Dealing with Problem Guys in dance classes

If you’ve ever done a lindy hop class ever, chances are you’ve come across a Problem Guy. Problem Guys are just that – problems. They interrupt the teachers. They talk while the teachers are talking. They instruct the follows in class (usually incorrectly) and they just. won’t. shut. up. They often move themselves up class levels before they’re ready. They quite often pull out lifts and other inappropriate shit on the social floor with follows who are too shy to tell them to fuck off.
They also tend to be a bit socially awkward, but not in a charming way, so men find them a bit difficult to hang about with as well. They may touch women more than they’d like (even if it’s not sexualised touch), and they’re usually not the best dancers. Sometimes they are nice people, but just totally socially clueless ones. I’d argue that it’s not possible to be entirely socially clueless and nice. Social skills are part of what make people ‘nice’, or make us feel that they’re nice. Which is why the Problem Guy is often invisible to many men – those men just aren’t on the receiving end of a lot of the Problem Guy behaviour.

There are also Problem Girls, but that is not what this post is about. I want to talk about how masculinity works in this context. We spend a lot of time policing women’s bodies and behaviour, even in feminist discourse, so I want to talk about men and masculinity. I want to talk about masculinities in dance more in the future (I do want to get back to that point about ‘styling it like a man‘ eventually as well). So this is a post about Problem Guys.

So how do you deal with them? Wait, let me rephrase that. How do I deal with them? Before I ramble on, let me say: these are strategies I use, and they may not work for you, particularly if you’re not in Australia. Because intra-scene politics, gender politics and dance cultures are quite unique. But, well, fuck, maybe they will work for you – try them! And if you’ve got other strategies – please do let me know, as I’m determined to deal with this stuff!
Please note: I do not speak for my teaching partner. This is my understanding of what we do, and I know she has lots of different ideas. So this is me talking about my thinking, and I am NOT speaking for anyone else.

We’ve had a few Problem Guys this year, and we’ve dealt with them in different ways. At first, when we were just setting up our class venue and getting shit under control, we weren’t so confident in dealing with them. But as we got it together, we got it together. I think that as two women teaching together, we found our Problem Guy challenges were not the same as those faced by most male-female teaching couples. We had to be ten times more confident, and ten times more assertive. We had to deal with poor behaviour from Problem Guys much more aggressively, and we had to do lots more work in-class to prevent Problem Guys popping up.
But shit, we’re fucking guns, we can totally pwn that shit. And so can YOU.*

What do Problem Guys do, and what are the effects of this behaviour? Or, why should you give a shit about Problem Guys?

Problem Guys:

  • Question follows and ‘instruct them’ in the class: this makes follows anxious and self-doubting. That means these women won’t come back to class (who would?), or they stay and become more anxious and self-doubting, which is fucked up, and also fucks up their dancing;
  • Problem Guy behaviour in class sets the stage for later stuff on the social dance floor or in comps where the lead can get away with mistreating the follow (rough leading, aerials without consent, etc).
  • Problem Guy behaviour towards women disempowers women dancers right from the get-go (by making them question their own dancing). This makes them quiet timid dancers, and it also means they don’t feel ok with properly expressing themselves. And this is lindy hop – that’s not how we roll – we do all the emotions!
  • Problem Guys distract women from the teachers, and this undoes the teachers’ authority, and this in turn means the class flow is disrupted. This makes for poorer learning, but it can also make for clunky, boring classes or classes with fucked up social dynamics.
  • Problem Guys often make loud, inappropriate jokes that are often a bit sexy, while the teacher is talking. These jokes are usually at the expense of the female teacher (so they may make some comment about how the lead can’t put their hand there because omgsexy, or they may joke about how the lead has to be assertive because women don’t like being told what to do.) Conversely, they may make self-depreciating jokes about how men can’t multi-task and need a woman to do that for them. Whatever it is they’re joking about, those jokes demand you respond and interact with them, and this makes them the centre of attention and distracts everyone.
  • Problem Guys clearly think they are as important or know as much as the teachers – they don’t listen to the teachers, they talk over the teachers, they instruct the students as teachers do.
  • Finally, Problem Guys take up far more than their fair share of time in class. This means poorer learning outcomes for everyone else, and a fucked up social dynamic, where everything revolves around one person, rather than around everyone else. It discourages other people from speaking up in class (because they are often interrupted or pre-empted), and it sets a bad example for other Problem Guys. Problem Guys breed more Problem Guys.

So what does all this mean? There are clear financial challenges posed by Problem Guys: they scare off students and that loses you money. There are pedagogic problems: they interrupt the teaching and learning. And there are occasionally more serious issues, where Problem Guys bully teachers and other students in a physical sense, and make them feel afraid.

So how does all this work culturally, or in terms of interpersonal politics?

Firstly, let’s note that this behaviour by Problem Guy is really quite acceptable by mainstream Australian social standards. We see this sort of behaviour in talk-back radio, on the Footy Show and in television drama. I think this is often very white, straight Australian man phenomena: they are playing out hegemonic masculinity, and our culture encourages that sort of behaviour from men. There is also a congruent dominant femininity that’s required to make this sort of masculinity work: women must be compliant, passive, sexual objects, non-confrontational ears for these men’s words. And as most of us know, it’s quite easy to make your lindy hop reflect those roles. If you’re into terrible lindy hop.

Secondly, if you’re a guy who’s not into being a problem, or a sister who doesn’t want to be an object, our culture makes it really difficult for you to get along in mainstream spaces. If you’re a guy who loves to dance with huge, flamboyant abandon, you’re not going to get a terribly positive reception in some jock straight guy bar. If you like listening to women and enjoy their company without trying to screw them, or their wearing sexytime dresses, you’re not going to feel hugely ok in a mainstream singles scene. You’re going to need to seek out alternative spaces. Lindy hop scenes can be those spaces. But those spaces need to be nurtured.

