Valuable Lesson
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Men Don't Know Their Own Strength!

Written by Rick Archer
July 2005

This is the story of the night I received the Most Valuable Lesson I ever learned in my career as a Dance Instructor.

Everybody is always surprised to hear there was a time when we did not switch partners at SSQQ. You have to realize I didn't copy SSQQ from anybody. I invented the studio each step of the way using good old trial and error.  Each time I saw a problem, I would try to find a way to solve it.  One night in the Fall of 1984 I faced one of the biggest headaches of my career - the monster who was destroying women.

On a chilly October night I showed up for my fourth week of Advanced Western Swing.  In those days our classes were only an hour long, so this meant we had met three previous times for an hour apiece.   That evening I was late getting there, so when I opened the door most of the students were already there ahead of me.  When I saw that the men outnumbered the women by more than 2 to 1, I was stunned.

You see, in the first week of class there had been a perfectly balanced class of 16 men and 16 women. Things were different in those days because I shared the studio with Dance Arts Unlimited.  Since the studio only had three rooms, the Dance Arts jazz dancers had the big room while I used the two smaller rooms.  This limited area meant our space was at a premium.  There was simply no way we could handle all comers so instead we had a pre-registration system where people would call in advance to reserve spots.  That system worked pretty well at the time.  Not only did the classes fit the room space, it allowed us to balance our classes evenly.

But something had gone wrong.  It was now Week 4.  I counted carefully.  We still had all the original 16 men, but only 7 women had shown up.  Where were the missing 9 women?   Perplexed, I asked if a noted tearjerker such as Gone With the Wind or The Way We Were was showing on TV that night.  Nope, apparently not.  That didn't explain it.

Left without an explanation, I scratched my head.  I had a real problem here.  Back in those days I made no effort to rotate partners. Since the class was even, I would split up the class with boys on one side, girls on the other. I would demonstrate a pattern, then say guys get a partner. Once you had a partner, you stayed with him or her for 30 minutes or so. Since class was only an hour long, you might dance with two, maybe three different people a night.  If you came with a partner, then you stayed with that person the entire hour.

Using my usual system, this imbalance caused a big problem. Trying to make the best of it, I suggested each woman pair up with two men and change back and forth. This didn't work.  If a man and a woman had come together, he wasn't in any mood to share.  So he would monopolize his lady partner while the other man stood around and watched with a frown on his face.  Although I understood the dynamics, I was frustrated that obviously my men could not be trusted to share equally.

Then an idea came to me. I decided to try another trick: make a Circle, do the move, and rotate.  Since the Circle tradition has been a studio fixture for over twenty-five years, my new idea might seem obvious to the reader, but at the time I had never seen this done before.  It was simply one of those 'Necessity is the Mother of Invention' kind of moments.  The Circle seemed like the only way each guy was going to have his fair share of dancing 43% of the time with a woman given the circumstances.  

Once we got the Circle going, it seemed to work.  The men with partners weren't happy about it, but realized the class had no chance of working otherwise.  However I did not join the Circle, preferring to stand out and watch.  If I had joined the Circle, that would mean even less time dancing with the women for each man.  
No point in making a bad situation worse.

Maybe it was the way the numbers worked, but I kept wishing at least one more lady would show up to make it 16 to 8.  Didn't happen.  I was very upset at the number of men standing out.  Finally I decided to take a risk.  For the very first time in my six years of teaching social dance, I decided to offer to dance the girl's part.  I didn't know the girl's part very well, but I figured I knew it better than my female students did.  Besides, this class needed another woman desperately, even if she was Six Feet 200 Pounds.

I did not force my will on the men.  Instead I asked permission.  Not surprisingly, this was definitely an unpopular move with the men. They were desperate, but not that desperate!  As I studied their faces, they each had a serious frown.  Fortunately the women supported the move, so eventually the men accepted it as well because the circumstances called for it.  I said candidly that if they didn't want to dance with me, they didn't have to.  This statement seemed to help.  No one turned me down, but each man gave me the obligatory look of disgust before touching me.

Then something happened I didn't expect.  This really was a night of surprises.  

My fourth dance partner nearly killed me!!

The move was called 'Twisted Hands'.  Basically if a man puts both of the woman's hands in his hands and sends her under both arms to her right or left, the hands become all tangled up.  Ergo the name 'Twisted Hands'.  From this position, the man could lead a reverse double turn. On the Twisted Hands turn, the man's hands stay slightly above the woman's head while she spins under them.  During the turn, the woman's hands and arms untangle. 

