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Overcoming Fears of Social Dancing

By Steve Shaw
Salsa NYC
    April 2001

I've heard a lot of people worrying about being at a mambo event when there are some very good dancers in the crowd or on the dance floor. They get intimidated, they hang back they get embarrassed to dance. 

Some of them hang out right over there where the best dancers are doing their thing, just standing there and watching and wishing, and feeling inferior, excluded or angry. And some of them get upset because they don't get many dances. Sometimes, the people who are worrying or intimidated are beginner or intermediate dancers, or dancers who are new to the mambo scene. They may feel that the crowd is "cliquish" or "stuck-up" or "judgmental and critical". Here are a few thoughts on the matter, and some strategies to get you dancing more, having more fun, and bitching less.


Most people most of the time choose their partners for 2 reasons: 1) ability to dance at their level and in their style, 2) and friendship. And within the dance community, these two often go together: one's dancer friends usually dance at a similar level and in a similar style. By the way, this is also true in other dances like hustle and swing, and in sports and many activities where a skill is involved. If you play basketball or tennis, you usually play and hangout with friends of a similar level of ability. Whether this is right or wrong, fair or unfair, the fact is that it's just human nature. Generally, it's not "cliquish or stuck-up", it's just people naturally congregating together who enjoy and share a similar level and style of dancing, and a friendship involving shared views.

For those who feel excluded, I would simply say that if you work your way up in terms of your dancing skills and style, and you hold similar views and make friends, most of these so-called "cliques" can eventually become the groups you congregate in, if that's what you wish. You can also find out what studio they go to or come from, and then go take classes there. This way, you become friends with them in classes and learn their particular style, and hang out with them at the socials or clubs. My point here is that they are not really "cliques" in the sense of being exclusionary, but rather people congregating together around shared skills and interests which, incidentally, is called "The Right To Free Association" in our U.S. Constitution.


Regarding the worry that some of these very good dancers are watching you and are judging and critical, I have bad news and I have good news:

1) The bad news is that unless you're a really super dancer, they're not watching you. You're being ignored.

2) The good news is that unless you're a really super dancer, they're not watching you. You're being ignored.

3) And if you are a super dancer and they're watching you with a frown on their faces, it's probably because they envy you (hating), and also they're hard at work trying to steal your material.

So you don't really have to worry at all about them watching you and being critical or judgmental. Think about it: who do we really watch on the dance floor? The so-so dancers or the really good ones? The good ones of course my point here is that everyone should just take every opportunity to dance, practice, learn, and not waste their time worrying about who's watching, because they're probably not watching you anyway. Being timid and staying off the dance floor is totally counter-productive: you dance less, make fewer friends, get less practice, and don't improve as quickly, so it takes you that much longer to reach the level you wish you were at, so that people would not look at you critically, and in fact would be admiring you and saying: "Wow, so-and-so sure is dancing great!"


Let's say you're a beginner or intermediate dancer and you're standing and watching some really good dancers, and you're feeling intimidated and afraid to dance. The problem is not with these really good dancers. The problem is in your own head. You are not a victim of those dancers, nor of the thoughts in your own mind. It is YOUR mind, YOU control the thoughts in YOUR mind. You have a mental CHOICE that you can make: You can CHOOSE to be intimidated or you can CHOOSE to be inspired, by these excellent dancers. You can CHOOSE to take the attitude that they're great and you're not that good, and that you'd be Intimidated and embarrassed to get on the dance floor. Or you can CHOOSE to take the attitude that they have some great dancing abilities which someday you can learn, and you can use them as Inspiration to learn and grow bit by bit, as you study and practice this great dance over the months and years. Intimidation or Inspiration: You're not a passive victim, you have the power to actively CHOOSE whether you want to be Inspired or Intimidated. Now, which would you rather choose? Which choice would be more constructive for your dancing progress, for your self-esteem, and for your dancing pleasure?


Let's face it, all people are not the same. Different people are different. And different people dance differently. Furthermore, these different dancers often dance in different areas of the dance floor. It's just human nature. Generally, there are areas with beginners, other areas with intermediate dancers, and still other areas with the hot shots. There are even little sub-areas within these main areas. It's not a rule, but it just sort of happens that way, naturally. It's like a cafeteria: you eat what you want, when you want, and you sit where you want, with who you want. On the dance floor, everyone can make their own choice of how good they want to get, who they want to dance with, and where they want to dance on the dance floor, and often it breaks down according to ability level and friends.

Now, sometimes I've noticed beginner and intermediate dancers spending hours standing or sitting in the area where all the top dancers are dancing, and they're complaining that no one will dance with them, and that the good dancers are stuck-up. This is not a constructive or helpful approach. Here's a better strategy: As I mentioned above, most people usually want to dance at their own level. While it's great, as we're working up, to spend a little time watching excellent dancers in order to admire them, or be inspired, or to learn new moves and style, it's not realistic to be expecting more than a very occasional dance over in that section of the dance floor, until you dance very well.

If we really want to get lots of dancing practice, our best strategy is to spend most of our time in the areas where dancers at our own level are dancing. Complaining doesn't help; taking action does help. Eddie Torres used to tell us: "When you go to a club or social, don't dance right away. First, walk around and see who can dance ON 2, and who dances at your level, or maybe a little bit above your level, and where they're hanging out. Then spend most of your time dancing mostly with them. That way, you get the most dancing practice, meet new partners, and have the most fun." It's the geography and psychology of the dance floor, and the sooner you learn it the sooner you'll have great evenings dancing.


