Posts Tagged ‘modern jive’
This weekend I’m going for my first “dance weekender” which is distinguished from an ordinary weekend by £130 and the addition of the letters “er”. It’s not classy and it’s not cool; it’s at Pontins. I’m dreading three nights on the lumpy mattress of in my “budget chalet,” but not as much as I’m dreading the suppressing my feminist rage for three days. If I never blog again, it’s possible I’ll have exploded in ‘The Chill Out Zone’, look for pieces of my body there.
Ceroc has never scored high on the subtle-understanding-of-gender metre. They provide training and examinations in dance teaching, but their teachers don’t think anything of calling women ‘girls’ and making jokes about how the stranger I’m dancing with wants to grope me. The average punter doesn’t seem to mind, though; in fact, indignities caused by fellow dancers are much greater than with the teachers. I’ve never been felt up by a teacher. I’ve never been pressured to do close moves I’ve said I don’t want to do by a teacher. I’ve never been complimented on imagined weight loss and then had my imagined positive reaction parodied by a teacher. That’s all been fellow dancers. Sometimes I look around the room and think that I’m the only one there to dance, everyone else seems to be involved in a vast, insulting and semi-consensual meat market. At least no one has followed me home from the dance hall in an attempt to start a sexual relationship, as happened to one woman I know. So I don’t suppose that many of their other customers care about the awful way Ceroc handles gender identity issues, and I don’t suppose they’ll change any time soon. Most people won’t even see a problem.
Ceroc weekends operate “gender balanced booking” and use it to attract people to their events. I can see why. It’s frustrating to be at an event where there are twice as many women as men, because you’ll only be able to dance half the time, or less than half, as some women have partners to monopolise. I’ve left early after hours of boredom because of a bad gender imbalance.
There are two ways to deal with the problem. One is to separate gender from dancing role, so that the make up of the crowd doesn’t define the evening. The other is to exclude some women or include more men to balance the numbers. It as the reverse of the problem so many fetish and swingers’ clubs have.
As a feminist, I tend towards the first option. In dances like Lindy Hop, which attract a younger, more liberal crowd, I see plenty of women leading. It happens occasionally in jive, and is usually a symptom of a man shortage. To convince more women to lead and men to follow, we would have to reform the culture of jive. At your first lesson you’d have to be told you can choose to lead or follow, we’d have to change the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ to ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ and take all of the gendered assumptions (whether that’s jokes about groping to comments on men having better spatial awareness) out of the lessons. The whole sexualised atmosphere of partner dancing would have to be dialled back. That would suit me well, as I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that the men I dance with are having a sexual interaction with me—one’s over eighty—and I suspect it contributes to them not respecting my boundaries.
I have to recognise, though, that I’m not like most jivers. There’s a reason it feels like a meat market: a lot of people are there to find sexual partners. I’ve seen the vultures swoop in at the beginning of the freestyle, after the lesson, in their tight dresses and high heels, to flirt with the men. Hundreds of men seem to have awkwardly tried to ask me out, or ascertain if I’m single. I’ve learned to recognise the recently-divorced look, and the look of the nice guy whose friends have told to get out and meet people. They want to dance with people of the opposite sex because most of them are straight. How many hobbies bring you into contact, physical contact, with so many people of the opposite sex over the course of an evening? And if you can’t think of scintillating conversation you can just concentrate on the moves. Do the men who are enjoying this really want the women clamouring to dance with them just to pair off together? Do the women want to forego the chance of meeting someone who’ll sleep with them, so they can dance with their friends instead? It seems unlikely.
That’s the cuddly side of heteronormative culture, straight people who don’t mind gays, but don’t want them getting in the way. There’s a nastier side to it, though. I’ve attended one (non-Ceroc) jive club where an individual was forced to leave because (s)he didn’t conform to the expected gender roles. (S)he wore a dress, and had masculine characteristics. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether (s)he was a male-to-female trans woman, a cross-dresser, or any other gender variation. I do know that (s)he wasn’t allowed to take part in the lessons because some men complained they weren’t comfortable dancing with another man. They felt that the finger-tip touch necessary for jive was too sexual. They were happy to do it with any woman in the room, and happy to see women do it together (lesbianism doesn’t count, right?) but not with men. So the people who ran the club saved its male members from such an awful fate.
At what point does recognising the desires of the (straight) majority cross from pragmatism to homophobia and transpobia? I don’t know. I’d be happier, though, if I thought the question had crossed the minds of the people running Ceroc. They explain their gender balancing here:
We made the decision to introduce gender balancing into the weekender market as we believe very strongly that both boys and girls should have the same freestyle opportunities.
Absent a major overhaul of jive culture, this is understandable. What’s less understandable is the wording. I’m not a girl. I haven’t been a girl for nine years, and I’m one of the younger members. This is the sort of language they use throughout the website and literature. There’s also a conflation of “male,” “man” and any other word signifying the individual may have a penis. Take this email they sent me, a woman who has already booked:
All the accommodation for this event has sold out. However, if you are a MALE and have a friend who has already booked an apartment and can accommodate you, then for £99 (per person) you can still come and enjoy this event.
They repeat at the end that the offer is only available to “MALES”.
To try to stop people cheating the system by pretending to be MALE when they are not in possession of a penis, stewards will be checking that everyone is wearing the correct colour-coded wristband (I haven’t got it yet, but who thinks it’s going to be pink?). How they’re going to check? Will men have to strip at the entrance to the dance hall to display an all-important penis? For women, will just unbuttoning a blouse be ok?