So my class
did the move, rotated partners, did the move, rotated, etc. 

I danced with three guys, then along came a big guy named Glen.  While I turned, this guy stunned me by actually pushing downwards as I  tried to turn!   I nearly fell.   Shaken, I told the next man to rotate through and tried again with the strongman

This time I
decided to fight force with force by pushing my hands back up.  Although I am a big strong guy myself, this move didn't help at all.  In fact it made things much worse.  To my further shock, while I pushed my hands up, Glen simply pushed down even harder.  The second try hurt much worse than the first try. Again I almost fell down.   

I stepped back and took a good look Glen.  He was indeed a big guy.  As we prepared to dance for the third time, I realized I was now afraid to dance with him again.  It had never dawned on me that a woman could be afraid of dancing with a man, but sure enough he had me thoroughly intimidated.   If someone as big as me can be afraid, what about a small woman?   Who wants to risk being hurt while they are dancing?   Dancing is supposed to be fun, not dangerous.

That's when the lightning bolt hit. 
In a flash everything became crystal clear.  I realized that each week this guy had picked some poor girl to be his partner for a routine.  At this point Glen would systematically proceed to beat the woman senseless.  At various breaks in the class his current victim would realize her life was at stake and decide to make a run for it.  She would pretend to go to the bathroom, leave the studio, and never come back.  This guy would then find another lady to repeat the scenario.

I quickly did some math: 3 women maimed per 3 weeks = 9 women in the hospital.  16 - 9 left 7 women still standing.  

The numbers made perfect sense - Muscle Boy was eliminating my female students at the rate of 3 women per week.

This hapless guy had already eliminated over half the women in my class!  I took a good look at this real-life Bluto.  Glen had the shoulders of a linebacker. He was obviously a weight lifter or body builder of some sort.

I steeled myself for the next dance.  When I danced with him yet a third time, I tried something new.  First I tried to keep my arms as limp as possible.  In addition I did not wait for him to turn me, but turned myself instead.  His power still hurt and knocked me off balance, but this was a clear improvement.

This is how I learned for the first time that relaxing the arms while turning works better than resistance.  I put that useful information into my dance teacher file cabinet.  Now if I could only survive a little longer, maybe I would learn some more secrets.  That which does not kill you makes you stronger.  Ha ha ha.

Next I decided to try 'communication'.  I explained to Glen what he was doing wrong and told him how much it hurt.  A look of guilt and alarm crossed his face.  I could see what I had told him really hurt his feelings.

In that moment, I forgave Glen immediately.  I realized that Glen
was not an ogre as I first assumed.  Instead he was simply a big guy who didn't realize what his strength was doing to the women.  I honestly believe I was the first person who had ever tried to explain to him what he was doing wrong.  The other women had simply taken flight and never returned.

From that point on, Glen began to improve.  I won't lie to you and say that Glen went on to give John Travolta a run for his money. Far from it.  This guy was clearly not a natural dancer by any stretch of the imagination.  For each improvement he made, Glen had to practice three times more than the next guy.  He would still knock women off balance from time to time with his clumsiness and the speed of the music did not appear to have any effect on the speed of his feet.  To his credit though, Glen stopped hurting people.  In fact, he would ask his partners to tell him if he was getting too strong.  He simply did not know his own strength.

Like other people who have come in and out of my life, I wish I would run across this man one more time. I would thank  him from the bottom of my heart.  Glen inadvertently had the single most profound effect on the development of SSQQ's method of teaching group classes of any student or instructor.  My experiences with Glen literally revolutionized my studio.

  1. By eliminating 9 women, Glen had given me the idea to try using the Circle to teach with switching partners.  Thanks to the terrible boy-girl ratio, I discovered a way to share our limited number of women evenly.
  2. Thanks to Glen, rotating partners became a mainstay of our teaching curriculum from that point on. 
  3. Glen made me realize that it is okay for male teachers to dance with male students and female teachers to dance with female students.
  4. I discovered that it was not enough to just demonstrate a lead and talk about it.  In addition someone has to dance with the men as well to see if they correctly understood the instructions.
  5. This was the night I realized for the first time that when I teach leads, the men need constant supervision and polishing.  Glen made me realize the need to have a female assistant. 

