The Etiquette of Stealing

I was watching the nifty SWLindyFest 2011 DVD given out at ILHC, and the jam on the DVD shows what in my opinion is a pretty good example of good stealing etiquette (note: this YouTube clip is NOT the camera the DVD uses). Though stealing etiquette isn’t that big of a deal, I figured, what the hell.

Especially if it’s a Birthday Jam, the main priority should be the birthday girl. (or boy.) I’ve seen more than a few jams where guys were so busy trying to steal a follower in cool ways from one another that the follower’s birthday dance comprised of thirty seven partners all trying to pull her away from other leaders. And you know what? That is NOT a fun birthday. There, I said it. And I’m glad I did.

Now, there are hand-offs, and then there are thefts. A hand-off is simply allowing for another leader to take your follower by leaving lots of open opportunities to do so, or simply just sending the follower to another leader. A theft is when you take a follower from a leader without them realizing it’s happened until its too late. Unfortunately, in this Youtube video, you can’t see Max’s theft at 9:15 very well, but it was pretty slick, and, more importantly for this article, Nikki (the follower) didn’t look interrupted at all during the theft. This leads us to our first rule:

1. If you’re going to steal a follower, try to do it without jarring her dance. A great pickpocket is one who steals your pocket without you feeling it.

The rest of the jam are hand-offs and pass-offs (some literally), but most importantly for this article, the dancers give the jamming couple time to actually dance a little. This leads us to our second rule of etiquette:

2. Allow a leader and follower to have a phrase or two of music before stealing them away. Unless that leader has gone before, in which case I could understand it being open-season. (I will allow Max’s theft at 9:15 only on the bases that Andrew didn’t even get to start dancing with her before Max stole her away from him. A theft right off the bat is better than one two eights in, in my opinion.) Like I mentioned, some birthday dances devolve into guys trying to keep their partners from being stolen just so they can dance for more than two 8s. And living in that kind of fear is no way to live.

Obviously, there can be some fun in a few quick thefts. Or, if you and another leader and the follower are all in cahoots, then she might enjoy having entire dances where leaders pass her off back and forth as quickly as possible. (Now that I think about it, Andrew and Max could have been in cahoots.) However, I think the main point is that followers are not toys. They are human dancers who want to express themselves to the music. Especially on their birthday.

8 responses to “The Etiquette of Stealing”

  1. Bravo! This has needed to be said for quite a while. Thank you.

    I would like to reinforce what you said about the dancers being in cahoots. To me, this is the best possible circumstance for a multi-leader (or even multi-follower) dance. Although it is sometimes kinda fun when someone comes in and steals you away out of nowhere, *especially* if it is done in a smooth and respectful way that does not interrupt the flow of the dance, it is not ususally appropriate to do it without ‘asking’ first. A lot of times, especially at large conventions, I might only get one song with someone that I have not gotten to dance with in a loooong time, because they live far away or whatever, and sometimes I just don’t wanna share! We are creating something together, and some dude coming in from left field is probably not part of that vision. If we want to have a group project, let’s decide that at the beginning, okay?

    No Dancus Interruptus, please.

    That being said, passing dances and even steal dances that keep in mind that the follow is not a tug-of-war toy are way *way* WAY fun, and I reccomend them to everyone! They are a good learning tool, too. :-)

  2. Posts like this are why I love Swungover. Things like these aren’t talked about in classes or social dances, yet I’ve found good etiquette is essential to having a good time at dances.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m not all that fond of participating in steal jams mostly because so many people do it so, so poorly. One of my favorite examples is the guy hovering around and trying to find the right time to come in.

    Come to think of it, that’s somewhat like a normal jam where you get the couple standing on the edge of the circle and trying to get their turn while couple after couple go in before them.

  4. Disclaimer: I come from a scene where all of our birthday jams are steal jams, and we have a call “STEAL DANCE” to announce a free-for-all steal dance (no spectators) that we will often use as the encore song on band nights (if we haven’t already had one earlier in the night). I might therefore be a little biassed.

    I agree with the two highlighted points, and they’re two of the things that we aim for when we teach stealing. A cool steal is one that is a bit of a surprise (the good kind) and smooth for all parties involved. The tone of the post (and wcswithme’s response) seems to be very anti-stealing, and I think it’s because of people ignoring 3: “There is a time and a place for stealing”.

    It’s important to draw a distinction between the type of birthday jam that happens at 260bpm (like the one in the video) and a birthday steal jam (which is more beginner/intermediate friendly and happens closer to 150bpm). I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of stealing in an all-star birthday jam, because it’s dangerous at that speed. At slower speeds, I would expect most partner changes to be steals.

    The problem that Yossef describes of someone hovering around and failing to find the right time to come in really bugs me too, but handing a follow off onto someone (or into nothingness in favour of the hoverer, if it’s the lead’s birthday) is like rejection, so I refuse to do it. In general, you shouldn’t hover around a couple waiting for a chance to steal: you should wait at the edge, and when your chance opens, you should aim to have stolen within 8 beats of breaking rank. This often causes double-stealing, which is awesome.

    If someone is hovering, the correct response in Cambridge is to do a few swing-outs in a row in the same direction. This gives the follow time to show off (see also: “followers are not toys”) and the other person an easy opportunity to steal in. If they fail to do so within about a phrase, someone else can steal in instead, to stop the awkwardness

    Okay, so stealing is complicated, and there are a lot of things that can make it awkward, but it’s all teachable. Get your local swing scene to organise stealing taster classes, and incorporate steal dances into your social nights (in the same way as the shim-sham). The stealing in your scene will soon become smoother and less inappropriate.

    • Hey David,

      Thanks for your in-depth reply. I think that called “okay, let’s have a steal dance” is the same as when I mentioned the leaders and followers being in cahoots–basically, knowing that the focus of the dance is going to be stealing each other as much as possible.

      To be honest, though, I don’t see how my post came off as anti-stealing, as I mention nothing negative about stealing, except in the sense of a birthday dance becoming a tug-of-war. (I even praised another’s stealing technique.)

      But thanks again for your response.


  5. “she might enjoy having entire dances where leaders pass her off back and forth as quickly as possible”

    This is widespread in the Hustle world – you can often see two or three leaders trading in and out with a follower every few patterns. Have seen it a few times at WCS events too but it’s not an established tradition there.

  6. At salsa, I recently saw two leaders repeatedly trade follows. The follows got to stay in place while the back-to-back leaders traded places with each other, in cahoots, on cue, seamlessly, nonverbally. It was very exciting to watch.

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