A personal blog aimed at contributing, and paying homage, to the most sensual, beautiful dance of Brazil.
Etiquette is the social lubrication that allows people to interact with each other with minimal discomfort. Social dances have their own rules of etiquette, some common to all, others specific to styles. In this post I try to go beyond simple rules. Understanding etiquette is an important social skill, but there is more to good social skills than just following rules.
Good understanding of etiquette will help you not to offend others unintentionally, but having good general social skills will have a strong positive effect on your social and dancing life. Good social skills have many benefits. They can make you well-liked, charm the opposite sex, bring you new friends, save you from embarrassment or get you more and better dances. Your dancing scene will also benefit, if you’re a person who is enjoyable rather than difficult or just kind of “blah” to interact with.
Some persons have the “instinct of courtesy” so largely developed that they seem hardly to need culture at all. They are equal to any occasion, however novel. They never commit blunders, or if they do commit them, they seem not to be blunders in them. So there are those who sing, speak, or draw intuitively—by inspiration. The great majority of us, however, must be content to acquire these arts by study and practice. In the same way we must acquire the art of behavior, so far as behavior is an art. We must possess, in the first place, a sense of equity, good-will toward our fellow-men, kind feelings, magnanimity and self-control. Cultivation will do the rest.
Just hanging out in dancing circles tends to improve social skills. It’s very gratifying to watch newcomers improve socially, at the same time as they improve their dancing. But like in everything else, being aware and active brings improvement much faster that just learning by passive exposure. My own social skills are far from perfect, but I’ve learned quite a few things during my years of dancing. I’ve also been fortunate enough to associate with some amazing people, and have learned quite a bit from observing them. Books could be written on the subject, and this post only scratches the surface.
Greeting people as you meet is highly recommended. Friendly nods, kisses to the cheek, handshakes and hugs are all good, depending on the place, situation, and how well you know them. Zoukers everywhere seem to especially like hugs, which is yet another reason to dance Zouk. The gesture and enthusiasm may vary, but the message is the same: “I’m glad to see you.” The same applies to saying bye to people as you part ways.
Actually talking to people is helpful, if you wish to have any deeper social interaction with them. There is plenty of time for that before, after, and sometimes during lessons. Also during the parties – unless you dance every single song.
If you don’t know them, introduce yourself. After this, there is no shortage of topics. Especially if you already know them, asking how they are doing is a common and considerate way to begin a conversation. If you find such small talk dreadful, there is always topic you have in common with every other person in the room – dance. Every social gathering of Zouk dancers will eventually move to this topic, even if they try to avoid it. But small talk works usually works better in parties.
If you’re new to the scene, it’s especially good for you to get to know people and interact with them. If you’re one of the regulars, greeting and getting to know new people makes them feel welcome. It also helps you to not get stuck in a clique. In any case, it’s better for you that you take the initiative, rather than expecting others to do so.
Asking for a Dance
Asking for a dance can be done in many ways, depending on the situation and how well you know the person you’re approaching. Extending a hand with a smile and saying “Would you like to dance?” is a good one. So is jumping up and down like an excited puppy dog. (At least if you’re a woman; I have not yet seen a man try to pull off that one.) Approaching with an inviting smirk and your best solo dancing moves is also a good one. So is a meeting of eyes across the room, with an inquiring lift of the eyebrow and moving to meet in the middle of the floor. What all the good ways of asking have in common are a warm and friendly attitude, and genuine focus on the person you’re approaching.
What is a bad way to ask for a dance? Basically, any way that takes the answer for granted. This means you also take the other person for granted. A good way gives space for the other person to decline easily. The rudest way is just grabbing a person and trying to pull her to the floor. This actually happens, sometimes, and is justification enough for a withering glare and refusal. Another bad way is to simply state “let’s dance”. What is done matters, but so does the attitude. Asking your friend to dance with a smile, lift of an eyebrow and nod toward the floor is ok; doing the same without the smile and the eyebrow is not.
If the person you’re asking declines your invitation, it’s best to accept the answer graciously, and with a smile, and find someone else to dance with. The more comfortable you are with your invitation being declined, the more relaxed you’re going to be with the asking part. You’re asking a person to have some lighthearted fun with you, and their answer need not be a big deal to you, either way.
Polite persons are necessarily obliging. A smile is always on their lips, an earnestness in their countenance, when we ask a favor of them. They know that to render a service with a bad grace, is in reality not to render it at all. If they are obliged to refuse a favor, they do it with mildness and delicacy; they express such feeling regret that they still inspire us with gratitude
– Samuel R. Wells, How to Behave
Answering a dance invitation is easy enough if the answer is yes. All you need to do is to show some enthusiasm. It gets more difficult when you want to say no. There are many reasons why you might legitimately want do so. Knowing how to say no can make a difference between hurting the asker’s feelings or not. It can save you from an awkward dance that will leave you worse off, just because you didn’t know how to refuse. The attitude matters a lot – declining a dance with a warm attitude and an apologetic smile will leave the asker with a much different feeling, compared to a cold, standoffish refusal. The time to bring out the coldness is when the asker refuses to take no for an answer.
On the Floor
The attitude you express toward your partner while dancing matters. The “social” part of “social dance” is just as important as the “dance” part. The most important thing is just being present in the dance. That means you genuinely pay attention to your partner – not watching the walls around you, your own feet, or the inside of your own head. The second most important thing is to have a positive attitude – you can still be present while observing your partner coldly and judgmentally, but it will not create a good dance. Smiling is a nice way to convey positive attitude, but not the only one.
