Something I made up probably. But also something I believe is instilled in all of us in our every day and especially our dancing lives. It’s about how far we allow someone into our personal space. It’s about how much we trust them in that space. And it’s about how we dance with them because of it.

In the outside world, we don’t think as much about “touch trust” as we do “personal space” which often means no physical contact at all and a healthy gap between bodies. In ballroom dancing, it’s all about connection, physicality, and contact. And that means body parts tend to end up in places we didn’t want them. Usually, this means someone’s foot found someone’s toes. But it’s also the hand a little too low on the back or didn’t quite manage to catch the shoulder, a leg or hip pressed uncomfortably hard against yours, or turning your head to realize their face is much closer than you thought. And like a stomped toe, we try to give these personal space invaders the benefit of the doubt as unintentional or accidental, and that good faith comes from “touch trust,” whether from a level of basic etiquette or a place of personal trust. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. For whatever reason, there will always be dancers that put how they want to dance with you ahead of how comfortable you are dancing like that, unapologetically putting you in unsafe or uncomfortable positions. Those are the “touch trust” violators.

So far, I have only met one dancer with which I have “absolute touch trust”: my private teacher. What does that mean? Well, certainly not that he’s allowed to do whatever he pleases. Just the opposite. It’s that I trust him not to do however he pleases—that he dances with me and teaches me with me in mind. As I’ve said in previous posts, I came into this with a small and limited comfort zone, and by the standards of many it still is. Something my teacher picked up on very early, before our private lessons ever started. And in that first ever private lesson, the first thing he asked me was “Just how comfortable are you with physical contact?” before introducing me to the concept of pelvis connection. It continued on like this: “May I touch your face?” “I’m going to put my hand here, is that okay?” “How comfortable are you with learning this?” While constantly pushing me outside my comfort zone, he’s never shoved me outside it. Because of that, I’ve built up that trust that makes it much easier to dance certain things with him that would make me uncomfortable or even squeamish with others. And if there’s some “accidental contact” (and there has been) or I realize we’re farther outside my comfort zone than I was really ready for, I can laugh it off or keep moving forward or talk to him about it without fear because of that trust.

To everyone else, I’ve given it some thought and broken it up into tiers: normal, basic, limited, and none. To my dancemates and classmates I have similar but varying degrees of “normal touch trust.” We know each other, and chances are have been learning together in the controlled safety of the group class. More or less, this means I know what they’re comfortable with, they know what I am, and we work from there. Unlike my teacher, whom I trust to take me out of my comfort zone, I trust these people to stick to my comfort zone, or to venture out of it with extreme discretion, as with them I do the same. There’s also the higher chance of ending up in uncomfortable and awkward situations, but with the trust that we’ll rectify it, apologize, or laugh it off.

“Basic touch trust” I credit to strangers or acquaintances, meaning “I trust you to know basic dance etiquette and follow it.” When I’ve just met someone or barely know them, I don’t want an all-or-nothing dance. I want a getting-to-know you dance. I need to get to know you before you try to dip me or pull me into close embrace or you decide it’s cool to slide your hands down my sides. I know there are people that can jump into any dance with any one like they’ve known each other all their lives, but I’m not fond of this idea. I need time to build up that trust and comfort, and I need partners that respect it. Without it, more than awkward situations, I’m likely to struggle to enjoy the dance, and that basic trust becomes more and more limited.

I’ve heard people call what I’m referring to as “limited touch trust” as “defensive dancing,” “protective dancing,” or “guarded dancing.” This is what happens when you accept a dance and realize your partner is not going to respect your boundaries, but you decide not to abandon dance. Either because you think leaving would be ruder than whatever they’re doing, you decide they aren’t being a danger, or that they don’t mean to do it with bad intentions. So by “limited” I mean you only trust them to finish the dance, and not much else. It means you’re dancing with your guard up, verbally or physically keeping them from pulling you too close or letting that hand travel, or put you into a step you don’t want to do. Though rare, I believe some dancers hold this idea that when you accept their dance, you are also accepting however they chose to dance with you. And while some people argue that’s the risk you have to be willing to make on the social dance scene, I argue that it’s not one you should have to make, as this essentially means giving up your free will and personal boundaries, something I rarely find okay for any situation. Dancing isn’t a dancer and his prop partner. It’s two dancers working together, and that means mutual respect and seeking out mutual comfort zones so that you can both enjoy the dance. If you can’t agree on a mutual comfort zone, perhaps it’s best to agree to seek different partners.

And at the bottom of this pyramid is “no touch trust.” These were the violators who made me feel completely unsafe with them. These people don’t require explanation. They’re the ones that disregard your safety, have actually injured you, or made inappropriate advances in the guise of dancing. These are the dancers that don’t usually get second chances.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and other factors can outweigh my arbitrary and completely made-up “touch trust levels.” The biggest exception I can think of, if I had to give him his own level is “the thrill ride” where if anyone tried what he does I’d likely not want to dance with them again, or with limited trust (private teacher excluded, of course). The first time I danced with him was equal parts mortifying and terrifying. The many times I’ve danced with him after, that never really changed. Except now I expect it. He has this ability to seize your comfort zone and rip you right out of it, all the while smiling at you with a reassuring “you’re doing fine.” More than once I’ve heard a startled shriek and looked over to find his partner giggling uncontrollably. He also happens to be a magnificent professional teacher and dancer, and a favorite amongst many. From my observations, people dance with him for two main reasons: for the skill level at which he dances, or for the thrill ride. Or both. When you accept a dance from him, you know there will be nothing standard about it, and he will push you as hard as he thinks you can be pushed. And you do get that thrill from it, like the start of rollercoaster, wondering where this is going to take you but sure it’ll be intense, and you want to try just to see if you can.