NEFFA Essay: The Proprieties Of The Partner Game

A set of policies for a hypothetical series reflecting the views of Larry Jennings.

Larry Jennings – Nov, 1997


We will ordinarily not intervene in partnering activities. However, if push comes to shove, we are responsible for the series and have the right and obligation to set the personality of the series. We note that, in accordance with tradition, the admission is low compared to other recreational activities. Thus we feel comfortable insisting on your cooperation in maintaining the personality of the series. So we here give our expectations with regard to one aspect of the dance: partnering.


We assume that you have come primarily to dance, not primarily to socialize. We ask you to consider dancing the other sex role if it will allow someone to dance who would not otherwise be able to. You will, of course, be accepting of same-sex pairs dancing as partners for this reason.

To comply with tradition and predominant preference and to allow easy recognition of whom the caller is calling a “man” or a “woman”, we expect you to give strong preference to dancing your own sex role if possible. Except for the case of the previous paragraph, you should not dance the opposite sex role when the dancers are having difficulty with the sequence nor so often as to change the perception that, at our series, males usually dance the man’s part, females the woman’s part.

Asking for a Dance

The privilege and responsibility lies equally with the women and with the men. You may ask anyone of the opposite sex. Unless you have a special relationship, you will ordinarily dance no more than one dance per evening with the same partner. Unless otherwise specified, it is assumed that a request is for the next dance only. Because we wish to foster the view that “we’re all in it together,” we suggest that you arrange, as part of the partnering procedure, to dance in a different part of the hall for the next dance.

Your Response

The etiquette of contemporary contra dancing suggests that you will ordinarily accept a request to be partners for the next dance. Under what circumstances, and how, is it appropriate to decline?

If you have already accepted an invitation, you naturally offer, “Sorry, I already have a partner.” To be gracious, you would ordinarily add something like, “But perhaps we can work it out later.” Or, if that does not reflect your feelings, you might well make use one of the honest answers suggested below. This would avoid awkwardnesses later both for yourself and for the asker.

If you genuinely propose not to dance the next slot, it is reasonable to state, “I am planning to sit this one out.” Note that we suggest “planning” rather than the more forceful “I am going to sit this one out.” You may find a long lost friend in town for just this dance or maybe a square set needs “one more couple”. So you cancel your plan to sit out. To maintain a reputation for gracious behavior, you would normally make a point of later arranging a dance with the rebuffed partner.

Some authorities suggest this same response (I was planning to sit out) be used as a euphemism for “I don’t care to dance with you.” You are then obliged not to dance that slot; we don’t advocate lying. We instead suggest that you use one of truthful responses given below, even “No thank you.” Then you will feel comfortable dancing the slot–better for you, better for the series, better for everyone.

You might say, “I was planning to ask a newcomer [or wallflower or beginner].” Such altruism would generally be socially acceptable. And it might even be a graceful way out of the predicament of the next paragraph.

What do you do in the more difficult case where you want to dance, but not with the particular individual who first asks you? Let us discuss this situation in detail.

Some authorities advise outright lying: “I already have a partner,” or less blatant lying, “I think I have a partner.” We do not favor subterfuge; if you really want to duck the issue, “I have other plans,” or even “No thank you” are possibilities.

However, we prefer that you consider a proactive response. Maybe you can have a positive influence on the trait that bothers you: “We really don’t dance well together,” or “May I show you how I could be more comfortable as your partner.” Such responses are appropriate in cases where the offending trait is correctable on the spot. We hope that they would not be used if the trait is not under the control of the offender. In particular if the offense is that the requester is a beginner. However, you might just as well say, “I don’t dance with beginners,” as lie.

Or, if you judge the behavior to be uncompromisingly unsuitable, “I think you set a bad example; I’d rather not be part of it.” That’s pretty strong stuff and you would do well to have advance discussions with a few stakeholders before trying it. However, we believe there is little point to repeatedly side-stepping around difficult behavior. If you put an offender in a position where he can scarcely rationalize away adverse opinion, he will probably shape up or abandon contra dancing as being populated with over-opinionated dolts. Either way, you have gained.

Booking ahead

We feel that the details of booking arrangements are best left to the individuals involved so long as they comply with our basic philosophy of dancing in all parts of the hall with all kinds of people. We explicitly consider it proper not to accept a request further ahead than the next dance.

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