I’m lucky, I wear dresses and make up and feel relatively comfortable with my birth gender (as long as people don’t make stupid comments about multitasking), so I don’t think that I’ll be misgendered even though I don’t shave my legs. That gains me admission to a club I don’t really want to be part of, because what happens to the butches, trans people, the queers and the intersexed? Why should they have to justify themselves at a dance event? And who are these stewards to tell me that they know more about my gender identity than I do?
If it really is about dancing, and not about getting straight people laid, than committing to leading for the weekend should have as much weight as having been born with a willy. If it is about getting laid, I’ll stay in Manchester and do it a more cheaply and enjoyably with people who know better than to call me ‘girl’ or use ‘female’ as a noun.
Here’s my plan: next time I’ll go in drag. Who’ll chip in for a couple of natty three-piece suits and a pair of snazzy black and white wingtips? I’ll provide the hat. Not only will I dance better than half of those willy-owners who claim to lead, I’ll look a hundred times more suave. Send cravats!
I type this with aching arms. You’d know that, if you could see me, because I have mottled bruises on each upper arm. I look like a soft fruit that’s been dropped and retrieved.
I like marks. When tops have offered post-beating arnica applications, I have refused on the basis that I’d like to preserve the bruising. It isn’t a purely aesthetic decision; I like to think that marks justify the wriggling and screaming that went on while the pain was being inflicted. Sometimes marks risk betraying my predilections to the world, of course. A few months ago, freshly caned, I went dancing in a swirly dress. A partner said to me, “your outfit is very…aerodynamic.”
“Is that another way of saying it lifts when I twirl?” I asked.
“Well, maybe you should get your mother to buy you some big knickers.” He said.
I considered saying, “I don’t think I want knickers from beyond the grave,” but that seemed inappropriate. I conducted a mental review of that evening’s knickers and decided they provided sufficient coverage and laciness. And then I remembered the six livid stripes across my bottom, and my face went as red as the weals.I didn’t come up with a good comeback. I asked my next partner whether my dress was too revealing, though, and he was reassuring. I decided I was probably being wound up. Then I was thrown into a drop, and felt my skirt catch, high, on the arms that caught me. The thought that staid Stockport was seeing my cane marks left me slightly off balance all evening. The next day I bought some very big frilly knickers, which keep me safe from exposure as long as no one marks my thighs.
I didn’t even think of hiding the more innocent-looking bruises on my arms I displayed them without a thought at my grandparent’s wedding anniversary and no one made a comment. I took my cardigan off in class and no one said a thing. I went out dancing, though, and every partner seemed strangely interested. “What happened?” “Did someone grab you too hard?” “Are those love bites?” (I think that man thought he was funny) “Everyone is talking about you, asking how you got those bruises.” Now, unlike cane stripes, a bruise on the arm has many non-kinky explanations. The problem is, none of those explanations were true. The truth is, my lover punched me. Repeatedly. That didn’t seem to be the thing to say.
I tried to wriggle out of commenting as much as I could. As I was mumbling a response, one man said, “That looks like a punch to me.”
“Hmm,” I said.
I’m not ashamed of my kinkiness. I don’t find it necessary to sneak about and tell lies. At the same time, there’s no need to involve people who haven’t consented in something they don’t much like, by constantly displaying it (I wish others would apply this logic to penises and football). I don’t own any long sleeved dancing dresses, and my bruises have been topped up with a few extra punches since last week.
Fellow kinksters, how do you deal with visible bruises? Do you wear them proudly, announce their origins and enjoy the shocked looks? Vanilla readers (I assume there must be some) are you offended by bruising? Would you call the police if I told you my lover had punched me? And can any of you lend me a long-sleeved dress?
Last night, during the interval in a play about queerness, a friend admitted that he’d popped his head around the door of one of the modern jive venues I go to. He didn’t spot me twirling gracefully across the dance floor and spend the rest of the evening staring and entranced. He retreated, he told me, because the place had all the awfulness of a school disco. His school discos clearly differed from mine, which involved metal, grunge and a lot of painful moshing.
I was filled with shame. I don’t know what his discos were like, but his tone left no doubt as to what he thought of them. Modern jive isn’t cool. I attended my first class because I’d moved back to my father’s house in the centre of middle-class, middle-age, dormitory-village nowhere, and when he asked me if I wanted to come, I thought it may be marginally better than sitting at home alone for another night. I discovered I liked it, and realised, as an ex-boyfriend had pointed out months before, that there’s no one following me around with video cameras judging my behaviour.
At dancing, it’s the activity I enjoy. I know that many of the people there are hopeless, the music is often dismal even from my tasteless perspective, I halve the average age* and proper dancers look down on easy modern jive. None of that changes the fact that I leave sweaty and slightly high, reliving the best moments of the best dances. It also provides a good excuse to buy pretty dresses, a high priority for me.
Reflecting on this last night (read: lying awake mentally justifying my uncool choices) it struck me that I have the same feelings of shame and embarrassment about my sexual and play partners as I do about my choice of dance venues. I know what sort of thing I’m meant to like: lithe young men with long eyelashes and big muscles, or slim young women with good cheekbones and shiny hair. But I don’t. Well, sometimes I do, but not usually for those qualities. I don’t feel good about that.
Some criticisms stick with you. The time my best friend said she knew I thought my girlfriend was beautiful, but she didn’t. The disgust when people find out just how much older than me a new lover is. I shrug and say, “does age matter?” or, “it’s not serious,” trying to play down the issue. It does matter to me, though: I like older men. If I’ll admit my kink for being hit with a rattan cane, why is it so much more difficult to say, “middle aged men turn me on,” or even (and this was difficult to type, I admit) “slightly grotesque men do it for me”?
