Noah (angelbob) wrote,

A couple of years ago (October, 2002), I wrote up a summary of my experiences learning to dance. I did more after this, and my technique improved, but I basically stand by everything here. I didn't post it then because I didn't want to spend hours answering the same questions about it over and over. I'm no longer frequenting the same social groups. So now I'm posting it.


I've finally become convinced that there are a lot of people out there, guys mostly, who don't dance, and who don't exactly dislike dancing. They intensely dislike learning to dance.

After an abortive couple of attempts at learning "normal" dancing, I learned the basics of Irish step dancing at The Starry Plough. That was annoying for a few of the same reasons, but overall I had a much better time with it. When you're doing Irish step dancing, the teachers don't really assume you know what it's supposed to look like (go, John!). They certainly don't assume you've done it before, or that you know what it feels like, or that you've done three similar kinds of dancing before. They treat you like it's a genuinely new, unfamiliar thing. It puts people like me on the same footing as "normal" people. I can see why Irish dance gets a reputation for only weirdos doing it. Regular people have as hard a time doing that as I have doing ballroom dancing. Well, except the instruction's better when you're doing Irish. So they avoid it entirely.

There's a similar category... Dances like ballroom dancing, the ones with an established rhythm, specific kinds of songs you can do them to, and known steps, are by their nature a learned skill. You don't exit the womb for the first time with a knowledge of the box-step waltz, the samba or the foxtrot. On the other hand, whatever the intended audience is for dance lessons, they are assumed to have a pretty good knowledge of what the finished dance is supposed to look like. Everywhere I've been (Starlight Ballroom, Gaskell's, PEERS, Friday Night Waltz, Stanford dance classes) also assumes a working knowledge of several related dances. The lessons are supposed to catapult you from having a vague understanding of dancing to knowing the basic steps. Or they can take you from that second category to the point of knowing a more reasonable selection of steps. Fair enough.

I hadn't expected the "working knowledge of related dances" bit. It just seemed unreasonable that to learn any one dance you first need to know three more. But at the Waltz lessons I attended (FNW) they explained most steps in terms of the same step in other dances. Plus, exactly three out of each set of ten dances they played were actually taught there. Yes, I counted. I had nothing else to do for seven dances out of each ten, so I got to frequently ask "how many dances until I can do another one?". Normally I'd be fine with that since I've made a lifetime habit of striking up friendships with the dregs and rejects of social groups. Outcasts tend to be the most interesting. Unfortunately, a voluntary-attendance dance lesson attracts those who already dance and are trying to improve, and those who don't dance and have just discovered that the lesson doesn't change that. Which is to say, those that support the elitist dynamic, and those that are failing at it. I'm something of a dreg- and outcast-connoisseur, so dance-lesson-dregs are just not inspiring, even in California.

"Elitist dynamic?" Well, yes. Settings that focus on dancing are by their nature focused on a single skill-based activity. "We're all here to have fun" is something you tell beginners, and if you think they believe it you haven't looked at their faces. The higher-ranking folks (those who dance better) tell it to the beginners. That's because those dancers, by virtue of being high-ranked (which in turn is by virtue of being good dancers), are the elite. Of course they're just there to have fun -- they're in the inside clique and have nowhere much further to go. Well, mostly. If you didn't hear them say they were just in it for the fun, and only paid attention to their behavior, you might think they were acting quite competitively. But their advice proves conclusively that they're not. But hey, that's a different "dance venues suck, and don't plan to stop sucking" rant.

I know this already, so you don't have to say it -- I'm just not getting it. I'm aware of that. I've paid to find that out often enough. I mean, that's what dance lessons are, the chance to learn several steps, discover that they only marginally help, and be made aware again that I'm "just not getting it." Very true. Deep. Profound. Philosophical, even. You've successfully made it clear that you're ahead of me in the "getting it" realm. Well done. Now go help some other poor sod realize his faults before I get genuinely angry.

Those of you that have met me in person are probably aware that I'm a tolerant guy. Not 100% of the time, but I'm pretty tough to nettle. "Apathetic" describes me better than "tempermental". I'm aware that even when my dance technique is good (and it sometimes is) and even though I can successfully replicate dance steps (pretty well, actually) and even lead quite tolerably (yup), there's something I fundamentally don't get. I mean, besides how to not take big steps and still not be run over by any of the four couples surrounding me. But there's more than one of you out there that's seen me driven into an absolute rage (well, okay, by my standards) by dance instruction. I can go to dance, and with the (partial) exception of the Starry Plough, I spend the early part of the night tense and the later part of the night wanting to swear and kick things.

