Wednesday 29 July 2015

Lessons about Singles at Swing

Yes, it's another post about swing-dancing. But I'm fascinated by swing-dancing, now that I think of swing-dancing as an art and not as a way to meet "the One." The emotional stakes are not so high. I can sit like a cushion on a chair all night, ignored by all, and then go home to my doting husband. I mention this not to rub it in, but to remind myself that I am in a much different situation from that of my Single readers.

Nevertheless, I do not like sitting like a cushion on a chair all night, ignored by all, so I practice as much as possible and take all the lessons my conscience says we can afford, because the number one way to get oneself asked to dance is to be a good dancer. Therefore last weekend I went to an all-day swing dance class, taught by two visiting Americans. Naturally, I learned about more than dancing.

First, I learned that there are TWO overlapping swing dancing communities in Edinburgh, including a host of people who can't make it out to my community's Wednesday nights. Second, I learned that there were a number of people from my own community who are so committed to improving their swing-dancing that they will dedicate a whole Saturday (and £35) to it. Third, I learned that the travelling Canadian who had come to Wednesday night had signed on for the Saturday, too--which must have taken advance planning, now that I think about it, as enrollment was limited. Fourth,  I learned that swing-dancing can be taught in a really sexist way.

Oh Edinburgh, Edinburgh. I appreciate the gentleness of your swing-dancing culture, and your constant emphasis on Leader and Follower and quiet assertion that man or woman can choose to be either. I praise you for this not because I think men and women are the same, but because Saturday reminded me of the strong disadvantages involved in being a Follower, especially when the Lead is a man.

I don't want to beat up on the poor American instructor, who is a really great dancer and no doubt a legend in the worldwide swing community, etc., so I will not get into the nitty-gritty of why I felt uncomfortable with his sexualization of swing-dancing, his nudge-nudge cries to the men to "use" their partners, etc. Instead I will coolly observe that the number one sin of male Leads is to blame their Followers for their own mistakes. And this is very much worth observing, if you are at swing-dancing to make friends.

Meanwhile, the two lessons about Singles I want to talk about today are 1. the brilliance of getting involved in a social-dancing community and 2. learning about men from the way they dance.

The travelling Canadian, in whom I took a patriotic interest, loves to travel and wherever he travels, he tries to go to swing-dancing. This is not unusual in swing-dancers, but it is brilliant.   I love to travel alone, but I hate staying in a foreign place alone, and  I always scurry back to my lodging before dark. During a long, ill-thought-out week in Florence, I went to daily Mass every day, so as to see the same people. They were mostly old ladies in surgical socks, but I was heartened when I saw on the third day that they were all watching to see if I would turn up again.

Well, I had the right idea, but social dancers take it even further: instead of merely being with like-minded people, they interact with them in a mutually agreeable activity. When next I am in Krakow, I will see if I can find a swing-dance night, for whatever my linguistic skills, I can certainly dance in Polish. It would give me something fun to do in the evening, and get me past that whole fear-of-foreign-darkness problem.

This leaping into a foreign dance scene is, once again, easier for Leaders than for Followers, for Leads always do the asking, whereas Followers are merely driven to it.  Because I ask Leaders to dance when nobody has asked me to dance for a bit, I know perfectly well that it must be intimidating to ask a Follower to dance. However, all Followers want to dance and most women are at a social dance because they want to dance. So Followers almost never say no, whereas Leads occasionally just moan and groan and say "It's too fast" or "I'm tired." I'm not sure, but I think sometimes Leads take revenge on not-so-skilled-yet Followers for daring to ask them to dance by flinging us wildly about the room. At any rate, I think very carefully before I ask one of the Lords of Creation to dance. "Is he a nice guy?" is uppermost on my mind.

But do not let me put you off the whole idea. If you can think of another worldwide, weekly social activity in which people share a skill that you think you might enjoy developing, then I recommend taking it up. The Canadian chap made at least three Facebook friends from the local swing-dance community, chatted a lot, danced a lot, and went to lunch with little me. (I invited, he paid--which was very handsome of him.) He is a good dancer--probably advanced-beginner, like me--and not at all egotistical about it.

