The Practicalities of Saying “No”

I’ve been thinking about defaults lately.  I’m kind of known for coming up with kooky experiments for my students, and I had recently shared this one with another teacher:

Ask the class to all raise their hands in the air.  Ask them to drop their hands to answer a question.

This idea works with any question you want for student feedback, really, but it’s a setup that specifically works against the norm.  The natural inclination for a room of awkward beginners is to NOT raise their hands, because raising a hand takes effort, and because it makes you stick out.  But making everyone participate in a group effort, and then asking them to OPT OUT creates enough of a mental dissonance that a student gets a moment to second-guess (and therefore reflect) on his decision: “wait…do I want to drop my hands?  Why?  What’s being asked?”

I’m not saying this worked (it didn’t work super great the one and only time I did it), but it’s something to think about.

The reason I’m thinking about defaults dovetails with some of my thinking about lead and follow roles and consent.  Because I can tell you, as a long-term dancer, I have been in many situations where I did not like what was happening, but did not say “no”.

There was that time when I danced “blues” with a guy who I could feel grinding his “package” on me.  It felt vaguely inappropriate, but what did I know?  I had only taken the drop-in lindy lesson a half-an-hour before that.  I double-checked my understanding of this with my friends in the car ride home, but I was a visitor to the area and I would not be going there again anyway.

There was this guy in my home scene who would throw me into big dips or air steps on the social dance floor.  I didn’t like the suddenness of these muscled moves, but he was strong enough that he could lift and throw and dip me without any difficulty, and short of falling completely limp, there was nothing I could do.  Strangely, the sudden rigidity of surprise makes for an excellent core frame with which to move another person’s body.  By the time I landed, he had already moved on to another part of the dance, like nothing had happened, and my nervous laughter and awkward, “woah!  what?!” no doubt encouraged him.  I “solved” this problem by avoiding dances with him afterward, and we were able to be socially friendly without ever dancing with each other again.

Even recently, I was lead to an air step on a social dance floor that I was not expecting.  And while I knew the partner, and knew there was no danger to myself or others, it was definitely a surprise and was not discussed beforehand.  I felt more embarrassed to be seen doing it than anything else.  I haven’t said anything to that partner, either in the moment or after the dance.  It doesn’t feel like a BIG deal.  But…it’s kind of a deal.

The thing is, I am an experienced dancer with very little filter, who has, in her time dancing, taken at least two leads aside to talk to them about things that made her uncomfortable and asked them to change.  I am capable and relatively comfortable doing that.  I think it’s important.  But even I speak up only in certain circumstances.  I consider whether they have discomfited me over multiple dances or if it was just a fluke.  I consider if I’m likely to dance with them again, if they are a regular dancer, or a just a visitor (e.g. is this conversation worth my time?).  I consider the egregiousness of the offense and the immediacy of bodily harm, either to myself or others.  I consider whether I can clearly and accurately describe the behavior I am asking them to change. I consider the feasibility of a time and place for this talk, whether they are open for an observation, or if it requires a private moment off to the side.  In other words, what are the practicalities of speaking up?

I find that a lot of apologists are scared that dancers will suddenly get super sensitive about everything, to the point where even older dancers, or socially awkward dancers, or nervous beginners with two left feet, will be immediately told “no”, ostracized, and ejected from the scene.  But dancing and relationships (and life) are not a pair of doors with clear thresholds.  Instead, they’re a series of micro-interactions with unclear outcomes.

“Yes, I would like to dance.”

Yes, this is fun!

Yes, I can do that move.

Yes, they’re listening to me listening to the music!

Umm…that was a weird one.

I can follow that one, but I don’t want to do ten of them in a row.

This is so much better!

Loving this part of the music.


Doesn’t look like it’s going to happen again.

We’re back to the stuff I like.

That was a great ending!  More of that, please!

“Thank you for the dance.”