LADIES, a lot of us guys may look bold, but we don't like rejection, and some of us are just downright punks...with muscles. So we're most likely to ask someone to dance if they're right up there standing on the edge of the dance floor, especially if they're moving to the music already. We know that she's probably going to say "Yes" to a dance. The farther away from this position she is, the less likely we figure she is to say "Yes". For example, if she's standing more back in the crowd, or she's sitting down, or she's sitting or standing way back from the dance floor, we figure she's much more likely to say "No" to a dance, so therefore we don't go over and ask those ladies to dance as often. I've seen people sitting way away from the dance floor, or behind rows of other people, or behind tables and chairs, and complaining that no one will dance with them.


I know we men are supposed to climb the highest mountain, and swim the deepest ocean, for that woman of our dreams, but I guess over the years we fellas have either become a lot less heroic and romantic, or we have just learned to play the odds and the probabilities. So we focus most of our attention on the ladies right up by the dance floor. Therefore, here's the best strategy for you ladies: if you really want more dances, stand up near the front, make yourself more visible, get into moving to the music....ON2, try a little eye contact and a smile (not too much, 'cause you know guys can't handle intimacy!), maybe even give the guys a helping hand by asking one at your level to dance, so that others see you want to be out there dancing instead of just sitting in a corner. Why do I say "move to the music ON 2"? Well, believe it or not, if you're new to our ON2 mambo scene here, and the guys don't know you yet, they will be more likely to ask you to dance if they see that you're moving to the music ON2. Something else to remember: If you arrive, leave, and spend the whole evening mostly with one guy, even if he's "just a friend", many possible partners will not approach you to dance because they'll think he's your boyfriend and you're sticking with him for the evening. So if you want people to ask you to dance, it's best to roam around a bit or hang out with different people during the evening so the guys will perceive you as more available.


We have to remember that most ladies who are true salseras come to these clubs and socials to dance, not to just sit or stand around and be cranky or depressed. We're not talking here about the generic ol' club scene here, or a "meat market". We're talking about the mambo scene. So when we're hesitating and timid about asking someone to dance, we need to remember that the majority of these ladies really do want to dance....that's why they came. So just take action, fellas. And if the lady says "No", well....we've been told "No" many times before and we're still breathing. And there are definitely 10 other ladies right nearby who would probably love to say "Yes". And if a lady says "No", and then 30 seconds later she's dancing with another guy, well....what can you do? We all have a right to be choosy, and so does she. But it doesn't mean you're a jerk, or that you were wrong to have asked her to dance. Just get over it, move on, and ask someone else. Of course, there's an important matter of courtesy and respect to remember here: if a woman is standing or dancing most of the time with a certain man, which means they might be dating, good etiquette and respect requires that you ask the man if he would mind you asking the lady for a dance.


Sometimes someone is a pretty accomplished mambo dancer, but no one knows them yet. They stand over in the area where the other good dancers are, but no one thinks they can dance, so no one will dance with them (woman or man). Here's a strategy: Find one good dancer who will dance with you, and make sure you place yourself and dance right in front of the little crowd you are wishing would notice and dance with you. Once they see you can dance well, you'll be out there on the floor for the rest of the night. Again, complaining doesn't help; taking action does.


Learning to dance mambo ON2 takes time and work for most of us, and it includes some evenings when you feel you'll never improve and when almost no one will dance with you. But if you keep learning, by taking classes or privates, drilling the fundamentals and practicing, and getting out there social dancing, you will most likely master the dance and come to enjoy the results of all that work: the joy of dancing well and being able to dance with many different partners.


Most people (especially more advanced dancers) choose their partners based on ability to dance at their level and in their style, and friendship. "Style" involves a lot of things. Think about it. "Style" means how we move, our mannerisms, our clothing, how we feel the rhythms of the music and which ones we choose to accent, how we relate to our partners, our dance "attitude", the expression on our faces, how we show the passion and sexuality of mambo and its historical Latin culture on the dance floor, and even how we express our personal, family and cultural beliefs about leading and following, male and female, modesty and showing off, competition and sharing, and other aspects of life. All this is visible in our "style" of dancing mambo.

And "Friendship" is who we've become friends with as we've attended classes, socials and clubs. People will always have their personal preferences about who they want to dance with, in the same way that people have their preferences about who they want to spend time with in other activities. That is just plain human nature (in fact it's animal nature too), and also something very important called "freedom of choice". We cannot teach, suggest or legislate away human nature and the freedom of personal choices. What that means is that some people just don't want to dance with me, or be friendly with me. I try a few times, then I shoot them....oops....I mean then I move on. You will have the same experiences too.

But there are some strategies available for this problem too.
1) First, don't take it personally.
2) Second, try becoming friends.
3) Third, if you really admire the way a certain group of people dance, and you'd like to dance with them, it would be helpful to dance like them, in their way: that means their footwork, styling, rhythm, partnering techniques, song preferences, "attitudes", etc.

These qualities make mambo dancers synchronized, and help them share the dance emotionally and have a good time. If you are a woman, watch closely how the women in that group dance; a man should watch the men. Try to incorporate these techniques and attitudes into your dancing. You may be able to learn this on your own, or you may need to take classes or privates where these people do. In any case, allow months or longer to begin to change.

4) Forth, remember that there are no guarantees that certain people will ever want to dance with you, so just accept that, get over it and move on.


Forget all this silliness about "cliques" and criticism, intimidation and neglect, complaining and inaction. Be realistic and take constructive action. Now let's all get out there and dance and have a ball. We're there to mambo, not to worry about who's watching. So let's just get out and dance, and make the most of it!

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