How to deal with dance partners who hurt you

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I recently had a set of privates with an older male leader (let's call him Phil) who was a very nice man and well liked in the community but has received complaints from followers that he hurt them. 

Many followers would say that they can relate - this is a common issue in many communities - particularly with male leaders.

But many leaders might be thinking, "well, I've never had any complaints, but I can think of a few followers who fit this description!".

That's fair - both leaders and followers can be guilty of bad habits that end up hurting their partners.

But I'm going to drop a truth bomb here:

Just because no one is complaining doesn't mean they aren't suffering.

In other words, you might think that you don't fall into the "dangerous partner" category, but the fact that no one has complained does not prove it.

You still might be hurting partners and not know it.

In this article, I'm going to address:

  1.  Why partners don't mention when they get hurt
  2. Who's fault it is when you get hurt
  3. Why you need to speak up
  4. What to do and say when a partner hurts you

If you struggle with partners hurting you, we think you're gonna love this!

It happens to everyone, but speaking up can feel almost worse! Here's a guide on what to do and say when a partner hurts you.

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Why partners don't mention when they get hurt

As a teacher, I hear all the complaints that dancers never tell their partners directly, so here are three common possibilities:

  1. They might not be sure it was your fault, and might blame themselves out of uncertainty. 
  2. They don't plan on dancing with you again, so it's not worth worrying about (such as when you don't live in the same area)
  3. (most common) They are terrified of confronting you. Let's talk more about this last one.

It's not that you are terrifying. It's the idea of confrontation that is super stressful for many people. Conflict-avoidance is a survival mechanism. It's hard to speak up and stand up for yourself when you want to preserve the relationship (such as a dance acquaintance you see every week). I know! I myself experience conflict avoidance on both sides on the daily!

Of course, this applies to all humans, but I have observed that "Masters-aged" women tend to be the most reluctant to speak up. In speaking with many of them I've learned that this is often a "genderational" thing:

  •  "Back in my day, women speaking up was frowned upon", or 
  • "Men in my generation wouldn't tolerate feedback from a woman, so I learned to keep my mouth shut", or 
  • "My mother always taught me if I didn't have anything nice to say, then say nothing".

In other words, silence is their default, because it has been trained into them over decades, and speaking up can feel more uncomfortable than the injury itself. If this applies to you, you might want to unpack that and see how it might be affecting other areas of your life.

But for most people, it can feel easier to avoid the person rather than confront the issue and risk offending someone, even if it's really really really needed.

Don't worry I'm going to show you how to solve this!

Whose fault is it?

The reason anyone gets hurt is because of bad mechanics.  Regardless of which partner started it, the bottom line is that the physics of your shared movement in a certain moment were not safe.

This points directly to missing fundamental movement skills from one or both partners, which is why we emphasize the necessity of learning fundamental technique - 

fundamental technique is not an optional refinement, it's an essential requirement for safety and efficiency.

Note: Hurting partners is not a Beginner problem. It's a fundamentals problem. There are many dancers with years of experience who never had the chance to learn efficient fundamental movement skills. 


If you develop solid fundamental technique and compensation skills, you will be better able to prevent your own injury even with a dangerous partner. So even if the mistake is their fault, it's still my responsibility to compensate to keep us both safe.

Yes, we provide thorough details on all the fundamental skills (plus ways to compensate for all kinds of partners' bad habits( inside our coaching programs, but let's stay on topic... 

For some humans, it's automatic for them to blame their partner as a reflex to subconsciously avoid shame. As a result, they might instinctively complain about a partner who's difficult before considering that they might be responsible for causing the difficulty.

So, many dancers are completely ignorant to the fact that they are hurting their partner, not only because of missing physical skills, but also because they are subconsciously (not intentionally) avoiding taking responsibility.

The point here is that your partner likely isn't hurting you maliciously...

they are doing their best with the tools they have and are not aware that you are uncomfortable.

Which means you need to speak up.

Dancers actually have the power to make every single dance a little safer regardless of their technical understanding just by paying attention to their human they are attached to.

With my student Phil, I noticed he was frequently looking away during critical moments when my frame was vulnerable, and pulling me without realizing my body wasn't ready.

As soon as I asked him to watch me, he instinctively waited until my frame or weight was in a safer position. So a little paying attention goes a long way.