When Problem Guys come across women performing the non-traditional femininity or men performing the non-hegemonic masculinity, they tend to want to reassert the dominance of conventional gender relations. In other words, they don’t like this non-traditional stuff, so they try to fix it. Or they take advantage of what they perceive (even on an unconscious level) as a power vacuum, because they don’t recognise the other, more complex power dynamics at work in spaces with multiple types of gender going on.

So, the Problem Guy functions in three ways:

  • They disempower the women students in the class;
  • They deconstruct the power of the teachers (especially the women teachers);
  • They re-construct their own power and status in class.

This is all bad because it means we end up with frightened women dancers who have no confidence, who apologise all the time, and don’t want to express themselves or take creative risks with their dancing because #shame.
This is all bad because we end up with disorganised, malfunctioning classes where learning is interrupted or stalls completely (and students get shitty).
This is all bad because we see unpleasant people dominate what could be a very pleasant space.
All this means students leave, money stops coming in, and teachers get really frustrated and unhappy. Bad news.

Why do Problem Guys do all these things?

  • These types of men find it difficult to be students and accept the (perceived) lower status of students in a class (this is often a problem in a class that emphasises hierarchies instead of valuing students as peers);
  • They compensate by finding other ways to shore up their own status and power (to make themselves feel good): by instructing other students; by assuming they’re right all the time; by not interrogating their own assumptions about their dancing; by constantly interrupting the teachers with jokes or comments;
  • They see knowledge as a list of possessions to acquire, rather than as an ongoing, changing process;
  • They’re not challenged by teachers in class (who don’t want to cause a scene, who don’t know it’s happening, who don’t like conflict), so they’re effectively getting positive reinforcement for their behaviour.

Things we know about Problem Guys:

  • These men are often not such great dancers;
  • They don’t improve (they tend to stagnate), because they don’t accept instruction, they refuse to accept that they’re not great (they often say things like “this is just my style” or “I don’t like X’s style, I like Y’s style which I learnt years ago”, or “I don’t care about that stuff – I just want to have fun”). These men often perceive themselves as among ‘the best’ in a scene, or not having anything left to learn, or their teachers as not having anything to teach them. Because they are often quite ignorant of broader cultural and social forces, and of the nuances of partnering technique, they feel that because they’ve done all the classes or been dancing for X number of years they’re ‘finished’ with learning;
  • They see teaching, learning and dancing as hierarchal, and this hierarchy as static (ie it’s not changing). This means that they tend to assume once you’re a ‘good dancer’ you stay a good dancer, or that men are better leads than women or that there are certain ‘right’ ways of doing things;
  • They aren’t constructively self-reflexive (they can’t and don’t reflect on their own dancing in a constructive way, but they are often quite hard on themselves and inside have quite low self esteem, despite their blustering);
  • They and their behaviour is often challenged by other students in class and on the dance floor, but then these challengers avoid them (or are avoided), and the Problem Guy just dismisses these challenges as ‘bitchiness’ or ‘too serious’ or ‘stupid';
  • These men then target younger/more vulnerable women to dance with/instruct on the social floor/bully. Because these women won’t challenge them on their behaviour and are more likely to let Problem Guys do as they want. These women often just leave dancing altogether rather than confront these guys, or they tolerate it, because they have their own issues going on.

These issues are important because they establish power dynamics that persist into a dancer’s dancing career.
These conditions enable sexual harassment (where women are encouraged to think it’s ok for men to comment on their physical person and what they do with it); they isolate women dancers and prevent them from seeking support from other women (because they’re only dancing with men).

There’s this expression: ‘threatened people respond with fight or flight, with aggression or avoidance’. Teachers and other students do the same with Problem Guys: they confront or they avoid. Most of us avoid, because confrontation isn’t something Australians do a lot of, because women tend to deal with anti-social behaviour obliquely rather than directly, and because we’re there to dance, not work. I suggest that we needn’t think of this as fight or flight. As a dear and very clever friend of mine said when I was worrying about talking to a male dancer about a Serious Dance Issue: it’s not a confrontation yet. It’s just a conversation.

What do Problem Guys need? My first response is ‘a kick up the pants and told to fuck off’. Because I am NOT here to correct this shit. Part of feminism, for me, is about not taking responsibility for men’s behaviour. I won’t accept that a man sexually harassing me is my fault because I wore a low cut blouse, and I certainly won’t accept that a Problem Guy is a problem in my scene because I wasn’t a good enough teacher.**

[related rant]
I’d also add that we need to STOP promoting our dance as ‘a return to simpler times where men were men and women were women’, because that shit attracts Problem Guys to classes in the first place. And we need to work really hard to prevent journalists writing that shit about lindy hop when they do those regular ‘what is swing?!’ human interest pieces in the local press. So we need to think carefully about how we brand lindy hop when we’re doing our promotional activities.
[/]

BUT
As a community, we need to deal with this rubbish internally, to make our scenes safer, happier places. Or even just to improve the standard of dancing in our scene, or make our classes more financially sustainable. I’ve also found that practicing these skills in a dance context, where I learn how to deal with Problem Guys in a familiar environment, is excellent practice for the rest of my life. The more experience I have dealing with this shit here, the more confident I become. These are just very useful life skills. So, you see, lindy hop and jazz dance can fight the patriarchy off the dance floor as well!

What do Problem Guys need?

