Occasionally, while talking about the etiquette of asking people to dance at contra dances, someone voices the opinion that if someone asks you for a dance and you turn them down, you’re obliged to sit out that dance (e.g. 1, 2).
And, I’m sorry, what? How do people still think this is a good idea?
Let’s start with how broken the partner-finding model already is in contra. At many dances it’s Just Not Done for women to ask men to dance. And even where it is Done, it’s an exception to the rule, so there’s almost as much of a hunter/hunted dynamic going on. Many of my women friends worry that people will “read too much into it” if they ask a man to dance. This sucks for everyone for obvious reasons: women don’t get to choose who they dance with and men are constantly competing.
Now consider the effect of the “if you refuse a dance, you must sit out” rule. The parties being asked are nearly always women, so the burden of the “rule” falls on them. This is pretty terrible for a couple reasons:
Women already have much less say in who they dance with, and this essentially obliterates any remaining choice. You dance with the first person who asks you or not at all.
Lack of partner choice hurts women more than men. Contra is a very welcoming community, which is great except that it means that most dances have at least a couple “creepy old guys” (or not-so-old guys). Even without this rule I’ve known women feel uncomfortable refusing to dance with them and this turning them off contra entirely. This kind of regressive “rule” makes the situation even worse.
You might argue that this rule exists to encourage people to be inclusive. Some forms of refusing dances can be damaging to the community; for instance, cliques of experienced dancers who only dance with each other can make a dance unwelcoming to newbies.
However, this seems to happen even without people explicitly refusing to dance with newbies when asked (hi Concord!). So the norm of “dance or sit out” does unintentional damage to the contra community (by forcing women to dance with people who make them uncomfortable, or sit out when they want to dance), and doesn’t prevent the damage it’s “intended” to (exclusive cliques can still form): a clear failure. The right way to discourage anti-social behavior like refusing newbies, is to have social norms that reward dancing with newbies, not roundabout rules that miss their target entirely.
So much for that reason, then. I’m guessing the real reason the dance-or-sit-out norm still exists is to protect people’s egos. But in practice, as someone who would almost always be on the wrong side of being refused, that’s a fruitless goal. I can tell if someone would rather not be dancing with me. If they’re forced to because of silly etiquette, they won’t have fun, and so I won’t have fun either! In fact, it’ll be much less fun than just getting rejected, which is something everyone should learn how to deal with anyway!
So, dancers, please: if you don’t want to dance with someone, you can refuse! Drag our social mores out of the depths of the nineteenth century and into the daylight of 2013!