From this night on, I began to dance the lady's part occasionally when the situation called for it.  In the following weeks and months, I learned many valuable lessons about leading and following that made me a far better teacher.

Unfortunately, in the process
I got hurt a bunch more times!   For example, one night in a Whip class I was explaining how the woman's hip motion works and how the man should lead it.  As I worked with the men on their leads, right in the middle of my hip motion, my male student jerked my arms terribly.  He assumed a 'big girl' needed extra power.

Wrong.  I was stretched out in my vulnerable hip motion position with my back arched when the guy pulled hard.  I immediately felt something pop in my lower back.  It didn't hurt too much at first, but by the end of class I was in so much pain from the back injury that I had to be helped to my car. 

I went home and crawled to bed.  It took three days of bed rest before the swelling subsided enough for me to walk again.  That entire time I was very scared I had suffered some sort of permanent damage, but thank goodness I recovered completely.

A couple months months later I was dancing the woman's part in another Whip class.  After a Walkaround Turn to the Hammerlock position, a man pulled me hard to the Bump Step.  Bam!   My chest hit his chest and knocked the wind out of me.  That hurt!

As I struggled to get my breath back, I secretly wondered how much it would have hurt if I had a woman's breasts!

I asked the same man to lead the move again.  Each time it hurt.  Because my arms were pinned behind me in the Hammerlock, I was defenseless to protect my chest from being slammed into the man. 

That night after class ended, I went to the other room to find Judy Price (white shorts).  Judy was teaching a western class in that other room.  I asked Judy to dance and led the same move.  Bam.  Sure enough, Judy slammed up against me.

I saw her wince.  I asked if the move hurt.  Judy's eyes got big.  "Are you kidding me?  I HATE THAT MOVE!!   It always hurts!"

I looked at her in confusion.  Finally I figured out what was bothering me.  "Well, if that move hurts so damn bad, why don't you ever complain?"

Judy replied, "Because I figured that's the way the move is supposed to work!"

In other words, Judy accepted the pain because she assumed that was the price she had to pay to dance the Whip.  I really appreciated Judy's candor.  Even though it upset me to know that a move I led all the time had been hurting women, Judy made me understand that a woman often accepts pain and never says a word. 

But if the women don't say 'ouch', then how would men learn to become a better dancer?  As far as I was concerned, that was the wrong approach.  It was better to speak up and find a better way to lead the pattern. 

You will be pleased to note that I changed the move on the spot.  Now that I was aware how much that move hurt, I redesigned the move.  The following week I explained to the men why we were making the change and they immediately were anxious to make the needed changes.  No woman was ever hurt on that move again.

From that time on, I made a habit of dancing the woman's part whenever we were short of women in our class.  Each time I got hurt, I either figured out what the man was doing wrong or I went back and resigned the pattern. 

As a result of all the pain I suffered from dancing with men, I reviewed every pattern in the book to find a less painful way to lead it. I would ask women to let me experiment.  I might lead the same move in two different ways and ask her opinion which lead worked the best.  From that point, if something hurt or didn't feel right, I would investigate a lead until I found a better way to do it.  My negative experience with the body builder had made me so aware of the unnecessary pain that women experience that I cleaned all the moves up.   

Not only did my teaching improve, but quickly my own leads improved as well.  Now that I realized how much a bad lead can hurt a woman, I made more of an effort to learn the right way to lead each move.

Now that I had danced so to speak in the women's shoes, I gained all sorts of insights.  Some men think women complain about their leads far too much, but I realized that women don't complain anywhere near as often as they have a right to complain.  I also realized that most men have no idea they are hurting the women.  Most men are mortified to discover that whatever they are doing can hurt the person they are actually trying to please.

I suppose you could call my experience a silver lining in the dark cloud.  Thanks to Glen, I gained all sorts of insights about leading and following, about how to better structure a group class, and the need to have more than one instructor. 

Imagine how our studio's popularity improved when women discovered dancing did have to hurt anymore!   I had finally begun to understand the meaning of the ancient adage:

"In social dance, whenever something goes wrong, it is always the man's fault."

So, Glen, wherever you may be today, thank you! 

Using both hands, you single-handedly changed the course of SSQQ History! 


Rick Archer's Note:  After Glen had taught me the importance of testing men's leads, I became more open-minded about dancing with men when the situation called for it.  As a result, I learned other valuable lessons as well. 