I’m perfectly able to describe the kink scene without alluding to its lack of glamour. My vanilla friends don’t need to know about the tacky PVC or public sex**. They’re unlikely to turn up at a fetish club, leave in disgust and later berate me for giving the impression that kink was all about reading interesting Victorian journals and wearing pretty shoes. They’re much more likely to make judgements about people. So I don’t mention that a play partner is twice my age, although I find the fact delicious, or bring up my intermittent frissons of attraction to an overweight man with a tendency to sweat.
Clearly, I ought to embrace my lack of cool, as I have been doing in any number of areas (fashion, say, or poetry) for years, and proudly go to my dorky dance venues and seek play from people with whom I’ll enjoy it most. There’s a part of me which will mourn the fantasy of myself as the alluring, transgressive kinkster, expressive of others’ secret, dark desires, but I hope for other rewards. Now, and with those in mind, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see how my new white cotton panties look with my gingham dress. It’s an outfit I hope to have a lot of very uncool fun while wearing.
*This is an exaggeration. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m twenty-six.
**I’ve only ever seen this in one club, but it was the day of my first toe-dip into the fetish scene, and it stuck in my mind.
Looking around the room at a Modern Jive class, at women’s dresses and men’s lumbering attempts to find the beat, I suspect that many go to jive to meet people. They’re guaranteed thirty-odd snatched conversations, each with someone of the opposite sex, during a lesson. They’re also guaranteed numerous opportunities to slide their hand over someone’s buttocks, something that seems to happen to me “accidentally” several times a night. In an angry moment I told one perpetrator that I’d slap him if he did it again. “I was feeling for your hand,” he said. We haven’t danced again.
Because of men like him, I try to keep my distance from those I dance with. I don’t want to inadvertently indicate that I’m open to being groped. In fact, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m there for anything but four and a half minutes of dancing, in case they start asking impossible questions about whether I’d like their number or to go for a drink.
Then I got to Stockport. I’m not quite sure how it happened; I think it started with a scream.
I was with a good dancer. This became clear during the first few bars and fear rushed in, knocking me off the beat. The first dance with someone good is like an audition; if you screw up, he’s not going to ask again. I imagine myself stuck, going over the same tired moves with men who never master the basics, knowing there’s nothing to be learned that way. Surprisingly, though, I wasn’t a disaster. I was keeping up, I was spinning, I was—oh God, I was nearly on the floor! That was how he discovered that I scream when thrown towards the ground and deftly caught. He pulled me onto my feet and smiled at me through my messy hair and flustered expression.
I think he took joy in hearing me scream. Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to suppress it as he whirled me into dips and drops, but surprise and terror always took over. As he was leading me off the dance floor, with my heart racing and a sheen of sweat on my forehead, another man caught my arm. He said, enigmatically, that his friend had told him about me. I didn’t have time to wonder about that, as I was again hurtling downwards. There was a definite smile as he heard me squeal. The evening ended with the pair of them competing for the best scream. I think it was a draw. It was also rather fun.
One of the things about being thrown towards the floor is that, as you’re grabbing on to your partner on the way down, you don’t think too much about the signals you might be giving. On at least one occasion I’ve left four little cresent-moons in his shoulder, but it hasn’t put him off any more than the screaming did. Slowly, my resistance to touching my partners has worn down. Touching is better than lying, broken on the floor. Well, in most cases, anyway.
Last week, the second the man asked if I would make fixed couple with him during the class, rather than join the rotating group. When I saw the routine we were going to learn, I nearly changed my mind. At one point, I was to hook my leg around his thigh, where he could sink his fingers into the flab above my knee and pull me close. Then (and this is the worst bit) we were to wiggle. If I’d been in the main group I’d have quietly sloped off at this point. He was there, though, and it was too late.
I faced him, standing self-conciously in his personal space. He looked at me. I looked at him. He raised his eyebrows. I raised my leg, very slightly, to within a couple of inches of his hand. He grabbed it behind the knee and hauled it up, pulling me closer with a hand on my back so that we met in the middle. He had a squidey belly. There was a very clear moment in which I thought, “Gosh, I can feel his willy!” I pulled away. We practiced variations on that move, leans, wiggles and all. I just couldn’t do them. It was as if getting myself to into position was as much as my prudish body could muster. I certainly wasn’t going to wiggle against any man’s crotch on command! Being there at all was a shock.
Last night, with another man (the good dancer above, if you’re keeping track) I think I cracked it. After a dance (several quiet squeals, one “eek”) he offered to show me how to do some of the difficult moves, rather than just inflict them upon me. I agreed. I did, at one point, end up on the floor, but I was slowly lowered there, rather than crashing down, and he did say sorry. As he took me through the moves slowly, as we traded sweat and overbalanced and as I collapsed against his chest in giggles, the physical intimacy we’d been building grew. I have to admit I liked it.
I love the feeling of being physically comfortable with someone. My relationship choices have improved since I discovered that it’s the activity, rather than the person, which inspires my fuzzy warm response. I have to like the individual, but I don’t need to settle down with him or her and plant a rose garden.
Is this the perfect solution to my craving for contact? Evenings of dancing close with men who take my breath away and always catch me before I hit the floor? Or am I, as I wondered afterwards, setting myself up for a fall? What if I don’t feel like doing the willy-move the next time? May I decide on a track-by-track basis, or have I granted closeness for all time? Will other men watching assume that they may do the same when they dance with me? Do the men secretly feel molested by such close contact, but too manly to say? It’s a minefield.