  • They need assertive teaching from teachers (but this sucks as this means they get more than their fare share of attention from teachers);
  • They need to be challenged by teachers, but in a non-confrontational way;
  • They need to stop teaching others and start challenging their own dancing (which they are unlikely to do because it is scary and threatening) so they can rethink their role in our scene.

What do we actually do?
First, and most unsubtle option: confront them. Confronting students in class can be unsettling and difficult for everyone involved – teachers, Problem Guys and students. So you need to have a clear, well-thought out strategy. Both teachers need to be on the same page and supporting each other. And there needs to be a minimum of conflict. Everyone involved needs to save face, the rest of the students need to not feel embarrassed, and everyone needs to feel safe.

  • Make a script for the conversation (remember, it’s not a confrontation yet – it’s a conversation). Both teachers talk about it and know what will happen.
  • Be very clear in your own mind, and with your teaching partner, about what you want. Do you want the Problem Guy to go away and never come back? It’s ok to want this – some guys who come to dance classes are creepy, unpleasant pervs and bullies. Get rid of them. You’re not the right person to ‘change’ them, and having them in your class will scare away students. Do you want them to stop talking while you’re talking? To stop instructing the follows? Make a list, and then make these into clear, concrete requests. So rather than saying “Stop hassling the follows” say “Stop telling the follows what to do.” Keep it brief. One or three points is enough.
  • Plan out the role for both teachers for the confrontation/conversation. It’s often best to have the male teacher or lead teacher (whoever the Problem Guy will perceive as ‘most important’ – this will almost always be the guy) do the most talking, and for the other teacher to stand right there with them, clearly supporting them.
    We’ve made these sorts of plans for our class, and allocated roles according to our personalities. I’m ok with actually saying these things (though I can get pretty scared, I can do it if I know someone has my back), but my partner is not. So I do the actual speaking and my partner does the ‘moving right along’ part, where we immediately get back into the class content afterwards: I stop the group, tell the Problem Guy to stop doing whatever he’s doing, then my partner starts us off again. It’s a well-oiled process. You might like to both speak, taking turns listing requests. Or you might gradually change things up in your approach, as you develop skills, confidence and inclination. Whatever you do, make a plan first. And practice saying your script out loud. That way you’ll be cooler when you put it into play.
  • Decide where you’re going to do this talking. In front of a class is very powerful and very effective, but it can be a challenge. It’s a public forum that can make some Problem Guys extra aggressive because they’re embarrassed. And many women dealing with this sort of aggression will immediately back off.
    Margaret Atwood puts it like this: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It’s not likely that a Problem Guy will physically attack you in class, but aggression can take other forms. No one wants to have some nutcase shouting at them in front of a class. But then some Problem Guys are far more aggressive and confrontational in private spaces, where they think they can bully and intimidate you.
    So judge your Problem Guy carefully, then choose an appropriate forum. Don’t do it in a dark car park. Maybe do it in a quieter part of the room, in sight of the group, but mostly out of ear shot. Don’t feel that you have to do it on your own to help him save face. Your teaching partner is your wing (wo)man, and you are a team. Present that way. And remember that almost all of your students will support your decision to confront Problem Guy and really appreciate your doing so.
  • Practice delivering the script with your teaching partner.
  • Finally, it’s always better to nip this stuff in the bud, and make it clear to potential Problem Guys that you are the bosses here, long before a real conflict develops. After all, the longer you let Problem Guy shit you and your class off, the more students he drives away. And the more upset you’ll get. So get in there sooner rather than later. You’ll find that thinking about Problem Guy is far more upsetting than the five seconds it’ll take to shut his shit down.

Other strategies:
As two women teaching together, we have found that some men simply don’t respect us or listen even when we address them individually. I’ve had similar experiences teaching in universities, a problem exacerbated by the face that I’ve always looked about ten years younger than I am.
So I have a range of strategies for managing Problem Guys in class: I stop talking and stare at them. I stand very close to them in class. And I even walk over and place my hand on their shoulder if they just. won’t. shut. the. fuck. up. Some guys don’t even respond to that. So, even if you do have a whole host of clever classroom management tools going on, you will find yourself needing to confront Problem Guys at some point. Yeah, I know. That’s sucktown. Why can’t they just GET IT TOGETHER? But you can do this. You can confront Problem Guys calmly, professionally and effectively. You’ve just got to trust yourself, and prepare yourself. Or: check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Other things that we do to counter the lack of respect Problem Guys have for women teachers:

