"You Dancin?" - breaking the barriers

Women don't ask men to dance at a Milonga. Why not?

As a man of very average looks, I can visit any Modern Jive venue in the country, and still be confident of not needing to ask any women to dance throughout an average evening, but still be able to dance most or all of the time, should I want to. Yes, OK, some of that is because I'm an experienced dancer, but I got asked as much or more when I was a beginner. Women in Modern Jive ask men to dance - sometimes they even demand. And it's great that they do so.

Coming from that egalitarian environment, the social mores of the milonga have been a real culture shock to me. Women rarely ask men to dance - and almost never ask men they don't know, They always sit and wait to be asked by men. (I'm ignoring the whole "cabaceo" thing here, which is the way women are apparently supposed to be able to summon men with glances across the room, picking and choosing their partners. There's no such beast in London milongas, and I doubt there are in the UK as a whole).

Because most milongas are women-heavy (or men-light, depending on your point of view), this can lead to a room where women sit on chairs lining the perimiter of a venue, sitting, talking, watching, and waiting to be asked. Fantastic news for the men, you may think. Well yes. Well, sort of. Well, no.

The terror of the clump

Women tend to clump, in groups, chatting away. And clumps of women can be scary.

As many of us know from our clubbing days, it's much easier to approach a woman on her own than it is to try to pick one off from a group. Isolated rejection is bad enough; the possibility of a group witnessing such humiliation is much worse. Yes, sure, we know in our heads that the chances of being rejected are extremely low - these women have come to dance, and as long as you don't try to interrupt an intense heart-to-heart, or physically separate a woman who's obviously part of a couple, then you're almost certain to get three dances from almost anyone you ask. We know this. Rationally.

But on the dance floor, rationality doesn't get a lookin. We are, after all, asking a girl to dance - something that in UK culture has historically (well, in the past 20-30 years) been seen as the equivalent of asking for her hand in marriage. Well, OK, asking for something similar, at least... And so when we ask, there's always that still small voice, telling us "She might say No", with the addition of "And in front of all her friends, too". Asking someone to dance is a pressure - always. It's less pressure for experienced dancers (most things become easier with experience), but for a beginner leader, it's a big inhibiting factor.

So why don't they ask?

One possible answer is that the question itself is wrong. It's not "Why don't AT followers ask?", but "Why do MJ followers ask?" Modern Jive, with its emphasis on everyone asking everyone, is the exception not the rule. Most other partner dance scenes rely on women being asked by men - that's simply the "way things are done".

Modern Jive has a different culture, but I feel this difference has mainly been down to an insistance by the dominant player in the market (Ceroc) that has made the "followers ask" meme part of the essential culture of the MJ dance scene, right from the start. Cultures can and do change, but it's not easy to do - to enforce a certain ethos takes a lot of work, either by a monopoly, a "standards" organisation, or through external commercial pressure.

So, it's possible to imagine a world where AT followers are happy to generally walk up to leaders and ask them for dances, because we've seen a world where such things happen as a matter of course.

So, should they ask?

Another question is, would a culture where women asked to dance be a good thing?

For leaders, I think it would. We'd face less pressure and less stress, especially at the start. This might even encourage more leaders to do more dancing, which could help even up the gender imbalance at many milongas.

But for followers? I'm not so sure. It may be that there's something quite liberating about simply sitting and waiting, and it provides an opportunity to treat a milonga as a social occasion rather than a dancing occasion. Which, in turn, leads to the aforementioned clumpage, of course.

So perhaps for women, a milonga is a place to go, to chat, to see, and to be seen, and occasionally to dance if asked? So it sometimes seems.

 - David Bailey