This next story took place one year later and further illustrates my point that some men don't know their own strength.

This story also appears in my article known as
Secrets of Following.   As you will see from this story, my experience with Glen in 1984 paved the way for other valuable lessons as well further down the road.

Follow the Man, Not the Music

Having danced the woman’s part in dance class many times over the years, I have learned about "Following" the hard way just like all women do. Although clearly I am not a championship dancer as a "girl", I have at least learned enough lessons to feel confident about what I write. 

The best lesson I ever learned came courtesy of the Houston Police Department. I had a Jitterbug lesson in 1985 with a police officer named Charles.  I might add Charles and I became friends and I don't think he would mind if I shared this story.

Charles wanted to learn to dance in the worst way.  However he couldn't take group classes because his police work forced him to work at nights.  So he asked me about private lessons.  Back in those days, there were two instructors - Judy Price and me.  Judy Price worked a day job, so she wasn't available to help Charles during the day.  That left one person - me.  I said I would be happy to help him if he didn't mind dancing with a guy.  To his credit, Charles didn't even blink. 

During those private lessons, I got to know Charles well enough to call him my friend.  I discovered that
Charles was supremely talented at aikido, marksmanship, and detective work.  He was also one of the most outgoing, genuinely warm human beings I have ever met.   However, despite all these other talents, dancing was the one thing that did not come easily to him.

Specifically Charles had trouble keeping the beat.  Not only was he nowhere near the beat, even worse his tempo would change. First he would speed up, then he would slow down.  It was maddening.  I played a Swing song called 65 Love Affair, but Charles seemed to hear La Cucaracha instead.  As we danced something similar to a Mexican Hat Dance, I doubt seriously that Charles even hit a beat by accident.   Is it a talent to be able to miss every beat of a song?   If so, Charles had that ability.   

This was driving me nuts.  Dancing off the beat made me crazy!  It's the same thing as wearing clothes that don't match to dinner with a fashion expert.  Being forced to dance off the beat was actually painful.  

Surely it was psychosomatic, but my muscles ached terribly as Charles and I danced to the tune of a distant drummerThroughout the song "off-the-beat" messages screamed like a police siren in my brain.

It is a cruel form of torture to make a dance teacher violate his or her sacred oath of rhythm, but it was happening before my very ears!   Finally I couldn't take it any more.  I decided I had to do something.  Not exactly your typical petite woman at 200 lbs, I tightened my arms and got "heavy on my feet" to slow him back to the beat.  

To my utter astonishment, I suddenly encountered more power than I had ever experienced in my life! 

Sensing I was having trouble keeping up with his rhythm, Charles got stronger with his leads.   Damn he was strong!  He physically overpowered me without breaking a sweat.  My muscles had ached before, but now they hurt!  I thought my arms would come out of their sockets.  This was not working.  I decided to stop being heavy. Immediately I realized it was a lot easier to dance to his rhythm than to my rhythm.  Whatever speed you wish, Officer!

secrets_of_following_06.jpg (15914 bytes)

Now that the crisis was over, those annoying "off-the-beat" messages began popping up again in my brain.  I decided to try a new idea : Ignore the music completely!  

So that's what I did.   I pretended the song wasn't playing and I stopped listening to it.

That did the trick.  By tuning out the music, I was able to concentrate better on the speed of his footwork and leads. My ability to react improved immediately.  Even better, my muscles stopped hurting.  I had made a valuable discovery - this tuning out the music stuff works!

I had made another discovery too - I realized that resistance was absolutely the worst option!  

we finished out the song, I had a moment to reflect on how afraid a woman might be of a man’s power.  I knew Charles had no idea that he was hurting me.  I imagined some men literally did not understand the extent of their own strength.  However, if the man is going to be strong, the woman should do every thing possible to lessen the tension.   Instead of 'resisting', she should try to move in the direction that would release the tension quickly.   I found the faster I reacted to his leads, the more the strain on my arms disappeared. 

Curiously, at the end of the lesson, Charles smiled and complimented me, "Rick, you are really improving as a woman!" 

Sad but true, Charles was correct. No truer words have ever been spoken.

I rolled my eyes, shook his hand, and thanked him for his kind words.   Today Charles had taught me an invaluable lesson -
When the man and the music don’t agree, Follow the man, not the music.



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