Yes, I'm aware that's not the point of dancing, so I obviously don't get it. You're very smart, now shut up.

With that said: I know why I'm stressed. For instance, I spend the majority of the "dance time" sitting out and waiting for something I can dance to. I used to try and ask people to dance beforehand, but so far they ditch me (after accepting, like) about half the time. Yes, only counting people I know. Yes, including you, you and you. Yes, those times *do* count. So instead I just join the mad scramble to try and find somebody to dance with after the music starts. That means I switch between a nasty stressful situation and waiting for the same nasty stressful situation. If I complain I'll get advice ("just ask somebody ahead of time") which, if taken, would make my situation even worse.

Then there's the actual dancing, which is presumably the part of the whole business that's enjoyable. I try to enjoy it. That's when the couple behind us hits us. Of course, that also happens if my technique is sloppy, or if I'm not watching, or if I don't take large steps, or if I take *too* large steps (my partner will tend to complain, rightfully, regardless of step size since they're either being run into or being flung along the floor or both). I was reminded that in basically rotational dances like the cross-step waltz, not rotating the full 180 each time has the same effect. "Don't take such large steps, you don't have to turn all the way around each time" is very common advice, and I get literally physically slammed every time I try to follow it on the dance floor. Here's to negative reinforcement. These things never work with me, I just wind up conditioned to salivate every time somebody gives me advice that'll make things worse. Did I say "salivate"? I meant "clench and unclench my fists".

To be fair, the problems aren't all caused by other couples hitting me. I hit them when I'm not paying enough attention. And then there's actually trying to remember the steps and lead them in time (I do that in between dodging). And I learned that "just keep dancing, dammit!" isn't always safe advice when I screw up since sometimes you're supposed to stop instead, though apparently usually not. I'm hoping to purge that from my memory and claim ignorance, repeatedly if necessary.

I suppose I'm lucky this is all for fun. I may be routinely slammed into when I do it wrong, and I may risk scorn and ridicule, and there may be a wide range of ways to injure myself or (worse) be neglectful in a way that injures somebody else. But at least, thank God, this is all for fun and there aren't any real penalties. Presumably at actual dance competitions they have snipers and land mines, plus of course the judges. I never plan to go to one, so I hope never to find out.

This is the Bay. You see guys putting out an unusual of effort to attract women here, plus I hang out in pervert communities where that's often even more true. Yet despite large amounts of attractive female pressure to the contrary, a lot of guys hang back and say "I don't dance." Aside from the couple of dances that I mostly know, that's what I do. And had I known what it would take to learn those, I probably wouldn't have learned. I can't blame "I don't dance" guys, because learning really sucks.

Shouldn't I just learn dances that don't have specific steps and involve thrashing more-or-less randomly? Well, other than the fact that the teaching consists only of the phrase "just act naturally" and assumes you already know it, sure. I can mostly do those, sort of, or at least not embarrass myself more than average. I don't know. I've only been in locations where it was useful to know that about four times, ever. I don't think I want to go looking for a new bunch of places to dance. I *really* don't want to learn a bunch of new dance stuff, given my previous experiences. And if you want to say "just relax and do it", please do so to my face. I will smack you, and that's easier in person. You'll probably insist on bringing up dancing first (just so I have some clue what you're talking about) so I'll need the stress relief.

So why don't I just stop dancing, but do it quietly? We'll ignore the actual reasons to dance. We'll ignore the bit about attracting female attention and pretend that that's not a reason. We'll also ignore the bit about socializing. And the one about occasions where everybody's embarrassed anyway. There are some really nasty things I could get into that are some combination of those, but I'm whistling and putting my fingers in my ears, as it were... Not that I've, like, stewed over this or anything.

No, the problem with just becoming an "I don't dance" guy again is that friends and girlfriends will attempt to violently convert you. If you say, "I don't dance", they'll start with "oh, come on, everybody's doing it", move through "everybody looks ridiculous, you'll fit in", "if you never start you'll never be good at it", feint toward "oh, come on, it'll be fun" and abandon you after "just act natural, it'll be fine", at least if they're not pushy.