  • We pitch our voices lower. Not so good for our vocal chords, but surprisingly effective.
  • Don’t accept the premise of the question, don’t argue, don’t get caught up in some crazy arse conversation mid-class. If someone’s asking you to explain what you’re doing for the eleventieth time say (kindly) “Sorry, but no, we can’t go over that again.” Don’t be all apologetic about it – just move on. If someone tries to get you into a discussion or argument, don’t buy into the content of their point, just say “We don’t have time for that now – let’s do some charleston!” and move along.
  • If Problem Guys try to physically intimidate you (and I’ve seen this happen lots of times, even to women teaching with men), shut that shit down. If men want to touch you in class (and the ‘jokey teasing’ prodding or touching is part of this) turn and say to their face “That is not ok. Stop that or leave.” This goes for students, too.
    There’s a good chance they’ll respond with “Geez, uptight bitch, much?” or “Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m so awful, I always do this, I’m so sorry! Can you forgive me?” Both these responses are about keeping them as the centre of attention, and making you respond to them. And you know what? Who cares what they say! That is not your problem. Just walk your fine self away. Do not apologise, do not try to make them feel better.
    This is when your teaching partner rocks: they just immediately move the class on to something else, preferably something quite physically vigorous. The people around you will be so impressed, and the women around you will immediately develop a massive hero crush. Be mighty, because you ARE.
  • Students, in class: if some guy won’t stop putting his hands on you, even if it seems not-sexy, and you don’t like it, tell them “Stop that”, and make sure the teacher or someone else is standing right next to you. If you can’t make that happen in earshot of someone else (these guys usually make sure no one else is around), you can just say it really loudly, at some other point. Say it in a slightly lower pitched voice, say it calmly, and not too quickly: ” STOP THAT.” Other students or your teachers will hear and be right there for you. You don’t have to wait till they touch you – just say it: “STOP TOUCHING ME.”
    If they’re doing it in a less obvious way (eg their hand on your back gets too low or too far to the side, or they stroke your hand in a creepy way) immediately call the teacher over or ask a question to the whole group: “I’m feeling some weird stuff with the back/hand connection. Can you come and help us fix it, please?” A clued-in teacher will come over, see what you’re doing, and then give the lead feed-back. If the lead keeps doing it, tell him how you do want him to touch you, and that what he’s doing is actually kind of creepy. But say it in a joke way that also sounds serious. Pitching this feedback can be tricky, so practice!
    All this goes for guys dealing with women as well.
  • Don’t let Problem Guys buy you drinks or be continually holding doors open for you as you pass through, or ‘helping’ you with your things. That’s their way of asserting their dominance. Sure, it’s great to be bought a drink by students every now and then, and of course we open doors for each other all the time. But some Problem Guys do this all the time and it’s clearly their way of asserting ‘proper’ gender relations. Don’t let them.
    It’s ok to say “No thank you!” to offers of a drink. And if they just buy you a drink regardless, turn to their face and say “No thank you, I don’t want a drink”. Don’t just ignore it, because then they’ll comment on it forever.
    In fact, you’ll often find these types of Problem Guys will not let your objection or comment rest. They’ll make comment after comment, usually along the lines of “Are you some sort of feminist?” (to which the answer is “yes” and then a turned shoulder). These sorts of guys tend to be cowardly bullies – they’ll try to publicly manage you. But be careful of them in private – don’t let them drive you home or walk you to their car or to the train. Make sure you’re not alone.

    If you’re not sure you can do this (because it feels like a confrontation, and we women are trained to be a bit afraid of confrontation), practice at home. Write a script. And tell your friends that you plan on telling this guy to stop, and tell them what you want them to do. Even if that’s to just stand there next to you, or smile and move the conversation along after you’ve said NO THANK YOU (the wing (wo)man factor again!) After a while you’ll get better at this, and you won’t need a script any more.

    I know quite a lot of women worry that if they do this sort of thing, other men (the ones they want to buy them drinks or talk to them or touch them :D ) will think they’re bitches and back off. That is so UNTRUE. If you don’t make it clear that you don’t like this sort of behaviour from Problem Guys, you’ll attract more Problem Guys. But if you make it clear that you don’t like this, you’ll find that guys who don’t treat women like that will get the ‘oh, she likes respectful guys’ vibe from you. Plus you’ll have cleared the field of Problem Guys, so that the guys you want will feel there’s room for them.
    All of this thinking is kind of bad news, though. It sets you up as an object to be admire by men – a flower attracting bees. And that’s no good. You want to BE a bee!
    If you stop worrying about attracting men, if you feel ok about dealing with Problem Guys, and focus on having fun and enjoying the company of friends (of all sexes), you’ll be feeling so awesome you’ll be able to rock in and dazzle the guy of your dreams with your pwr and he’ll be all ‘omg I would LOVE to be your boyfriend!’ WIN!

Now, if you’re a guy reading this and thinking “Gee, overreact much?” you’ve obviously never spoken to a woman. This is what it’s like to be a woman in our culture every single day. We just get used to dealing with this shit every. single. day. Every day some arsehole is telling us to ‘smile!’ or making a joke about how we need help carrying things or making an excuse to touch us in a public place, or looking us up and down or whatever.
When we become teachers, Problem Guys find having us in positions of authority really threatening, so they try to assert their own power by wearing us down. So this sort of shit actually escalates when we move into more interesting roles. It’s very tiring.****

But we don’t need men to step in and deal with this for us. In fact, that can make it worse, as it reinforces Problem Guys’ and potential Problem Guys’ idea that we aren’t as powerful as men. If you’re a guy in the class seeing Problem Guy being an arse, then you can deal with these guys in other ways. One of our students once saw Problem Guy getting told to stop talking with the stare-face, and responded with a loud “Busted!” and a big laugh. It was very jolly, we all laughed, but it made it clear to Problem Guy that other people were watching and that this shit is not ok.
It’s also totally ok for you (as a guy) to say to Problem Guy on his own or even in class in front of people “Mate, can you stop talking during class? It’s really distracting.” It’s ok for you to calmly and politely tell someone you don’t like how their behaviour is affecting you.

In fact, men telling other men that they don’t accept bullshit behaviour is a key part of making the world more awesome, and of my idea of feminism. Feminism isn’t just a job for women: it’s a job for all of us, because it’s about improving things for all of us. Even Problem Guy benefits from feminism, because it means he can chill the fuck out, stop beating himself up about not being alpha male, and just get on with learning to DANCE.

How else do we indirectly manage Problem Guys, or prevent Problem Guys?

