step and a release in the second. He locks his eyes on mine in delight. We step back and forth. The next time the music does that, he wiggles. I giggle; I get joy from how much he’s enjoying himself. The wiggle is artless but unashamed, and it’s just for me. If you made an isolated gif of it, it would look like the artless wiggle of someone who’s not “good”. But as an inside joke, it’s joyous, and private to that dance, accessible only by having been paying attention for a while. We step back and forth until the song ends; I try to keep my rhythm clear and steady. We both walk away from that dance smiling.

He’s gotten more playful with our dances, and I get a rush of pleasure every time I am surprised where my own foot lands. I have to trust so much to get there. But I get to play with whichever rhythm out of the song that I fancy, fuck with the timing of nearly any spin. A beat pinballs around my joints, I create standing waveforms that interact with his, and for a phrase there’s a rhythm that exists only in that interference. When I make long, clean lines he lets me hold it for a moment. Some of them, he frames up for me. I allow him to affect every aspect of my movement and he allows my movement to affect his choices. He knows that I am with him, but he allows himself to know that he does not know exactly the form that my response will take, so we can genuinely surprise one another. When I manage to really trust him and dance, it’s glorious. (When I worry whether or not I’m good enough, it’s hard to get there.)

Both of those last two are dances that I hope it’s obvious I really enjoyed. In both the leader listened to me as I listened to them and we both listened to the music. That dual listening is the foundation of what I enjoy about partner dancing. Additionally, in the latter, we’d say that the leader is a “good dancer”, and I experience that as a more intimate connection in a richer, music-shaped possibility space.

Good technique isn’t required to have a fun, connected dance — joyous beginners remind us of this over and over again. Nor is it completely sufficient — dancing with a pro can really suck if they look like they’d rather be anywhere else the whole time. But your level of skill does affect the quality of the connection you’re capable of making, like being able to make more detailed paintings when you have a set of real brushes instead of just the one plastic one. Even though you can make real art with one plastic paintbrush.

It took me a really long time to figure out that “dance technique” is actually just “doing what you are intending to do, more of the time.” Doing what you are intending to do, more of the time, means you can have a higher-fidelity conversation. Literally more data about your intent comes through the connection and is available to be listened to. It becomes an intimate conversation when you choose (and with more skill you are able to choose) to dance a truer self, open to being affected by the human you are dancing with.

As they stop thinking of themselves as “beginners,” leads often go into a phase where they lose their wonder and do not listen, when they think they are doing the dance for both of us. They think followers get more out of “dancing up” because they think lead skill is the only one that matters. (It’s actually because even the baby followers are trying to listen.) These leaders don’t think they’re getting anything special out of dancing with follows who are able to do what they’re intending to do more of the time, because these leads do not allow space for their follower to intend anything other than what that lead has already thought of. Since they’re not feeling anything novel out of it, those leaders don’t value follow skill. So they tend not to seek out the “good” followers to dance with. And the good followers don’t seek them out, either, because they aren’t that much fun.

When your leader is not listening, it feels like being treated like a puppet, or a tool, or a trophy. Like you’re merely there to enact their desires. I get yanked out of phrase-length dancing 5/8ths of the way through because they don’t care what I’m doing. They think the music calls for wiggling, so they put hands on both sides of my rib cage and forcibly wiggle me while they stare. Sometimes their desires are actively uncomfortable, but even if they’re not, it puts me on edge because leads who don’t listen won’t be listening if I start to flinch away or resist something creepy or painful. Sometimes people don’t ever leave this phase. Sometimes dancing with them is fine. (If they’re listening to the music.)

But sometimes I hate it. It makes me feel not valued. So if I get danced like that (or think that I’m likely to), I’ll say no. If I felt unsafe? like you held me too tight and didn’t notice (“didn’t notice”?) that I was trying to put space between us? or you dipped me right through my resistance by taking my weight away from me? I will ask and tell other followers about you. I’m not even talking about assault, just shit that is not fun because you don’t care about my experience at all and force me to do nothing but care about your experience if I want to dance “together.”

I want you to know it could be more than this. We could help each other see in the dark. You’re supposed to be echolocating, but all you are doing is shouting at me.