Doesn’t it rile you when a person puts you in an awkward situation, and you can’t decently get out of it? Such as when someone asks you to dance, and you know that their theme song could be “The Flat Foot Stomp”? O, the pain, the pain of it all. But etiquette commands that you don’t refuse a dance unless you’re injured or sick, or the floor is too crowded. They’re your only means of escape, if you’re going to be polite about it.

That’s one side of the courtesy coin. The flip side applies to the person who asks for a dance: etiquette demands that we are mindful of our prospective partner. If you know they don’t like (dancing with) you, don’t ask them. Not your will, but theirs, be done.

You might ask, why am I so concerned about this? To paraphrase Frankie Manning, the person only has to dance with you for a few minutes, not marry you. In response, I ask this: why would we want to put another person in any unpleasant situation, however mild, even if it is only for a few minutes?

But is their discomfort a good enough reason not to ask them to dance? Some would say “No”: ask them and be done with it. But dancing should be fun, not sadistic. When people go out to have fun, I shy away from doing anything that would detract from that. After all, isn’t that what etiquette is really about: respect for another person?

Well then, how can we know if a person doesn’t want to dance with us? (This has to be asked. Girls can tell easily enough, by reading body language, but most leaders are guys, and most guys aren’t fluent in the language of chick.) “Thank you, but I don’t want to dance with you” would be disconcerting, but definite. However, most people won’t say this; and we don’t like to ask them directly, “Do you not want to dance with me?” Such a question is considered impolite, as it puts the recipient in a quandary: do they hurt your feelings with the truth, however gently they phrase it? Or lie, and find some other reason not to dance with you? “No, really, it’s not you; it’s me.” “I’m sorry, I can’t: I have a tendon in my knee.”

Having said this, here are four ways I use to work out whether or not someone’s not interested in dancing with me.

1. Their body language: lack of eye contact, arms crossed, feet and body turned away from you; head lowered, shoulders pulling forward and inward; when you ask, they instantaneously, yet briefly, freeze; shuddering, nervous twitches, frequent trips to the bathroom to powder their nose (if a guy does this, it’s a fair giveaway) – and so on.

But! Our interpretation of their body language might not be accurate. At a dance, there are always different social interactions going on: there could be vibes from a previous partner, or anticipation of the next. These vibes could be either positive or negative, and can affect your invitee’s body language. Also, where there’s a group of people moving and sweating, there will be various fragrances, mostly noxious. If your prospective partner pulls a face, surreptitiously smell your armpits. Either way, over time we get a better idea of whether or not they like dancing with us. But for those who want more objective, certain evidence, consider the next few points.

2. People talk; and it won’t be long before they talk about their good and bad experiences with dancing. With that fact (that people will talk) in mind, look at the people in your potential partner’s dancing circle. Do they all react to you in a similar way? This might indicate that someone’s been talking. Or you can initiate the process, by dropping a few subtle questions among people, and see what response finds its way back to you. After all, how can we know what’s wrong if no-one tells us? For example, my floorcraft isn’t great, but it used to be abysmal. No-one said anything to me about it, though. But when I noticed that my shins had more interaction with people than I did, I took more care about observing the other dancers on the floor. But if no-one tells us what we need to work on, how can we improve? This leads to the next point …

3. You’ve looked at other people; now what about yourself: how you present as a person and as a dancer? If someone doesn’t want to dance with you, your dancing may well have something to do with it. So if you know your dancing could stand to be improved in some way – like your balance or floorcraft – work on it. If you don’t know how, ask one of your teachers, or other dancers, for some ideas.

4. Reverse the equation: how often do others ask you to dance? If you’ve asked someone to dance several times, and they’ve acquiesced, but not reciprocated, this could be another warning sign. It’s only a “could be”, though. Maybe they’re shy. Or tired. Or experiencing a murmur of existential angst, and feeling alone, miserable, apathetic and irritable.

The important thing is to put these indications in a wider context: just one of them occurring once or twice is hardly conclusive proof; they might be having a bad week. Finally, if worse comes to worst, and you find yourself wedged into dancing with someone you don’t want to, think of it like eating brussel sprouts: distasteful, but good for you. If nothing else, it gives you a chance to improve your connection, your floorcraft – and your poker face!

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2006.