What It Means When They Say “No”

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In social dancing, we have a lot of hang-ups around “No.” We feel bad when we say it, and we feel even worse when we hear it. It pokes at the well of hurt we have accumulated from every rejection, and prods our insecurities.

We have different strategies for avoiding this devastation. We pride ourselves on agreeing to every dance. We teach our beginners that they should dance with everyone. We shame others as elitists when they appear selective in their choice of partners. We avoid rejection by agonizing over when the right moment is to approach someone for a longed-for dance – not if they’re taking a break, not if they’ve just danced too many in a row, not if they are talking to a cute dancer, not if they’re queuing up a song…

Each scene has its own quirks, but they all have this quivering fear of the dreaded “No.” I went through all of these ideas as I was learning to dance, and had a pretty well-developed system for sidestepping a “No.” When I failed I often felt miserable, or resented the person…

– until a few years ago, when in the blues dance scene I started to hear about Safe Spaces” and “Consent Culture.” While at first I assumed they were all about reporting sexual misconduct and protecting people from harassment, I soon realized what they proposed included subtly radical concepts that have the potential to totally transform our social dancing culture. These are huge topics that I won’t be unpacking in depth, but I encourage you to read further. Today I’ll be sharing two main ideas with you:

1. You are always allowed to say “No.”

2. Hearing “No” doesn’t have to be a big deal.

Part 1: Delivering the “No”

This might seem strange at first, but let’s consider a few of the reasons you might not want to dance at any given point in time, starting with some reasons that have nothing to do with the person asking you:
– You want to say hello to some people you know
– You want to greet some new people
– You’re tired and want to sit down
– You’re thirsty; time to get some water
– You need to visit the restroom
– You’re hot and want to cool off
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– You’re starting to get sweaty and want to dry out
– You want to change shirts
– You want to change shoes
– You don’t like this style
– You hoped to dance this style with someone in particular
– This song brings up memories that make you want to dance with certain people
– This song brings up painful memories
– You want to talk to the DJ
– You want to thank the organizer
– You have a question for a teacher
– You want to talk to that cute dancer
– Your friend needs cheering up
– You had a hard day and want to dance with people that you are close to
– You have reached your limit for interactions with strangers for the day
– You just received some tough feedback and want to dance with people you are comfortable with
– You want to dance with people that you don’t usually see

And then of course there are the occasional times when it IS about that person, at least in part:
– They are wearing perfume or cologne that will make it difficult for you to breathe
– They just ate something that you are allergic to
– They are really sweaty
– They have an inescapable odor
– They have previously hurt you on the dance floor
– They have previously behaved in a sexually inappropriate way
– Your friend is in love with them and you are steering clear

I’m sure we could think of a truckload more! I remember visiting a house party in DC and on the walls they had listed several possible reasons someone might turn down a dance. The thing is, we all experience these things. Your feelings and needs are valid; just be honest with the person asking you and say, “No, thank you.”

Now, when I say be honest, I don’t mean you necessarily need to go into detail. If you really are just needing to grab a quick cup of water, and you intend to seek that person out for the following song, feel free to say so. But I think we all know how tricky it can be to find someone if the social is of a reasonable size. Even with the best intentions, we might leave someone feeling even more disappointed. And lying is even worse. Don’t say “I’m sitting this one out,” and then hit the floor with the next person who asks you.

You have to figure out where your comfort level is. I don’t have a problem letting people know that my allergies would interfere with my enjoyment of a dance with them, but I am less likely to tell someone that they reek. In any case where you don’t feel moved to provide a specific reason, stick to that simple “No, thank you.”

Part 2: Accepting the “No”

We have to let go of entitlement. Showing up to a social dance does not give you the right to dance with every other person who came. Regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, dance level, stylish dress, long-term commitment to the scene, or any other factor, you do not deserve to dance with any given person at any given time.

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Yes, I personally think that teachers should do their best to dance with their students, and everyone should try to make newcomers and beginner dancers welcome, and we shouldn’t systematically exclude any one individual. However, that should come out of a desire to build the community, not a resigned obligation or fear of shaming.