  • Make leads (rather than follows) rotate in class. Or switch it up every other class. Rotating is unsettling, and it makes dancers have to constantly reorient themselves in the physical room. This can make leads more defensive, but it’ll also make follows more confident.
  • Use gender neutral language ALL THE TIME. The more you unsettle assumptions about leading and following and the way dancers interact, the more you discourage dodgy in-class behaviour. This is a tiny, but super-powerful tool.
  • Avoid describing leading and following as “Leads/men make the follow do this,” or right/wrong language that implies there’s only one right way of doing things. For a start, you’re wrong, and for a finish, you’re modeling poor behaviour and furnishing students with fairly crap learning tools.
  • Talk about the class room as a laboratory or place for experimenting, and encourage dancers to think about classes not as a place where you ‘acquire’ knowledge (like collecting stamps), but a place where you develop skills and explore ideas.
  • Don’t describe things as ‘rules’ or set out absolute definitions for ways of doing things. eg never say “We must always hold our arms like this,” say “If we hold our arms like this at this point, we can avoid this and make this possible. What happens if we do X instead?” And then get students to test the theory with some practice.
  • If you have leveled or streamed classes, police that shit. You need a way to tell students they’re not allowed to join the more advanced class, you need a way to tell people who’ve turned up anyway that they can’t join in, and you need a clear idea of what your levels mean. You need to publicise what’s expected of students in the more challenging classes, and you need to make it damned clear that there’s nothing wrong with doing the ‘lower’ level classes. Perhaps you need to ditch this whole concept of ‘low’ and ‘high’ and talk about these classes as teaching different material in different ways.
  • Monitor class behaviour. Pay attention to what’s happening in the room. Listen. Watch. Ask questions. And give students honest, useful feedback about their dancing that at once makes them feel awesome, and also encourages them to work hard and be self-reflexive. If you get Problem Guys in your lower classes who ignore you, boss the follows about and generally give you the shits, while still not actually doing what you need them to do in terms of dancing, you need to correct them! Let them know that that thing they just told the follow to do was wrong town. Let them know that they’re not being safe, that they’re being too rough or whatever it is. Feedback, yo – that’s what teaching’s all about! You need to move away from the idea that teachers just inject knowledge into students. It’s a process, and you need to be pro-active and self-reflexive too.
  • Model good behaviour.
  • Both the lead and follow teacher must spend equal time talking in class.
  • Lead teachers: are you interrupting the follow teacher? If you are – STOP IT. If you do – apologise, and then don’t do it again! It shows the students that you don’t think what your partner is saying is worth listening to, and it establishes you as the boss with the more important things to say.
  • Lead teachers: do you respond to your partner’s explanation of a point by paraphrasing what they say? Stop that, too. This is a tricky one, as one of the ways we do active listening, and demonstrate to our conversational partners that we’re paying attention is to paraphrase what they’re saying. This tells them we’re listening, that we understand, and that we agree. I tend to do this A LOT, and I’ve noticed that it happens way more when I’m teaching with other women than with men – women do it more (though not exclusively). But it means your students have to listen to descriptions twice (if not more, if you both get into an affirmation-spiral), and that means way too much talking and not enough dancing. Bad news!
  • Lead teachers: do you describe what the follow teacher is doing, or does the follow teacher? If you speak for the follow teacher, you are again asserting your dominance and making it clear that the follow’s body (and what they do with it) only has meaning through its relationship to the lead. This is NOT TRUE. Follows are individual hoomans, and while they are working in response to the lead, the lead is also responding to the follow. Let the follow talk!
  • Follow teachers: are you giving the follows in the class something to work on every time you do a move? Or are you just letting the lead talk to the leads about what they’re doing? If follows aren’t given tasks for their learning, they’ll get complacent (“I just have to follow and if it doesn’t work, it’s the lead’s fault”) or become passive little flowers to be moved around by the lead. Bad news!
  • Do you only teach moves where the follow spins and spins or executes a series of complicated steps while the lead remains fairly stable or in one place? If so, you are DOING IT WRONG. You’re demonstrating a poor understanding of lindy hop, but you’re also modelling a poor partnering dynamic. The follows in the class will a) become better dancers, but b) feel constantly unsure or off-balance, while the leaders a) don’t get good skills and b) develop the idea that the lead stands still while the follow carries out their leads.
  • Use steps where both partners’ contributions are built in, and an essential part of the move (eg don’t do things like say “This is the follow’s moment to shine” as though it were a one-off or special occasion thing (“Dance monkey, dance!”)).
  • Finally, remember that lindy hop is a jazz dance, with lots of improvisation. Breaking rules is part of the dance. Experimentation, improvisation and making things up is central to the dance – for both partners!
    Encourage your students to explore the full range of movement in a move, and to try as many variations as possible. And then to give each other useful feedback, and to listen to each other’s feedback. This sort of self-reflexivity will encourage students to move away from the idea of knowledge as a shopping list of items, and towards lindy hop knowledge as a constantly changing experience and relationship with others.
  • Finally, most importantly, teach solo dance. Solo dance fucks up the partner dynamic and makes it impossible for the Problem Guy to boss women dancers around. It makes women dancers more confident, and it makes it clear to Problem Guys that they haven’t learnt everything. Most Problem Guys will immediately leave your class and never come back, because solo dancing scares the shit out of them. THIS IS A GOOD THING! Problem Guys have issews, and it’s not your job to fix them.

You’ll find that Problem Guys just don’t like all this hippy stuff. They like dance classes with hierarchies and rules and proper men. So just don’t be that sort of class. Don’t create an environment that encourages rubbish behaviour. And be self-reflexive yourself.

BUT

Be confident in yourselves as teachers as well!

Finally, and most importantly:
Cherish your students. This is an important one for me. Deal with Problem Guys for your students. That can be easier than standing up to Problem Guys for your own sake.

