Saturday, June 16, 2007

Why Does She Tell Me That?

"Be gentle with me," she says. Another says, "Please be gentle!" and I'm thinking, "Are you talkin' to me?"

I'm social dancing at Mama Juana's the last couple nights and I had two women say those words to me after I asked them to dance. And they said it before we were even on the dance floor. Something about me was scaring them. Not enough to turn me down, but enough for them to be concerned for their well being.

Granted, they were both beginner/intermediate follows, and they knew I was an instructor there, but it made me think. Why would a woman say that to her lead on the way to the floor?

Especially me!

I wasn't even dressed in my normal hip-hop, show my underwear, ripped baggy sweats, with a summo wrestler-sized, camo sleveless shirt and my hat on sideways. Instead, I was in my classic black dress slacks, with an upscale pullover shirt. Maybe my face says I pull the wings off flies for fun, or I throw cats in the pool and kick puppies in my spare time, but it really got me thinking.

Why would they think they needed to ask me to take it easy with them? The last thing I want to do is push them over the edge.

Here's my guess: Other guys had pushed them way beyond their comfort level, and they were assuming similar treatment from me. Maybe other, more advanced leads were rough and/or overly aggressive. Obviously they didn't want to look bad, and they felt compelled to let me know they wanted less intensity.

It could also be they know I'm an instructor at the club, but I thought that would bring comfort, knowing I dance with a wide range of ladies.

Guys: Just because we can, doesn't mean we should. I have to guess we are not making some of the ladies comfortable, or they think because we can dance with intensity, we don't know how to scale it appropriately for our current partner.

Maybe it's just me, but I really want to blame the rest of you guys for these ladies' worries about me.

I don't know the answer on this one, so maybe the ladies can provide feedback:

  • When would you say something like this to a guy?
  • Why would you say yes if you thought I was going to be over the top, overly aggressive or inappropriate?

For the ladies: It's OK to say, "no thank you" or "maybe later" if you think a guy can't dance with finesse and that's what you want. If you do say no, be prepared to go find him later if/when you want to dance. Many guys will not ask you twice in the same night; on the other hand, very few guys will say no if you smile, bat your eyelashes and ask them nicely.

For the guys: To break the tension, if I know I'm dancing with someone who is less experienced, I sometimes say, "Please be gentle with me," or, "Go easy on me," with a smile before we start, cutting the stress and letting them know I plan on making the dance fun and appropriate for them.

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you cannot grow.
-Ronald Osborn


  1. Okay, I admit it. I've used this line many, many times. Always with a smile, and ALWAYS intending to let my partner know, "I'm a beginner/intermediate dancer. I don't get out much, therefore my social dancing skills are mediocre at best. Please don't be offended if I can't follow your lead / if I can't turn well / if I accidentally whack you in the noggin with my elbow / if I apologize profusely as we dance....etc. etc." I believe I can say that I have never been truly afraid of my partner, just afraid that I might somehow disappoint him.

    Usually, the gentleman will either answer, "Don't worry!" or will ask why I am asking him to be gentle. I always explain that I simply don't social dance often. However, on one memorable occasion, one gentleman answered sweetly, "Don't worry. I know just what you need."

    And you know what? He did. One of the best dances I've ever had.

  2. I am an intermediate/advanced level dancer (salsa dancing 3 years) and I also have said "be gentle!".
    I have said it to two different leaders and was after I had danced with them once before.
    The first leader hardly moves at all and leads with a fingerprint! (I think he mostly usually telepathy to lead his moves!) Even very advanced dancers find him difficult and the second one dances way above the ladies level to see how far he can get them to go.

    Why do I mention this?

    They are both teachers!

  3. Wow.

    Secret Squirrel: The teachers you are talking about must give lessons to almost all the guys I danced with one night last week!!!

    Maybe we should be saying "Beef it up!" instead of "Be gentle, please”. I was really surprised to dance with these guys. I had never danced with such a long line of partners who seemed to be leading by osmosis. Or perhaps they were using some sort of Jedi mind trick. I don't know. One guy had an especially tai-chi-like lead. I could hardly understand what he wanted me to do. Serious language barrier there, I guess.

    I'm not an especially accomplished social dancer, so I while I speak on the subject of social dancing from somewhat limited experience, I have taken years of group lessons. We rotate throughout the class, so in those settings I have danced with plenty of gentlemen at all levels of expertise. Some of those have been instructors, of course. I can say with some knowledge, then, that the dancers I encountered recently were much weaker leads than I have ever had in the past.

    What does everyone make of these gentlemen who are, well, too gentle?

  4. OK... you got me. As I think of some of the instructors in LA, there are some who are too rough, too intense, and a couple are too light.

    I know one thing that does happen if you teach, few others tell you what they really think. It's very difficult to get quality feedback.

    Most instructors don't take privates themselves (they should), so they lack an outside reference point.

    World class athletes still have coaches, above average dancers should still get fine tuning from others. (I doubt most will do that, but they should.)

  5. Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero said...

    World class athletes still have coaches, above average dancers should still get fine tuning from others. (I doubt most will do that, but they should.)

    Well said!

    It's tough to get good feedback, dance teacher or not, that's for sure. Perhaps when you achieve a certain level of skill, you start to feel that you don't need the kind of constant assessment that an instructor provides. I think, Don, that you've made it very clear here that you feel that dance is a life-study. I mean, really, how can you know when you're done learning? You can't! It's not like you get a dance diploma, pomp and circumstance, switch the tassel, and off you go. You no longer need to work at it.

