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Why Men Don't Dance Anymore and a Few Thoughts on Fixing That

In this brief posting, I will muse on what went wrong with dancing that made men desert the dance floor, and end with a few ideas I try to put into practice to make them a little more willing to get out of their chairs and dance. Much of what I say applies equally to women, but for this particular post, I'm singling out the guys.

There was once a time, not so long ago, when everyone, men and women, danced. Every public space had a dance floor and regular live music, most restaurants had dancing, every hotel hosted regular dances, and you couldn’t have a celebration or large social gathering without dancing. When men felt lonely and isolated, they would go to a taxi dance hall and pay women to dance with them. Dancing was central and essential to society and to the way men and women interacted.

Through the '40s and '50s, general public dancing was in a slow decline, but was still pretty widespread. Then, around the 1960s, something fundamentally changed and men, who had always had a tendency to be less enthusiastic about dancing than women, started to withdraw from the dance floor. When they were kids, they would reluctantly join the girls for some freestyle gyration, but as soon as possible, most of them found an excuse to sit down.

Today, social dancing is almost dead. Outside of certain very specific contexts like “the club scene”, formal ballroom dancing, swing dancers, weddings etc., most social occasions, even when they include music (often REALLY loud music), do not include any sort of dancing and when they do, it’s almost exclusively the women who dance. (an aside: I think that the deafening volume of most public music today is an attempt to try to fill the void left by dancing. I have no evidence to support this, I simply think it so)

So, what happened? Why are men so reluctant to dance anymore?

Well first, I blame the ‘60s, and especially I blame the Twist. The Twist was a dance craze that fundamentally changed the nature of dance. Just as the Waltz, in the early 19th Century redefined dance from a group activity to something couples did; the Twist redefined dance as something individuals did.

The Twist certainly wasn’t the first solo dance. The Charleston was frequently danced solo, especially by women, but it never quite changed the fundamental dance model of the time. It remained a thing you did for a moment, in between the couple dancing, and was not generally how you would spend your entire evening.

But in the ‘60s, at a time when people were embracing changes in all things, the Twist seemed like an exciting new breath of fresh air, and was quickly followed by all sorts of variations on individual “freestyle” dancing: the Froog, the Swim, The Batman, you name it – all leading up to our present day.

So, from a “guy perspective”, what was happening in all this Freestyle dancing?

The dynamic in Freestyle dancing, when it is danced by couples is “We will both dance, and we will look at (and judge) each other” and, more to the point, even if a guy feels comfortable with his partner, he has the sense he is putting on a performance, and is being judged by everyone else in the room.

This is not a completely unwarranted fear. Mocking the failings of male dancers is a mainstay of our popular culture (e.g. The “White Man’s Overbite”), and most men’s greatest fear, surpassing things like spiders, heights and other phobias, is looking ridiculous – being an object of general mockery. While many might be willing to fight through that fear once in a while, for a special occasion or at the specific urging of the women in their lives, they are generally not disposed to do it on a regular basis. Risking ridicule is a major effort, and not one to be undertaken lightly.

For some reason, this is not as much of an obstacle for women, and so on those rare occasions these days when someone puts on the music we knew in High School, and someone gets up to dance, it’s mostly the women doing the dancing. Certainly you women almost always look a lot better dancing than we guys do, but as I am not a woman, I really have no sense of what’s going on in your heads when you dance. I can only speak to my own experience, and by extrapolation, the other guys I see sitting in the chairs drinking their beers while the women dance.

I have had some luck teaching men to dance, I think, because I “get” this. I’ve been there. I know it’s not enough to say “Don’t be silly! Get over it!” You have to understand that men really do, deep down, want to dance – and most particularly want to dance with women, but the nature of modern dancing and our current culture present barriers most men have trouble getting past.

I would argue that the first step in making a dance man-friendly would be bringing the man and the women back together and making it an interaction and not just a “hey look at me” show. That’s a start.

There are however, barriers still present in ballroom, Swing and Tango dancing as well. All of these styles are very focused on doing things “just so”. They have complex moves and a very specific notion of what is dancing the right way and dancing the wrong way. This environment works very well for some dancers, both male and female, who enjoy the challenge and the sense of accomplishment when it goes well. However, as these dances are very performance focused, with an emphasis on the external appearance of the dance, the man’s fear of looking stupid in public will still be a factor, and with what is probably a majority of men, it can be a deal breaker.

A dance teacher who focuses on attaining a particular sort of perfection will quickly cull the herd down to those who are comfortable committing to that sort of perfection. The rest will say “My wife talked me into a dance class, but it didn’t work out”.

So, my emphasis when dealing with men who have not been really keen on dancing is to go in clear, distinct and achievable steps, and to focus on successes. I avoid sounding condescending, but tell them (accurately) when they have achieved a level of skill equal to many dancers in the past – in that past when everyone danced and no one, other than Fred Astaire, was Fred Astaire.

I also try to never make people (men or women) feel singled out, and never issue a public correction. I will be willing to say, to the assembled class “Look at the thing Bill is doing right”, but minor corrections are either issued to the group in general “Try to avoid this thing”, even when Bill is the only one doing it wrong or, if that doesn’t work, I will quietly give Bill a suggestion in a way that is not obvious to the assembly. The dancer who feels humiliated will not be back, either to your class or the dance floor.

I know that good dance teachers understand this, but I hear so many anecdotes from people talking about their negative and humiliating experiences in dance classes, that I don’t think it is universally understood.

I do not aim at perfection. I am comfortable with teaching “good enough”. I try to let them know that it’s OK to not do a lot of fancy moves, and that most partners won’t start feeling bored if you don’t do a new flashy move every four bars. You need to ignore the flashy dancers putting on a show on the floor and dance your dance the best you can -- and just try to relax and enjoy the music and your partner. This seems like an obvious message, but it’s so often lost in a mindset that’s really more in line with exhibition than social dancing. They may get this mindset from their teachers, but I think they often come pre-programmed with a set of assumptions about how dance is supposed to be that can be a self-defeating, self-inflicted wound. (“Dancing With The Stars” hasn’t helped in this area).

I will be the first to say I am not training future champions. If someone I introduce to dancing goes on to achieve dance floor awesomeness, great, but my prime objective is to provide the women of the world with willing, relaxed and confident dance partners. Anything I can do along those lines I count a success.