I’m going to give it a whirl. Hopefully it will all work out. There’s one thing I know I need to do though. I’ve caught myself, more than once, supported in the arms of the man who has just made me scream, gazing up at him with a look of fear, betrayal and excitement as I bite my lip. That’s an expression I wear all too often in kinky scenes, and those are two worlds it would be best not to mix. For now.
It’s the time of year for making resolutions, and I’m making none. I’d like to resolve to give up supermarkets, but I haven’t worked out where to buy reasonably priced breakfast cereal. I could resolve to write a novel, be more organised and buy more lingerie, but I already recognise the necessity of doing all these things, and they’re no more urgent now than they have been any time in the last few months. Instead, I am giving serious consideration to which forms of dancing to try this year. It’s more “I’ll try this form of exercise and see if it’s fun” than “I’ll join a gym and lose three stone” but there’s value in being realistic.
I spent New Year’s Eve with people who do Lindy Hop. I’ve been thinking about trying Lindy for a while, mostly because of the clothes. I know I’m not the only one who takes up dancing styles in order to dress up: I met someone recently who had started ballroom because she wanted more sparkly chiffon in her life. I can’t see the attraction, but the clothes of the Swing Era have a lot going for them. In deluded moments I imagine myself getting slim enough to pull off a flapper dress, but if I’m honest the real attraction is full skirts, net petticoats and seamed stockings. My seamed stockings will have been kicking around in the draw for so long that they’ll be genuine vintage soon.
I have to catch myself on and remember, though, that I’m not actually that good at dancing. I went to modern jive for the first time because the alternative was another evening in. I surprised myself by not being the utter disaster I was sure I would be. Almost a year later, I’ve almost erased the effect of the sound of my friends’ laughter accompanying parodic impressions of my dancing when I was sixteen. It helps to be one of the few twenty-something girls in a room full of middle aged divorcees, and it helps even more to wear a bright red dress. Suddenly, strangers are commenting on my elegance; judging by their gaze, they often mean “cleavage”, but I’ll take my flattery where I can get it.
I am sometimes upstaged, of course. I was shocked, one week, to see one of my pet partners (those who can be relied upon to dance a second time, without regarding it as a step towards marriage), dancing for a third time with a young, slim, fresh-faced blonde. Who, it turned out, trained in ballet and gained an attractive glow as she danced (I just sweat. Lots.). That was also the evening I first tried Lindy Hop. After an hour of trying to remember where my feet went, get my head around dancing off the beat, and tactfully explaining to my partners that I wasn’t would rather they didn’t throw me across the room until I got to know them better, I was very glad when the lesson ended and we could all get back to modern jive again. I stood at the sidelines, sipping water, when the fresh-faced girl appeared. “That was great!” she said, “I want to know where I can learn Lindy.” I certainly didn’t. I solidified that when the tutor offered to help me with the jumps and I managed to kick him, twice.
Modern jive being so simple, I sometimes forget that I’ve failed at almost every dance I tried, from the ballet class I got too tall for at age six to the Bollywood routines I ruined by being unable to memorise the mudras. There’s a part of me that says I should stick with what I’m good at, but another which reasonably points out that using that logic I would never have tried jive in the first place. Maybe I’m secretly a natural at tango and will never find out.
I must, therefore, try a new form of dancing, so as not to be boring. It would preferably be one with a younger crowd, so as not to be groped. And Lindy looked pretty good. On the other hand, so many people have asked if I do salsa that I feel I ought to give it a go just to get out of all the confused looks when I say I’ve never have. Since salsa involves choosing a style (Cuban, Colombian, etc), unfortunately make no progress by picking that, only open the door onto another labyrinth of decisions.
Not all dances are partner dances, of course, or at least, the partners are sometimes off-stage and referred to as the audience. One of my main characters has decided she’s a burlesque dancer, and the couple of workshops I’ve attended aren’t really going to cut it in terms of background knowledge. Unfortunately, my character is much more confident than I am, unlikely to hide at the back of the class and panic when the routine requires a180 degree turn and she finds herself at the front. Burlesque, unfortunately, is more the sort of thing I’d like to be good than the sort of thing I can reasonably expect to gain any proficiency in. I resent that, and I covet the outfits.
The last class on my list is pole dancing. I know, it’s tacky and vulgar. Sometimes, though, I think tacky and vulgar can be good, especially those prone to pretension and snobbishness, as there’s no disputing I am. I enjoyed my one pole dancing lesson, but, like burlesque, there’s little chance of me being good at it. When you have to lift your own body weight, being small and slim is a definite advantage; I am neither. However, I keep thinking of my empty threat to punch the groper on Portland Street. If I was strong enough to swing myself around a pole, I’d be strong enough to sock him. I can almost feel a “pole dancing for self-defence” class coming on.
To summarise, under consideration are salsa, modern jive, Lindy Hop, burlesque and pole dancing. Wasn’t I meant to write a novel this year? If I can’t decide, perhaps I could pretend I’m giving up frivolous things like dancing to concentrate on literary pursuits. Otherwise, I’d best pick just one. All three people who’ve expressed an opinion so far have been Lindy Hoppers, and—guess what?—they’ve all cheered for Lindy. I’m easily led in more than one sense; Lindy’s gaining ground. Do you support them? Or think I should pick one of the others? Perhaps you would like to complicate matters more by throwing another dance into the mix? Help me, please, because I simply can’t make the decision.
