the importance of saying “yes”

There’s this thing in Swing Dancing. We don’t say “no.”

At least, that’s the cultural norm. I have often comforted beginners by assuring them, “Don’t worry – they’ll say yes!” The difficulty is that this cultural norm creates an obligation which can be, at times, mildly annoying to more advanced dancers. There are those who dislike having their right to say “no” taken away – I have even personally written about our right to reject, once upon a time.

While I still believe that it is everyone’s right to say no for whatever reason, I have also come to believe that this cultural norm is actually inherently important to the swing dancing scene. In fact, I would argue that this “obligation” creates the welcoming and loving community of which we are so proud in the Swing Dancing World.

First, let’s look at other dance worlds. The first one that comes to mind for me is Ballroom Dancing. I have not been out many times, but I have always felt excluded from that community. I could not tell you why it is, but the only times I have been regularly asked to dance at a Ballroom Dance event is when I was introduced by someone who regularly danced in that community; when I went alone, I was ignored and actually rejected to dance regularly.

The other dance community which comes to mind is Argentine Tango. While I loved the three or four years of dancing Tango, I found the community intimidating. To ask someone to dance in tango, you use a cabaceo: you make eye contact, and you nod, and then you meet on the dance floor. It’s terrifying – and if you actually use your words, the likelihood of rejection increases dramatically. Furthermore, the cabaceo allows for easy and repeated rejection with no penalty to the person saying “no” – it is as easy as looking at the floor.

WHEN I ASK SOMEONE TO DANCE

AND THEY TURN ME DOWN:

In Swing Dancing, asking someone to dance is much easier, with a very low risk of rejection. This cultural norm of accepting dances has created a community with low penalty, meaning a community with a low chance of rejection; moreover, rejection is often paired with a deferral: a promise to dance later. And it is this cultural standard of saying “yes,” I believe, which has influenced other fantastic aspects of our community.

My theory is that the low penalty in our community is one of the biggest contributors to the open and welcoming atmosphere which is so common in the Swing Dance community. When I ask someone to dance and they answer with “yes,” it makes me feel accepted. The special part of the Lindy Hop World is that any person – no matter their clothes or personality or age or gender or whatever – will be accepted.* The Lindy Hop world is a friendly one.

This idea comes in the wake of Lindy Focus, which I believe is one of the most amazing, community-driven events in the world. We laugh, we cry, we get drunk, and we stay up late – but most of all, we have a culture of love and acceptance which is incredible. We are exceedingly proud of the open and loving nature of the Lindy Hop World. We brag about it. We revel in it. At least, I do. And saying “yes” is an important foundation on which that world is built.

So for a moment, I would like to celebrate this odd little “obligation” that so many of us feel: because the Lindy Hop world is a badass community to be a part of, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

***

*This assumes two important things: (1) That you love Lindy Hop; on the other hand, if you don’t, you probably don’t want to be part of our community anyways; (2) That you are not actively antagonizing anyone in our community (the most common example I know if is when a lead actively makes follows uncomfortable), which we do not accept, end of story. A tentative (3) is that you understand that the “pretzel” is not a real move, and should be banned from the Lindy Hop Vocabulary except for in jest.

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  One thought on “the importance of saying “yes”

  1. David Jones
    14 January 2013 at 6:05 am

    I totally agree with everything you said. This is what made Lindy Hop so wonderful and fun to me when I first started dancing — a few years ago I had never danced a day in my life — I was very nervous and prepared for utter failure, but I wanted to give it a try — and to my surprise, everyone was very welcoming, no one judged me: in fact, most everyone I apologized to for being new, said something like, “I don’t care, I’m just here to have fun and as long as you’re having fun, you’re doing great!” I also remember a few times when a rare individual turned me down or criticized my lack of rhythm: and that was soul crushing — several times I wondered if I was just imagining that I was improving or that people actually enjoyed dancing with me, but gradually I grew a thicker skin and realized that yes, people actually were having fun dancing with me.
    And a big part of what helped build my confidence was when people that I recognized as really good Lindy Hoppers would ask lil’ ole ME to dance — that always made me so happy! Or if they would say something complimentary or even just smile during the dance, it made me feel a lot more comfortable. So anyway, I think it is very important that no matter how good you get, you should always make time to dance with beginners at every dance… also, you may never know how a kind word or a smile may turn that person into an important member of your dance community — or conversely, how turning them down or frowning at an awkward step might kill their spirit, so that they become one of those people who give up after a few weeks. So, be kind and have fun!

    • 14 January 2013 at 6:50 am

      That’s really what I’m trying to get at, David — that how we respond to dancers, especially new ones, really affects whether or not they will continue to dance, and whether or not our scene will continue to grow. We have a lot of awesomeness in the Lindy Hop World, and every time we say yes to another dancer, we get to share that!

