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Walking the Two-Way Street
The Forgiving Face of Salsa
By Grace Badillo
Dancing With Grace Productions, Inc.
Recently I read an article entitled Salsa Rejection: When is it appropriate? by Johnny Johnson from La Voz Del Mambo -- which for those of you who don't know Spanish means "The Voice of Mambo". Although Johnson is the editor of "La Voz Del Mambo", he begins his article writing about salsa. Johnson makes what I consider some very confusing comments about what to do in the Salsa dancing scene. Nevertheless, many dancers are sure to read or hear about this article and find it confusing, so I want to offer my own response.
As all of you know from my interview in the January of 2007, I believe the face of Salsa is welcoming, not exclusive. Johnson's article boils down to a sermon on using the "power" of salsa for good and evil. He claims that women purposefully reject men who ask them to dance Salsa. He then says women pout and complain that they don't get asked to dance, but he says this happens because they don't make themselves available. In other words, it is the lady's fault if she is not asked, either because (a) men can reasonably expect a power-motivated rejection so why should they bother asking, or (b) because the woman somehow has failed to draw the invitation to herself. He says, and I quote "Ladies do you feel a sense of rejection because no one is asking you to dance? You do. Well, I have absolute no pity for you." His advice for the uninvited: "standing near the dance floor, smiling, nodding your head to the music, doing a halfway basic step, and even singing the lyrics if you know them, faking it if you don't." The implication is that it's in a woman's total power to make an offer happen or not.
While I agree that women have an equal role with men in the synergy of Salsa, I started to feel some outrage. Based on real-world experience, I asked myself, how could Johnson have drawn such conclusions? In my many years of dancing Salsa at all kinds of venues, I have never purposefully refused an offer to dance unless I had a very good reason, such as exhaustion, sore feet, dehydration or being clobbered by another person's shoes or elbows on the dance floor. (Please also see my many hints in previous Newsletters about body odor, which is each person's own responsibility to control.) In short, Johnson left no room for reasonable explanations why a lady might occasionally say "no". Nor did he admit that a man might misinterpret a lady's demeanor and take offense where none was intended. In fact, Johnson's blanket statement to all women who feel a sense of rejection because they aren't being asked to dance is, and I quote: "Well, I have absolutely no pity for you".
The ladies and gentlemen of all ages and cultures that I consider my Salsa community are not going to find much guidance or comfort in Johnson's article. I acknowledge that some hurt feelings are inevitable in any Salsa dancer's life, but I think it makes great sense to give the benefit of the doubt to most people who, for whatever reason, can't accept someone's invitation to dance right at that moment. While it cannot feel good to a man when a lady doesn't accept a dance, I feel Johnson's over-reactive words will resonate with woman-haters rather than Salsa dancers. The intent to dance Salsa is not to hurt people, and in Salsa we don't assume people are saying "no" to hurt us, unless they make it clear they want to be mean or unkind. The world just may not be out to get you, Mr. Johnson! Salsa dancing should make a dancer feel like a kid -- at play again, but this time on the dance floor with a friend or acquaintance. A lighthearted approach is the best approach.
Gentlemen, here's another perspective to consider. When you ask a lady to dance, whether verbally or by extending your hand to her, you imply that she has the option to say "yes" or "no", correct? So if she says "no", it's not the end of the world. Her "no" doesn't mean no one else will say "yes", and it doesn't mean she has forever rejected your invitations. A hint: your chances of a "yes" increase if you do not ask a lady to dance directly after she has just danced. Also, please avoid the self-defeating habit of getting mad at someone if they say they already promised the dance to someone else. In his article Johnson reports a woman said "no" to him and then immediately danced with someone else. Johnson recommends men put such women on a "Don't Dance List." My response to any Salsa dancer, man or lady, based purely on common sense, is: DO NOT DO WHAT JOHNSON SUGGESTS. Everyone promises a dance to someone every now and again, and it is part of our etiquette to honor those promises. The lady Johnson describes may not have had time to explain, so how does Johnson know she didn't already promise that dance to the other gentleman? Such half-complete stories do nothing to help people navigate the Salsa scene. Why couldn't Johnson give this lady the benefit of the doubt? How does he know she wasn't getting a water break for 30 seconds and then got PULLED out onto the floor by a friend that just wouldn't take "NO" for an answer? This kind of thing happens all the time at Salsa venues. It has happened to me at least 50 times this year alone! Yet Johnson's advice would have men jump to the worst conclusion and I quote: "Do not dance with her even if she is the last person walking the face of the earth and begs me to dance with her".
