There are two main types of motivation toward improvement. Fear and Reward. Carrot and Stick. Taking a look at the dance world, we’re going to examine some of the ways that social pressure can be used as both carrot and stick to drive performance and cull the tribe to create a sense of unity.
In different dance scenes there are different costs one must overcome in order to be considered a desirable dance partner. This means there are different reasons one might need to improve their dance and different difficulties inherent in ‘breaking in’ to a new dance scene. No matter the specifics of the scene, social pressure is being used to drive improvement in the scene.
Tango – Time Cost – Tango is danced in sets of dance called Tandas. These are 3-4 songs, 2-3 minutes in length per song and a Cortina or 30 second buffer between each one. That puts the average Tanda at just around 10 minutes. That means that there are rarely more than 18 Tandas per 3 hour Milonga (dance). Now, if we assume that at some point you’ll talk with people, warm up, get a glass of wine (because of COURSE you support your venue and aren’t one of those water-drinker types…), we can assume no more than 12 Tandas per night.
Assume that a given dancer has one partner they came with and love dancing with, who will dance with them for say, 3 tandas. This means that we’re down to 9 free tandas. We can assume they have at least 2 other good friends who each merit 2 tandas per dance. Now we’re left with 5 songs for people who aren’t known to the dancer that you want to ask to dance.
This means that you need to be worth not just the 8.3% of their likely dances that your tanda would take up for the night, but also the 20% of the dances that are free for strangers or acquaintances.
The question on their mind and the mind of the self-aware novice is going to be “Is this dancer worth 1/5 of my night.” Maybe not a fair question from your point of view, but t’s one they’re at least considering subconsciously at least.
To prevent awkwardness and to allow people to save face, a few defense mechanisms and social structures have evolved, which allow both parties to save face, but can sometimes make new dancers feel unwelcome.
1) Avoiding eye contact with someone you don’t wish to dance with. It’s a clear (to some) nonverbal signal of their lack of interest in dancing (for whatever reason) and a sign not to approach. Should eye contact be made for some reason having nothing to do with a request to dance, the second line of defense is….
2) The Cabaceo. It’s basically the mini head nod, you’d use to indicate “do you want to dance” across a crowded floor so you can ask them to dance even if someone else would get to them before you’re within voice range. Again, if it isn’t returned, you don’t have to make the long walk back to your drink (that of COURSE you bought to support the venue) after having been turned down for a dance.
As mentioned before, this can make an uninitiated newcomer feel quite unwelcome in the world of tango, but the system is in place to avoid awkwardness rather than to create it. A brilliant way for beginners and unknowns to get dances in without having to deal with this is the following:
3) Taxi dancers. Whether it’s a sort-of dance gigolo like in the traditional sense, an experienced dancer who is paid to dance by a group of people who lack the standing to be in demand; or a refreshingly modern sense, a volunteer (paid or unpaid) from the community who is there to dance with any dancers on behalf of the organizers of the dance. This tends to make new dancers feel more welcome and is sometimes even introduced as a taxi dancer during the announcements portions of the evening either immediately at the beginning of the dance session or in the middle of the evening. This is a fantastic tradition and would be wonderful to implement in any scene that is having issues with newcomers feeling less-than-welcomed.
Lindy Hop – Danger – Ahh lindy hop. It’s dynamic, it can be fast. If done improperly, you can REALLY hurt someone. This alone is a good reason for people to be reticent about saying yes when someone unknown asks for a dance. I cannot stress how much I support people saying ‘no’ in any situation where they feel there’s a likelihood that they might be injured by taking a chance.
Balboa – Speed – Traditionally Balboa is danced fast and in close embrace (this means a body to body connection). The story goes that the owners of the balboa ballroom packed the dance floors like sardines. Why? Each dance couple was worth a dime to them (back when a dime meant something) per song and so… ….the more couples on the floor, the more dimes you made.
The bands played faster and faster to increase the thirst of the dancers and because there was no shortage in the 1000s of dancers who went every night during its heyday. A house rule was that any couple that broke from Close embrace would be kicked off of the floor by the bouncers.
As a consequence, complex footwork and fast tempos became the order of the day. This means of selection against dancers often results in self-selection away from the dance. If you’re not good or in good shape, you don’t dance… at least not a lot or for very long.
Ballroom – Expense – Ballroom is expensive. It’s expensive. Lessons are expensive. The surreal sartorial expressions of mad dressmakers they call dresses are expensive, the swarovski crystals they glue to themselves like so many burlesque dancers are expensive, the hair and makeup and cost of paying your teacher to compete with you are expensive.
This one works to make people improve because 1) there is more pressure on instructors to work on the craft of teaching, 2) by paying a living wage to the instructors, they can devote more time to being better teachers and 3) people value products and services proportionately to the amount they pay for them.
West Coast Swing – Gamification – A variation on the competition is the points system that is in the West Coast Swing world. Maintaining your points for many people is a way of getting into the “better” levels of competition. Failing to do this means you have less of an opportunity to access the more interesting and desirable dancers. This is by no means universal as there are social west coast swing scenes, venues and clubs, but it is a means that is being used to drive people in some cases to essentially grind for xp so they can quite literally “level up” and get to the good dancers.
Hip Hop and Lindy Hop – Jam Culture – This is a friendly competition that occurs either regularly or spontaneously in which a group of people crowd around a central dancer or few dancers, cheering them on as they take small sections of a song to show off their skill. Now days in the partner dance worlds this is often used to welcome new people; out of towers; or to thank instructors, organizers and volunteers.
But in more traditional sense, it’s a low cost way to get respect from your contemporaries by giving a platform for you to show what you’ve been working on in the past week. Because of it’s voluntary nature, this is somewhere between competition in a traditional sense and Show and Tell.
Because Jam Circles don’t take from the regular time from the dance like an organized competition and are often spontaneous, they serve as opportunities to inspire and galvanize dancers to greater heights, even those who don’t participate directly, by going into the circle.
a note: if a jam breaks out. please clap on beats 2 and 4 and keep the circle continuous so the energy doesn’t “leak out”. being part of the community in situations like these is further social proof that you are ‘one of us’ for the people around you and in people’s exuberance after a jam, they are often more likely to say ‘yes’ to dancing with a stranger. These are great times to see the possibilities inherent in a dance if you put the work in to improving your skills.
Most of these mechanisms become both filtering mechanisms, weeding out those who lack discipline and would be lukewarm on the dance; as well as proving grounds driving others to excel and improve their dance.
Social pressure can be overcome with social proof. For instance, getting points leads to a higher level competition being open to you, which means the better dancers know you and you unlock more dances.
Bringing a partner is a clever way. Dancing the first song with the person you came with is a means, not only of warming up and setting the tone for the evening with someone whose dancing you probably enjoy, but also a form of social proof that shows the other dancers whom you’re likely to ask for a dance what your dancing is like and whether you’re worth their time, risk of injury, and etc…
It also shows people that at least one other person is willing to dance with you and if there’s one thing that interests people in a person, product or service, it’s a testimonial.
Okay, so what if I want more dances? Well… in the next article I’ll talk about six things you might be doing to prevent yourself from getting dances and what you can do to improve your lot on the floor.