  2. Andy Weaver
    14 January 2013 at 6:42 am

    This was a really refreshing take on this topic, Normally, a post like this one is a lamentation on not have the “right of refusal”, and how one feels really obligated. You hit the nail on the head. This is one of our cultural norms that makes things friendly and welcoming. At Lindy Focus this past month, I was on both sides of this. The Lindy Focus main floor is an interesting set of concentric rings, centered at the Cat’s Corner at stage right, and as you get closer and closer, the dancing gets better and better, but the intimidation factor also goes up. Look one way, and you see people who would prefer dancing with people of a caliber I can’t match. Look the other way, and you see a lot of people in “lower level” classes who are on the other side. I was walking toward someone I would love to dance with, when I was tapped on the shoulder by someone who asked with the look that says, “if you want”. And yes, I felt that I should dance with them, and it was a great dance. After that, I walked on to the person I had seen previously, and asked her to dance with a “if you aren’t busy” look, knowing, for the most part, that I’d get the same result.

    It even extends to our stars and professionals. Part of a teaching couple’s appeal is their willingness to dance with all of their students. Those who are really friendly make it. Those who let you know that dancing with students is annoyance don’t.

    Thank you for taking the time to articulate and write this. It is a wonderful take on what makes it possible for a person to go to a city they have never been too, and know no one, go to a dance, and fit right in. It is a wonderful thing.

    • 14 January 2013 at 6:49 am

      I think we focus on our right to say no a lot, but that often portrays a very negative response to a question which is supposed to be positive. Thanks so much for the response!

  3. 14 January 2013 at 6:54 am

    Here’s a personal story. I took my mother to a west coast swing dance one time. I’d taught her a few basics beforehand, she took the beginner’s group lesson, and then it was time for social dancing. At some point in the evening, a man asked her dance, and right after they started, she admitted she was just a beginner. Obviously, the guy could tell, and he stopped dancing.

    This man ended a dance in the middle of a song just because the person he was dancing with was a beginner.

    When I found out about this, I was absolutely horrified. It was just beyond rude; ever since I started learning social partner dancing, it just seemed like common etiquette/courtesy to not refuse a dance with someone just because she or he was a beginner. After all, everyone was a beginner at some point. Since I was still new-ish to the westie community at the time, it’s definitely affected and somewhat shaped how I view the culture as a whole. I’ve been a westie for about a year and a half now, and I’ve only just started warming up to the locals. I was always uncannily intimidated by them – it felt like I had to improve my abilities as a west coast dancer to a certain level before I was able to approach the people in this clique.

    In contrast, I find that I’m absolutely loving the lindy hop community in the relatively short time that I’ve been a part of it. Everyone’s so much friendlier, inviting, and warm. People are actually *approachable*, damnit. Now, it’ll still be a while until lindy hop and I really start getting along, but the people in this community are enough to make me want to come back to dances and keep learning and improving.

    • 14 January 2013 at 7:17 am

      Er, this is Kevin Kim by the way. I realized that my username might lend no help to the identity of the person posting the comment.

  4. anonymous
    15 January 2013 at 9:35 pm

    I am very much in agreement with the post. In particular, I agree that while a person always has the right to decline an invitiation to dance (and that there are some good reasons for doing so), the bias toward saying “yes” goes a long way toward making the Lindy community friendly.

    However, it must be realized that people often find ways of excluding others without actually saying “no”. I’ve attended dances where the better regular dancers wouldn’t even make eye contact with visitors. I’ve seen scenes (including, sadly, my own) where the “inner circle” of dancers was so caught up in themselves that those not in the “circle” were afraid to ask them to dance. I know dancers who defend the practice of giving the evil eye to discourage certain people from asking them to dance.

    The point is, merely saying yes to someone who dares to ask isn’t sufficient to be friendly. Actually, a polite “no” is probably nicer than any of these ways of discouraging people.

    • 15 January 2013 at 11:29 pm

      I really agree — there are many ways to encourage (and discourage) new or out-of-town dancers, and we’re not always aware of how body language and social actions contribute to the overall atmosphere of a dance scene.

      I think an openness to saying yes, for some people, is the first step; however, it’s not the same as making an effort to ask beginners to dance, or even just putting on an encouraging demeanor. Still, the use of the word “no” is so accepted and almost encouraged in today’s dance scenes that a simple reversal of that attitude could go a long ways.

      • 16 January 2013 at 5:37 pm

        My experience has been that telling people no, in many dance scenes, still gets you labeled a jerk. Especially if you don’t qualify it with a reason. I’ve heard multiple times at the end of beginning lessons instructors tell their students “ask everyone, anyone who says no is just a jerk, don’t worry about it”. The “it’s acceptable to say no” movement (if you can call it that) is still young and not always looked highly upon.

