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Declining dances

December 8th, 2015
contra  [html]

At a contra dance you'll hear both:
  • If you say no then it's rude to dance with someone else instead.
  • You don't have to dance with anyone you don't want to.

What's going on? Why is there contradictory advice? We can't build a community that has both of these norms at the same time, can we?

The problem is, the norm we'd like for our dance community is more complex than easily fits into a short phrase. In a way, each of these suggestions is right, but each in their own situation.

In general, we want our dances to be the sort of place where everyone dances with everyone. Regardless of dance ability, age, weight, gender, orientation, or height any two people can dance together and have a great time. Sometimes people only want to dance with the best dancers or the most attractive ones, and that's not good for the community. So you should feel free to ask anyone to dance and, if someone asks you you should generally accept unless you're not planning to dance this round.

On the other hand, we don't want to push anyone to dance with people who make them uncomfortable. Maybe you don't enjoy their dancing style, maybe they stare at you in a way you don't like, maybe they hold your arm too tight, maybe they don't shower, maybe they don't support their own weight. If you're up for it, let them know why you don't enjoy dancing with them; they may not have known what they were doing wrong and would be happy to change. But if you're not up for that, or have already tried it, it's also fine to just decline their offer and then go dance with someone else. [1]

The idea is, don't refuse to dance with someone because they're not cool enough, but it's still fine to turn down people who hurt you or otherwise make you uncomfortable.

Even the shortest versions of this, though, are too big to put on signs. What memes do we want to push as a dance community? I'd lean towards:

  • Dance with everyone!
  • It's ok to say no.
I'm not that happy with this, though, and I'm still looking for ideas about how to communicate this in short clear ways that people new to the dance will understand.

(It's hard to avoid a situation where the people who should hear "it's ok to say no" instead hear "dance with everyone" and where the people who should hear "dance with everyone" hear "it's ok to say no". See all debates are bravery debates on the general problem of how hard it is to push a society or community towards a target.)


[1] You can also talk to the organizers if you're unsure, or if you think this dancer's behavior means the organizers might want to have a talk with them. Really, feel free to talk to the organizers: they're probably pretty interesting thoughtful people.

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