At the end of the day, that Problem Guy who gives you the stomach-wobbles when you think about teaching classes with him in them, is really just some socially inept bully with low self esteem. You are the boss of this class. Even if you set up a lovely hippy learning laboratory, it’s your job to direct the session, to facilitate learning. And the students are ok with that – that’s why they’re there with you. And you can do this. Just make a plan with your teaching partner, make a script, practice it, deliver it. Each time you do this, you’ll get better. You’ll get more confident. And eventually you won’t need to make a script or a plan, because you’ll HAVE one!

Be mighty in the classroom, friends, because you ARE.*

*You need to say these things to yourself, ok? It’s not arrogance or bragging. It’s just being HONEST. Because Problem Guys rely on you dissing yourself. Patriarchy is made of women’s self doubt. PWR to you, sisters!

**This issue reminds me a bit of Steve Locke’s piece ‘‘Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race’, where Locke – black American man – declines to speak to an audience about race because (basicaly) he is done with this shit. So done. And that it’s time for white men to get all up on this issue and do this work. The implication is that this is their problem, so they need to deal with it.

***Ok,now you need to remind yourself that you’re awesome. If you’re holding down a regular teaching gig, you must have some serious shit going on. You’re an administrator, a teacher, a teaching partner, you liaise with venues, you handle sound gear, you plan classes, you deal with political shit. You are THE BOMB. So hug that thought to yourself and BE AWESOME.

9 thoughts on “Dealing with Problem Guys in dance classes”

  1. I think this is one of the best and most important posts on this blog.

    I came to your class when I was passing through Sydney and I was thrilled to have such good teachers with such obvious skills. I was possibly also rather happy that a girl was teaching the lead role, but I don’t think it was even a big thing for me.

    Because of this experience, it has taken me a bit of effort to get my head around the idea that some people feel challenged/put off, etc by two women teaching. I think that’s an additional point that you sort of touch on: your students all want you to deal with problem guy. But many guys, as awesome as we try to be, do not see the extent of the problem, either for themselves, or for the teachers and scene as a whole.

    I have what I consider the good habit of trying to problem solve with partners when I’m in class. I do not talk when teachers are talking and I try to be a “peer in a learning environment” rather than “a know it all who is trying to teach people/criticize other dancers”. But sometimes that line is difficult to tread. I could opt for the safer route of shutting up, but I think it’s important that students be pro-active in helping each other learn, giving each other feedback, etc. and I hope that with practice I can improve at this.

    I also am going to be the loud mouth student making jokes. Hopefully never more at the expense of one gender over another (or even at the expense of any gender if at all possible). I think this is important because it breaks down some of the barriers between teachers and students. I believe this was the only thing I felt you could improve on: creating an environment where students feel they are allowed to participate – mostly by giving them room to make jokes and not being the sole entertainers.

    Now, think I stand by these values, but now understand better how there is a thin line between my actions being positive for the class, being negative because of enacting gender stereotypes and power games, and being negative because I take the choice away from the teachers as to how to run their class (which is what the other students in the class have paid for).

    With better understanding that you contribute to by writing these posts, I think many guys can and want to be a positive influence, though they may misguidedly be hindering your efforts.

  2. Hey, thanks Greg! I remember having you – nice to see you!

    So far as students’ responses to being taught by two women…
    When we set up our class, this was a big concern for me. But I’ve discovered that brand new students couldn’t give a shit. They’re too busy freaking out about how their legs work, or getting sweaty and giggling. When we do get male students (and occasionally female) who really can’t handle two women teaching together, they simply don’t come back. Which is fine, because students come to a class a) because they like the vibe/people/space, and then because they want to learn. I’ve noticed that teachers tend to attract students who share their values, sense of humour, and ideas. Which means that your students are ‘like’ you. Which means that we get a lot of women students, and most of the male students are the type who are totally ok with alpha chicks.

    I’ve been thinking about how to encourage and then manage students working together in classes. I think it’s a key part of more advanced classes, and I think brand new students need good ways to talk to each other and give feedback. But the dynamic of a class for brand new dancers is quite different to the dynamic of a more advanced class. Total noobs are really there to get a taste of the dance, rather than to do hardcore learning. The chatting and interaction (especially when students rotate partners) is mostly a sudden rush of dance squee, rather than a focussed discussion. And the way you pace the repetitions and drilling of steps in the class is different for total noobs.
    …I think that my lack of teaching experience is really holding me up here. Part of me wants to say that new dancers need more guidance and less self-guided learning. But then the part of me that has a brain is very uncomfortable with this idea. I guess I need more practice and experience before I can talk about this with confidence.

    I’m ok with students making jokes. I love jokes, and I think they can be a key part of a class flow. ‘Jokes’ can be a funny one liner, or they can be a funny turn of phrase, or a sight gag, or a well-timed pause. They lighten the mood, and they can be a useful way of taking ‘time out’ from a more serious bit of instruction.

    I’m also fascinated by the way jazz steps like pecks, cool-breeze-in-the-knees, itches and so on work as ‘jokes’ in a class. They’re deadly serious, they can be quite complex, and when we teach them, they’re always the most historically accurate and important steps we teach. But they’re also the ones that make students lol and lol, and that work as a very effective way of lightening the mood.

    We tend to slot them in as the last 8 of a phrase, as a full-stop for a more challenging step. The students are often working quite hard til they get to that point, and then the jazz step relaxes them and makes everything easier. I also find that the jazz step at the end of the phrase works to build tension during the ‘routine’, adding anticipation and expectation. Then the jazz step comes at the end, when the music is also making a full stop, and we all LOL and there’s a real climax and release.