  5. anonymous
    16 January 2013 at 10:02 pm

    It might help if the “it’s acceptable to say no” movement would supply some sample reasons for when it’s appropriate to say no. e.g. “I need a break.” or “I don’t want to dance to this song, but I’ll look for you later”. or “it’s physically painful to dance with you”. or “I have an injury and fear that dancing with anyone who isn’t extremely skilled will exacerbate that injury”. or “I’ve been dancing with beginners all evening and would like to have a couple of dances that aren’t quite so limited” or even “I’ve seen the way you dance with other people enough to know I won’t be comfortable to dance with you.”

    New dancers need to know that when someone says “no”, it’s not necessarily about them personally. And at the same time, it can help them to have some idea about things that dancers can work on to make it more likely that people would say “yes”.

  6. 6 August 2013 at 8:51 am

    Thanks for posting such an interesting blog.

    I run tea dances that encourage all forms of social dance. We mainly focus on ballroom and Latin but also cover swing, different forms of tango and Latin. I agree that on the whole the swing scene is the most friendly but I would encourage you to try other dance styles before consigning one whole scene to the scrap yard after one poor experience. I have managed to find friendly Argentine Tango scenes, ballroom and Latin scenes, and even Salsa scenes! I have also spoken to people who won’t go near swing because they felt threatened by the seriousness of it all.

    I’m interested in social dance history and at one point it would have been unacceptable for someone to say ‘no’ to a dance. You would never have left someone half way through a track and everyone was expected to make everyone else feel welcome. But then there was also a time that only men did the asking, people of the same sex where not allowed to dance with each other and swing dancing was only allowed in the last half hour of the night – because it was considered so disruptive to the dance floor.

    We take the etiquette we want and create our own culture. The important thing to remember is that we are all going for fun. I am mainly a lead, so feel the pressure as – often – the minority in the room to say yes, yes, yes…all night. I hear the complaints that some follows have, that a particular person said ‘no’ or that he isn’t very friendly and won’t make eye contact, but I also see the other side of the picture. Where you can’t get back to your drink before someone else is dragging you back to the floor, where you haven’t managed to speak to anyone all night because you have only been spinning people around the floor. Sometimes all people could do with being a little more sensitive. A case in point: I often enjoy following and if I am friendly with any of the leads in the room will ask for a dance. On more than one occasion, I have had women come up to me (sometime whilst I’m dancing) and make it known that they believe that because I’m male and a lead, I shouldn’t be waisting a track dancing with another male lead – totally forgetting that it is my evening to enjoy too!

    • 6 August 2013 at 9:49 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Matthew!

      I agree with you in that the openness of a dance scene is very specific to the local scene culture – in this post, I spoke about my personal experiences with Ballroom and Tango at the time, but I’ve also recently found myself in a very open and friendly ballroom scene. An interesting idea I’ve come to consider recently is that the more involved in a scene you become, the more you perceive it as friendly and open to outsiders – even when it might not be. In this case, we would all perceive our own scene as friendly and inviting because we’re unaware of how it appears to others.

      I also think saying yes should also be a person’s choice – because leads and follows alike can be insensitive to the reasons someone might say no (a need for water, a shirt schange, etc.).

      I think it stands, though, that the friendliness of a scene – no matter the main dance on the floor – is influenced strongly by how often the established dancers in the scene (and often the more advanced dancers) will say yes to a dance. Here, I’m more concerned with those who take the right of anyone to say “No” ( a good post here: http://lindyhopproblems.tumblr.com/post/55802705574) and turn it into “I can discriminate against anyone, because I have the right to dance only with the people I want to dance with.”

      Last, I am sorry to hear that you’ve experienced the angst of follows frustrated that you’re a male who likes to follow every so often. It’s a whole different topic of coversation, but I think Bobby White addresses it well: http://swungover.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/meditatin-a-leaderfollower-conundrum/.

      I’d love to know more about tea dances! How are the structured? Is it different from what we would consider to be a normal dance?

  7. Hegne
    6 August 2013 at 3:35 pm

    During my last few years as a Lindy Hopper, I have been to 50, 60 or even more events all over Europe. There is no pattern on how many no’s or yeses you will get in a specific country, it always depends on the person you get to ask and/or what group of dancers he/she might belong to. In London for example I have only had no’s from a certain group of followers who I would say consider themselfes to be in the top 30. Not one rejection from any of the dancers outside the “cats corner” though.
    So the one good advice I’d give to the students is: just never be afraid of asking! Nobody will ever be mad at you for having him/her asked for a dance.
    Be prepaired for a no, but never be afraid of asking.
    Do not tell your students that they will almost certain hear a yes, but teach them to still go out there and ask anybody they want to….
    I heared a lot of no’s, but I never got bitten,…. true story!

    • 7 August 2013 at 2:54 am

      I think that’s a great way to think about it, Hegne! I would rather teach students to be prepared for a “no,” but to always ask. It takes the burden of being expected to say “yes” off the person being asked, and it teaches new dancers to appreciate a “yes,” rather than to expect it.

      Thanks for the input!

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