Most of my life, I’m sorry to say, isn’t about sex. Most of my popular blog posts are. If my life was filled with gorgeous men and women willing to provide imaginative, no-strings sex things might be different, but in reality it is populated by unattractive, unavailable people, a few mirages and the odd gem. That’s why I get annoyed when modern jive teachers try to spice up the moves or fill their lessons with innuendo. They invariably tell their dirtiest joke just as a press my fingers into the hand of a mild-mannered married man older than my father, and causing us both to embarrassedly stare at the floor until the music starts.
A hint of sex, if you play it right, is rather nice. Most people don’t play it right. If you use your most lascivious tones to compliment me on my hair and describe the pleasurable sensation of it on your skin as I spin past, saying “you remind me of my daughter,” during the same track is going to make me feel uncomfortable. In fact, anything which you can’t laugh off is probably a little dangerous. I might avoid dancing with you again if I think you’ve been overcome by uncontrollable lust. Worse, I may return your affection and seek you out at every event, dancing inappropriately close and angering your wife. All in all, it’s safer not to indulge.
Last Friday, someone reminded me why I remain an incorrigible flirt. I’ll tell you about him
Since the first time we met he has been called, in my mind, “The Fantastic Flirt”. I asked him to dance entirely on the basis of his height, because, being 5’ 10’’, I spend far too much time ducking as I turn. Not only was my man tall, he was also, I discovered, an excellent leader. We went through the usual moves, and a less usual one as, from behind, he guided my hips from side to side. I got it wrong the first time, and lost the beat the second. “You’re a natural,” he said. “I’m off the beat,” I replied. “I don’t care!” he told me.
A few days later I approached him at a freestyle and asked him to dance. He politely accepted and led me to the floor. A few bars in he said “Ah, I remember you. You’re the one with the hips!”*
There’s a fine line between flirting and sleaziness, and I honestly can’t tell you how to stay on the right side of it. I get a lot of odd compliments. “You’re like a butterfly”, for example (was that a reference to my hairy body?); “you must have a wardrobe full of nice dresses,” (not full, there’s room for lumpy jumpers and old shoes); and my favourite “you’ve got solid hips and first class movement.” (Um, thanks). Vocal appreciation of someone’s moves isn’t always good. The Fantastic Flirt always gets it right, though. Not that he has much finesse. He’s been known to make little moaning sounds when I get close and wiggle. He usually mentions that I’m good at that. He’s used the same canned compliment about how happy he is to dance with me three times to date. Always seems a step further along the path of dancing close, he introduces a move in which I have to touch his chest, or be pressed against his body, causing me to pull away in surprise before daring to follow his lead. Last week he managed to make me blush. And, yes, insinuating that I may have had a previous job as a lap dancer was probably taking it too far, but I think I can forgive him.
I like the feeling of his hand on my back as he guides me to the floor. His big hands make me feel delicate. I like the gentle way he leads me, relying on my desire to follow. I like his choice of moves, guiding me by his fingertips on my shoulders, my wrist. I like the praise, which feels like enthusiastic applause. I even like his teasing.
Why does the Fantastic Flirt always leave me with a bolstered ego and a rosy glow, while lesser lechers on the dance floor make me want to scrub off their fingerprints? Is it because I know that he’s taken? Or because he seems so in control, always ready with his next quip or complex move? A man overcome by desire can hardly have brain space for musicality. The whole thing is a game we play, another sort of dance, leading nowhere. It feels safe.
That said, there are few people worse at reading these situations than me.
Whatever it is, I’m enjoying it. I wanted to share. The romance of a dance may be documented to the point of cliché in an hundred romance novels, but the empty flirtation with the man who is not, and never will be, a part of your life, is always overlooked. I know you shouldn’t put a gun on the wall in act one if you’re not going to fire it in act two, but sometimes that means you miss out on the little things. The tension in a man’s muscles beneath your hand, the intake of breath as you spin, and all the other meaningless details.
*I wasn’t insulted about being forgotten. In fact, after several weeks of dancing with him, I realised that I’d conflated him with another person. It wasn’t until they both turned up for the same class that I noticed they were two separate individuals.
“There’s always one creep,” a man said to me last week, before twirling me around and semi-ironically staring at my breasts, “at least one.” I have to say that I like this man. He’s one of my regular dance partners, a proper Yorkshire man, quiet to the point of gruffness, who teases me over the inordinate quantity of hair with which I occasionally hit men in the face (entirely by accident) as I twirl. I’ve brought him cake and he’s offered to have a whip-round so I can pay for a proper haircut. We get on, but he doesn’t understand about the creeps.
I’ve just about had it with the creeps. I used to have better tolerance levels. I used to be able to think it was a laugh, that it was an odd sort of compliment to receive someone’s attention. If I’m entirely honest, I’ve sometimes been a little disappointed not to have been the object of more creepiness. There are so many books about young, beautiful things catching the eyes of teachers and uncles, throwing them into paroxysms and crises which I would have been flattered to cause.
I didn’t have the sun-kissed body, slender legs and shiny hair of the charming teenager of those novels. I didn’t even have a white tennis skirt. Instead I had a cloud of frizzy hair and the pale complexion that comes of spending too much time in the library with a dusty volume of Tennyson. So when I did meet my first creepy man, he wasn’t of the vintage car and picnic hamper variety, he was a hairy homunculus with an overworked wife and a study full of poetry books. We read each other’s poems, he talked about Ruskin, I flirted outrageously and one day at his daughter’s sleepover he put my hand on his penis. Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.
I didn’t tell anyone and I did my best to avoid him. It took me years to work out that it wasn’t my fault.