Why you need to speak up

Let's think about Phil's perspective. In his case, shame was not the problem. He was a humble man with respect for women and was proactive in trying to learn what he was doing wrong to hurt them.

The problem was that his followers withheld saying anything during the dance, and only mentioned that they got hurt long after (days/weeks) the dance was over.

Even more frustrating, not one of his partners had ever explained to him how he hurt them, so he was not only crushed because he genuinely wants to avoid hurting them, but he also had no idea what to change.

Now let's look at it from a follower's point of view.

Phil was unusually proactive in solving his problem. But most people will only go to the doctor when they feel sick. So if your partner gets the impression that everything is perfectly fine, why would they change anything?

The price of not speaking up when you get hurt

  • If you don't speak up, nothing changes. This affects not only your safety, but the safety of all the other partners they will have and might hurt in the future.
  • Every time this partner asks you to dance, you'll have to prepare to get hurt, or work on building a creative repertoire of ways to decline and avoid them. 
  • They might start imagining reasons why you are avoiding them that might reflect badly on you, such as "you're a snob", or "you think you're too good to dance with me".
  • The more dancers you have to avoid, the smaller your partner pool gets

Now, speaking up doesn't have to be aggressive, or offensive, or rude. Prepare what to say, with kindness, from a mindset of wanting to gain a safe partner in the community.

What to do and say when a partner hurts you

Of course this goes for both leaders and followers.

In the moment

1a. React noticeably. I would avoid yelling "OW", as this could be unnecessarily embarrassing. I would say it more privately, or (without a mask), wince and make some other pain noise. Hopefully, your partner notices and immediately backs off whatever was hurting.

1b. (At the same time as #1a) Save yourself. You will likely react instinctively here, such as releasing your connection or touching the injured body part.

2a. If it's not severe, keep "dancing" (grooving) and reconnect as soon as you can. Hopefully your partner will quickly check in to see if you're ok to continue.  If you are, nod and finish the dance. Don't pout about it - make a decision to enjoy the rest of the song and deal with it after. Make a mental note which move hurt you so you can tell them later.

2b. If it's severe, stop completely, say "I'm hurt and need to stop", and possibly ask for them to escort you off the floor. Do not run away without them because this will make you look like the bad guy.

After you are done dancing

3. Give them a second to initiate the question "Are you ok/What happened/What did I do?". If they don't initiate, it's up to you to speak up before they walk away. You can say something like, "I got a bit hurt during that dance, could I explain what happened?" and then pull them aside where they won't get distracted with someone asking them for the next song.
Skip to #7.

If the incident is in the past

4. If this incident is still causing you to avoid dancing with them: Give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have good intentions and that they have no idea they hurt you or others. They need to know so that the cycle doesn't continue. Either you need to speak up or you need to tell the teacher so they can intervene.

5. Speaking up involves pulling them aside during a quiet moment when they seem to be in a good or neutral mood, and having a conversation. You could start it with something like, "I wonder if I could talk to you about something?"

6. If they ask you to dance and you want to say no: Here’s a wonderful script recommended by Allstar Kay Newhouse for what you can say when they ask you to dance:

“I’m sorry I can't dance with you.” maybe also: “but how are you? it’s nice to see you, my friend.” (to make it clear you are not rejecting them as a person)

If they ask why: “I would like to dance with you (if that part is true), but I can’t/won’t because I can’t do it safely.” or “I don’t know how to dance with you in a way that doesn’t hurt me.”

Once you have their attention

7. Start with something like, "I feel the need to tell you about something that happened, so you can help ensure it doesn't happen again. <Just now/The last time we danced>, I got hurt... (explain exactly which move hurt and if it was one time or frequently)...

Then consider adding: "...and as result, I've been avoiding dancing with you because I am afraid of getting hurt again."

8. They might ask you "What should I do differently?" This is VERY encouraging, so be sure to change your tone from "concerned" to "happy and helpful". If they don't initiate this question, continue with "Can I explain what I need /what would feel better to me?" Depending on your own skill level, you might at this point offer to explain how the leader could have done the movement more safely for you. If you don't know how to explain it, see #9.