Leads and Follows and Ambi-friends, I would like you to take a moment to consider that even if all we say is the first sentence and the last, we all have a spectrum of experience, sometimes within one dance, sometimes within one night, and sometimes within one year.  Realize that our default is to keep dancing.  Our default is to be good sports.  And so when, weighing the practicalities of speaking out, someone tells you something that makes them uncomfortable, they are not saying you are a bad person or a bad dancer.  Look back at my theoretical dance.  The “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT” part?  That’s the part I don’t want to do again.  And besides that, we’re fine, aren’t we?

So two things I guess I get from this: (1) you don’t have to say “no” all the time to every little thing, but you do have to begin evaluating your experiences to determine your boundaries.  If things don’t feel good, recognize that they don’t feel good to you, and don’t feel ashamed about it.  You are the absolute authority of your own comfort level; don’t let anyone try to tell you differently.  And (2) you won’t hear “no” all the time to every little thing, but you do have to be self-reflective about your behavior and sensitive to feedback you receive verbally and non-verbally.  Recognize when you get a cold shoulder to a proposition, and adjust accordingly.  I like to say that it is absolutely your right to continue acting in a way that someone tells you not to, but then don’t be surprised when there are consequences, and you should absolutely be responsible for those consequences.

I’m going to end on a personal story.  I was once dancing in an exhibition with a friend of mine with whom I have practiced and performed aerials.  Near the end of the dance, I decided a figure-four would be fun, and so I threw my body weight into that direction.  My lead was surprised, but caught me (a little unsteadily) and we finished triumphant.  I noticed immediately that I had surprised him, which I confirmed afterward in a conversation.  But it wasn’t until some weeks later that he mentioned in mixed company that he doesn’t appreciate being surprised in that way specifically because it could throw out his back.  Honestly, this had not occurred to me, and I was appalled; I didn’t want to hurt my friend!  I apologized at that point and dedicated myself to not doing it again.  Even now, I sometimes misunderstand a lead and give more of my weight than I should but this doesn’t make me a bad person or a bad dancer. It does mean that I need to be more aware of this tendency and actively work to keep myself and my partner safe.

At least it does if I still want people to dance with me, and I’m pretty sure that’s the case.

2 thoughts on “The Practicalities of Saying “No”

  1. I don’t dance; I observe, so perhaps this is irrelevant, but swing / social dancing comes with the unstated expectation that it is going to be FUN, so that the ideal situation, checking in with one’s partner before the music starts to say, “You’re not going to do something terribly surprising, are you? I don’t like surprises!” would seem anti-FUN. Yet once the music does start, it is I imagine next to impossible to say to a partner, “Please don’t do that!” while the music is playing or, even more severely, stopping the dance to say — stock-still in the middle of the floor — that you don’t enjoy any kind of swing subjugation. It might be too heavy to say that what you have described sounds like one member of an imagined dance-couple throwing equality to the winds and deciding that (s)he is in control and has power. It also sounds a great deal like the spoken and unspoken agreements one makes (or doesn’t) about sex, with the difference being that most sex is not performed in the middle of a group of people. (I could be wrong about this.) But saying NO to something is the difference between risking the utterance, “Ow, that hurts!” or being polite — everyone taught us to be polite, and saying after the injury has occurred, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” If you do say NO to what pains you, you can still say YES YES YES to what thrills you. Keep writing!


  2. “If you do say NO to what pains you, you can still say YES YES YES to what thrills you.” I very much agree. =)

    Interestingly, I have definitely set preconditions to dances in the past, and they have always gone over very well. Usually it’s about an injury I’m recovering from, or a special need I have because I’m out-of-breath, or tired, or cautious. I have stopped partners in the middle of a dance because I don’t like something they did, but I have also mentioned it as an aside at the end of the song. Usually, it was nothing more than a, “hey, I’m not loving this, it makes me uncomfortable or feel weird” and then we continue dancing, or finish the dance without hurt feelings. I think there is a feeling that dancing will not be “fun” when there is this kind of communication, but I think it makes it even MORE fun, because now both of us are having equally fun times. =)

    Thanks, always, for the kind encouragement.


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