That’s the problem with creepy men. You’re never sure whether you’re imagining the creepiness. Afterwards, instead of feeling angry, you feel guilty, and keep it to yourself. You think that to be getting that sort of attention you must be doing something wrong.
Now I wonder, if I had told someone, what would have happened. Would he have been dragged off to prison for molesting underage girls, or would someone have had a quiet word with me about being more careful in future?
I was rather blasé about the creeps after that. Nothing that bad was going to happen, I thought. To my credit, I was right. I managed to wriggle out of the grasp of every creep. Even when my boss pressed several glasses of rice wine on me and sent me home in a taxi alone with a colleague who’d been trying to get into my pants all evening. It somehow culminated in him declaring I was like a daughter to him and putting me on the phone to his very confused wife. All part of a colourful experience, I thought as I plotted a route off-campus which wouldn’t take me past his office.
I don’t know why I attract the creeps. I don’t know why, the last time I was in London, I was asked out by three men between the tube station and my friend’s house, or why, the time before, someone followed me to her door. I don’t know why it’s me who men choose to feel up when we’re dancing, or why they think that I will be receptive to their advances as they offer a phone number or a walk home. Are you thinking that these things happen to all women, not just to me? I know that they happen to me significantly more than they do to my friends, I don’t know how often they happen to you. More importantly to me, I honestly don’t know why they happen. I’ve been through so many reasons. Am I too friendly, too smiley, too open, too likely to flirt, too sluttily dressed? I’ve tried changing my behaviour in all sorts of ways, but it keeps on coming. I begin to think that blaming myself is like feeling guilty for having conversations about poetry when I was fourteen. It’s wasn’t my action, it was his.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to find a polite way to tell a man twice my age that I’m really not interested. I’ve been hiding behind pillars to avoid a man at dancing who stares at me. I don’t know if he still does it, as I’m scared of encouraging him by looking his way. Last night a man put my hand on his penis again, this time over his trousers. When you’re in the middle of a crowded room, snatching your hand away from someone’s crotch, you do begin to ask what’s going on.
I still don’t think anything terrible is going to happen. Dance halls are not good venues for assault, sexual or otherwise. Overfriendly middle aged men are more lonely than violent. All the same, I can’t tell you how much I wish they would stop.
I’ve tried telling people about the staring man. I’m told that he’s reacting to my nice dress, that he thinks I’m attractive. It’s been implied that I’m paranoid. It’s difficult, apparently, watching women dance. There’s always one creep, it’s no big deal. Some men find it difficult to interact with women, we should make ourselves clear. The men don’t take it seriously; I wonder if they have considered who they are aligning themselves with?
At midnight last night I scanned the room to see if anyone was available for the last dance. An overweight man lumbered towards me, and I thought “if he waddles, rather than walks, how is he going to dance?” Nevertheless, I politely accepted his invitation, on the basis that good manners cost me only the length of a single track. I submitted to being pressed into his sweaty side and having my hips and waist pawed for a couple of minutes, then escaped his clutches. A couple of minutes later he appeared beside me and leered, “are you here alone?” At the same moment I realised I’d lost my keys. I was stranded twenty miles from my locked house, in the middle of the night, with a creepy man who wouldn’t leave me be. I tried to shake him by walking to the car park and back, but he waited. I repeatedly told him I’d be fine, but he lurked, and as the crowd cleared I realised I would soon be alone with him. I thought I’d managed to lose him, but he pulled up in a car and told me to get in. I was rescued by a woman half my height and weight, who told him, in no uncertain terms, where to go.*
She made me very, very happy.
I’ve had enough of creepy men. You should have, too. On a bad day I feel as if I’m living my life under siege. I think if a single one of the men I’ve mentioned it to understood that, they wouldn’t make excuses for the starers, the pinchers, the feelers and the lurkers. They wouldn’t want to think of themselves as in the same category. They don’t have to do anything inappropriately manly, there’s no need for a confrontation, but, men, I could do with a hand. If you see me struggling to get away from another creep, because there’s always going to be another one, you could make your presence known. Perhaps you could even whisk me off for a nice, chaste dance. I can’t tell you how much I would appreciate it.
*It isn’t relevant to creepy men, but you might like to know that my rescuer and her friend, both good friends of my father, calmed me down, drove me home, offered to climb up ladders and through windows, but didn’t have to because I had neglected to lock the back door. United with my spare set of car keys, I was driven back to my car and not left alone until they’d checked I was happy, safe and sufficiently fuelled. Some people are just amazing.
I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”
“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”
I bought it anyway.
Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.
I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?
Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.
I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.
I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.
It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.
I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.
I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?
*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.
I have been conscious, ever since I wrote Can Feminists Jive?, that I may have been a little unfair to ‘Jive Magazine’. Was I looking so hard for sexism that I would have found it in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, let alone some poor monthly publication for a handful of jive enthusiasts? So I decided to approach the new edition with an open mind. Not open enough to pay for a copy, but enough to flick through my father’s and see if it was actually as infuriatingly sexist as I remember.
It made a good start with this cover photo. Yes, there’s a young, blonde woman in a sexy pose, but then there’s also a hot man with attractive stubble and a sleeveless shirt to reveal his muscular arms in the sexy pose with her. Even-handed objectification, that’s what I like to see.
Unfortunately, inside the magazine objectification seems to be centred on women again. I recognise that women tend to be more scantily clad than men while dancing, but you’ve got to go out of your way to find anyone in fishnets and bunny ears or a PVC French maid’s outfit. They managed it, along with photos of women reading the magazine while wearing bikinis (there’s an odd aura of ‘readers’ wives’ around that one). I’m all for dancing, and for porn, but if you’re going to sell dancing porn, can’t I have pics of half-naked men, too?
