The word ‘no’ requires a disclaimer. If you tell someone ‘no’ in this culture, you usually have to explain why, to give a reason why the requester can’t get what s/he asked for. For women, this is especially true- not only do we frequently have to give a reasonable explanation for our refusal, we have to do it in a gentle, diplomatic way that soothes any hurt feelings or fragile egos.
I followed this social expectation until I started teaching. One of the defense mechanisms I developed as a teacher of pre-adolescents (and I developed many) was to simply say no and move on. When my students were first getting to know me, they would always ask why….or they’d ask the same question again, sometimes in a different way, sometimes not. I think they initially had a very low estimation of my mental prowess.
Here’s how it typically went:
Kid: “Ms. Howell, can I ______________?”
Me: “No. Take a seat.”
Kid: “Why?/Why not?/ But you let ______ do it!/ Can I __________?”
Me: “Uh huh….you asked me a question. I answered the question. Moving on….”
I came to love that refrain. You asked me a question, and I answered it. Done and done (wipes hands metaphorically clean of the situation). Once I started doing that in teaching, I started to circle around a situation that comes up in the dance community quite often that I believe started as a social courtesy and has outlived it’s usefulness.
A bit of a wind up is in order.
Social mores within a specific community evolve for a reason. Within dancing, you put yourself out there a lot and so there are several traditions that evolved in order to soften blows to the ego that come from asking someone to dance and being turned down. The (usually unspoken) rule of dancing within the Lindy Hop community currently stands as this- If someone asks you to dance and you turn them down, you sit out the rest of that dance and turn down anyone else who asks- whether you want to dance with them or not. Usually the one turning down the offer to dance will give a disclaimer of some kind-
“I’m sitting this one out.”
“Need some water.”
“About to leave.”
So the person asking is assured that s/he would have said yes to the offer, except for some extenuating circumstance. It is supposed to follow unspoken that if asked again in the future, the person would say yes. Ego assuaged. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Except sometimes, it is you.
Sometimes I (and others) say no to a dance because I don’t want to dance with you. Not because I’m snotty, although I’m pretty sure I’ll be accused of it soon. Not because I think I’m better than you. Not because I need water or have to say hello to a friend. But because of one simple fact- you hurt me. You dance badly. Not just inexperienced, but badly. You jerk on my arm. You pull my arm down when I’m in the middle of a spin. You whip me into painful moves that you think look cool to people watching us. You are not engaged in a dance with me- you’re engaged in a dance with yourself, and are using me as a prop. You are Oblivious Dancer.
I say no to Oblivious Dancers. They dance at my expense, and don’t bother to learn how to make me comfortable…or, at least, how to not make me uncomfortable. They don’t consider me as a partner in the dance, and they don’t create a dialogue with me. There’s no back and forth communication, either because they don’t know how to enter into said communication or they don’t care to enter into it.
Here is where I tie these two themes together.
I dance to communicate. I dance to share an experience. I don’t dance to be a prop in someone else’s experience. So now I say no to people that I’ve seen act as that certain kind of oblivious partner. I just don’t dance with them. And if someone else that I like to dance with asks me to dance three seconds later, I say yes. I’m no longer sitting out whole dances just because I had to turn down someone at the beginning who is one of these Oblivious Dancers. A dancer asks to have an experience with me. I can say yes or no. They ask a question, and I answer the question. I choose not to sit out the rest of the dance just to preserve a social expectation. I have taken back my right to say no without explanation.
In offering an explanation or sitting out the rest of the dance, I think we do a disservice to the Oblivious Dancer. They don’t learn. They don’t learn the reason that they were refused and they don’t get the message that there is something critical that they need to work on. They just go on being Oblivious. This helps no one and is cowardly in a way. I think we should slowly stop this custom of sitting out the rest of a dance just because we’ve already said no. I have a right to answer the question without it affecting the rest of the song.
And a brief message to the Oblivious Dancer: If you hurt me, your forfeit the privilege to dance with me again until you improve to the point where you are conscious of me as a partner in the dance (and not a prop). Done and done.