Imagine if we could go to the social even when we’re feeling a bit tired or blue, and not worry about being totally drained by the demands of others. Imagine if everyone felt safe on the dance floor, and wasn’t trying to dance defensively to simultaneously ward off a partner’s unfortunate actions AND the condemning eye of those who might see you refuse that dance.

Imagine if every time we asked someone for a dance, or agreed to a dance, we knew that it was because both of us WANTED that dance.

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So when someone says, “No, thank you,” just take it in stride and ask someone else to dance. Don’t take it personally, and don’t badger someone for a reason. Keep in mind the numerous possible reasons that might be behind that “No.”

A Note for my Kizomba Dancers

I had the privilege of interviewing Tania Mendonca a few months ago. We touched on this topic, and I want to share with you her perspective as an Angolan emigrant who danced as an adolescent in Portugal and who now teaches professionally in the UK and internationally: “You never have to say yes to a dance. We don’t have the concept of dancing with every single person in the club. We don’t have the idea, ‘I’m out to go dancing.’ We went out to socialize, to dress up, to see friends, AND to dance.”

I don’t know about you, but I like the sound of that!

*Note: Fighting my own preferences as a teacher of English, I have used the singular “they” to avoid inserting gender into these situations.

17 Comments

  • Kyndal Meister says:

    What a great article! What is most important to remember is that we DO NOT need to have any reason whatsoever for saying “No.” You should never feel guilty for declining a dance. You deserve to enjoy the dance just as much as the other person, so there should be no reason to offer excuses for why you do not want to dance with them.

    Again, thanks for posting such a great article!

  • Joseph says:

    Honestly, I can’t say I agree with this article completely. Actually that’s not the right way to put it, because in the strictest sense, anyone with common sense already agrees with everything in this article. Of course you are always allowed to say no, and of course ‘no’ can have a lot of reasons behind it (which are really nobodies business anyways).

    There is an underlying sentiment that worries me however. While you can always say no, it still seems to me something that should be delivered cautiously, and should give you pause. I say this as a guy because frankly, it’s usually the guys doing the asking. And ladies need to understand this. The risk of rejection is a daunting prospect, and as a newcomer one of the most encouraging things about dance was that there was a culture of inclusiveness and a sense that IF someone said no, they did not do so lightly.

    Good experienced dancers especially seemed to understand this, and when they saw my unease, they seemed to take extra care to make me feel like asking a lady to dance was a positive thing and that I should be bold. We were all there to dance, and everyone was a beginner once.

    So anyways, I’m not sure it’s as if there is currently a climate where women feel especially pressured to dance, but I wonder if even a small number more had rejected my offers to dance if I’d ever have stuck with it. And there’s a real worry there. You do want dance partners and you should want beginners to stick with it. The best environment to achieve this is exactly that you outlined right at the beginning of your article before essentially undermining and deconstructing those very ideas.

    And don’t think there isn’t a flipside to this for men as well. When I see ladies of all ages, experience levels, or other characteristics, and I see them looking longingly at a dance floor for too long, I see it as my responsibility to occasionally ask them to dance. I want to encourage that same environment along with all the sacrifices that come with it.

    Because as much as we might say “You should never feel bad about hearing a no” there’s really a tipping point where it will become too much. I can tell you, right now when I hear ‘no’ I never worry about it. I always know there’s a good reason for it. The way I know this, is that it’s rare enough for me to take it seriously and not as a rejection at all but as a sign that the dancer really does need a break or has something to deal with. But if slowly I started to find that (say) half the ladies I requested a dance from rejected me — well, I’m not sure I could handle it the same way. And likely I’d just find a few people who I knew would dance with me and I’d stop asking anyone else.

    You end this article by relaying the following:
    We don’t have the idea, ‘I’m out to go dancing.’ We went out to socialize, to dress up, to see friends, AND to dance.” I don’t know about you, but I like the sound of that!

    Well, I don’t like the sound of that. When I go out I AM out to go dancing AND to dress up, see friends, etc (but in that order).

