Social dancing and awkwardness.

Brian and I have been taking dancing lessons lately – Wednesday nights for an hour we go and learn the basics of west coast swing – which is one of those social dance forms involving lots of spins and pushes and underarm passes once you get the standard pattern down….. (here’s a short improv example of some champion dancers – suffice to say we’re not that good…. yet). We just thought it would be fun to learn some form of partner dance so that when we are out somewhere and there’s dancing we could do more together than just wiggle our hips in time to the music (though that’s pretty good too) – so we’re doing it and fumbling through the first faltering steps with as much humour as possible. What else can you do really? Dance, like anything, is simply a matter of practicing until comfortable….. right?

What I find both interesting (and a little dreadful) about our class is that we are required to switch partners every few minutes or so. We could opt out and stay together because we come with a ready partner – but most people don’t, so it’s really only fair to participate in this way, plus the idea is to gain comfort dancing with more than one person. Everyone is a different kind of lead and follow, different body types and styles of movement etc. It’s pretty easy for me to dance with Brian because we’re so comfortable together – not as straight forward when it comes to dancing (and communicating) with a total stranger. So on one hand, partner switching is positive. On the other hand, with the exception of Brian and one other guy who is having a good time, the men in this class are some of the most socially awkward people I’ve ever met – to the point of real rudeness (and I think in one case there’s some deep-seated misogyny going on). For the most part they won’t make eye contact, small talk or even crack a smile – preferring instead to look over my shoulder while literally pushing me around the dance floor. I get that they are the lead and all, but woah, we don’t need to dislocate my shoulder do we? There’s one guy there who has no idea what he’s doing – none – and yet proceeds to “dance” confidentally, flinging me around out of time to the music while never making eye contact or relaxing his face which is frozen into a grim mask for the duration of the class. There’s another who frequently stops to lecture me about what I’m doing wrong (I anticipate the lead too much – big deal – you’re not the instructor and it’s not your place to put me down mid-dance).

Now I get that people take these classes in order to get a skill that enables them to go out and meet someone – possibly on a dance floor – one day. And I also can understand that some of these men are lonely, and perhaps uncomfortable with being so close to women if they aren’t used to it. But what I want to tell each of them is their inability to dance is *not* their impediment to meeting women. It’s so much more basic than that. Small talk, a bit of humor, a smile or eye contact. These are the basic building blocks to meeting people and having them want to continue the conversation. And it depresses me a little, because there’s at least one who I can tell has a real struggle with basic connection. Like he has never been able to connect with other people – male or female – and this class is just one more frustrated attempt to figure out why.

I recognize that perhaps they aren’t trying all that hard with the women in the class because we are just “practice” dancers like them…. but really, if you were looking for social dance practice, wouldn’t you want to practice the other parts too? Like light conversation? I can always hear Brian chatting each of his new partners up at the end of the room he’s on and from what I observe, most of the women respond really positively to and seem to be having quite a bit of fun despite his occasional confusion in the steps (he tells me there are a couple of women who are difficult to dance with because of their social awkwardness but it isn’t the majority)…. and I think that’s the point really. We’re learning to dance because dance is fun and social. The minute someone gets a death-march stare on their face I’m thinking “can we switch partners now?” so I can get past feeling I am part of this experience that seems so burdensome to my partner-of-the-moment.

It’s good practice for me in any case. Practice making small talk with people who don’t respond. Practice being gracious at the end of each dance no matter how tortured I feel. Practice keeping time even when my partner can’t. But I will be honest and say that each time I switch back to Brian I am so damned grateful and happy that it’s all I can do to stop myself from falling all over him and being smoochy. Goddamn I am lucky to have him! And we do have a great time when we’re dancing together.

One Comment on “Social dancing and awkwardness.

  1. Sorry for the delay, I’ve been thinking about this off and on a few days. Perhaps I can light a small candle upon this confusing sight, since I am both “that guy” and preternaturally articulate. My theory may be wingnutty, so discontinue use if irritation or contradiction occurs. Do not mix with ammonia.

    These people continue to get social signals wrong because socially awkward adults are treated differently than socially awkward youngsters. If an adult violates a social norm, they do not get corrective feedback – they get social punishment without explanation. Well, sometimes they get an explanation, but it’s usually so coated in rage or derision that there’s no practical way to extract a lesson from it. I strongly suspect that well-adjusted adults do not have a well organized dialectic concerning normative behaviour, and that the less critical the behaviour is seen to be, the less it is able to be discussed. Almost anyone can discuss rationally the pros and cons of taking things that are not yours, few can discuss rationally whether that lifting of the left side of the mouth means you should move back half a pace or hold out your hand.

    Imagine on a fine summer eve, you’re waiting in line to grab two beer while B grabs a table. Doofus beside you says, “Hey, odd shoulder posture you’ve got there, do you play fiddle too?” Nobody would be horrified if you replied “Yeah, I’ve NEVER played at this bar before, and you’ve never seen me on stage. Worst.Line.Ever.” followed by a withering stare, and then a lifted nose.* But what is Doofus McGone’s take-home from this in terms of how to correct and improve his small talk skills? He’s been in Van for five weeks, just asked a brilliant icebreaker question (demonstrating that he’s paying attention to more than your cleavage), and he gets a serious smackdown that shows he has done something wrong, but what? The didactic value is zero.**

    Every time we say, “It’s not my job to teach people this stuff” when confronted by it, we worsen the problem. Years of therapy have shown me that social skills -can- be learned, but $LC_DEITY abandon(), it’s really hard. Really. I still suck at it, and nobody’s ever accused me of being unable to learn. If someone’s a bit behind everyone else by the time they’re perceived as an adult and lacks coherent ways of learning more, they’re fighting an uphill battle for the rest of their lives.

    These men, by and large, KNOW their clumsy feet are not the impediment. What they do know is, they do small talk wrong. They’re too direct, or too obtuse, but nobody tells them which. They hold eye contact for too long or not long enough, but there’s no genuine feedback as to which it is. They stand far away from someone, they don’t keep that person’s interest. They stand closer, that person gets creeped out. Every single aspect of social convention which you (and other well adjusted adults) take for granted, such as vocal volume, ma-ai, glancing away, not asking about your dead cat… they have doubt about. The death march stare is not for you, it’s for the ten thousand women who walked away rather than say “Please give me some elbow room”.

    Kudos for trying to demonstrate (practice) that socialized people engage in small talk. If you can think of a way to tell them you’d rather they engaged in small talk poorly than not at all, do so. But be prepared for bad conversation that upsets you in ways you find hard to articulate, and be prepared to do the hard work required to articulate exactly what it is that upset you. Saying “shut up” if they blunder socially just exacerbates the problem for the next lady they dance with.

    * this is not meant to be a realistic portrayal of you.

    ** “The didactic value is zero” sounds like it could be a line from a Primus piece. But I wrote it here, first. Fact.

    *** Captcha: niftiest while

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