9. Suggest consulting a teacher. If your teacher is in the room, see if they are available for a quick question. If they are not, say something like, "I'm pretty sure that <teacher> could explain it much better than I could. You could ask them later, but actually this is the kind of thing I know a lot of <leaders/followers> work on in their private lessons. I think this would be worth it to avoid hurting other <followers/leaders> and having them avoid you, what do you think?"

The next time after your feedback

10. The next time you are faced with the possibility of dancing with them, remind them to be mindful of <your shoulder/being gentle/twisting the wrist, etc> because it's easy for humans to forget. If they do a good job, be sure to smile and thank them, because humans respond well to positive reinforcement.

11. If you had been commiserating with other dancers about this person's bad habits, be sure to report back to them if you have noticed improvement so you can help repair this person's reputation.

Know some people in your dance community who could use this? Pass it on!

Read more

Answers to all your "what do I do if..." questions! Stay tuned for Part 2 next week! #sharingiscaring #wcscoachscorner #techniquestacticsstrategies

“What should you do if…”, “What happens when…”, “How can I handle…”, “How do I deal with…” These are all questions that students of all levels batter their teachers with. They are tactical questions – they ask for circumstantial advice, or recommendations for particular situations that have to do with not just the physical side of

The sequel to last week's "What do I do if..." guide! #wcscoachscorner #techniquestacticsstrategies

When it comes to social dancing, many dancers ask us questions like “How should I handle it when…?” or “What do I do if…?”   These are Tactical questions. In Part 1 of this series, I defined the difference between Techniques, Tactics, and Strategies which are important distinctions to read about to help you get

Got any suggestions of things to say that worked for you? Leave a comment below!

As a leader, do you wish playful followers would let you lead more? Or wonder why more followers don’t play with you they way they do when they dance with other leaders?

As a follower, do you wonder how you can “be a good follower” when you have so many ideas of your own during a song? Or wish you had more playful repertoire? It’s all about balancing role and self-expression.

West Coast Swing attracts both men and women because of the music and the easy cool factor of the movement. But it attracts the women a bit more for a different reason: the freedom.

  Disclaimer:

This article describes historical events and their influence on modern-day West Coast Swing, and therefore refers to the traditional roles of male leaders and female followers. It is not a commentary on the evolution of gender neutrality in leader/follower roles. Binary terms are used for simplicity, but we assume that any gender can dance either role.

 

The unique conversation balance

WCS is the most liberating partner dance available. While there is structure, there exists far more of a conversation in WCS than in other dance styles. The very nature of improvisation lends itself to both partners participating – it would be pretty boring to go to a dinner party just to talk to yourself. 

In any civilized conversation, there are two roles to be played: speaker and listener. One can not function without the other. In most partner dances, the dancers stick to their designated roles: the (traditionally male) leader only speaks and the (traditionally female) follower only listens, creating a lecture.  But in a conversation, the roles get exchanged: they transfer fluidly between the participants – when one stops speaking, the other takes over, and the original speaker yields to become the listener. In most circumstances, assuming you were raised well, this is done effortlessly and without a struggle. WCS is this conversation. There is an intriguing exchange of speaking that is unique to WCS. 

 

The women’s chance to speak

Clearly not a “lady of the evening”, but gotta love this sailor’s pose

Historically, there is a version that tells of “ladies of the evening” trying their best to dance flirtatiously with the drunken sailors on shore leave who couldn’t quite manage to lead them. The women have kept this self-expression through the decades, and the leaders have enjoyed the entertainment even when sober. Let’s face it – it’s a relief to let someone else drive for a spell.

But sober leaders had ideas. They valued patterns and spins – the more the better. There was hardly any room for play. A good follower was determined by her ability to keep up with the most amount of crazy s**t leaders could throw at her. This kept her so busy there was no time for self-expression unless the leader showed rare mercy on her and granted her a few beats at the end of a pattern to fill time, or “throwing her the scraps”. Dancers from this era became masters of fast spins and pre-set, rhythmic patterns.

 

The pendulum swings

The conversation had become such a dictatorship that the followers were rebelling, insisting on expressing themselves. When I first started WCS in 2000, it was at the height of a trend called “hijacking”. This trend influence many, but not all – enough to see common behaviour patterns emerge:

chickeninterrupt

The experienced followers of this era became extremely adept at stealing the lead, but they did so with no regard for the flow of the dance, regardless of the leader’s intentions or positioning. Phrasing was often sacrificed, because neither dancer was in control of the team hitting the break. This turned the conversation into a battle of interruption.