  • Benjamin says:

    I really liked this article, but one thing that many of my dance instructors/organizers have mentioned that I really like too is that everyone is entitled to at least one dance. By that I mean that if you don’t really like the person for whatever reason (obviously not the health reasons) and they ask you to dance, you should still give them one dance because, as Joseph mentioned, some people are not very confident dancers yet. Maybe a guy is a terrible lead and it makes dancing with him difficult, or maybe that girl is not very good at following. Practice is oftentimes unpleasant for everyone involved (including more than just dancing), and I think to keep that community of dancing going, everyone should be able to at least practice a little with many different people. That being said, if someone asks for a second dance, I don’t think anyone should feel obliged to say yes or even to give a reason for not wanting to dance more with any particular person. No one needs to spend the whole night with people they don’t want to be with, but everyone can handle a few minutes of discomfort every now and again.

  • Dave says:

    GREAT article! Being a lead, I usually do the asking, so I understand this article is primarily for the followers. But, even as a lead, I am very sensitive to this issue. I usually limit my dancing to one dance per follower, unless it is someone I have known for a while. This lets me dance with strangers, especially the ones who sit at the edge of the dance floor, but no one is asking them to dance, without any issues. Let’s face it, you can survive one dance with ANYONE, though you may not want to repeat the experience again the same night. I am very sensitive to perfumes and there are many gals I would dance with more if they used less, but that is their style, and I have to allow for it as normal for them.

    The one thing I did want to say is that I do get asked to dance by followers I know I will not enjoy dancing with, but I _almost_ always accept. If they ask a second time the same night, I am likely to decline. If I do this, they will probably never ask me again, even on other occasions. In these cases, I end up asking them to dance if we run into each other, and this puts everything right. The message here is, every offer is just for that instance and does not mean I never want to dance with them.

    One of the previous posters mentioned that it is one of the benefits of dancing that it is an open and inclusive environment, especially for beginners. I subscribe to that also and I make much more allowances for beginner dancers. In my opinion, you do not need a reason to say yes, but you should have a consistent and fair reason to say no. For me, I like to skip songs just to stay grounded and not get sweaty and have conversations, etc. I don’t have an issue saying no once in a while because I know I am fair and consistent with everyone. And I give the follower the benefit of the doubt if they say no to me. I may not ask them again that night, but I would if I see them again on another occasion, of course.

  • aj says:

    I am a follow but I love to dance, and I mean heaps. I dance a lot with the people I attend with (we have a bit of a group) but at a social dance I will attempt to ask a person from each table if they would like to dance. Often these turn into several dances which is always nice. I do wonder why people refuse when I ask, I usually go by the ‘three times policy’, I will ask anyone 3x when I am somewhere and if everyone is a rejection then I will not ask them again. I realize that some people don’t like dancing with me, but like you say really you should able to do one dance with anyone and walk away. I always say yes, I will dance with anyone – and if its good I’ll carry on. Really its dance etiquette – I don’t really understand the safe space stuff. Dancing includes close hold, it seems a strange hobby to take up if you have personal issues with being close to someone else!

  • iamtanmay says:

    Fine article. But No is a privilege for women only.

    Can I turn down women ? Not really, since I am the one who has to go around asking.

    Girls rarely take the risk. They would rather dance with girlfriends than ask men.

    As a male, you have to build a thick skin, and pull in women from the audience. You introduce non dancers, and women quickly realise your options are not limited.

    You become popular when you teach beautiful women right in front of your rejectors.

  • Avid Dancer says:

    Yeah, as Joseph said the “No” is a big deal on the dance floor. It is one of the rudest of all behaviors. It sends a message that either there is something abhorring about the person being rejected or maybe one of the other reasons mentioned above when the same woman is dancing with another guy right away. Women play politics on the dance floor and someone told me they do this because thats the only tool women have in this man’s world. I don’t accept that but thats the way it is. I have seen women rejecting me for genuine reasons and I have asked them again later and few are still great friends. There is a certain way of how “No” is delivered. Many insecure women say the “No” with a cunning smile and many are outright rude as if they have been grossly violated. Anyway there is no solution to this and men has to suck it up. This article is actually redundant.

  • Bailando says:

    “IAMTANMAY” thats exactly what I do. I have blacklisted those who said “No” for no apparent reason and never ever would I dance with them if my memory doesn’t fail. Sometimes my forget because these smart women change their looks and “bingo” rejected again. I have pulled so many beginners onto the dance floor and created a meetup group for that. That way dancing is still lot of fun for me. But sometimes I feel I have stooped to lower levels like them.