    I do VERY much agree that an instructor will probably not receive constructive feedback unless he/she actively seeks it. The onus is on the instructors themselves to do the seeking.

    I'm reminded at this moment of watching "So You Think You Can Dance?" How many times have dancers auditioned on that show and listed themselves as dance teachers in their resumes, and when they come onstage, it is painfully evident that they should NOT be teaching people to dance! Luckily, I don't think there are any well-known salsa instructors out there trying to pull off such a ruse, intentional or not. But it can happen. Certainly, if an instructor has any poor habits, those habits will be passed on to their students.

    Okay…I be quiet now….before Don tells me to can it and get my own blog if I wanna talk so much…. :-)

  6. Comments are ALWAYS welcomed!

    One thought: Dancing and teaching are related but because I do one well doesn't mean I do the other well.

    Athletes see this all the time. The best coaches were often above average players, but not necessarily the standouts. The best athletes are often not the best coaches.

    Many great dancers are not great teachers and vise-versa.

  7. If I had my choice, I would tell a guy, "Please don't be too gentle." This is because I am tall and my problem with some guys is that their lead is too weak, probably because they are leading me as if I were a petite woman. So, please don't give guys the idea they should be gentle. I think that instead the problem lies with guys not adjusting their lead to the size and strength of the woman they are dancing with. A guy who dances with a tall or large woman needs a stronger lead. If he uses that strong lead with a petite woman, the lead will be too rough. Likewise, if a guy uses gentle lead on a tall or large woman, then his lead will be too weak.

    I have danced with guys whose lead is too rough, though. These are usually beginners who have not smoothed out their lead yet and have no idea they are being too rough. Sometimes I tell them to take it easy, to avoid injury to my shoulder or arms.

    I turn down dances only if I need a break or the guy is a pervert or drunk or weird. If I am tired and turn him down, then I tell him to please give me a few minutes to rest and to please come back and ask me again. Most guys will come back in a few minutes. It's not necessary to go chase them down when I am ready because I have already made it clear to them that I would really like to dance with them but that I just need a moment to rest.

  8. You are right on the "turn down". If you simply say, "no thank-you" I doubt they will return. But if you make it clear you want a break, then I suspect they'll be back.

    Also note, if you are exceptionally tall or petite, then you will also have to adjust, because most guys are used to a certain range, and outside of that they have a harder time adjusting. (I'm not letting them off the hook, just getting it into the open.)

    I dance with Ruby Karen when I can. She won at the Mayan a couple years ago with Alex DaSilva and she is exceptionally petite (under 90 lbs, 4'8" or so if I remember). She is totally amazing to put it mildly.

    It took me more dances than I'd like to admit before I could adjust to her size. I knew I needed to adjust, but I had lots that didn't work as I figured it out. Among other moves, I couldn't get the right feel out of a rotating CBL (AKA a "360") for the longest time and that is one of my favorite moves. I do it effortlessly with others, but if I only had a couple dances with her, I don't know if I would have been able to adjust in time.

    I remember feeling like a loser with her after some dances, and because of her skill knowing it was my lead. The more mature I get, the less time it takes for me to adjust, but that doesn't mean I'll get it right everytime.

    If you are taller and/or heavier, it's helpful if you really work on your spins and balance, because that will help you to deal with weaker leads. (I doubt I'm telling you anything you don't know.)

    Thanks for pointing out that gentler isn't always appropriate.

    It's the leads responsibility to adjust, but some are better at it than others, and less mature leads may struggle even if they know they should adjust.

  9. I should also make it clear I enjoy dancing with the taller ladies. Sometimes they adjust too much because they are used to other leads.

    While I recommend you get stronger on spins/balance as a general rule, I really don't want you compensating for my shorter parents. When I think of it, that same advice would apply to ladies of all sizes.

    If I see a taller partner duck or otherwise compensate, I tell them it's my responsibility to adjust to them. It is one of my strengths even if they are much taller than me because I make it a point to adjust to their level.

    In an ideal world they forget about the fact that I'm shorter than them and just dance. I'm average height in "real life" but on the taller side in most salsa clubs.

  10. I'm totally in agreement with salsamama's first post. Between about my 3 month and perhaps 9 month mark, I ALWAYS told a new guy... "go easy on me please". Not because of any notion about how he would handle me, but because of my own insecurities as a follow. I figure if I prepped him with that line before the dance, he couldn't get too upset when/if I disappointed. I actually suggest the same approach to my beginner and/or shier friends.

  11. I think there is a small confusion about the meaning. When the girl asks to "Be gentle with me" she does not talking about gentle or soft leading, what she is asking is to don't try to force hard and complex figures, patterns. A guy can lead very gently and doing complex figures, but can be too aggressive even on the basic.
    A good leader can immediately see after the first steps (or even when pulling her hands to the spot) how gentle should be.

    "I figure if I prepped him with that line before the dance, he couldn't get too upset when/if I disappointed."
    And what? If he does not respect you, your level, your needs you should never care if he disappointed or not. Personally I have never got upset when I did not manage to lead what or how I wanted, regardless of the level of follower. Sometimes maybe disappointed, but by myself and not by her. I know it is my fault, either my lead is ambiguous, either I could not sum up her level. But in this case I can be even thankful to her to point me out that.

    But for the defense of the guys, if the girls asks to be gentle does not necessarily means she had bad experience before, it is just an automatic self-defense (like Disa wrote). I remember in first few months I was always telling to the girls before we started to dance that I am very beginner.


I love feedback. Your thoughts, feelings and comments are appreciated. Civil disagreements and other points of view are always welcomed!

Feel free to send me private mail if appropriate.

Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero