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.