What kind of advice is this to give to anybody, you might ask? Unfortunately some people do think like Johnson, and I'll give you an example. Sometimes someone makes me promise to "save the next Salsa for them" and I am a person who likes to keep my word. Recently I was asked to dance by an acquaintance and I had promised the next Salsa to a complete stranger. I told this to my acquaintance nicely, and he got so mad! When the next song started I made a point of asking him to dance right away, but he turned me down in a very childish way. Well, sometimes we have to set aside our pride and give people the benefit of the doubt; this goes for men and women. This person thought I was lying to try to get out of dancing with him; if that were the case, why would I ask him afterwards? I cannot and will not accept the unwritten rule that obligates women to dance with every single guy every single time he asks, regardless of the realities of the moment. Don't get me wrong: I am completely against anyone saying "no" with a dirty look attached, a popular and frankly evil practice in some cities. I'm just suggesting ladies and gentlemen not take the occasional refusal so personally. Rather, take it in stride and don't give up on the entire gender.
After mentioning this topic to a male student of mine he mentioned that if a person avoids you and/or your invitations to dance, its usually because of something like hygiene, bad breath, a soaking wet shirt, or the person is just a horrible lead or follow. My point exactly! That you must look at yourself before assuming that the person you are asking is "evil" and just saying "no" because they feel superior.
One part of Johnson's article I do agree with is where he encourages ladies to ask gentlemen to dance. I also approve of women being proactive at dance events. Ladies, if for some reason you have just turned a man's dance offer down, my advice to you, since we're all human, is to ask him man to dance sometime later that night. Salsa is a two way street. It is out of respect that we should do that and I will try to do it from now on depending on how many hours I was on my feet teaching prior to the dance! Now if a gentleman has hurt you on the floor in the past you might want to just talk to him about it; many men are open to conversation about how to be a safer dancer and having this conversation is easier than avoiding him every single time you go dancing.
Unfortunately, Johnson is right when he says some Salsa dancers are exclusive and will only ask people to dance at their level. While I can't promise such people won't hurt your feelings, I'm going to offer some hints -- many of which you've heard from me before -- that might help you get to "yes" more often:
- Make hygiene a priority. Seriously, look at yourself in the mirror. Wear deodorant. If you tend to perspire a lot, bring an extra shirt. If you bring a hand towel to wipe the sweat off, and it is soaked by the third song, bring 5 of them! Also, smelling the little towel might give you an indication of how you smell.
- Avoid drinking too much: it will make you a rough and sloppy partner.
- If a dancer has just staggered off the floor looking hot and exhausted, give them a minute or two to catch their breath before asking. Be aware that women turn on average over 200 times while men on average turn only 8 times.
- If you want your Salsa to be stronger, take classes. It helps, believe me and for those of you who have way too much pride to try a group class, private classes are a jem!
- If you must say "no" to someone who has just asked you to dance, be kind when you say "no" or "maybe later", and ask them to dance again later that evening if you can, or on any other night you go out to dance!
To Johnny Johnson, the writer of the article I was completely offended by, I mean no disrespect. However, as a Salsa columnist for Expresión Magazine, a longtime published writer, a Certified Salsa Instructor, Promoter, writer for the Latin Opinion and entertainer for most of my life, I would hope that the power you have to publish information and advice would be taken a little more seriously because it does affect people's lives, sometimes in a very negative way. You say "So try your best to smile and be gentle if you're going to decline someone. I promise we won't hate you as much." How is this using the "power" for good? The advice of someone who is still prepared to hate a woman who refuses his dance offer nicely is, in my opinion, not worth taking.
Salsa dancers, the challenge I'm giving you, and which Johnson isn't ready to embrace, is to set aside your ego, your pride. Don't take the lazy approach of hating or blaming the person who refuses your offer. Rather, walk the two-way street of Salsa with a forgiving face. Go to your Salsa venue with the intention to dance and be respectful. Set a good example for everyone. We are all going to have to say "no" to someone when we are out socially (even the men reading this). Salsa isn't meant to hurt people or to be used as a weapon. The more people who believe this and act on it, the more chance just asking someone to dance won't be such an anxiety filled moment. Salsa is supposed to be fun, so use good Salsa etiquette, keep your sense of humor and keep dancing!