It got so brutal that it was disempowering the men. It was common to see leaders sullenly abandoning their footwork and resorting to just acting as the jungle gym as the follower had their way with the slot. The musicality belonged to the follower. The leader was just there to provide the framework, which the follower might decide to change anyway. Over time the leaders became so complacent, their progress as dancers suffered.

Let’s be clear: hijacking is bad news, just as hijacking a bus or a plane. Nobody joins dancing for the battle. In the traditional roles of partner dancing, the men might like the idea that they get to be the boss for 3 minutes and the ladies are supposed to follow them. The followers might like the idea of letting the man sweep her off her feet and take her for a ride. There was no battle – it was an agreement both could benefit from. I’m not saying WCS doesn’t still deliver in that department, but the priorities are different. 

Also, to be clear: self-leading is also bad news. Initiating a movement before the leader has a chance to lead it sabotages the partnership much like hijacking does. Backleading, on the other hand, is an advanced skill that is productive and cooperative: the follower notices that the mechanics required for the move to function are not happening, so she produces them herself without changing roles or the original intention of the movement. This requires an advanced skillset and involves a keen awareness of both roles.  

 

The pendulum swings back

The hijacking trend passed (or evolved) as leaders started stepping up and being more proactive. They started leading more musically – adapting and tailoring their patterns to suit the slower, more interpretive music. The followers were so entertained and occupied by the variable patterns they couldn’t predict, they were not able to hijack as much. They found the leaders had more interesting things to say that were worth listening to. So they started listening again.

For some, listening is already in their comfort zone, so they don’t bother speaking up. Which is fine because it’s their choice. But for others who found and fell in love with this dance because of the self-expression opportunities, it’s the conversation; the banter; the game that they’re after. 

When the leaders weren’t being hijacked incessantly, they became more willing to offer opportunities for the follower to play – after all, it’s a relief to let someone else drive for a while, remember? But now the game has changed. The patterns are different, the music is slower and more interpretive. The leaders have started getting better at improvising: good leaders are not as attached to their choreographed patterns as they used to be – there are more open-ended questions. They invite the followers to play (when it is convenient for them), because there is no rush to get to the next move. When the leaders invite the followers to speak for a while, they themselves assume the listener role. 

 

How to use turn-taking principles in the conversation of a dance

turntaking

WCS has always been a dance of action-reaction. But this concept is vague, and not always well-explained. There is the obvious biomechanics application of Newtonian laws. But in terms of the conversation, there is a easy, effortless, respectful, back-and-forth agreement between partners. They exchange roles agreeably and fluidly: the primary leader guiding most of the structure of the dance, the follower decorating it whenever possible.

But as anyone would hope in a balanced conversation, at some point the speaker pauses to ask questions, hear feedback, or yield a turn: allow the listener to speak for a while, then builds off of what they said to progress the conversation forward.

In WCS, this is called an “invitation lead”. If a leader invites the follower to play, he should allow her to finish her idea and give the lead back to him. With few exceptions, interrupting her before she’s “done” would make him guilty of hijacking.

Sometimes the listener can prompt the speaker to pause so that she may have an opportunity to contribute. In WCS, this is called a “request”, which involves the follower giving a physical signal with a change in connection or grip that indicates to the leader that she has an idea to contribute. This is welcome occasionally if it does not interrupt the flow of what the leader was leading, but if it causes an interruption in momentum that is too challenging for the leader to react and adapt to, it will be annoying. If it is a convenient moment, the leader should grant her request and yield to or support her idea by pausing to listen (reciprocating her connection or pausing his movement).

If the speaker does not respond, this might be because he is unaware, he does not have these advanced conversation skills yet, or he is not in a good position to stop and attend to her. In this case, the follower must make her following role take priority and save her idea for a later opportunity – prepared to abandon her idea in a split second to salvage the flow of the dance. Just as in a conversation, if the follower insists, it would be considered interrupting/hijacking, and might sacrifice both partners’ safety. You may have heard the advice, “Follow first, play second”. Now you have the details you needed to really understand that phrase.

