When we are giving workshops to teachers on traditional social dance, the most commonly asked questions concern partners and the joining of hands. Children, as well, have legitimate concerns about who they are with and the social consequences that might follow. Many dance programs have faltered on this issue by insisting on boy/girl couples without integrating the fundamental skills of respect, cooperation and group development.
The long term solution, in our experience, is a kindergarten (or earlier) through upper elementary dance program that teaches these basic skills in a gradual progression. While learning singing games, younger children get used to changing partners as well as learning many of the figures they will later use in more challenging dances. Ideally, older children will come to regard social dancing as a group activity that is not primarily about individual relationships. Joining hands becomes just another way of relating to other people, not unlike shaking hands as a show of respect.
We suggest alternating among different ways for finding partners, such as:
Teacher simply assigns partners.
Form a circle. Have student on your right turn to their right, and the next turn to their left so that these two are partners. Continue around the circle in a ‘chain reaction’, one child turning right, the next left, the next right, etc., until all have partners.
A simple variation on the above is to form a circle and count off by ‘ones and twos’. ‘ones’ turn to the right, ‘twos’ turn to the left. The person facing you is now your partner. This is a particularly good way to arrange a circle mixer.
Form a circle. Then stretch it into a long skinny oval which will become two lines facing each other. This works well for arranging a longways set or contra dance.
Here are three methods for when you decide to have boys and girls dance together as ‘gents and ladies’:
Girls all form a circle. Boys form a circle around the outside of the girls’ circle. Boys drop hands and take two steps back. Girls drop hands, turn to face the outside of the circle. Girls step into a space between two boys, and all face the center.
Over time students can learn to make their own gent lady circle. Tell them: “You can’t tell other kids where to go, but if you can move to fix the pattern, you can be the problem solver.”
Teach the children how to ask someone to dance. Practice the words together first: ‘May I please have this dance?’ (‘Dance please?’, for the younger children). ‘Yes, thank you.’ Then model by asking one of your students to dance, followed by voluntary demonstrations by the students. Girls can ask boys and boys can ask girls. Soon they will be able to do this all at once with some facilitation from the teacher. This last method also works well for gender free dancing.
When there are more boys than girls, or vice versa, one or two children can volunteer to dance the ‘other part’. A girl learning the gent’s part or a boy learning the lady’s part will soon discover that they are dancing with more of their friends. Using language like ‘stars and moons’ or ‘rivers and mountains’ rather than ‘gents and ladies’ can be helpful when there is a gender imbalance.
If there is an odd number of children, then you, the teacher, will make the number even so everyone has a partner. If there is an even number of children it is often best if you still dance with the students; they learn much faster and more deeply when you are modeling the figures, the style and the joy of dancing. Have one of the students be a ‘tap-in’: they sit in a ‘tap-in’ chair on the edge of the dance space. Whenever you, the teacher, say “Tap in” the ‘tap-in’ student quickly gets up and taps one of the dancers on their shoulder, replaces that student’s place in the dance, and the chosen dancer leaves the dance and sits in the ‘tap-in’ chair.
Hand washing or hand sanitizing before and after dancing helps minimize student anxiety about hand holding. It also addresses public health concerns.
Regardless of how the partners are chosen or arranged, presenting dancers with a variety of successful experiences will lead to more flexible, respectful and tolerant attitudes. At the end of each dance remind the dancers to thank their partner. This is yet another social skill that adds to the enjoyment of these dances.