There are always more women who would like to go dancing than there are men who are willing and able to take them. For several seasons of Dancing with the Stars it appeared that no woman would ever win because the audience’s female voters were so enthralled by the male competitors. For young girls, imagining being the Belle of the Ball is both a delightful fantasy and big business. Dancing is a core part of fairy tales like Cinderella and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, as well as adult musicals like My Fair Lady and The King and I.
In the meantime boys are imagining being Spider Man, Batman, G.I. Joe, or a ninja. They might save Belle, but only Batman’s millionaire alter-ego Bruce Wayne would have learned to dance. Some of the difficulties of adult males can face in learning to dance have been portrayed in the delightful Japanese film Shall We Dance?, and its American remake. Speaking as a man who likes to dance and loved taking ballroom lessons with my wife, I encourage men to take a few lessons. Cities often provide inexpensive lessons through services like parks and recreation. But, at the same time, I feel it’s only fair to point out some potential pitfalls. For along with moments of joy and exhilaration, there can be moments of frustration.
The competitive dancing that we see on Dancing with the Stars is different from social dancing. In competitive dancing you learn set routines. You memorize a sequence of steps and practice them in the same order over and over again. In social dancing you learn several different steps, and while dancing the man leads the woman through improvised, ever-changing groups of them.
This creates an fascinating dynamic. The man must to learn to lead. He must learn his steps, think about what steps he is going to do next when dancing, and learn how to communicate his intent through movements in his upper body. The woman, on the other hand, has to learn to follow. She must learn her steps, and also learn not to lead and not to anticipate. Instead she must try to enter into a Zen-like “mind of no mind” so that she can respond instantly to changes in her partner’s shoulder, arm, and hand movements. (The arms of trained ballroom dancers form a “frame,” and maintaining muscular firmness in this frame allows the woman to sense which direction the man is moving. This won’t work if either partner lets their arms go limp: the dreaded “spaghetti arms.”)
This dynamic is loaded with potential problems. Men often pride themselves on their athletic ability, but women can frequently learn dance steps faster than men. This is especially true if an instructor leads the woman through the steps. (A man with a good lead can frequently lead a woman through steps she has never done before.) After practicing steps with an instructor the woman may try to help her partner by “back-leading.” Unfortunately, if she tries help in this way she is leading rather than responding, which makes it harder for him to learn to lead. One of my friends was helping with a dance class, and he asked a couple who were struggling with this if he could help. The man responded, “Are you a marriage counselor?” (The couple shown practicing their tango in a park in Argentina were caught in a slightly awkward-looking moment. See them also captured in a moment of mild frustration, as well as one of enchanting grace.)
So, the woman has to allow the man the chance to learn to lead. And he has to learn the proper amount of force for leading. If he leads too weakly, the woman will have no idea what step the man intends to do, and she may be tempted to “help” him. If he leads too roughly, she will feel like she’s being jerked around (which she won't like).
Let me illustrate how tricky getting the lead right can be. One night a female instructor made me lead her through the same step over and over. The step in question was a cross-body lead, a showy move in which the man steps to one side while twisting his upper body to hold the woman in place. He then pulls her across his body just before pivoting backwards in the opposite direction. This last pivot causes the woman to whirl around rapidly on one foot and end up facing him again. My instructor made me lead her through this move repeatedly, each time asking for more force and assertiveness. (A warning for men: listening to a female instructor repeatedly criticize you for not being forceful enough can grate on your ego. I remember thinking on more than one occasion, “I'm paying to hear this?”) Finally I managed to lead the step strongly enough to satisfy her.
Then she told me to do the same step with my wife. My wife is tough in mind and body, so I wondered if she might protest being spun around so forcefully. Nonetheless, I led the step with just as much energy as my tenacious instructor had coached me to do. As the force of my body’s pivoting torque spun my wife around, I heard her let out an excited “Ooo.” My immediate thought was, “Ah, ha. She liked that.” That moment helped me understand that my lead needed to be more than just easy to follow—it sometimes needed to powerful enough to be exhilarating for my partner. And for the lead partner, dancing with a partner who can follow your every move can be amazingly exciting.
Ladies: Getting him to sign up for a few lessons might require an occasion, which is the reason most couples take lessons. Perhaps you want to dance at a wedding, a reunion, or some other occasion. Let him know how much you would like to be able to dance at that occasion. The simple, elegant underarm turn shown in the wedding photograph is typically taught in the first few lessons.
Men: Learning to lead is not that hard at beginner levels. If you take advanced classes, the steps become more challenging to lead, but those “Ooos” are nice rewards. And if you and your partner start to look good dancing together, don’t be surprised if other women ask if they can borrow you for a dance or two.
You don’t have to literally sweep your partner off her feet (as Richard Gere does with Jennifer Lopez in the above rehearsed routine from Shall We Dance).
But if you learn enough steps so that she looks great dancing at a wedding reception or some other occasion, she’ll love you for it. Our instructors liked to tell us, “She’s the picture, he’s the frame.” Look at the beautiful frame the groom in the photograph created for his bride, just as a prince would do.
[“Daydreaming” photo courtesy of Flickr user Philippe and used by permission. The photo of the couple practicing their tango taken by Gabriela, Flickr user Gabo2, and used the Creative Commons license. “First Dance” photo taken by bensonkua, and used under the Creative Commons license.]