  • Kris says:

    Some people have entirely missed the point of the article. Saying “no” doesn’t make you a “rejector”. Followers asking leads to dance who are not interested are in the same boat as the leads regardless of their gender. Feel good about your choices on the dance floor on that occasion. At the next social, you can make different choices. If you want to dance with someone, dance with them. If you don’t want to dance with a person, don’t. There is no reason to make a big deal out of everything. Such enormous energy wasted on rules and black lists. Just enjoy your time on the floor with the dancers that agreed to dance with you. Life is too short!

  • KP says:

    Kris: I don’t think anyone is misunderstanding the article. Everyone agrees with it, but also points out that it works as long as the “No” rate is low. If most people start saying “No” frequently, the dance scene will start to falter.

    I am an experienced Latin dancer. My town is friendly to all skill levels and my “No” rate is perhaps 10% or less. So it easy to just move on to the next dancer.

    I once went to a CW dancing club. I learned the basic steps adequately and hit the floor. My “No” rate was 95%! After a night of this, I left and never returned. Perhaps I did not understand the club’s culture, but whatever the reason, it was not much fun to be turned down ten times in a row by ten different people. I left for better pastures and never returned.

    So saying “No” is everyone’s right, and if everyone says “No” most of the time, it won’t be much fun for anyone.

  • JMarie says:

    I don’t like to say no, because I never would want someone to say no to me. I usually give an explanation as to why and is most always because the previous lead dancer really tired me out and I really need to sit down for at least a song or two. I tell them to please ask me later. If they don’t ask me later, I seek them out and ask them because I want them to enjoy the salsa dancing experience just as much as I do. On rare occasions when I say no, without explanation, it’s because of really bad dancing like stepped on toes several times anyone? Drunk or sexually inappropriate dancing. But like I said, those occasions are rare.

    • Guillermo says:

      Great article and many good points made by everyone. I consider myself a seasoned dancer and I travel to festivals all over the world. I never decline a dance…I just don’t. It’s my philosophy to never decline a dance. Nevertheless, there are times where I desire a comparable level dancer and I don’t want to deal with a beginner or someone not at my level. On those occasions, I become selective and seek those I’ve seen dancing displaying the skill set I seek. Therefore, the key is to never take offence to a “no.” Just accept it. There will be times where if the girl/guy isn’t familiar with your level, they will be wary of accepting. Therefore, I always give a girl a second opportunity to dance me, if I interpret the reason for her initial decline being genuine.

  • JeaneL says:

    I think the more important point of the article is not that “you can say no”, but more “Try your best to not take it personally when you are told no”.

    If more people do the latter
    * People won’t feel compelled to say yes all the time
    * Happier environment for everyone because there are no bruised egos

    If there are snobs that won’t dance with you, who cares, you probably don’t want to dance with them in the first place because they aren’t going to try and have a good time.

    I fully support someone saying no to me than saying yes and proceeding with a half-hearted or a I-pity-you dance with me (I follow, but I often ask leads to dance) because I’m can’t dance on2, or you don’t like timba, or you want to be dancing much more advanced. I would gladly have them reject me so I can move on to someone that can and will enjoy a dance with me.

    Similarly, I can’t enjoy a dance or place my full attention in a dance if I’m too tired or if I have sweat running into my eyes. So I do like to take breaks and I take offense that guys take offense when I say no because I am in need of a break.

  • WASTED TIME says:

    Jeanel, the problem is not necessarily with the “no”. Yes ego gets hurt but most importantly the problem is with games and politics being played on the dance floor. There are ladies who give the wrong impression and play cat and mouse games. In regular clubs that totally the norm but in salsa place this is not acceptable. The guy not only gets his ego hurt but also his valuable time. Agreed most salseros don’t have proper job, have no real life and they are just there to entertain the ladies but few do have things going on in their life but they just love the dancing and the music. What happens to this minority group of men? It’s such a waste of time and energy asking ladies around for a dance. I used to bring in my friends and as soon as they found the bad attitude among ladies they refused to go dancing. They said they would rather hangout in a regular club drinking and watching beautiful women then be refused in a low quality salsa club.

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