Among articles on famous dancers, choreography, competitions, shoes and two pages of dance-related horoscopes, there one piece promised to tell me how to avoid sitting out dances. With diagrams. I had high hopes.
I hate sitting out. I hate it when I’ve sat out one track, and, re-screwed my water bottle hopefully at its end, to look up and see that no one has even made it back from the dance floor, but merely grabbed the nearest person and begun again. On a bad day, it makes me feel like an inadequate dancer, ugly, unattractive and lacking in charm. On a good day, I recognise its origins in the gendered partner system and surplus of women.
The ‘Dance Doctor’ promises to solve my problem, claiming, “this by the way isn’t sex bias, but as most clubs seems to be 60/40 female to male, it’s more important the girls give themselves every advantage to nab that bloke!” Actually, ‘Dance Doctor’, it’s not. I’m not trying to nab anyone, I merely want to dance. If the male: female ratio means that I have to sit out a couple of dances, I’m not going to scheme and connive to do other women (there aren’t usually any girls there) out of their share.
He not only assumes a level of competitiveness I’ve never witnessed (for a job, yes, but a two minute dance? No), but has very complex behavioural codes for women. Are you sitting in the wrong place, shyly awaiting a man’s attention? It’s your own fault if you never get picked. Or do you stand between the bar and the dance floor, and actually ask men if they would like to dance? Then you’re a “vulture,” and the men are your “pray[sic].” Does this remind you of something? Yes, you’re right, it’s the virgin/whore dichotomy! If you aren’t getting men, you ought to be trying harder, and if you are, you must be aggressive, devouring men and sadistically keeping them from water and rest. How dare you? Fortunately, there is a demure way to get a dance. The Doctor says “offer the hand, or those puppy dog eyes, maybe even mouth those words; ‘Would you like to dance[?]’” Do everything you can to avoid actually asking. Plead with your eyes, sneak up on the question and maybe, voicelessly, half-ask. Otherwise you’re a vulture.
I think the article has done me good. No more am I going to sit, silently, on the sidelines, passively waiting for a man to seek me out. Do I want to be the sort of woman who makes puppy dog eyes at a man? Do I think men are objects to be competed over or ‘nabbed’ like the largest cookie? Certainly not. So from now on, I’m asking them straight out.
Another article, by “Bev the Dance Diva” displays just as much sexism (there’s no gender discrimination about who can write sexist articles for this magazine!). She seems to have made the simple mistake of confusing dancing and sex. There are obviously points where they blur into each other. However, if you saw some of the men I dance with, I’m sure you’d agree that sex is the last thing on my mind, and I’m quite comfortable with the fact that many men would consider me with the same indifference. I choose my sexual partners with much more care than my dance partners. Doesn’t she?
Criticising a man’s dancing “is equal to passing judgement on his sexual performance,” apparently. I agree that it’s rather impolite. All the same, I now know who to blame for all those men who think they give great oral sex because their ex-girlfriends never complained. In a rare moment of self-reflection, she writes “Sounds like I am some sort of dance floor prostitute, out there to service the male dancer or worse a 1950’s housewife pandering to her chauvinist husband’s ego.” Yes, dear, it does. Instead of considering why she feels the need to seduce every man she comes across, though, she explains her method: “My mother told me that men want women to be the epitome of vestal virgins one minute and harlots the next. I might dance as if I am just that.” She goes on to explain that she achieves this by intermittently wiggling her hips. Good to know.
By the end of the article, she’s got to the nub of her obsession. “For men, is a good dance with a pretty girl always a precursor to thinking about having sex with her? A large cross section of my male dancer friends tell me that if the girl is good looking then yes.” Breaking: men like sex with women they fancy. There’s more, but this is sapping my will to type.
Why do I care? I love to dance. I already have to overcome the challenges of the gendered roles, sexist teachers and men with wandering hands. There are a significant number of men who seem to think that I make my body public property by stepping onto the dance floor. They make comments about my looks, touch me without asking, use me as a demonstration model and sometimes put their sweaty bodies far too close to mine. They are a minority, and I’d like them to stay that way. What I don’t need is Bev the ‘Dance Diva’ telling them that I’m looking for a quasi-sexual experience, with romance and danger, or that I’m trying to seduce them with every move of my hips. Nor do I need the ‘Dance Doctor’ telling them that I’ve scrambled over the bruised bodies of several more feminine women with puppy dog eyes in my desperation to drag them to the floor. To do this, we’ll have to recognise dancing for what it is: a leisure activity, out of which can come many things, including sex, love, sparkly shoes and once, in my case, the chance to have my neck immortalised in a statue of Aphrodite. If you’re looking for that, though, you’d best begin by offering yourself as an artist’s model, and by the same token, dancing hardly guarantees sex. Even if people do turn up to jive events trying to pull, the ones who fork out £2.40 for ‘Jive Magazine’ are, I would wager, the ones who are serious about dancing. Almost embarrassingly so, when you see the adverts for dancing holidays and strangely named ‘Weekenders’.
‘Jive Magazine’ caters to dance enthusiasts. One day, will we be able to talk about jive without resorting to crude stereotypes of the women who do it? By the magazine’s own claims, more women are interested than men. Who does it pay to insult them?
Are partner dances inherently sexist? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a couple of times a week since I started modern jive four months ago. The whole system seems to be predicated on male dominance. The men lead, choosing the moves and signalling to the ladies, who constantly read their partner, responding to his unspoken signals. The entire endeavour of a woman at modern jive is to do what their man tells them and look pretty while doing it. This doesn’t sound like an activity for a feminist.
