First Do No Harm

24th May 2009

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For all the dancer's art it's the choreographer who controls the dance" ~ Mojo


Dancing is a different experience depending on whether you're leading or following, especially when things start to go wrong.

I've noticed that female taxi dancers get progressively tenser and harder to lead throughout the evening as they protect themselves from general manhandling. Although they are only supposed to dance with beginners, for a time I would sneak in dances with them. Notably it helped "reset" them a bit and so everyone benefitted. The male taxi dancers didn't seem to suffer from this though.

The Leader's perspective

I think as a lead there's a fairly simple line you draw called "please don't hurt me". It doesn't matter if you're not going to play and interpret the music, or if I can only lead you on the basic beat. As long as you're not hurting me, we're gonna get along jes' fine.

Sure, as a leader you need to pick up the skills to understand what will work with an unknown follower, but ultimately connection is going to cover a multitude of sins. If you're both connected and happy it works.

And when connection's missing it worries leaders. Is she bored? Am I doing it wrong? And then the dangerous thoughts come, "How do I lead xyz again?", "What was the sequence I learnt last week" and so on.

All the time you're getting more and more disconnected yourself. I once danced with a lady who had a wonderful connection and clearly liked simple, musical dancing. Yet something was wrong. I couldn't figure it out for the whole tanda. I enjoyed the dances, but there was this incessant nagging feeling. What I didn't know was earlier in the evening when the doors were unexpectedly opened forming an impromptu wind tunnel, some of my hair had blown loose. And that had been tickling her nose for the entire 15 mins.

Oops. No wonder I couldn't figure it out.

But ultimately as leaders we can change a lot. Quite simply we choose all the moves. Mojo was right

The Follower's perspective

Things are very different. While the leader can stop you disrupting his axis by simply adjusting where he steps, or changing the move, if he disrupts your axis there's not a lot you can do about it. Well you can fall over I guess.

Following is all about connection and well, following. In a lot of ways that makes you a lot more vulnerable. It also makes you more specialized. A leader can enjoy quite a few different aspects of a dance because he's doing more than one thing. If the follower doesn't feel connected there's not much else to enjoy.

"Connected" doesn't just mean physically connected through the embrace either. Does the lead hear the music the same way? Does she have the space to express herself, or indeed is she free not to have to fill up "dead air" with endless decorations that she doesn't enjoy?

There's also a practical problem. As the taxi dancers find, you simply can't use the techniques for following subtle leads with someone who's more forceful.

And the point is...?

So what's my point? Well the cabeceo is usually considered to be two sides of the same coin. In theory the leader initiates it, but followers have cottoned-on that, by staring intently at him, they can actually initiate it. Either party can decline by looking away.

Thing is, if the two parties have different needs from a dance, does it make sense for them to use a cabeceo in the same way?

It's interesting that among "guest teachers" it's usually the men who are willing to ask beginners to dance.

Followers are clearly safer dancing with people they know they connect with. Then with people who've been recommended. Then with people they've seen dancing. So the option to up the level of filtering is potentially useful. But does never asking someone to dance actually help with this?

My personal feeling is that there's a second level that get's missed out from this. The cabeceo works with the tanda. In MJ, it really is "only one dance" or "3 mins of your life". What this means is as a leader I can ask someone I don't know to dance and if they are a bit rough, then for a while (possibly the rest of the evening depending on how rough) I simply won't dance with people I don't know. I'll stick with gentle dances with gentle dancers.

If on the other hand she doesn't hurt me (and let's face it if you're going to a venue where you're regularly being hurt CHANGE VENUES!) then I can "safely" ask someone else I don't know and so on. Likewise for women.

If I get a follower who's truly hellbent on hurting me, then it's time to end the dance early. It doesn't help anyone if we continue to the point where I have to be stretchered off.

One problem

The problem in London is that the tanda and the cabeceo don't really work together. If a stranger wants to verbally ask for a dance they have to accept that by not using the cabeceo they're not entitiled to a tanda. If you use an MJ convention, then you get the MJ result - one dance. Now in MJ you may well decide to continue on and have more dances, that's fine. But you don't take it for granted. Likewise if you start hurting each other it's over. Again you're playing by MJ rules.

On the other hand if you have both used the cabeceo, then you reasonably can expect a tanda. And that changes how you dance. For a start you'll be a lot less guarded than you would with an unknown dancer.

And another problem

This may come as a surprise but people go dancing to dance. (Well ok that's not entirely true, for the majority it's a social occasion). No-one goes dancing to get injured. Why would you? Yet the sad truth is that between students who won't listen and teachers who won't correct, there are going to be people at a venue who will injure you in a variety of creative and painful ways.

How do you deal with them? Well part of the cabeceo is "We are going to dance. This specifically excludes hurting each other and the people around us."

Be honest, does everyone who verbally asks you to dance keep to this?

Unfortunately the ones who don't are urinating in the pool the rest of us are swimming in. And that can lead to people refusing the verbal ask because they've had enough.

What complicates things is that people often refer to it as filtering out people who aren't skilled enough. That's a half truth that some hide behind.

I've watched the experienced women and which beginners / newish intermediates they approach and without exception they're the ones who had agreed to this contract. They not worried whether the guy's been dancing for 10 years and toured the world - they want to know they won't get hurt and that it'll be gentle enough for them to enjoy it.

The answer

So the answer is simple really, play nice.

Treat your partners with respect. Remember dancing is an art, not a sport - no-one's supposed to get hurt.

Use verbally asking and cabeceos appropriately and honour the spirit of the agreement. Because people remember, people see and people talk. What goes around comes around.

 - Christopher O'Shea, 24th May 2009