If they are pushy, dissuading them takes longer. I basically need to present something very much like this post, bitterness and all, of at least this length, before they'll consider the possibility that anybody might not want to tolerate months or years of the nastiness to learn to dance. Or to put it another way, "they're just shy", "they'd like it if they tried it", "they're worried about being embarrassed" or a number of other things. I used to try hard not to swear or hit things at times like that. Maybe now I'll just keep a two-minute litany memorized to put people off for a moment, slip out a back exit, and be ready to send a link to this entry afterward.

So why do I say there are people who might like to dance, eventually, but who hate to learn it? My attempts to learn aren't unique to me. I'm not the only guy out there who might like to learn a dance but doesn't already tango, cross-step waltz, mazurka and polka. I doubt I'm the only guy who finds it frustrating that it'll take months and many lessons in several separate places, at the very least, to learn even one of those -- it's not like they teach them all at the same place, or teach a reasonable variety of steps in any one place. Or like it's easy to practice regularly (yes, yes, I know, sure it is, other than scheduling, finding partners, getting any useful form of instruction and generally dealing with the various frustrations. Other than that, it's a cakewalk. Now fuck off). I'd say "well, at least without paying too much for private lessons" if I hadn't already tried that. Private lessons don't work decently either, they just cost a lot more.

There are guys that know how to dance. Some day I'll find one who can tell me how to do it. He won't actually *do* so, but it'd be satisfying to meet somebody who *could*. I know a few guys that have been to good lessons, always outside California. The lessons aren't around any more anyway, or have lost their decent instructor, or otherwise become unavailable, even if I were going to move to Oregon or Massachusetts for them.

Sure, true, you don't need lessons to learn. I mean, other than the fact that if you're a guy, you're leading, so you need to actually know the steps. And you'll never know if you do it wrong, or you can't do it at all. Learning dancing out of a book isn't much of an option. Are there ways of doing this that don't involve sleeping with an instructor? Some day I'll meet somebody that's done it without that step. I'm told such people exist. The people telling me all have financial incentive to do so.

Is sleeping with the instructor a problem? Only sort of. It means you chew through a lot of otherwise-enjoyable time with somebody you like. Instead of actually sleeping with them, talking to them, or actually doing something fun, you're doing something very time-consuming and frustrating (those of you dating skilled dance instructors who don't get frustrated are hallucinating an entire human being, so please don't bother to respond). It's not that I haven't tried that approach, it's just that it's been so bad so far that I don't want to keep pissing on my relationships that way. I can mess up my relationships in ways I at least get something out of. Yeah, I know, if I'd stop bitching and moaning, stop being distracted trying to memorize stuff, stop paying attention to stuff like people running into me, stop being frustrated at being told "just do it naturally" and just do it naturally (i.e. "right") this wouldn't bother me. Fuck off. "If you'd just do it right it wouldn't frustrate you" isn't an answer, and if you claim it is then I'll ask why you don't just learn Calculus that way -- "just stop making mistakes and it's easy."

So why the venomous post? Partly I just feel like getting this all written down somewhere. People ask me why I don't dance, and they have no patience with an answer. What they mean is "you should try dancing". I have. Thanks. It makes me crazy and makes me want to hit things, partially because people are hitting me the whole time I do it. Partly so that anybody that reads this will STOP SAYING "just do it naturally". There are all kinds of things people say that about. It's always a useless thing to say. I've never gotten anything out of having it said to me, I've never seen anybody get anything out of having it said to them. "Relax"? Sure. That means something. "Just do it naturally?" No. Stop saying that. Stop saying it now, and never say it again. It's the first thing people try, because it's, y'know what they naturally first try. Then they try other things, such as whatever they're doing now. If a particular dance was something you do by just doing whatever comes naturally, there wouldn't be more than one way to dance to a particular beat, now would there? There wouldn't be a such thing as a tango, there'd just be people doing random shit to roughly the same rhythm. If you assume that saying "step back and do what comes naturally" gives you a mazurka you've never thought about what you're saying. Well, assuming you're not a sadist.

That and people don't usually seem to understand why guys don't want to learn to dance. That'd be because for most of us (guys), learning is only slightly less unpleasant than tearing out our liver with a fork. Most guys never do it, and it's something that increases your chances to get laid. Think about that. It says a lot. I'm one of the lucky ones, I have a tolerable memory, decent coordination and the ability to move smoothly. There's a whole set of rants available that don't apply to me. There's a whole level of nastiness to this that I've gotten to skip entirely. My problems doing this are nothing special. It's worse for a lot of people. Can you blame them for avoiding the whole thing?
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