Swing 101 — Etiquette & Floorcraft
This is episode 2 of Swing 101, a series geared towards beginner dancers. Special guest editor Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Don’t know who Mr. Darcy is? Don’t worry. He’s simply Jane Austen’s most principled gentleman, and a bit of a badass. Anyway, he’s been nice enough to take over here at the Swungover manor house and put together a guide on modern swing dancing etiquette. Now, though Mr. Darcy tries to be open-minded when logic and reason prevail, he’s still very strict about what is and isn’t done.
So, if these seem too rigid — some people, and entire scenes, don’t worry about sweat very much, for instance — then consider them more as guidelines — your personal character, principles, or culture may give you reasons for not doing these. And some cultures have very specific etiquette rules that may differ from this specifically British Regency (and modern American) take on it. I will note that at the root of Mr. Darcy’s advice is respecting oneself, one’s dance partner, and others on the floor. And this is the main point of dance etiquette, is it not?
On Asking Someone To Dance
One asks another person to swing dance by simply using their words. “Would you like to dance?” “Care to dance?” “May I have this dance?” are all fine. What is not generally liked very much in the swing scene is extending your hand to someone, silently, and expecting them to jump at the chance to dance with you. Or grabbing someone and pulling them onto the floor.
In the modern scene, everyone is allowed and welcome to ask anyone else they wish to dance. Some followers still choose to live by the old-fashioned custom of waiting to be asked. And some leaders and followers in general are shy and are not quick to ask. So, if you are not asked, do not take it personally. Being proactive in asking is a great way to dance all night and meet people.
You are allowed to reject dances. If your explanation is that you are tired, the song is not to your liking, or that you are conversing with a friend, your pursuing partner will probably be pleased to know why. Though you are not obliged to have a dance with that person at a later point in the night, if you do wish to have one, you may add “Please find me again” or “I will find you later.”
If you do add those phrases, mean it.
If you do not wish to dance with a person who asks you, then you should reject that dance, and no further explanation is necessary. (Unless you desire to elaborate, of course.) This matter is perhaps controversial, but consider this instance:
Let’s say you are asked to dance by a person who makes you uncomfortable because of the way they touch you or look at you, or because you feel they will somehow get you injured on the dance floor. You decide to reject the dance. Since you have only been dancing a few months and are new to the scene, you desire to be polite and, so as not to hurt their feelings, add “I’m sitting this one out.”
First off, they will probably ask again, later, and so you are simply prolonging the problem rather than solving it. Secondly, your personal safety — whether physical or mental — is much more important than social graces. The rejected partner may ask why, in which case you have the opportunity to give them honest feedback on their behavior. “Well, to be honest, in the past…” (Depending on the behavior, you may want to give them feedback on it regardless of whether they ask for it or not.)
When you ask someone to dance or they ask you, walk together with them onto the dance floor. If it is too crowded to do so, gesture to the spot you wish to dance in.
As this is a very social dance, with lots of people asking each other to dance on and off the floor, you don’t have to walk someone off of the dance floor (unless you want to). But exchange a cordial “thanks” before departing.
Sometimes those who are not welcoming to you are shy; sometimes they are arrogant. Sometimes the shy ones will come out of their shell with time or poking. Sometimes the arrogant ones will realize they are being arrogant. Sometimes their behavior will change; sometimes it won’t.
On Appearance & Odors
We do not live in a time where people are likely to tell you to your face that you smell bad or that you have reached a level of sweat that is abhorrent to the general touch. Therefore, people must learn to police themselves:
Between dances, touch your own shirt sleeve if you are a leader, or the back of your shirt if you are a follower. If you find you gross, others probably will too.
Avoid wearing clothing that shows a lot of bare skin — leaders, especially make sure the shoulders are covered, and followers, especially make sure the back is covered. Those places are, after all, where our partners put their hands. And even though sweaty fabric can be gross, it is generally much more pleasing to put a hand on than sweaty skin.
Your hair-cut may be likely to fling sweat on your partner. Sometimes even into their mouths. Or, if it’s very long, it may whip them as you turn. If your hair cut is susceptible to these, use sweat towels or hair bands accordingly.
If you sweat through shirts or other tops, bring fresh back-ups. You may want to bring an extra for the car ride home.
Pay special attention to the effect your state will have on others. If you are sweaty and your partner is not, perhaps ask them to dance once you have changed.