This brings me to Lesson 2, which is that you can learn a lot about men from the way they dance--or rather, what they act like when they're dancing with you. I am tempted to lump them into groups:

1. The Blamer. The Blamer tells you whenever you have done something wrong, or even when you haven't. The Blamer says "Can I give you some tips?" and then gives you the tips before you have had a chance to say "No." This behaviour is banned in our Code of Conduct, but The Blamer needs no stinking Codes of Conducts.

As annoying as The Blamer is, he fascinates me because blaming women (and others) is the Ur sin of men. Adam did it. Even if it turns out the story of Adam-and-Eve wasn't exactly like it says in Genesis, it sure has the ring of authenticity when Adam says "The woman You gave me tempted me." It was HER fault. It was YOUR fault.  Happily for me, at the end of the evening, I get to go home to B.A. who is patience incarnate and generally passes over my multiple faults with no more than a sigh. He never blames me for his own faults, whatever they may be. (He must have some; maybe he saves them for work.)

2. The Diplomat. The Diplomat is a very good dancer, and he takes his role as a Lead extremely seriously, as if he belongs to the Lead-Knights of  Our Lady of Swing-Dancing. The Diplomat believes that a Lead's primary purpose in life is to make his Follower feel happy and confident on the dance floor. He gives strong and clear cues, he smiles at his partner, and he gauges whether or not his Follower is up to such advanced tricks as the Texas Tommy. He apologizes if he tries it, and she is not. "My fault!" says the Diplomat cheerily.  The Diplomat is, in fact, a self-appointed ambassador for the Nation of Swing, and so he continues to ask beginning Followers to dance, so that they too may become citizens of that happy country one day.

Naturally I love The Diplomat, and if he teaches classes, I take every single one. I also say, "Would you mind if I asked you for for some feedback?" and "Do you take private students?" and "Have you met my pretty friend Betsy?" Just kidding--so far--on that final statement. The best Diplomat I know already has a girlfriend.

3. The Nervous Recruit. The Nervous Recruit is sometimes also a Blamer, but happily he usually isn't. In fact, he is often a better dancer than he gives himself credit for. The Nervous Recruit is the most likely to wail "It's too fast" and "Maybe the next one." If he isn't a Blamer, all this nervousness suggests an attractive masculine humility. Meanwhile, the Follower has to make a difficult decision: does she start to lead a tiny bit? With a Nervous Recruit who suddenly forgetten all he has ever been taught, I think this can be a good idea. It's best to do it verbally. I think this is called "making suggestions"--not what he can do to become a better dancer--not your job--but what you can do together for the next two bars.

If the night is wearing on and nobody has asked me to dance for awhile, I will scan the chairs for a Nervous Recruit. Some of them would probably make strong-minded girls excellent boyfriends, ready to compromise on what film to see after the requisite face-saving bout of argumentation.

4. The Swing Obsessive. The Swing Obsessive has been dancing two nights a week every week for the past four hundred years, with or without a Follower: it obviously doesn't matter to him. If he wants to do the most complex routine at the fastest speeds, he's going to do it, dragging his poor Follower around with him as her eyes rattle in her head.

Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. Still, if you can get such a man to notice you for you, your evenings for the next fifty years are all planned out.

5. The Absent Beloved. The Absent Beloved is all the boyfriends and husbands who can't or won't dance and refuse to go to dance class. This is such a phenomenon that there is a popular swing-dance T-shirt featuring the motto "Why Can't My Boyfriend Dance?" This T-shirt, now that I think about it, could be a subtle way to inform all the men around that you are there only to dance. At any rate, The Absent Beloved is the man you really want to dance with, but you probably never shall. Weep weep.

Meanwhile, your chances of meeting your Future Beloved at Swing Dance may be small if your number one criteria is that he be Catholic and you live in a Protestant-majority country. Go to get out of your Catholic bubble and make friends. Meanwhile, I may start a league of Catholic swing-dancers. I am not sure how yet, but I will give the idea some thought. Perhaps we should start with some secret symbol. Hey! How about a gold crucifix on a gold chain?

