The Wallflower Phenomenon
By Michel Breger
Have you noticed that usually the same women are asked to dance the couple dances — not necessarily physically the most attractive women nor the best dancers? Ms. Lonelyhearts is here to look at this common problem in folk dancing, the Wallflower.
Folk dance wallflowers come in all shapes and sizes; however, they are usually female. The obvious reason is that in many folk dance groups all over the country more women are interested in dancing than men, and that men still do most of the asking. Generally, a man who wants to dance can do so, which ends our discussion of the male wallflower problem. Because of this imbalance, our discussion necessarily has to be one-sided, somewhat sexist in nature, and concentrates on what some dancers can do in order to participate more.
As a rule, a man has only a few seconds to find a partner before the beginning of a dance is missed and before all desirable partners are gone. Hence, for women, it becomes important to be where the men are, usually on or near the actual dance floor. If a woman has just finished the previous dance — often a line dance — there should be no problems.
If a woman has sat out a few dances and is now engaged in conversation, the woman is less likely to be asked to dance; men do not like to interrupt. This problem is worse if one is actually talking to another man! One popular dancer states her solution as follows: "I have even told a man standing right next to me that he should move away from me if he is not going to dance with me." This dancer is not the pushy kind of person. With so much competition around, a woman has to look available. Another popular dancer states: "One way to let a man know that I want to dance with him is to establish eye contact with him immediately after a dance is announced. Conversely, when I see somebody approaching who I do not want to dance with, I look away."
We all want to have fun while dancing. This includes doing the dance correctly and having a friendly partner. If a woman (or a man!) does not know the steps of a dance well — and there is nothing wrong with that — the partner should be told before the dance. Then there can be no disappointment. The more knowledgeable partner can concentrate a bit more on helping his or her partner, and that can be fun too. Few men are going to ask a woman again if they have had several disappointing experiences with her before.
But how can a woman do a particular dance well if she has never been asked to dance it? A possible way to break this vicious circle is to learn couple dances during teaching sessions with another woman and to take turns for the female part. (This method is good from another point of view too — one learns the male part of the dance.)
Beginning folk dancers know only a few dances well and might wish to advertise what they know. It is very hard for a man to guess whether or not a woman knows a particular dance. A beginner could show that she knows and wants to do a particular dance by tapping or singing (softly please) to the music. Some women waiting to be asked look as if they are internally doing the dance.
In my view, perfection of steps and sequences is less important than general good dancing ability, e.g., ability to do fast turns without turning your partner into a muscular Mr. America. Although traditionally a man should lead a couple dance, it is acceptable for a woman to lead if the man does not know the dance well and he is willing to let her lead. But it is wise to tread cautiously here. When I was new at folk dancing, a few women insisted on leading every couple dance, even those dances I thought I knew quite well. For me, there was no fun dancing with these women. (Remember, we are concentrating on how a woman can get asked more and therefore consider the man's enjoyment rather one-sidedly.) Which leads us to the frail ego of the male folk dancer, especially of the beginner.
We all enjoy feeling that we are good dancers, or at least that we are on the way to becoming good dancers or attractive partners. Traditionally, men have the advantage of choosing their partners, but bear the disadvantage of being turned down. This is quite a disadvantage! One popular woman said, "I never turn down any dance, even if I feel like collapsing. If I turn somebody down, he might never ask me again." How sad, but true! When I was a new dancer, a few women said no, and then danced with other men, or insisted on finishing their conversation, or showed me quite clearly how much they would have enjoyed dancing with somebody else. (There is a lot of room for paranoia here.) This is an area where honesty does not pay. The folk dance princesses should remember that the beginning dancer of today might be the star of tomorrow. If a woman does not want to do a particular dance, she should not look available. If she is nevertheless asked, she should do the dance or indicate that she would enjoy doing another dance with that man at another time.
In most groups, there are a few women who seem to have everything going for them, yet oddly enough, are hardly ever asked to dance. They are perfect dancers, pronounce every dance name correctly, are very attractive and intelligent, wear the correct belts and opanci, etc. Many of these women usually end up dancing with other women. Why? One reason is that some men feel that most men are not good enough for them. I am not convinced that all of these women would actually enjoy dancing with inferior partners. To show that they are not snobs, these women are excellent candidates to ask men to dance with them. If a man is asked to dance, he cannot be regarded as too inferior a dancer.
5. SINGLE STATUS AND SEX
This is relatively unimportant. Folk dancing resembles a social club more than a singles bar (in spite of all those nasty scandals). Only a few man deliberately single out available women with the aim of procuring partners for after-the-dance; most of these men do not last long at folk dancing. Oh yes, single dancers want to meet other single dancers and often do succeed, but most long-time dancers value dancing and general friendship very highly and this often leads to romantic involvement.
It might be argued that women with husbands or boyfriends on the dance floor have fewer wallflower problems. This is often not true. Some men dance a lot with their wives or girlfriends, some do not. This is likely to depend on the nature of the relationship and the other points discussed in this article.
Subconsciously, men may associate certain women with certain dances. Although a man may dance with ten different women in one evening, he may always do the Hambo, for example, with the same partner. This magnifies the wallflower phenomenon. It also points toward a solution; once a woman has enjoyed a dance with a particular person, he may ask her again the next time. People have incredibly good subconscious memories when it comes to remembering fun partners.
7. SIZE AND WEIGHT
Very tall, short, or heavy dancers may be less popular as dancing partners. The fact that size and weight discrepancies make dancing harder is only a partial reason. As far as dancing is concerned, size and weight differences need not be a problem. Some of the best folk dancers do not share the average weight or height and it never leads to problems. They just have to be better dancers (and often are!). A heavy woman, for example, has to be fast and light on her feet, especially during the turns. It is easier for a man to pull a light or agile woman through a new dance.
One could write a lot about the different centers of gravity for different weight combinations and could give advice on how to change one's dancing to compensate for those of different centers of gravity. Yet, with some experience, those compensations are made automatically by the person with the unusual weight or height.
Times have changed. It is now accepted by many that a woman can ask a man to dance. But an important fact needs to be remembered: many men still prefer to do the asking themselves and somewhat resent being asked. If one prefers to avoid asking men who do not want to be asked, one might consider asking only men who are obviously looking for a partner or at least waiting until the dance has started. The new freedom to ask a man to dance, however, can be of immense benefit to the wallflower. She can demonstrate how much fun she is to dance with. The next time she might get asked first.
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folkdance Life, Vol 2, No 2, Winter 1977