When you meet a charismatic person, you get the impression that they have a lot of power and they like you a lot. The equation that produces charisma is actually fairly simple. All you have to do is give the impression that you possess both high power and high warmth, since charismatic behaviors project a combination of these two qualities… A final dimension underlies both of these qualities: presence. When people describe their experience of seeing charisma in action, whether they met Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Dalai Lama, they often mention the individual’s extraordinary “presence”… When you’re with a charismatic master – take Bill Clinton, for example – you not only feel his power and sense of warm engagement, you also feel that he’s completely here with you, in this moment. Present.
– Olivia Cabane, The Charisma Myth
If either of you makes a mistake while dancing in a party, it’s best to just ignore it, or in some other way dismiss it as not important. Being critical of the person for making the mistake is bad. Stopping the dance to lecture is the worst. Many people are very self-conscious and worried about making mistakes, especially when dancing with more advanced dancers. The best thing you can do to make them feel at ease is conveying the idea that mistakes don’t matter.
If any collisions happen with other couples, you should apologize, whether it’s your fault or not – especially if you’re the leader. This apology typically takes the form of looking to the other couple and mouthing “sorry”, all without stopping the dance. Completely ignoring the other couple after the bump comes across as uncaring and irresponsible.
As you finish dancing, thank your partner. The enthusiasm you show may vary, but even if the dancing was a disappointment, your partner still shared some of their time with you. This merits genuine thanks. For the man to walk his partner back from the floor is a nice and considerate gesture. Genuine compliments and positive comments afterwards are not mandatory, but everybody appreciates them.
Giving constructive feedback is not easy, and the easiest way to spare feelings is to not give any. Generally, correcting other people in parties is a no-no – unless pain or injury looms. But we go to lessons to learn, and getting feedback from our partners can be very useful. The way feedback is given makes a difference in how well it will be received. What the best way is depends on many things: how much time you have, how exactly can you tell your partner what to do differently, and how skilled you are in comparison to your partner.
Generally, the larger the perceived skill gap is in your favor, the more direct you can be with your feedback. If you’re an instructor or a class assistant, people generally don’t mind you acting like one. If you’re roughly the same level, people will generally not be offended by feedback, as long as it’s given in a careful way. Adding some sweetening positive comments is one effective way to help the medicine go down better. Another way is to approach it as mutual conversation, and not as one person dictating to another.
If you’re trying to give feedback to someone more experienced, it’s best to be even more careful. If something is not working, it’s safer to assume it’s you. I’ve heard several stories of beginner leaders trying to teach followers with several years of experience, or even international teachers. (“Oh, you haven’t learned to turn yet? Let me show what you’re supposed to do.”) You don’t want to be one of those guys. This is not to say that you can’t give useful feedback to more experienced dancers. How your partner’s leading or following feels to you is something that is always valid. When it comes to taking feedback, it’s best to not let your ego get in the way of improvement – no matter the level of the person, they might have a valid point.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
– Ken Blanchard
Overall, it’s better to pay more attention to getting good feedback than to giving it. Getting useful feedback improves you as a dancer; giving useful feedback improves the other person, if he’s sensible enough to take it. Asking for feedback and thanking people who give it establishes you as someone who is serious about learning, and brings more feedback your way. When other people see you asking for feedback, it encourages them to do the same.
Get Ready to Party
Taking care of your personal hygiene is a requirement, for classes and parties both. You don’t want to be the smelly guy or girl. This is the minimum. For the next level, be the guy or girl who smells good. Several times, I’ve heard women rave about how good some guy smells. During the last Russian Zouk Congress, the guys from Oman got this as a group. Apparently they know how to pick their perfumes. Personally speaking, I can say it’s really nice to dance with a girl who smells good. Perfume is easy to overdo, so get feedback from a friend whose nose you trust.
Many people, especially men, only pay attention to the practicality of their clothing when visiting parties. Their clothes don’t smell, are not too tight to move in, and are not unsafe. This is, again, a minimum requirement. For the next level, dress up. Dancing in general, and Zouk in particular, is an aesthetic discipline. How people dress affects the impression they give to their partner and others as they dance. Wearing an ill-fitting t-shirt and jeans won’t do justice to those beautiful lines you’ve practiced so hard. The atmosphere of the party is affected by many things. When people dress up, the setting is more like that of a party, and less like everyday life.
Politeness itself is always the same. The rules of etiquette, which are merely the forms in which it finds expression, vary with time and place. A sincere regard for the rights of others, in the smallest matters as well as the largest, genuine kindness of heart; good taste, and self-command, which are the foundations of good manners, are never out of fashion; and a person who possesses them can hardly be rude or discourteous, however far he may transgress conventional usages: lacking these qualities, the most perfect knowledge of the rules of etiquette and the strictest observance of them will not suffice to make one truly polite.
– Samuel R. Wells, How to Behave
Learning how to behave in certain social situations can be very helpful, but superficial changes can only do so much. Learning to smile is good; learning to maintain a positive attitude, good will and appreciation toward other people will make your smiles genuine. Learning to thank people after dancing is good; learning gratitude and expressing it sincerely is even better. If we wish to be socially skilled, we need to pay attention to the fundamentals behind the skills, as well as the particulars of how to behave.
Author of this article: Jukka Välimaa