Thursday 24 September 2015

Further Thoughts on Acceptance and Exclusion in Dance

When I was 12 or so, I thought I'd sign up for ballroom dancing lessons. My mother thought this a good idea and signed up my brother, too, with the promise that she would increase his allowance. Apparently paying brothers to escort sisters to dancing lessons was one of my mother's beliefs. Sadly, the course was undersubscribed and therefore cancelled. It would be more than a decade before I learned the mysteries of the waltz, the foxtrot, the tango and the polka.

The assumption was that one needs to go to dance lessons with a willing partner, but nowadays many dance classes assure the potential subscriber that partners are not needed. Certainly swing-dancing classes in Edinburgh rotate partners, and if sometimes there are not men enough to go around, some plucky women take the lead role. Still, I see some fortunate women bringing leads with them, which means they are guaranteed someone to dance with them at the subsequent socials, and if they stumble and their leads make faces, the girls can kick them in the shins or give them heck at home instead of cringing and smiling in that horrible, weak, subordinate way women so frequently employ. Please forgive me, kind sir. If I could I would self-combust so as to remove my sub-human self from your celestial orbit.

Given that to get through a swing-dancing social as a solo beginner one might need a skin of rawhide, I am rethinking my advice to Single women to take up partner dancing as a way to meet people. The dance world is very big and varied, though, so I will just posit that different clubs have different philosophies when it comes to welcoming beginners. If you're a skilled dancer already, then by all means do not be afraid to join a club in a new town and go to their socials. In cold Edinburgh, I note that there is an unspoken acknowledgement of the aristocracy of talent. If, however, you are a beginner, you may wish to observe and judge how well the organizers welcome complete novices before deciding to risk the socials.

Naturally there will be classes for beginners. And naturally beginners will drop out again and again and again. Thus, those beginner classes never seem to get old and never stop attracting new money. After almost a year of them, I have noticed that new faces tend to disappear after just one or two classes, and how there is an exodus of learners once the social begins. There is a corresponding influx of the old hands, who for the most part dance with each other.

Meanwhile, I have gone to socials almost weekly for six months, and the only conversations I have had there that went deeper than the smallest small talk have been about Polish literature.  (That said, I had an excellent lunch-time talk about religious faith with a visiting Canadian during a Saturday of workshops.)

The question the Single woman will want to ask herself before she sails out for a night of partner-dancing is, "How much more feeling of being-passed-over-by-men can I take?" You pay your money and you take your chances. Me, £5.50 for a lesson and then an hour of, perhaps, not dancing with a soul, is not a painful investment. The lesson will certainly be worth £5.50, and if no-one at all dances with me afterwards, I just go home to my husband and it doesn't matter. £5.50 and an hour of my life--not a bad risk. If my ego takes a topple, B.A. provides a soft landing.

However, I have quite a lot of rejection in my life already. As a freelance writer, I send out material, and sometimes it is accepted, and sometimes it is rejected. Lately I have forced myself to send out fictional stories--my first great love--to magazines, and the magazines gaily reject them. Recently I got two rejections on the same day. That would have been a bad day to find myself at a swing-dancing social, no fellow beginners in sight.

If you are already in a very comfortable place in your life, with a strong emotional support network, and work or study you enjoy and excel at, a bit of cold-shouldering won't hurt you. You may even find it bracing, in a "I'll show them I'm no lightweight" kind of way. However, if you are feeling kicked by life, then I would recommend choosing some other activity than one that entails you having to ask men to dance or standing around hoping men will ask you to dance--unless you are already a very fine dancer indeed. If you are a fine dancer, then I would definitely recommend dancing as a way to meet people, although heaven knows what the fine dancers I see all talk about.  Maybe the feelings of affirmation and the fun of dancing will be enough for you. 

I will ponder further the subject of clubs and activities most likely to welcome and affirm Single women. For the time being, I would suggest picking something that plays to your strengths. If you are crazy about wildflowers, a hiking club might be appreciative of your knowledge of the little feathery things at the side of the path.

Update: To be fair, I have enjoyed myself enough for the past six months to smile through anything. I  even wrote such positive reviews of a swing performance at the Edinburgh Festival that I totally forgot how miserable and out-of-place I felt there until B.A. reminded me. (Sad and embarrassing story. In short, everyone was invited to attend and support the locals in the show. I went happily and joined the people I recognized from swing-dancing on the bleachers. They either looked at me like I had two heads or ignored me completely. Mortifying.)  I may go in the future, if only to chat with other fish-out-of-water. But really, as you can see, I am too cross right now even to fake enjoyment and high spirits.  I am looking forward to seeing how the Toronto scene welcomes newcomers; I already know that Montreal has developed some fantastic ways to develop their community.


  1. Contra dancing is more open to beginners because everyone just lines up however.

    I was one of the people who dropped swing because of the obnoxious social aspects. That, and because the music got boring for me after one summer. There's only so many times I can act like "One eyed cat" is a fun, exciting song I just heard for the first time.

  2. What you have described is exactly my experience, although with social ballroom/Latin instead of swing. Tonight was a good class, although the social after was a little small - none of the 'regulars' asked me to dance - they were all busy dancing with girls who have recently started classes. But the saving grace was that they put on 'progressive' dances, where during the course of the dance you are continually changing partners as you go round the circle. This is great because you at least get to say hello to everyone and it breaks up some guys who NEVER change partners.. (If they never changed while dancing with me, that would be a different story.. ) Yet despite all this, I still love dancing and the better I get the more I enjoy it. I admit to not trying very hard to make friends with the 'in' group, because, quite frankly, I doubt we would ever have more in common than a love of the Mayfair Quickstep. You could say my trials are partly of my own choosing...

    1. I sigh. I just have never come across group dynamics like this for YEARS.

  3. Woot! If this is it, I haven't heard it before.

    If I never hear again our special song for Well-Established People having a birthday or going away, I will be okay.

    However, I have always loved Big Band and other dance jazz, and nothing has killed it yet. I think I must have grown up with it--I suspect a strong grandmotherly influence, plus Elwy Yost and his show "Magic Shadows" on TVO, which every person my age or older born in Ontario can tell you about.

  4. That is a great song. I'd never heard it. I was thinking of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which I always misname. It's a good song, I just got tired of it. I like big band and jazz myself, but no matter what the sound is, I get bored quickly with particular songs.

    The Big Bill Turner version is terrific, but my club always played the Bill Haley one It is also good, but after hearing it every week for a whole summer, I was over it.

    1. Eeek, I could not listen to "Shake, Rattle and Roll" over and over again myself. My sympathies! I am not a rockabilly gal.

  5. I have been swing dancing for years--decades, now, actually--and I too got frustrated by the "scene." I finally concluded that it was a re-enactment of high school and that I was happiest with my own favorite partners, who generally were not A-listers but were fun to dance with, and ignoring the snooty (or shy?) A-listers. I am an advanced dancer but still have nights like the one you described. How well a night goes depends on the dance, the city, the occasion, the teacher affiliated with the dance/practice, the ratio of men to women, and like you said, my starting emotional state. It's a complex formula. If I didn't absolutely love swing dancing I'd have quit long ago, for sure. One thing I love about it is that when I travel (invariably alone), it's a great & safe way to get out and meet people.

    1. I am so heartened by these shared experiences. The funny thing--or the thing that gives me the most hope--is that one of the kindest, sweetest women I know is a swing-dance A-Lister in Montreal. Also, it must be said that there are three A-Listers in my town who do indeed give me the time of day--two gals, one gent--possibly because they are unusually friendly people.


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