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THE HUMAN CONDITION: WHY MEN WON’T DANCE : Let’s Just Sit This One Out

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What does a woman really want from the man in her life--besides caring, sharing and a full head of hair?

A dance partner.

As any grandfather fox-trotting with the younger women at a wedding will attest, most women love to dance and wish their Significant Others did too.

But the fact is, most men won’t dance.

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It’s not merely that they don’t know how--OK, Michael Jackson and Mikhail Baryshnikov being exceptions--but they can’t even bring themselves to try.

Why should this be?

After all, a woman whose formal dance training ended with ballet lessons when she was 7 can step onto the dance floor without hesitation and glide in her partner’s arms--even though she might not know whether she’s doing a tango or a jitterbug.

Yet when the average American man is invited to dance, he makes throat-clearing noises and stays rooted to his seat.

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The answer, according to people who think about such things for a living, lies in the differing ways men and women regard themselves and their bodies and, more important, the way in which society as a whole regards dance.

Dancing is an elemental form of human expression, a conduit for communication and intimacy that awakens within us a deeper awareness of both the sacred and the profane. It synchronizes us with one another and with the natural rhythms of our lives.

Whether in the context of a tribal celebration of the hunt or in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, dance answers the deep need humans have to touch one another and move our bodies together.

It’s not surprising that women say they find in dancing pure freedom of movement, a physical release from their cares. That’s why they find it so frustrating when the men in their lives refuse to dance.

“I always had boyfriends who wouldn’t dance,” says Janet Stetson, who grew up dancing and is trained to teach dance to children. “I’ve heard women over and over say how their male friends don’t dance and how much they’d like to go out dancing.”

Stetson, whose husband, New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan, is willing to dance--but only in the privacy of their home--says her experience with teaching dance to boys has convinced her that most men become inhibited early in life.

“My opinion is that it isn’t that socially acceptable for them to be comfortable with their bodies,” she says.

Yet at least some men who adamantly refuse to dance really wish they knew how.

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“Do I dance? I would have to say no,” says Lou Mande. “I would like to be able to dance. It would make my wife happier if I could.”

For Mande, an Albuquerque lawyer who doesn’t see himself as inhibited in most social settings, dance Angst might arise at a wedding. Should his wife, Debbie, also a lawyer, ask him to dance, he is likely to be overcome with a sudden case of bashfulness.

“There I am back in the eighth grade, over with the boys,” he says. “And somehow, the girls know how to do it.”

Social dancing, with its connotations of frivolity and sensual pleasure, has had a checkered history in Western Europe and the United States over the last 200 years, says anthropologist Judith Hanna, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland who wrote a book on dance, sex and gender.

“Prior to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, any respectable male knew the social graces of dancing,” she says. But after their monarchy’s fall, the French saw dancing as decadent. The Industrial Revolution brought with it the idea that “one should harness the body in the service of capital production,” she says.

“That heritage has stayed and made its imprint rather strongly in American society,” Hanna says.

Americans have at times also objected to social dancing on religious or moral grounds, sometimes to the extent of banning it altogether, says Judith Bennahum, a University of New Mexico professor and past president of the Society of Dance History Scholars.

“People sweat and get red in the face, and that’s too dangerous,” she says. “It’s too suggestive, and I suppose it permits the body to lose control.”

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That preoccupation with control has led men to adopt an unnaturally rigid, inefficient style of body movement, says Bill Evans, also a University of New Mexico dance professor and founder of the Bill Evans Dance Co. Their model is the ramrod-straight posture and forceful gait of soldiers and cowboys.

Women, on the other hand, are more comfortable moving their bodies in a natural, rhythmic way, because “any softness, any lateral movement in the hips, is thought of as being a feminine characteristic,” Evans says.

Thanks to “the terrible fear American men have of being feminine and homosexual,” dancing is suspect, he says.

Ironically, the one part of the country where social dancing remains consistently popular is southeast Texas, where many men readily take part in country-Western dancing, Evans says.

“They’re all in their cowboy hats and cowboy shirts, with a beer in one hand and a woman in the other, and they’re dancing,” he says. “It’s a very macho thing to do.”

Bill Zimmerman, who at one time was unwilling to dance with his wife, offers another reason why men steer clear of the dance floor: male pride.

“I think it’s generally true that men don’t like looking like idiots in front of their peers,” he says. “You don’t start off knowing how to do it well, and it’s a public thing, so you just wind up never doing it.”

Zimmerman, an Albuquerque physicist, and his physician-wife started dance lessons two years ago and got hooked. They now take four hours of private lessons a week while their sons, 5 and 8, take children’s lessons.

“It’s gotten totally out of hand. It’s become the family pastime,” says Zimmerman, who plans to enter dance competitions with his wife.

“It’s something that Edie and I can do in common,” he says. “I wish I had done this several years earlier.”

The Zimmermans’ teacher, Rojelio Viramontez, 25, says men starting dance lessons pose special problems.

“I think the majority of men have very hard rhythmic timing--they don’t know how to move their bodies,” says Viramontez, who co-owns a dance studio here. “Most of the time, women are faster natural dancers than men.”

Men also have more trouble taking instruction and sometimes recoil when he places his hands on their hips to show them correct positioning or grabs their hands to lead them in a few steps.

“I had one man walk out of class,” he says. “He came in, he stayed 30 minutes and he left. It’s because he was intimidated--he was the vice president of his business.”

But Viramontez believes that by refusing to learn to dance, men are missing out.

For one thing, he says, because dancing is regarded as an important social skill in many cultures, non-dancing U.S. businessmen are at a competitive disadvantage with Japanese and German counterparts, who probably know how.

“If you can do a waltz and you’re the president of a company, you can impress a lot of people,” Viramontez points out.

And when it comes to romance, a man who can dance has an edge when it comes to competing for a woman’s affections--all other things being equal.

“A man who can dance will get the most attention at a party,” Viramontez says with the suave certainty of one who knows. “A man that can dance is very well desired by women.”


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