Ageism on the Dance Floor

I’ve been thinking about the swing dance scene and how its changed over the past 20 years. It’s not as cross-generational as it used to be. I’ve been in the swing dance scene for over 35 years, first in NYC, then San Francisco and now Boston. In that time, I’ve been friends with, seen, and danced with a lot of dancers. I taught and ran a monthly swing dance in Boston for over 26 years, and used to teach Lindy way back when.

So, when I go to a dance where a lot of young dancers (20s-30s) are in attendance, why do I feel so out of place? I thought maybe it was just me, but I’ve spoken to other older dancers (both male and female), and we all seem to share the same observations. I was recently reading an interesting article – “The Top 10 Worst Things Leaders do on the Social Dance Floor“. It had a lot of interesting viewpoints, but I was especially drawn to an article it linked to: “An Open Letter to Young Women at their First Swing Dance“. In this article, the author focused on older male dancers. Here is some of what she said:

“For too long we’ve let lecherous older men prey on the young women who come here to have a good time, intimidating them into close contact and taking advantage of their naiveté. They hold women too close, they make suggestive conversation, they touch women inappropriately. This often drives women away, which weakens the dance scene and indirectly perpetuates this predatory behavior.”

Imagine if we replace the word “older” with “Black, Muslim, or Jewish”? The discrimination in that statement becomes quite evident. As I see it, this charge should not be directed at “older, creepy guys”, but to all creepy guys. From my perspective, putting such a negative label on older male dancers also weaken the dance scene. Women need to be more aware and stand up for themselves. If anyone acts inappropriately towards them, they need to call him on it and/or to end the dance. If they feel uncomfortable confronting someone, then try reporting the incident to the dance promoter. It’s up to us as a community to keep our dances safe.

This article encourages women to be wary of older male dancers. Although the author is careful to say this caution does not apply to all older male dancers, I think the negative seed has already been planted. In my years of teaching and running dances, I always recommended that if someone asked you to dance, you should say “yes”. But, I need to amend that. You should not feel obligated to say “yes” to anyone who asks. What I’m suggesting is in the absence of negatives like you’re tired; don’t like the song; or don’t feel comfortable about the person, etc., then  say “yes”. If someone gives you the creeps or is too pushy, then say “no”. And if someone is making you uncomfortable, tell the dance promoter. If something feels wrong to you, it probably is, trust your instincts.

When I go to these dances now, I am hesitant to ask young women to dance because I feel they may think I’m an older, creepy guy. Since my years of experience and reputation in the dance community are unknown to a lot of the younger dancers, I usually only ask women I already know. I’ve also heard from many older women about their own frustration, since a lot of the men (older and younger) prefer to dance with younger women. There seems to be plenty of age discrimination going around!

In my days in NYC, I remember many of the women (especially the young ones) lining up to dance with the older male dancers simply because they were the best dancers. Now it seems the older male dancers are sometimes perceived as guys that women should be wary of. So,  instead of being respected as the senior members of the dance community, who either helped get it started or supported it, they are now being seen as potential creeps.

Another issue I have with the article is this quote:

“Don’t get me wrong; consensual inter-generational dancing is awesome!”

How did the term “consensual” get in there? How about just inter-generational dancing? Dancing, by its very nature, must be consensual. I used to love seeing families, from grandparents down to grandkids come to dances together.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there has been a fair amount of sexual harassment reported in the swing dance scene. Women need to be aware of it and protect themselves. However, when someone labels a specific group of dancers as creepy, it does not help the swing dance scene, instead it divides people along gender and age lines.

My advice for newcomers (male and female) is to do a lot of dancing and watching. Check out who are the good or fun dancers. And if one of them asks you to dance, give it a shot. As in life, you do need to set reasonable boundaries and be comfortable. Remember, we’re all there to have fun.



