Hypothetically, it shouldn’t be that hard to tell someone you’re in pain.
Operative word: shouldn’t.
In reality, swing dancers (especially women and femme-identified ones) wrestle all the time with questions like…
“Should I tell him that his grip is really hurting my wrist?”
“How do I explain to her that she’s holding onto my shoulder too tightly?”
“My partner goes into closed position a lot, and they are holding me much closer than I want to be held right now. Should I say something?”
There are many reasons why this is hard. A big one is that power imbalances related to gender, race, dance experience, and other social factors often make it difficult to speak up. If you feel less valuable or experienced than your dance partner, you might be hesitant to say something.
Another reason, specific to followers, is that many classes don’t offer opportunities for followers to give leaders vocal feedback about how the connection feels. Communication takes practice, and without opportunities to practice, followers are at a disadvantage when it comes to saying something about dance floor discomfort.
Yet another reason – the one that most often stops me from speaking up – is that overwhelming thought, powerful and persistent…
“This person won’t want to dance with me anymore if I tell them I’m in pain!”
But that thought is a lie.
Dancing should not be painful. Any dance partner who cares about the dance and cares about me as a person should be motivated to make sure I’m not in pain. And if I am, they should be willing to hear me when I say so, and willing to try various options to fix it.
What to say and how to say it
Knowing that it’s okay to say something helps. Knowing just what to say, of course, is another matter entirely.
For me, there are specific characteristics that comfort-based feedback should have:
- It must be brief enough to say on the dance floor, in the middle of a dance.
- It must point to and explain the specific sensation I am feeling in my body.
- It must center my experience and make it clear that I am prioritizing my own comfort and safety.
- It must give a specific suggestion for something my partner could do to alleviate the issue.
- It must be clear that I am not giving my partner a critique of their style or technique.
- It must be assertive enough to overcome any power imbalances in the dance partnership, but mild enough that I will feel comfortable actually saying it on the dance floor.
Here are some comfort-based feedback statements that meet these requirements for me. They cover some of the most common issues I’ve experienced while dancing.
- “I’m feeling my hands getting squeezed because of how tightly you’re holding them. Could you try relaxing your grip?”
- “I can feel some poking from your fingertips on my lower back. Could you try flattening out your hand?”
- “I need more space to move. Could you loosen your arm when we’re in closed position?”
- “I tend to prefer less tension in our arm connection. Could we try lightening it up and see how that feels?”
All of these statements start with my feelings and experiences, rather than those of my partner. This helps to prepare my partner for the suggestion I’m about to offer, and makes it clear that this suggestion is coming out of an experience I’m having.
For comparison, imagine if I were experiencing something uncomfortable, and I said this:
“Hey, could you not dig your fingertips into my back? You’re really hurting me!”
While this is a legitimate approach, and warranted in some cases, it focuses heavily on what my partner is doing, rather than what I am feeling. It has the potential to come off as more critical, and could leave my partner with some anxiety that I am really not enjoying the dance with them.
After I offer someone a suggestion on how to alleviate pain or discomfort for me, I like to follow up and say “Thank you, that feels really comfortable!” or something similar. That way, they know that I am still enjoying the dance, and that the adjustment they made helped fix the issue.
It might not be a one-time thing
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take just one suggestion. All dancers have bad habits, and if your dance partner has a bad habit that is causing you pain, they might adjust it beautifully…and then slip right back into it three swingouts later!
When this happens, I often try using nonverbal cues, like gently tapping their hand (or whatever body part) to remind them to make the adjustment again. Often, this is all it takes!
If that’s not working, speak up again, and this time make it their job to fix the problem. Say, “I’m still feeling a lot of gripping on my shoulder. What else could we adjust to make that feel better?” If it’s a deeply ingrained habit, having to think and talk about it (while dancing!) might help them overcome it.
Why this is different from “Don’t give feedback on the dance floor”
We can get this out of the way right now – yes, I absolutely am recommending that you give your partner feedback on the dance floor. But only if you’re in pain or discomfort or don’t like what’s happening.
“Don’t give feedback on the dance floor” is a general rule designed to keep people from correcting each other’s style and technique while social dancing. It’s intended to keep the mood of the social dance floor light and fun, rather than intently practicing what everyone learned in class that evening.
The comfort-based feedback I’m recommending, however, is also intended to keep the mood of the social dance floor light and fun. And it has nothing to do with style or technique – we’re talking about a minimum basic requirement of social dancing, which is that it feel good! Talking to your partner about how to make the dance feel better is always appropriate and warranted.
How to teach in a way that encourages comfort-based feedback
Dear Lindy Hop instructors,
Please set aside time during class for your students to talk to each other and offer one another feedback based on how things feel.
To get that started, tell your students to use the sentence, “I am feeling _____ and I think it’s from you doing ______. Could we try _____ to adjust it?”
A leader who wants her followers to feel good when she’s leading them!
If you are dealing with something more than discomfort
Here, I’ve been writing mostly about situations where something feels physically uncomfortable. However, and very unfortunately, it is possible that you might experience sexual harassment as a Lindy Hopper. I want to talk about this and offer a clear suggestion for what to do.
You should know that it is NEVER your responsibility to make someone stop harassing you. You can throw everything I just said about comfort-based feedback out the window. If your dance partner is behaving in a sexual way that makes you uncomfortable (or just makes you feel weird!), you have the right to do the following:
- Stop dancing. Stand on your feet.
- Look them directly in the eyes.
- Say, “I don’t like this, and I am done with this dance.”
- Drop the connection and walk off the dance floor. Preferably towards the nearest group of supportive dance friends.
You do not have to explain what happened. You are not obligated to talk to that person again. You can talk to your friends, or your scene leaders and safety coordinators, and explain what your dance partner did and how it made you feel. You have the right to be heard and believed.
People get thrown out of dance scenes for harassment, and rightfully so. If you are able to share your experience, it might help protect others. It’s always up to you, of course, but that’s something you should know.
Dancing should feel good!
We all love Lindy Hop, and I think we mostly love it for the way it feels. There’s an adrenaline rush to swinging out to a hard-hitting saxophone solo, and a lush feeling about doing down-tempo sugar pushes to a gentle piano melody. There’s something magical about your body in concert with someone else’s – and something profoundly un-magical about feeling pain when you should be feeling connected to your partner and the music.
I hope the ideas here empower you to communicate more clearly with your partners about discomfort on the dance floor. Remember that it’s okay to prioritize yourself! You and your continued presence on the dance floor are definitely worth it.