 

Both partners’ responsibilities

It is crucial for both partners to understand how to listen and how to speak. This does not change the primary roles, however. Part of the primary speaker’s role is to be sensitive and responsive to the primary listener. And part of the primary follower’s role is to be aware of the general game plan and detect and take advantage of convenient opportunities to direct and contribute to the conversation.

This is particularly evident these days as dancers are struggling to recapture the neglected art of phrasing. This element of our dance was second nature to dancers 20 years ago in the era when pre-set rhythmic patterns were the commodity. But with so much interpretive shaping and conversation-ing going on over the last 10 years or so, many dancers have come up through the ranks not understanding how to count phrases and dance appropriately to music math. The degeneration of this dominant aspect of musicality is not only calling the leaders to task, but also the followers in their responsibility to be aware of the phrasing game and their role in it.

Teachers also have a responsibility to explain the nature of this unique aspect of WCS to students as they progress. Around the world, we see eager dancers eating YouTube clips for breakfast, trying to copy moves they admire without understanding the mechanics and rules involved. When these “learners” start teaching, rather than getting appropriate training they make up their own rules about how followers should express themselves, and pass these misunderstandings on to their students. I have heard reports from overseas students that a few teachers advise the followers, “If you want to play, you have to ‘surprise’ your leader so he’s thrown off guard and he has no choice”…  This isn’t martial arts.

As for getting training, yes, this is a topic that is included in the Swing Literacy Teacher Development Program. Of course, you can’t expect to learn the technical intricacies of invitation lead or musical phrasing from reading a article! And don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can visually lead “signals” for it to work.  There is a ton of technique involved in the connection skills required for this type of conversation, which is beyond the scope of this article. Where can you get it? Well, private lessons of course (live or online), and tailored Intensives. We also have some damn good video resources at the bottom of this page.  

 

What good listening gets you 

Followers love leaders who listen. Even if the follower has nothing to contribute, the leader needs to pay attention to the effect his efforts are having on the follower. In other words, check to see if you (leader) are being heard.

Leaders love followers who listen. It’s annoying when a follower self-leads before the leader has had a chance to do it himself. In other words, just because you (follower) can predict what the leader will say, doesn’t mean you should say it simultaneously.  Stay behind.

This ease of exchanging turns speaking has lent itself to many dancers’ curiosity in exploring the opposite role. This has nothing to do with sexuality – simply dancers looking for a challenge and enjoying learning a new “language”. Dancers are also experimenting with role-switching, which involves trading roles completely for only a few measures or phrases at a time, assuming each partner is skilled at the opposite role. This trading is still an easy, effortless conversation: the game is to create smooth transitions – to disturb the flow as little as possible. Learning the opposite role trains you to empathize and appreciate the needs of your partner. Learning to role-switch trains you to observe and analyze flow in order to manipulate it.

Today, hijacking is considered as rude as interrupting in a conversation. The leaders should be trained to offer opportunities for play to the follower regularly during any social dance. If the followers are offered sufficient opportunities to express themselves, they don’t feel the need to “steal” them. Followers should be trained to detect invitation leads and armed with an arsenal of dance movements they can choose from to contribute in the moment.

In order to have a good time social dancing today, WCS dancers need to respect their responsibilities as good communicators. No one likes an argument, and everyone likes to be listened to. 

 

Further Study

 

 

 

 

 


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Leave a Reply
  1. Fantastic advice as always! I especially like the way you phrased "I got hurt" instead of "You hurt me." I love the way this does not attack the other person but informs them there is a problem, and then opens the door to respectful problem solving. You are right too about all the reasons that many of us avoid these conversations, but these tools will help us all. Thank you!

  2. thanks for this great piece. I have an addendum re: a pet peeve of mine. many times leaders who do not file their nails have stabbed & scratched my hands and arms with their razor sharp nails. I know, not as serious as getting shoulder or other muscle or ligament injuries but IT HURTS & so easily preventable! Leaders: PLEASE FILE YOUR NAILS! NOTE: I did not say "cut your nails", that makes them shorter, but equally sharp or even MORE sharp. your nails can be long but not cause pain or scratches to your partner as long as they are filed. Run a nail file across them until you can draw them across your own inner arm skin without pain. Male a quick nail filing part of your personal hygiene regimen before you go to a dance. THANK YOU!

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