My first social was my second week at the studio. Meaning after one week and two sets of group lessons, I thought, “Sure, I’m game. Let’s do this.” In reality, I wasn’t really that gung-ho. My classmates were asking me if I was going, and I kept waffling. They told me all levels were welcome, that even total beginners get asked to dance, and it was a great welcoming atmosphere. Now I’m not very good at jumping into new situations. I find them nerve-wracking. Still, I had found the courage to go to my first class, I just needed to find it again to go to my first social. So I went home, cleaned myself up, put on a dress, and went dancing again.

You might recall from an earlier post that I was so nervous this night I elbowed a woman in the face. This wasn’t even when the dance started, but in the lesson preceding it. And when the lights dimmed and the first song began to play, I thought I had made a huge mistake coming here.

Then someone asked me to dance.

The man has become one of my favorites. He is, in fact, amongst a lot of people’s favorites as both a talented dancer and sweet human being. He asked me for a bachata and I warned him I had just one lesson that very afternoon. He told me he didn’t mind. He offered his hand with a slight bow of his head and escorted me out on to the floor with true gentleman’s flare. I remember the way he talked me through the harder steps, repeating a few so I could get a second chance at them, and complimenting me with a big, bright smile when I got it right. At the end of the dance, he clasped both my hands between his and thanked me warmly for the dance. About an hour later, he came back to claim a second, and I was more than happy to accept.

He wasn’t my only partner of the night, as both men and women alike asked me to the floor. I think each lead danced with me at least once. One woman I just met that night, and we took to each other right away. We danced once or twice together, and she spent the rest of the night introducing me to everyone who crossed our paths and getting a couple of them to dance with me. To this day, I’m always so happy to see her. I danced with each of the hosts, one of them twice who was full of praise for my dancing and stayed to chat with me for some time after our cha cha together.

I left that night a little overwhelmed, but glad I took the chance. However, I wanted to stay realistic. Being the true and absolute beginner I was, I chalked up all those dances to the “welcoming atmosphere” the others told me about: that these people saw a terrified woman in the corner and wanted to do something about it. When I had watched them dance with the others it was with awe. I couldn’t believe any of these talented people actually enjoyed dancing with novice me. I was determined by the next month’s social, when I had had time to learn more and get to know these people, it would be different.

No one asked me to dance.

All right, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but not as much as you would think. Simply, I had gotten lost in the crowd. With no one noticing me, and lacking the courage or confidence to ask, I spent a night on the sidelines wondering if I should just leave. It still wasn’t a completely danceless night. One was from a host, but the song was near ending just as we got to the floor. Another was from a man I had met in group classes. He never asked. He just waited for a dance we both knew then grabbed my hand and ran onto the dance floor, pulling me with him. So different from that gentleman of my first social, I didn’t care. I broke out into a huge grin and ran out with him. It was the highlight of my night.

Despite that one great dance, I did leave early that night miserable and feeling sorry for myself. Maybe that great first night really was just a string of pity dances, and now everyone’s “due” was done. Maybe I just wasn’t any fun to dance with. It was feeling awfully like high school gym class again, waiting on the sidelines to be picked last. Only to never get picked. I questioned about going to the next one.

In the time between, I got over myself. One of my classmates approached me the very next class to apologize for never asking me to dance: a beginner like me, he just lacked the confidence (I have since taken to asking him). In time I could see that my natural nerves and social anxiety prevented me from “making myself available” to other dancers. It was more likely my body language was telling everyone “give me space.” Also in this between period, I had my first private lessons. I was gaining skills and confidence as a dancer, and my teacher had promised me a dance at the next party. Holding onto that promise, I went to that next social, more comfortable in this environment but without expectations. What I got was a night of nonstop dancing. My feet ached and I joked to my dancemates how these men just wouldn’t leave me alone! Not that that stopped me from saying yes to each one.

In the many months that have followed, I’ve never missed a studio social, where I’ve become a familiar face to all the other regulars and semi-regulars. When it comes to finding partners, some nights are better than others, depending on what’s playing, who came, and by how much the follows outnumber the leads. I’ve learned the tricks of eye contact and where and how to stand. I’ve learned how to give off that general open and welcoming atmosphere to encourage people to approach me. I’ve even learned how to ask leads to dance (and how to get rejected).

In regards to that first social, I have also learned the very distinct and important difference between a “pity dance” and a “welcome dance.” No one that first night pitied me, and it was petty of me to think so, no matter how low I felt. Pity dances come from a sense of obligation, of thinking you have to take one for the team and dance with the newbie or the wallflower, possibly to maintain a studio’s reputation as welcome to all or your own reputation as a gracious dancer. It comes from the idea that you have to dance with them because etiquette demands it, not because you want to.

Welcome dances come from a desire to bring someone deeper into the community, to see a newcomer or beginner struggling to integrate and helping them smooth out those first bumps. They’re about wanting them to continue to dance. Despite still considering myself a beginner, despite having my favorites that I could just dance with all night, I enjoy giving others welcome dances. I like the idea that I’m helping people to feel how I did that first social, and they won’t ever have to feel like I did my second. I like to see them come back, and start asking me to dance in turn. There’s no martyrdom in these dances. Just the joy in sharing what I love with those who love it too.