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Changing Partners: England & America

Recently, as part of our “Yanks Meet Limeys” tour, we brought fourteen Americans over to England to dance. They had a wonderful time and almost everybody was welcoming -- but a few incidents occurred that need to be commented on.

Early on in the tour one woman asked a gentleman for a dance. He said he would have to ask his wife. When he asked her she said “No, because then I will have no one to dance with.” Shortly thereafter a different woman in our group decided on a different tack: she went directly to a woman and asked her if it was alright if she danced with her partner. This woman also said “No, it is not alright.”

The Americans were shocked. Nothing like that would ever (well, almost never) happen in America. They thought these Brits were unbelievably rude, and even the Brits I told this story to were shocked.

However, one Brit defended this behavior. She said that we could look at it another way. In England dance partners “take care of each other.” If one partner dances with anyone else, the other is almost guaranteed to sit out the dance because partners are so firmly paired up in England. One suggestion made by my wife Jacqui is that the man who is asked might say, “No, not this dance, but I’ll tell my wife that the next dance I will not dance with her & then she will have a chance to find a partner.”

The preceding is a possible solution to the problem, but it does not address the essential question: partners, in England, are firmly paired up. Breaking up a dancing couple (married or not) is almost impossible -- and the problem is self perpetuating: the more paired up partners there are the more difficult it is for anyone to break them up and for the one who is “cut loose” to find a partner. Because of that, as soon as a person loses a partner (through death or otherwise) he or she looks for a new partner and if they find one, refuses to relinquish that partner to anyone else.

Before I go on I must point out that though Americans seem to have found a solution to the problem -- at the end of every dance the unwritten, but oft practiced rule is, “Please thank this partner & find another” -- this solution is often not friendly to strangers. When Jacqui first joined the dance communities in America, she found it quite difficult to find a partner. Yes, everyone around her “changed partners” but as a newcomer, as an unknown quantity, she was not asked. So often, halfway through a dance evening, after dancing with other women only (or with the “no hopers” whom no one asked because they were known to be such terrible dancers) she would grab me & say, “Please will you dance with me the rest of the evening?” -- and thereafter we were the quintessential British dance couple: we danced with each other & no one else.

I need to point out one other difference between (most) American women & British women. American women have learned, of necessity, to be quite forward: as soon as a dance ends (or even during a previous dance) they ask men for the next dance. British ladies have not learned to do this, find it quite hard to ask a man -- or a woman. Once again, some American women will ask another woman, a woman they like or who they know is a good dancer -- almost immediately after a dance is finished. British ladies (my wife Jacqui, for instance), who are more diffident, more reticent, will wait to ask a woman until she has had a chance to be asked by men. If no man asks, they then ask a woman -- which means they rarely get a chance to dance with their first choice of women.

What can we do about the situation where everyone cleaves to their partner because everyone cleaves to their partner? Should we even try to change the situation? After all, the American solution isn’t a total solution: newcomers still have trouble finding partners. And who says we must change the situation in England? England is England. England should not do everything America does.

Clearly, some degree of courtesy is necessary. It is rude to flat out say no, to exclude newcomers, but how do we change the current situation?

One couple we know in America came up with the following solution. They decided that every other dance they would dance with each other, and of course, that meant that every other dance they were free to accept any request made by a “stranger.” I found this a little off putting because I seemed to always ask the woman to dance when she was scheduled to dance with her partner. Or, I was rejected so often that I ended up never asking her to dance.

One British couple who came to America varied the above slightly: every third, or fourth dance they danced with each other. The problem they found is that American women have learned to be very aggressive: as soon as a dance is over (or even during the dance) women book ahead one, or two, or even three dances (even though this is frowned on in many dance communities). What this means is that the good male dancers almost never get to choose. Her husband was booked ahead three or four dances and meanwhile she, a quintessentially proper British lady who finds it hard to ask men to dance, found that she never was able to dance with the good male dancers and ended up dancing with other women or with the “no hopers.”

I am airing the question because I am looking for answers. As someone once said, I write because I have questions. If I had answers, I’d be a politician.

We need to discuss the situation. At the most recent Chippenham Folk Festival I was at a workshop in the Town Hall when a young lady stormed out. She was furious; she was packing up, leaving. She let me know that though she grew up in this dance community; though she knew, personally, virtually everyone in the hall, no one asked her to dance. She told me she had stopped driving the one hour it took her to get to her local dance: no one there ever asked her to dance, and she was sick of driving two hours to dance maybe two dances. When she stopped coming, they all asked her why she stopped coming and wouldn’t she please rejoin the group.

Couldn’t they see their own behavior? Clearly they did not. Clearly they felt they behaved correctly: they danced with “the one they brought.”

The problem seems almost insoluble because everyone must change their behavior simultaneously or the few who behave differently will, in essence, be abandoning their partner -- who will have to sit out at least that dance.

We need to talk about the situation, air possible solutions. At the very least we need to see that unattached females face formidable problems -- unless they are willing, all evening long, to dance with other women.

Addendum: I’ve not even touched on the question of men dancing with men. Basically, they almost never do even if that means they don’t dance. And some men go home if there is an excess of men, rather than stay and struggle for partners. I always bring a skirt to a dance, just in case there are too many men. (Woody Allen quipped that being bi-sexual doubles your chance for a date on Saturday night) I don’t show them my skirt until after they’ve agreed to dance with me -- and recently I realized why I don’t.

At a London Barn Dance several men were sitting out because there were too many men. I chose carefully. I chose the youngest man there figuring he might be the most open minded. I asked him if he wanted to dance. He said “yes, but no women are available to dance.” I said I’d be willing to play the woman’s part and I showed him my skirt. He was horrified! The look on his face said it all. He thought he was being approached by a pervert who was sure to paw him before the dance was over. My approach technique was clearly wrong (Hide the skirt Henry! It just scares them silly!), but I have asked other men, in America & England, if they would dance with me if I played the woman’s part. More than fifty per cent of the time they turn me down -- and many are horrified that I even suggest it.

Recently I was discussing the problems of needing more men for my dance week with a well known Contra-ceilidh caller. His answer spoke volumes. He said “I don’t suppose they will be impressed by a rack of ties? I have to admit I’ve never understood the whole gender balancing thing, but then I’m a bloke.” YES! He’s a bloke, a bloke who probably never, in his life, thought of dancing with another bloke!

Copyright 2006   Henry Morgenstein

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