Sunday 19 September 2021

To Swap or not to Swap?

To Swap or not to Swap....

I’m writing this in September 2021, at a time where in many ways we’re post-covid. Clubs and bars and most importantly dance classes are open for business and people are working out a ‘new normal’.

Swapping partners is just one of many aspects of the current salsa scene that many, in our post pandemic world, consider ‘risky’. I could, just as easily, use mask wearing or hand sanitizing or simply going out to dance. For me, visualising partner swapping at a salsa event connects me to the messey real world problem of risk. So here’s a few of my thoughts that I hope are useful.

Unlike many other dance scenes, partner swapping is part salsa culture. In my mind, salsa has retained an inherent core value of social interaction. I suggest that as a scene, it remains primarily social. This contrasts with many other dances whose origins are based upon performance, or dances that have developed through a culture of competition. In both groups there is a greater tendency to form a partnership to compete or perform. I accept that salsa has moved towards a demonstration/competition culture since the turn of the century, but it remains the fact that the vast majority of people who get into salsa do so to go out dancing and not to compete or perform.

Covid presents significant risks at the moment. I'm sure everyone knows the potential outcomes of catching covid and I can pretty much guarantee that those who don't are not reading this blog post.

The risks are death, long covid, or a nasty couple of weeks feeling awful with added anxiety of not knowing if you have some underlying condition that makes you vulnerable to the first two. That last one is a real fear, or should be. I’m 56 and just before covid I discovered I only had one kidney. It's big and happy and not at all lonely as it has healthy relationships with my other internal organs. It strikes me that I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life not knowing something as fundamental as missing an organ, although I’ve always had a thing for steak and kidney pie, so perhaps the clues were there!

With vaccination and new treatments the risk of hospitalization and death has been reduced greatly but covid is still around and it seems to like being here, which suggests that waiting for it to go away isn’t an option.

My Dilemma?
This Autumn I’ve restarted my Salsa Rapido 1-Day Intensive courses after a very long and unscheduled break. I’m faced with the choice of inviting people new to salsa to join my course. This presents an ethical challenge. In a nutshell, I don’t want to be the cause of someone's illness or death. At the same time I don’t want to be unemployed or bankrupt.

During August I ran two courses where they were restricted to couples only, socially distanced and no partner swapping was allowed. They worked well enough, but I’m not comfortable presenting salsa as a non-swapping dance. Apart from my need to reflect the salsa culture as I see it, I’m not prepared to exclude huge chunks of the salsa experience such as: Asking strangers to dance is exciting. Or the fun of dancing La Rueda.

There are also very practical teaching reasons to change partners. Perhaps the main effect is the sense of achievement I see when a beginner realises they’ve ‘got it’ because ‘it works’ with several people, and therefore it will work with anyone, and not just someone they know who’s probably compensating for their error in some way.

Two types of salsa dancers:
There are currently two types of salsa dancers: The ‘I’m OK with the Risk’ (Risk-OK) who are going out to classes and clubs and happy taking the risks or swapping partners etc, and the ‘I’m not OK with the Risk’ (Risk-Not-OK) group who are not going out to classes or clubs.

And yet....
At any moment, if you ask anyone from either group, their position appears fixed, polarised and entrenched. Justifications are used to back up their position such as facts and figures, theories and beliefs. I’m sure we’ve all had one of those ‘covid chats’ in the last eighteen months!
It’s a classic ‘them and us’ situation, and I’m certain whichever group you are in, you’ll have a strong view about the other side's position.

I would suggest a different picture where people are shifting from one group to another.
At times when a Risk-Not-OK perceives the risk to be lowering they reach a tipping point and join the Risk-OK group.
We can see this demonstrated in face mask wearing and I’d like to suggest that this is very similar to the decisions being made about going dancing and swapping partners etc.

Recently I went to a large Tesco in North London. Welcome to my laboratory :)
My guesstimate of mask use within the store has gone from 98% during lockdown, to 75% just after restrictions were lifted in July and today (Sept 13th ‘21) they were around the 10% mark. Clearly many of the ‘mask wearing’ group have changed position to become a non-mask wearer. I saw someone fumbling with a mask outside the shop and they seemed to reach a subconscious tipping point, a “sod it” point, when they stuffed the mask back into their pocket and joined the non-mask wearing group. I mainly still wear one to shops to protect the vulnerable but my ‘sod it’ point is coming closer every day.

What interests me is that my ‘sod it’ point is not driven by any data. Why do I wear a mask in one shop and not another? I’m inconsistent. The covid case numbers haven't changed much day to day and my immune system hasn’t either. I’m less likely to wear a mask in a shoe shop than a clothing store. The idea that somehow shoe shops are safer is wacko! I can feel my brain searching for a justification but there isn’t one. My decision is not based on anything other than an emotional gut reaction, in other words my mood. That’s a thought to consider when you're next trading facts and figures in a covid chat!

Let’s all go moo

Try it, it feels good. Mooooooooooooo! A long slow out breath calming the vagus nerve and lowing our heart rate, blood pressure, noradrenaline and a whole load of sciency stuff that was known for millennia before the sciency stuff came about. It’s calming and lowers our stress and anxiety. I find wearing a cow onesie helps too, but some find that udderly stupid! Writing cow jokes is a no-bull pursuit!

If you have a good moooo before making a decision it is likely to be a better decision. Less anxiety etc. means less influence by the fight/flight response. This allows us to weigh the decisions intelligently..... Or do we?

We are all herd animals and our decision making is heavily influenced by the herd. Scroll through a few salsa links on Facebook and: Wow! What a party everyone’s having without us! How happy and safe they all look! If they’re ok, surely I’ll be fine? But what promoter show’s a balanced view, it’s simply not their job! Who posts the pictures of the salsa dancers sitting at home not going out? Who posts pictures of half empty dance floors etc. One or two have notably shared their covid videos after catching it at salsa events but social media is biased. If you don’t believe me, look at your own profile picture!

Back to my dance of dilemma:
My concern is for those making a decision to dance for the first time, or those rejoining after a long break or if they have a vulnerability. They have to make a risk decision based on poor information and mood! For some it’s easy. An overwhelming argument on one side or the other. For many it’s less so.

I’m certain that every teacher and promoter has weighed the pros and cons.Run through the regulations and come to a decision. I did this summer with my first Salsa Rapido 1-Day Intensive courses restricted to limited numbers, couples only and strictly no swapping partners. I tested myself the day before and waived transfer fees for postponement. I sent out texts the day before encouraging people not to come if they felt in any way ill.

I believe that was my best decision then, but now my position has changed.
It all comes down to the grey area of decision making. Those who don’t feel safe won’t come. Those who do will, but those in the middle might sign up and regret it. When they arrive they’ll feel uncomfortable and unsafe. If they leave the class they might feel they’ve in some way failed. They also might be someone with symptoms who’s keeping faith with their commitments by coming. The best solution for them is to never have booked in the first place or feel very able to postpone.

I now believe it’s better to remove nearly all restrictions so that the risk is clear to everyone. If one person in the room has covid we will all be exposed.
That way the Risk-Not-OK are less likely to book and those feeling a bit ‘peaky’ will postpone.
So far it’s worked well. In fact it’s fair to say that I feel more exposed on the tube to the venue with more people unmasked and close, than at the course.

Short Term:
In the short term the salsa dance scene may have shrunk dramatically but it's growing back and I believe it will return. If we hold on to the values at the heart of social dance: fun, friendship and respect, I'm certain it will grow and flourish.

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