    …I have to write more about this. It’s kind of related to some ideas I’ve had about choreography, performance structure and story telling in dance performance. And I think it’s an important part of teaching musicality and musical structure to students. A routine that recognises phrasing (ie 4 x 8 beat moves = 1 phrase, with a little break step or jazz step on the last 8 to emphasise the musical moment) is a very powerful teaching tool. If you do this every week, you don’t have to teach a special class on musicality, or even talk about musicality in a very specific way – it’s built into your classes. And the humour of a jazz step can be a very powerful rhythmic accent and also a powerful demonstration of the tensions between humour and pathos in jazz and blues music.

    But I think that there’s a time and a place for joking, mostly because joking can derail the learning. I’m cool with students doing it, in fact, I love it. But I’m never ok with offensive jokes (sexist, racist, nasty-minded, etc).
    I think you’re right on this this, as a specific task for my classes. I am a complete control freak, so letting things unravel out of my control is hard for me to do. I think it’s a balance, as well. Someone has to be in control of the class, keeping it on track, but you do have to allow for the unexpected and be prepared to change things up or embrace the chaos at times.

    And I think there’s a difference between being cheerfully awkward (which many of the blokes who come along to lindy hop classes are… as are many of the women … as are many hoomans :D ) and friendly and being…. inappropriate. And I think that this is the real limitation of writing about dance and social interaction: it’s really hard to articulate feelings and complex nonverbal interaction. I did do some spoken discourse analysis work years and years ago, but I certainly don’t know enough of the theory and critical tools to do this effectively.

    I’m assuming that we’re all taking it as a given that not all men are problems, right? I want to kick myself every time I get the urge to apologise or moderate my opinions like this. I should just be ok with making these sorts of arguments without qualifying them. We’re all sensible people, and the very bones of my argument are that not all men are the same, just as not all women are the same, and this is why feminism is important. But I can’t fight that urge to be less confrontational in my writing! When I wrote my PhD I had to go back through the entire 100 000 words and change the tone to be more assertive. Replace all the ‘It can be argued that…’ and ‘We could suggest, from this data, that…’ to ‘It is the case that…’ ‘This data clearly shows that…’.

    Fuck you, gendered conditioning. Fuck you for making me doubt myself.

  3. Thank you for this post DP. It took me a few goes in between dealing with toddler dramas to read it but so much is so true. I look forward to implementing this stuff should I have issues with my balboa class next term. Awesome post. Seriously awesome post.

  4. We should compare notes on teaching theory/ideas some time. As you say, beginners need different pacing, for a variety of reasons. They also can’t give particularly useful feedback, but giving good feedback is also a learning process.

    I like how the jokes tangent leads to the jazz movement part of your teaching – I still have trouble with the more cheesy movement like pecking, etc. it feels like slightly too much like quoting race/culture-specific movement (there are parallels to dancing like a fat or old person). Though of course the whole of that can be said of lindy, so I consider my position on these as being very much in flux – at some point I will accept the inevitable and cherish pecking, itching, etc.

    I was also interested in where it led wrt to musicality. My own experience colors my opinions very very strongly – and I worry that it’s not applicable to most people:

    Even now, after 7 years of dancing (only 2 of lindy though), playing and dancing to French and Irish traditional music, I hear most nuances of music in the musics I play, but am unable to find the 1 on many swing tunes. In spite of many hours of classes of being 5 6 7 8d in. Same with salsa where I was unable to find the 1 after 6 months of weekly classes. Tango is getting difficult because I don’t listen to enough tango (I listen to a lot of swing though) and the classes I’m taking don’t match movement enough with musical phrase – so I find myself fighting the music.

    Um my point got lost in there: basically, even choreography which is big on phrasing wouldn’t necessarily have helped me and I would have preferred some more obvious discussion of it.

    As an alternative point, a lot of the traditional music and dance I am familiar with plays a lot with phrasing across the “theoretical” structure. In one dance in particular, it’s understood that dancers will choose a phrasing which complements rather than matches the musician’s phrasing which, in turn will run across 8s. I suspect lindy can be like this (though again am very much in flux on the subject). So I’m not convinced that “giving” learners an (apparently) rigid structure of 3 8s of something, 1 8 of something else is all that useful. On the other hand, dancing something plainly unmusical won’t help either…

  5. Hey, good points, Greg. Yeah, I think there are definitely problems with using one way of organising class content for teaching just one way of thinking about music. We find it very effective, though, and very satisfying. We do that with our solo class too. Which was interesting the week we looked at the Jitterbug Stroll, which is 6x8s to a phrase (blues phrasing), so it turned out to be a really useful teaching tool. It meant that we could use blues phrased songs in the class (when we usually just use 32 bar chorus type songs for teaching to the 4×8 phrase).
    My goal would be to change all this up a bit eventually. But, to be honest, this is a beginners’ class, and it’s better to keep things simple, structurally, until you know what you’re doing. I have this feeling I’m going to be feeling frustrated with my lack of teaching skills forever. NEED MOAR LEARNZ.

    Kate:
    Does this stuff pop up in balboa very often? In my brainz, balboa is a wonderful world of mutual respect and excellent dancing, but I guess it has its own issues? I wonder how these things play out in Sweden – I’d say there’d be pretty different gender things going on there.

  6. When I spot someone teaching their partner in a lesson I’m teaching, I point it out to my partner, then call an immediate rotation. If the behaviour persists, I’ll walk over while I have music playing and give the problem student something to work on. Then I iterate the process until the problem goes away. I usually get my partner to do every other upgrade.

  7. We had this issue in a big way in class last night. One older guy would Not. Shut. Up. Nearly made another student quit, or go back to beginner, because she felt demoralised as I didn’t get to him to shut him the hell up quick enough. Most frustrating night of teaching in a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t come back now that I had a song-long discussion about how he wasn’t to do that anymore, with him arguing back about how it made her better.

