I’ve danced a lot in the last five years, and I’ve danced in a lot of different places. I’m making a note right now that I’m writing a blog post in a coffee shop in the Pearl district, and my pants are cuffed and I feel generally ridiculous. I’ve danced a lot in the last few years, and I’ve danced in a lot of places. I’m not going to go through my resume, but I’ve danced in Seattle, Portland, Durham, Washington DC, Missoula, Utah (Southern Utah University…wherever that is), and, of course, Idaho. In each of those places, I was in different studios with different groups of people in different classes with different expectations. In general, though, most of the dancers have been courteous and knowledgeable about classroom etiquette.

I hadn’t thought about it too much until last year, but there is a lot of unspoken dance etiquette that might not be immediately obvious to an outsider. It explains why the vibe in beginning dance classes is vastly different from advanced ones. It’s something that you acquire young and eventually perpetuate through your own career. I’m not talking about the types of rules that are found on college dance class syllabi or maybe on a studio’s website – these are the obvious ones. Don’t chew gum, don’t bring food into the studio, follow the dress code, don’t be late.

A lot of these obvious rules relax when you get older. You can let down your bun and wear yoga pants to ballet. You can stuff half a granola bar in your mouth, off in the corner, between combinations. If you know the class well and are quiet, you can slip in late and continue as though you’d be there the entire time.

But there are a lot of other things.

Tardiness isn’t uncommon in dance classes. Studios and universities try to instill us with the discipline to show up to class on time, warm and ready to go like professionals. But then life gets in the way when you graduate. Maybe you get off work at five and class starts at five and you’d rather miss the first ten minutes than not go at all.

If you announce loudly how sorry you are for your tardiness, and then walk through the moving bodies to get to a comfortable position, though, thaaaaaat’s where you might get the sideways glares or an accidental foot to the face. It’s polite, if you’re near the edges of the room, and you see someone coming in late, to move over a little so they can slip in. That’s good dance etiquette. The class is not a stagnant being; it is a living, moving organism, and its students should be willing to shift and slide as the circumstances demand.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a dancer who hasn’t been kicked or hit, stepped on or rolled on or flipped over or thrown or dropped in some accidental way. The physicality of dance makes it hard to be mistake free. When you’re moving with bodies, sometimes they will come in contact. Sometimes it will be a beautiful moment of contact improvisation, but other times it’s a violent incident unwanted on both ends. This sounds so hardcore, right…?

I’ve kicked people in the head, I’ve been kicked in the head, and we all survived. I’ve knocked feet with someone doing some floor spins in a sort of ankle high five, the sound of which was more cringe worthy than the actual pain. When it happens during rehearsal, it’s a different circumstance than when it happens in class. In rehearsal, you’re all used to one another and when you’re experimenting with the movement and the spacing, shit happens. I did kick a friend in the head during a piece my junior year of college. I remember it vividly. Probably better than she does, because I kicked her in the head and she got a concussion and had to sit out of classes for a few days – it happened because another dancer wasn’t as far downstage as I was expecting, and my path was cut short and I wasn’t moving as far back as I ought to have. I wacked her pretty hard as I turned a corner and didn’t notice. I realized the audience’s horror before the hollow, thudding pain in my foot started.

She’s fine, by the way, and auditioning for shows and still dancing. Go Sarah!

The Ark - at Duke University
The Ark – at Duke University

I was kicked in the head at American Dance Festival more than once, but most severely during the John Jaspers audition. Dancing in the infamous ark was a spiritual experience because of the heat and the close quarters, but I was so jarred that I felt off for the rest of the day. My cheekbones were fragile for the next three months and putting any sort of pressure on them, like to wash my face, was painful. The universe repaid me, I suppose.

As far as class etiquette goes: A competent dancer will not only travel with the group, but can maneuver his or her body to stay spaced in such a way that they don’t hit anyone else while traveling. This can mean not using a full extension, not traveling so much, or traveling on a slightly different trajectory then your fellow students. As someone who has been told they have long legs, sometimes I’m capable of covering great distances with them. When there’s someone less mobile or less experienced in front of me, obscuring my path, I generally just go around them in a predictable manner. Swerving doesn’t help anyone. It’s sort of like driving – you should always be predictable. Looking where you’re going not only helps you, but other dancers too.

While it is your fault if you hit someone, you should also accept responsibility for getting hit in some circumstances, and problems arise when people get offended at being hit. It’s understandable, of course, when someone gets a concussion or an injury, to be upset, to hobble off of the dance floor and curse and be upset. But shooting dirty looks at the person who hit you isn’t the classy or graceful thing to do. Maybe you should have been traveling more, or keeping track of your own spacing. This isn’t a statement intended to blame the victim, it’s merely another affirmation of the fact that the class is a moving organism and you and another person got caught up in the wrong space.

Non-violent, but still accidental, touch happens as well. There are a lot of situations where bodies will make light contact, maybe a toe brushing a leg or something like that. It happens. My head gets tapped in Tracy’s class all the time while in our Horton T’s, because that classroom is packed and week after week we end up facing the mirror en face instead of angling slightly (because we want to see ourselves and our beautiful lines). During floor work warm ups, when in the modern dance X, fingers will brush toes (especially in this position, where it’s hard to see where the bodies are without raising your head and compromising your line/head-tail connection). These moments of contact are our little reminders that we are not alone in the room and that we are only part of the ephemera taking place, and we just had a little moment with another human being.

See that wingspan? It's small compared to a lot of dancers. Be careful.
See that wingspan? It’s small compared to a lot of dancers. Be careful.

There are some open classes where beginning students are with advanced and professional dancers. I’m a big proponent of taking class a level up from where you think you are. But if you’re a beginner, no matter how far behind or overwhelmed you feel, standing stationary in the center of the group during a combination while the rest of the class moves will not help you. The living and breathing organism that is class has no room for complete stagnation. If it is a combination that travels, and you just stand there in the middle of traffic, you will get hit. This also applies to cars.

If you don’t understand the combination, that’s totally fine! If we stopped trying anything as soon as we stopped understanding, nobody would be anywhere with anything. But go to the back of the class. There’s no shame there, and there’s nothing wrong with the back. I’ll move to the back if I can’t stop myself from making eye contact with myself in the mirror – I am easily distractible. I’ll move to the back if I want to change my spacing or energy, or if I want to watch someone else move.

The unspoken class etiquette demands, and rightfully so, that If the people all around you are moving, at least try to move with them even if you don’t get all the little intricacies of the movement. It’s rude to the dancers around you, and you will get hit and it will be your own fault. It’s like running into oncoming traffic. I have gotten very close to dancers who do this, and I do it on purpose because it bothers me so much. If I feel like I can control my body well, I will get very close to them as per the combination allows, until they move. One of my professors would tell our class to dance closer together. You are never alone in the class, and I’ve kept this in mind. Sometimes it’s a good way to catch the timing and energy of your peers, and sometimes it’s a little reminder to the next person to keep on going.

I’ll write more about class etiquette in other posts. I’m no beacon of perfect manners in any situation, but I do notice that, when describing dance situations to non-dancers, they lack an understanding about the context. Context always matters, and the dance world and its etiquette have set up a context not immediately understandable or relatable to outsiders. I wish people on crowded buses and subways understood this sort of thing, because some impromptu contact improve can be helpful when trying to get off a crowded subway car (thanks for the lesson, rush-hour on the red line in Washington DC).

Class of the day: Wednesday – Contemporary with Rachel at NWDP

Thursday – Contemporary with Rachel at Bodyvox