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9 comments on “Ageism on the Dance Floor
  1. Dan Gottlieb says:

    There are many reasons why a woman of any age who doesn’t know me may decline dancing with me, all are OK.
    If I am dancing with an inexperienced dancer of any age, I ask them if they want any tips, if yes one of the things I teach them is how to place their left hand on the front of their partner’s shoulder and apply slight tension/ push to control closeness. If their partner doesn’t understand this non-verbal gesture, words such as “I am comfortable with this degree of closeness, not closer” may work, if not, end dance and refuse further dances with this partner.
    As an older gent, I realize that young woman want to dance with their similarly aged men, as dancing is sometimes a dating / mating ritual.
    I’ve made some great dance friendships with younger gals, had some awesome one-time dances with partners who’ve said “You made my day”, I’ve also been turned down cold. I just ask once and accept any no, excuse or lame explanation as a “no”, and generally try to avoid asking someone for repeat dance same evening so as not to be thought overbearing. It’s a tough tightrope out there on the dance floor!

  2. Amy De Rosa says:

    I was a dancer on the NYC scene of which Roger speaks. He’s correct when he says that many of the older men were highly desirable partners because they were the best dancers.

    That NYC scene was so great because most all of us were there because we loved the music, we loved to dance and we just wanted to dance.

    Get your priorities straight, folks, and , as Roger says, say no to the people who use the dance scene as a pick-up scene and look for the good dancers whose moves you like and from whom you can learn. It has pretty much nothing to do with age. It’s about dancing!

  3. Paul Peabody says:

    Thank you Amy and Roger, I couldn’t agree more ! I think Roger calls out this ageism in a succinct and highly intelligent way. I used to go to Metropolitan Duane Hall in the basement of the church on 14th street, when I lived in Manhattan and had a blast , finally passing the acid test of being accepted into the English advanced class , an evening where the lovely Christine Helwig, would walk around for an evening and watch your every move . One would only find out a week later whether one was “accepted” or not. And the main reason I bring this up, is that English dancing as I know most of you are aware, is all about rhythm and “no touching”. BELIEVE me, you can flirt in a delightful and thoughtful way as governed by the personalities of who is dancing without touching. I guarantee those guys out there who are depressed by this issue in swing dancing, try some English Country dancing, . The dance “Nonesuch” and other playford dances are so elaborate and intricate and are indicative of a time when men and women were only allowed to communicate with one another with their expressions, smiles, etc and it was, and is, delightful and lovely. This is the style seen in so many period Jane Austen BBC adaptations . Other than this, I cannot waste energy on a society that professionally and otherwise is in a state of rampant ageism , I just go and do things that make me happy, “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”

  4. Abraham russel says:

    I’m so old now I can’t even dance anymore. Swing, was my passion for many years. By the time the big dances were getting organized, I was in my forties, and I pretty much stuck to asking women of my own age group, who were sorely neglected by younger leads I might add, to dance. Sometimes I couldn’t resist a particularly lively and expressive younger follow, but mostly not. Most young women don’t want to dance with older guys. That’s a fact. I met my wife at a swing dance in 1985. She was a bit distressed at having been dancing with a man “who must have been 6o!! His hands were hard and dry.” This uttered as one just escaped from a swamp. If you’re old, don’t imagine that your wisdom and experience (haha!) will endear you to anyone, even if you do trim those ear and nose hairs.

    • Nita says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Women and men should try to be well groomed and appealing whatever age when going into a close encounter with someone on the dance floor. As we have more lone women than men dancing it seems and ageism is an issue and dance etiquette slipping it’s a real problem these days and dare I say it but lobe women are very predatory in my opinion.

  5. Linda says:

    Thank you for writing the article. I came across this page while searching for ‘why do I feel uncomfortable dancing with old people’. I now realized why. I grew up in a culture where partner dance (or any form of physical touch with strangers) is not a norm and young people have to treat old people very formally. I also know how I can get over the discomfort: by practice.

    Your article is not exactly an answer to my search question but I enjoyed reading it because it provided clear criticism on the ageism.

  6. Diane Southwell says:

    I found this article interesting in that it suggested that women deal with inappropriate behaviour on the dance floor. If women had the power to deal with inappropriate behaviour, there would not be any, on or off the dance floor. It’s men who need to act respectfully on and off the dance floor.

  7. MP says:

    I have a boyfriend who is my age (early 60’s), Who tells me that dancing is for young people! I found his comment devastating. Dancing is life, joy, movement and happiness. Why does that have to die When one is over 50? It makes it hard to be happy in this society

  8. sasha norris says:

    very nice… i really like your blog…

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