6. The Perve.  I have never come across the Perve, but the longer you are in the swing community, the more you hear or--more likely, read--about him. The Perve can either be some lump who takes advantage of the close position of dancing to grope you, or he can be some charismatic teacher who grooms star-struck students for sex. The basic kind of Perve gets thrown out on his ear at once; all you have to do is tell the teachers or the dance organizers (e.g. the ticket-seller), and he is gone. The advanced kind can be avoided if you follow the simple maximum: "Never sleep with your teacher unless you have married him."

I suspect the basic Perve exists at all only because of the inequalities that seem to exist between Leads (usually men) and Followers (usually women), which should be minimized as much as possible. If you feel that you are being led around like a horse or a donkey or some other brute beast, you are doing it wrong. There are all sorts of things a Follower must do, and one is to keep one's shoulders back and upper arms strong, holding one's forearms in the same  position and clamping down gently but firmly on the Lead's arm. A Follower must also have the guts to say cheerfully "It would be easier if you put your hand higher on my back" if there is any doubt about where that hand is going. In my case, 100% of the time, the guy has just been a Nervous Recruit.

7. The Amusingly Elderly. One of the nice things about swing-dancing is that adults of all ages take it up. Therefore, no-one, no matter how young, should view it as a dire insult if an old man asks her to dance. The King of Swing, Frankie Manning, danced until he died in his nineties. The old guys may be great dancers; one of my favourite dance partners is a tiny Polish man who says, "This is how I learned it in Warsaw!" before doing whatever it was they were dancing in Warsaw in, like, 1955. He does it well, and it works with what I know, so it's all good, and I really hope he was not in the SB.

That said, there are men in their 60s (not their 70s and 80s, who giggle when they dance like they are cheating Father Time and getting away with it), who are bossy and boring and ask women 30 years younger than themselves for coffee and get humph-y when the women say "No." However, I have come across only one man like that, and I haven't seen him for a long time. Men who come to swing dance only to meet women either become interested in the dance for itself or disappear.

Goodness. It's past NOON! Alas, I feel I am on my way to becoming a different kind of Swing Obsessive.


  1. Do you know what I have worked out (as a woman standing at 5'8" in bare feet)? It's really hard to dance with men who are shorter than I am. In heels I'm more like 5'11". When a man shorter than me asks me to dance, I accept, but I also hope he won't try any dips or twirls. He always does. I always feel like I'm about this close to jarring my neck (twirls) or falling flat on my back (dips).

  2. All of these describe ballroom/Latin leaders too! Haha!
    You left out number 8. The leader who is experienced, has helped or taught in class, gives strong and clear cues, but doesn't notice or care about the follower's experience, leads them into a complicated or foreign move, and when they can't follow, stops and looks at them like their head turned green. ( not to be mistaken for the Diplomat, who will gauge experience and either coach through a new step or smile and look impressed by the effort of their follower!)

    1. I have encountered this type! I think the only way I could be hauled back into a dance class situation would be if the other students were all beginners too. It's not that I'm self-conscious or that I'm afraid of making mistakes. It's just that people like The Blamer, The Jackass (thanks, Stellamaris!), The Perve and The Obsessive are just people I cannot be bothered to waste my time with.

    2. True, but keep at it! You can't help but improve, and The Diplomats will recognise you (gradually) as being a regular and it will increase your chances of being asked by them and not the others.
      The Jackass annoys me more than The Obsessive and The Blamer.

    3. I think I forgot about The Jackass because the memories are just too painful. Along with looking like you have suddenly sprouted a green head, there's the look of disappointment and abject boredom. Blah-aa-aa! I think there should be a T-shirt for all newbies: "Be Nice To Me; I've Been Here Less Than a Year."

  3. Oh yes--you're right. What should we call him/her?

  4. I can blessedly say I son't recall ever encountering this type, but I submit Jackass.

  5. Update: I had a great time dancing last night--mostly with Nervous Recruits, with two Diplomats and an Amusingly Elderly--who was a pretty good dancer--definitely fun to dance with, and not so good that I felt guilty. I think we need a post on Follows. I shall contact Hip 2 B Square, whom I seem to recall is a long-time swing-dancer and see if he will do a guest post.


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