The problem is that I enjoy it. I like the music, the exercise, the chance to meet people and, yes, there’s a part of me that likes the male attention, the chance to wear pretty dresses and twirl about the dance floor led by a firm, masculine hand. So I wonder, am I indulging my inner princess at the expense of the rest of myself?
It must be said that sex isn’t the last word on roles in modern jive. At every class I attend there are always one or two women taking the leader role. They are a tiny, tiny minority, though. Almost all women choose to follow. Only once have I seen a man take that role, for a couple of minutes to help out a friend who was having difficulty with a move. It seems that, as in most things, women may take on a man’s role, but men will not stoop to take on a woman’s.
In some sense, it seems that I can hardly complain about a role which I have freely chosen. I contest, however, that it is not an entirely free choice. Stepping outside others’ expectations is never easy, and even if people don’t make negative comments a certain amount of confusion would ensue. Learning to dance at all is enough of a challenge for me.
The division of roles creates a strong sense of gender, but the negative aspects are amplified by gender imbalance. There are usually more women than men at an event. More than once I have felt like a minor character in a Jane Austen novel as I took a seat and hoped that by the beginning of the next dance a man would pick me. Men are a scarce resource for which women compete. So, during those long minutes between dances, I sink into comparing myself with other women. Why did she get a dance and not me? Would I be chosen if wore a dress as tight as hers? If I danced closer? If I was skinnier, or wore sparklier shoes? If only I wasn’t so tall, the short men wouldn’t avoid me, and if I wasn’t so big, the men who like the dips and leans would be able to throw me about. Now and again the rivalry spills over into bitterness. When a woman said, last week, “there are too many women here, aren’t there?”, I had to bite my tongue not to retort “yes, that’s because you and your marauding band of middle aged divorcees walked in after the lesson!” I suffer dancer jealousy when I notice that a woman has repeatedly been picked by one of my favoured partners and a sense of smugness when I am the one chosen. It can’t do much for sisterhood!
Still, I’m not sure that I can blame the dance form for our communal psychosis. When so much of culture is telling women that they need to be skinnier, prettier, and more exuding of charm to ingratiate themselves with men, and that this is a worthy aim in life, it is hardly surprising that these thoughts perpetuate through dancing as well as dates, manicures and waits with the magazines at the dentist.
People don’t help, though. Teachers say “girls” when they mean “ladies”, so infantilise a room full of women, some of whom are well past retirement age. People make sexist jokes about men’s temporary power. Instructors assume that men need to be told not to stare at women’s breasts during moves which give them the opportunity and male partners often invade my personal space and furtively grope at available flesh.
Representations of modern jive hardly paint a picture which would dissuade the gropers. ‘Jive Magazine’ features a dancing couple (the image above) on the cover of its current issue. The sexualisation of the man’s outfit is restricted to a few undone buttons. The woman, on the other hand, is presented to the camera, clad in a sequinned bra and fishnet gloves, revealing a lot of cleavage, her stomach and two very toned legs. Don’t get me wrong, if I had a stomach as flat as that, I’d want to show it off, too. I do think it says something, though, that this image was chosen; it doesn’t exactly send out the message that woman’s role is not primarily a sexual one. It’s worse inside. Karen Sweeney offers advice on “How to be popular on the dancefloor”:
“Guys: I know we girlies sometimes tempt you with the occasional low neckline, but don’t forget where our faces are.”
I am in no way a girlie. I’m getting on for six foot tall in my dancing shoes and even with the addition of ribbons and bows there’s nothing sweet about me. Partners may also want to consider the possibility that I’m not wearing the low cut dress to tempt them personally. Statistically, it is unlikely that I’m dressing for you.
Sweeny goes on:
“Dancing is the vertical expression of horizontal desire. They say that a lady can tell by the way a guy dances how good he is in bed. Think about it…no pressure then!”
Dancing is sometimes an expression of desire, but then, washing up, performed provocatively enough, is too. Most of the people I dance with are decidedly unattractive to me. I’m sure that they would be as horrified as I am at the idea that our dances were indications of anything sexual, not least because often they are performed under the gazes of their wives and my father. That isn’t to say that dancing never leads me to think of sex. I haven’t slept with anyone since January; glancing through car windows in traffic jams makes me think of sex.
Where does all this leave us? Is modern jive, like the current craze for pole dancing, a way of making a sexual spectacle out of women’s bodies for the enjoyment of men? Not in my experience. The sexual element is present, as it is in all human interactions, but no more so. Some people use dance for sexual access; I’ve met men with wandering hands and women looking for a second husband (there may be women with wandering hands, too, they’ve just never felt me up, and men seeking wives who just haven’t proposed to me). It is also true, however, that a sizable number of people come looking for a lover and discover that they don’t want one after all, now that dancing fills the lonely evenings.
There are problems. Most of them are not inherent to the form of dance, but products of social ineptitude and opportunism. The gendered elements of jive are not set in stone. It isn’t a feminist dance, but it could be, if we chose to make it so. At a Salsa workshop with a great imbalance of men and women, the instructor did away with the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘men’ and gave us instead the options of ‘follower’ or ‘leader’. That will probably never be widespread, but choosing your own role, rather than allowing your gender to choose it for you, could be more common. It would be good to see same sex dancing partners more regularly, too. I’ll offer myself to help the cause.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy wearing swirly skirts twirling under the hands of authoritative men. Please don’t think too badly of me.