    1. Oh, THIS is annoying.

      Let’s hope he never comes back: doods like that scare off students, so they’re not worth keeping.

      God I hate it when they argue back. It’s so disrespectful: who’s the teacher here, mate?!
      In future, I’d advise just stating it as a clear, calm, cheerful rule: ‘Don’t give your partners feedback mate,’ instead of ‘I don’t want you to give feedback’ or explaining anything. Just tell them.

      I’m actually a fan of doing it after class, when no one else is around. These guys relish one-on-one talk, so they like a special private talk. I don’t like doing it in front of the whole class as it makes everyone feel uncomfortable and harshes our mellow.
      If we do have to do in-class telling-off, my teaching partner and I have a plan: I do the confronting and telling off, she moves the class along to something else. So it might go:
      me: Ok, mate, you need to stop telling your partners what to do.
      or
      me: Rightio, no more questions, mate, got to let other people have a turn.

      Then my teaching partners says: Righto, let’s rotate partners.

      Rotating partners gets his last victim safely away. And then we go straight into something practical, because adrenaline washes away tension.

      We’ve had ANOTHER guy doing exactly the same thing in our classes. He actually drove away about 6 students in one week! And, while he’s only been dancing a couple of weeks, he invited himself to our level 2 class the first week, even though I specifically said to him “How long have you been dancing?” (he said ‘ages’), and “Are you doing level 2 anywhere else?” (he listed a whole bunch of places). Needless to say, he wasn’t up for it, he was disruptive, defensive, bullying and generally a big fat pain in the arse.

      I was just so irritated by it, after the class I just said to him, “Next week mate, it’s just solo and level 1 for you. You’re not ready for level 2 yet.” Oy oy oy. For the next ten minutes he tried to argue me into letting him do level 2. He went from annoyed to aggressive to pathetically martyred. My teaching partner subbed in to speak to him. And then I subbed back in and eventually said “Ok, I’m tired, and we’re not going to talk about this now. Next week you decide: only level 1 and solo, or you don’t come at all.”

      Eventually he left.

      And then he CAME BACK THE NEXT WEEK! WTAF?!

      I was so sure I’d scared him off. But in that second week he was so bullying with the follows I got really really angry. And I reckon, like your female student, he scared some off. So next week, before class, I’m going to tell him straight up:

      “[dood's name], last week you’ve been disrupting the class. Please do not give your partners any instruction or advice in class. Don’t tell them how to dance or what to do. If they ask you questions, redirect them to [my teaching partner] and I.
      When you instruct your partners in class, it makes them feel bad, and it’s rude because you’re talking while we’re talking.
      If you can’t follow this rule, then you can’t be in our classes tonight.”

      I won’t let him respond or interrupt. If he tries, I’ll hold up a hand and say “No. They’re the rules. We’re not discussing them. You must follow them, or you cannot be in this class.”
      And then I’ll walk away.

      Thinking about telling him this is making me nervous, but fark, it has to be done. He upsets the students and he upsets us.
      The part that irritates me most is that these guys are oblivious to how upsetting it is to the class and to us to have to deal with them. They’re just clueless.

      And, to be honest, I don’t want people who are that socially clueless in my scene. They’re the ones who cause endless problems. NOT WELCOME.

      This is why I get really shitty about comments like that recent one I comment below, telling me that the way to handle these guys is to give them _more_ attention. In giving this one difficult blokes special lectures, I’ve already given him more time than most of the students in my classes. I don’t think he’s a bad person, but fuck, he’s certainly tactless, rude, disrespectful and unpleasant. And on top of that, he’s physically a bit rough.

      NOT WELCOME HERE, MATE. NOT WELCOME AT ALL.

  8. So, a guy wrote a big long comment on this post. It was ok, it was nice and polite and all. But I won’t post it here because I read that sort of thing all the time, and if dood wants to preach at me, he can get his own blog. Over here, this is women’s space.

    The basic points of that comment were:

    1) you are being too harsh on men

    2) this is the internet, and your comments will be around forever and probably taken out of context

    3) your harshness frightens men, and frightens them away from your classes

    4) why don’t you remedy the down side of men’s low self esteem (ie behaving like arses) by giving them more attention so they feel better about themselves?

    My response:

    1) This sort of response to a feminist critique of interpersonal politics usually comes from men who aren’t used to hearing gendered behaviour critiqued. So my response is: harden up, bro. I’m not being harsh _enough_.

    2) Yeah, sure. If you did a search for my past work online, you’d see that I’ve actually mellowed over the years. Also, this is the internet, and people speak loudly here, and sometimes swear. Maybe you should stick to books?

    3) Not crying about that over here. If some guy has such low self esteem it makes him act like an arse, then he’s not welcome. As I decided this week, dealing with _another_ difficult bloke, I don’t teach a primary school class, so I’m under no obligation to provide learns to all who wants it. This is a private business, and I decide: I do not want men like this in my class. So they are not welcome.

    4) Difficult guys already dominate classes and demand far more than their fair share of class time. I am NOT giving them any more. In fact, they should just go somewhere else.

    In sum:
    If you’re a decent person who treats people well, you are welcome in my classes and at my events.
    If you are an arsehat, you aren’t welcome, but I’ll let you know what’s acceptable before I finally kick you out.
    It’s YOUR responsibility to figure out whether your behaviour is appropriate or not. It is NOT anyone else’s job to make sure you’re behaving like an adult.

    Take some goddamn responsibility for your own behaviour. And stop expecting other people (especially women!) to compensate for lack of self awareness.

    THE END.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>