As far as odor goes, give yourself a smell test before leaving the house. Before a dance night, bathing, adding plenty of strong deodorant and antiperspirant, and wearing clean clothes is most of the battle.
Often there are people (and perhaps even entire dance cultures or communities) who don’t mind dancing completely soaked, and may even feel that dancing regardless of sweat adds something visceral to the experience — so, in this matter, try to gauge your audience and act accordingly.
On Crowded Dance Floors
Choose moves and variations wisely on crowded floors. Favor moves and variations you do well — it’s probably not the time to try the new “widow-maker” move you’ve thought about possibly working on at some point.
Look before you send your partner there.
Look where your partner is sending you.
Both partners should be prepared to pull themselves in, pull their partner in, or redirect their direction to prevent danger.
Acknowledge when you have collided with someone, try to make quick eye contact to assess the damage, and, if everyone seems fine and unhurt, offer a simple apology. Often times you don’t even have to stop dancing to do this.
A further explanation: “Sorry!” upon the occasion of a dance floor collision does not necessarily mean “I’m at fault.” Often it means “Somehow we collided, but everyone seems fine and, well of course it happens, and I apologize if I was the one at fault.” But “Sorry!” is easier to say in the middle of a swingout.
However, if a collision you were involved in has caused another person to stop dancing, then stop your own dancing and check in to make sure everything is alright. If the collision was your fault, (1) figure out what you did wrong, (2) apologize and try to make amends, and (3) concentrate on changing your behavior so that it doesn’t happen again.
If another couple collided with you and one of them obviously hurt you or your partner and did not acknowledge it, mention it to them (possibly waiting until the end of the song depending on the situation). They need to be aware that they did something that caused harm and didn’t know it.
On Birthday Jams and Jam Circles
A birthday jam is when a person with a birthday gets in a circle and gets new partners throughout a song. The goal of birthday jams is to give the person having a birthday a chance to shine and have partner after partner have a brief moment dancing with them. It is not the point of a birthday dance for people to fight over the birthday person or to try to “snatch” them away from other partners so much that it starts to look like a game where the goal is to try to steal as many times as you can.
It is also not the point for the birthday person to only dance with a couple people. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to join birthday jams. And yes, that means you, beginner dancer.
In birthday and other “steal” jams, give the previous partner a couple phrases before you cut in, and take a couple phrases yourself before passing the partner onto the next. If people try to butt in before you have a chance to finish your turn, don’t try to fight them, which often involves dragging the birthday partner around the floor — let them break in. It’s not worth the trouble. You can have your very own birthday dance with that person after the jam.
A jam circle is when everyone stands in a circle and claps as dancers take turns going into the middle and exhibiting their dancing. Everyone is allowed into a jam circle. And yes, that means you, beginner dancer. If you’ve got a cool move, or just really really like the song and want to show that, or just learned a swingout and want to show that you did — it’s whatever you want to express.
A few tips on jam circles: Make sure to give the previous couple a good twenty or thirty seconds before coming on, or until they clearly make an exit. If someone was obviously itching to go before you desired to enter the jam, allow them the chance. Otherwise, you will often have to establish your turn by simply charging out into the jam — don’t expect to wait for an empty floor or an invitation. Take a couple phrases if it’s a busy jam, or a chorus if there’s not a lot of people wanting to enter. Leave them wanting more.
Save all your air steps (aerials) for jams. There is almost never an appropriate time for a dancer to throw an air step while on a social dance floor.
On Dancing to Live Bands
Simple: Clap after every song. (Since we dance so much to recorded music, it can be easy to forget to clap when live musicians are tiring themselves out for our enjoyment on the stage.)
Clap a whole lot if you liked it.
Often times people respect the musicians not only by clapping, but by dressing up in nice clothes for the night’s dancing.
Don’t be afraid to yell or holler when they do something that really inspires you or moves you. They’ll love it, because yelling and hollering at jazz musicians is Old School, and something they’re not going to get from their next town-hall lawn gig.
These are just some of the most common ways we approach etiquette in the modern swing dance world. And, again, remember our overall important swing rule: There are many different ways to do it. You may have a very good reason for not following some of the above advice.
As long as you conduct yourself in ways that respect yourself, your dance partner, and others on the floor, you’ve got the idea.