I've been asked by a few students to write about a question recently. Over the years I've heard many folks make similar claims. I'll be considering a few thoughts on the subject, but I'm more interested in reading your responses.
What do I do when the person I am dancing with disengages from me?
This is an ages old question. Most of the students who have asked me have been somewhat frustrated that more experienced dancers might accept a dance during which they appear completely disinterested. One might imagine the more experienced dancer merely going through the motions of the dance, rather than sharing the conversation (however limited) that their less skillful partner might be able to share.
I'll admit that I'm not completely innocent of this. If I'm disengaging at all it's usually because I've been made uncomfortable at some point. However, when I dance with a beginner I usually have to focus on the mechanics enough that I'll close my eyes and engage my other senses. That's not really the same. There's a difference for me between a less skilled dancer and someone who has creeped me out.
I often will check to see how much a follow reads a lead and then see how much further I can stretch that. For me, it's less about playing over their heads and more about throwing out challenges. I also never accept sorry for an answer. If a follow ever apologizes to me for missing a step my response is most often "I'm not bleeding. Don't say sorry."
There's the social side to this question. Back in the early 20th century, it wasn't acceptable to ask a stranger to dance. It's only in our rebuilt ballrooms that it's considered de rigeur to accept an invitation from a stranger. There may be an expectation that dancers should always accept an invitation. While this is great for generating excitement in new young dancers, I can't recall a social precedent for this behavior outside of social dance.
I've seen small dance scenes completely implode due to social dysfunction. In some places the dancers come off as just plain rude. Most scenes (not just the swing dance scene) share a lot of elements of good ol' High School cliquishness. There might not be any changing that in the long run.
At least a few times young leads will ask me about that begrudging non-rejection. It seems to me that many experienced follows have had enough experiences with harmful dancers that they feel a need to protect themselves from "weaker" leads. The word harmful above might be used to describe dancers whose caveman-like turns end in injury or the guy who trolls around the room in search of new conquests.
My general response to the fellows asking me this question is that the follows really need to build up trust. This isn't something that is easily given, especially if some alarm bell rang for them. Some of that trust can be earned by learning to dance well. I've always assumed that there's an inherent sense among follows that if a dancer has figured out how to dance well then they might care more about the dancing than the sexual conquest. At least they might care about the two equally. Is this an incorrect assessment?
Is it a truth that dancing with a beginner is somewhat stressful? Certainly anyone's company can be enjoyed on the dance floor. I know that I've been injured by follows in the past just through their lack of awareness. When dancing with a follow who isn't following through in the connection, I sometimes feel pressured to take up the slack. I'm being completely honest here. It can be somewhat stressful to dance with a person who isn't completely on my level. Have you ever been stuck in a conversation with someone who wouldn't listen to you? Maybe the best response from me would be to listen more closely to my partner.
So what should a young dancer do?
I believe the social barriers can often broken in time and with honest hard work. If it is a social problem then getting to know folks in some other context can be really helpful. If there's an opportunity to go out to after-hours eating with a group of dancers, this might be a good way to get to know people. The skill issues I think are only resolved by will. Spend some time working on something not on the dance floor. Watch some videos and really observe them. Ask some experienced dancers for a moment of advice. If they're comfortable with it, many dancers will help you out.
It's all about building trust.
So, this post was written in the middle of the night. If anything doesn't seem right or seems screamingly wrong, please let me know about it. Otherwise, I'd like to read your thoughts on the subject.