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Apr 25 2009

Men, Women and Dancing

Published by at 3:54 am under Miscellaneous

You have to imagine this scene; 500 men and women in sexy, casual dress at a big conference hotel for three days of socializing, flirting and dancing to swing music. This was the annual Boston Tea Party at the Framingham, MA, Sheraton, There are weekends like this all year long, all with the same format: lessons all day Friday and Saturday, dancing all night, until three or four in the morning, more of the same on Sunday.

For the lessons, the huge hotel ballrooms are cut in half by fold-out walls and about seventy five couples are arranged in a line snaking up and down, up and down. Skilled teachers with big personalities and cordless headset mikes lead the crowd through new steps asking the couples to change partners every two minutes. By the end of the lesson every leader has danced with every follower. It’s like non-verbal speed dating.

A good rule for meeting someone interesting is to make the first encounter brief and pleasant. Then, when you meet them the second time, they already know you. They are more open. Dancing with someone in a lesson makes it easier to ask them to dance later, at the open dances. By the end of the days’ lessons, people have had a hundred or so brief encounters. Talk about working a room.

The evenings are for dancing, performances, contests and more dancing. Two different ballrooms, one with old fashioned, welcoming swing from the thirties, forties, and fifties, and the other room thumping with glitzy, do-you-want-to-do-me, eighties and nineties disco music. It’s a study in flirtation.

With the exception fungi, which sometimes come in four sexes, almost every other complex form of life on this planet bugs, birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals comes in two sexes. All life forms that move do a mating dance. To live is to reproduce. To reproduce is to flirt.

There are a lot of scientific studies of flirtation. My favorites are listed on the web page but if you have a taste for dense reading, the best book on it, for my money, is by (a man with the strangely resonant name for a sex researcher) Timothy Perper. His book is called Sex Signals. The other book I like is by David Givens and he has a great website on non-verbal communication and his book is called Love Signals.

A mating dance is a dance that is a conversation. The little beasts and bugs who enter it don’t know at the outset how it is going to end. Sometimes the guys get lucky. Sometimes they get rejected. In a few cases they get eaten. Females determine the outcome.

Despite my nerdish streak, I’m not going to say that these swing dance weekends are “nothing but” mating dances. I will say, however, that we spoke to Dan Metz, the capable organizer of the event and he told me that, in the weeks after the event he gets a lot of questions from participants along the lines of, “Who was that redhead from Leominster, MA, with the short green dress?”

A featured competition at the dance weekends is the “Jack and Jill.” contest. The women put their names in a fish bowl and the men draw their partner from the bowl. So you have a contest for which contestants can not rehearse, a contest in improvising.

You might expect this from a dance rooted in jazz. “The innovation of jazz was that a group of people can come together and improvise art, and can negotiate their agendas and that negotiation is the art.” (Wynton Marsalis)
In the Jack and Jill, men and women are negotiating their agendas. What is that male agenda and that female agenda being negotiated here?

The Jack and Jill contests end, at 1:00 am Saturday night with a grand and wild climax. Instead of a Jack and Jill context, Jack and Jack, and Jill and Jill contests. Men dance with men; women with women. Hence the name of the contest: “Bookends.”

The contest tells you something fundamental about the difference between the male and female approach to courtship.

What didn’t happen with the men and did happened with the women was sexuality. These women slithered. They worked their hips, held their backs high and their breasts raised. The room steamed. They left their audience in wet silence. The m.c., weak in the knees, said “Uh, could we see that last dance again?” My gorgeous female friend said in my ear, “Women really know how to do each other, don’t they.” Female sexuality is public; male sexuality is private.

How would the men answer?

They didn’t get sexy. They got loony. Then, one of the guys, build like a linebacker and coupled with guy built like a bantam-weight wrestler, threw his partner in the air. Another tried to lift his partner and collapsed in the process. He straightened, grabbed his partner and spun himself and his partner through about fifteen whizzing turns across the floor. Another guy started doing push-ups over his partner, a clownish version of humping. Then the first two guys turned their backs to the audience, legs apart, pulled off their belts like strippers and see-sawed the belts up and down their crotches. Another couple did a bawdy imitation of one of the women’s hot moves.

If the women left us silenced and breathless, the men left us laughing and gasping. What the women showed off was sensuality and sexuality. What men showed off was rowdy imagination and daring.

I once asked Robert Bly what about difference between men in retreats and women. He said that after a three days the men got zany. He said he’d spoken to women who ran women’s retreats. They said that the women got lewd.

I saw echoes of this in gender research by Eleanor Macooby. During nursery school free play little boys run around and bang into each other, all in the spirit of great, good fun. Little girls, in contrast, create scenarios and role playing games. They practice relating.

In the sex survey on web site for the last two months, a replication of Perper’s early work, women are much more alert, precise, specific about what they need to do to encourage, regulate and control the sexual activity. Men, in contrast, show up, show off and hope to get lucky.

Men take their relationship cues — stop, go, more, less, faster, slower — from women. This is so deep in our culture that man who doesn’t recognize that “no” means “no” risks gets in legal trouble.

Women know they are flirting before men realize they are being flirted with. When some woman’s husband or boyfriend is being flirted with by another woman, the wife or girlfriend says, “I don’t trust her.” The man says, “Whatyamean?”

Women control sexual initiative in a relationships until the moment they hand over control to the men. Before women hand over initiative, it’s called flirting. After they hand over initiative, it’s called foreplay.

And there are biological reasons for it, at least according to evolutionary psychologists. Compared to a man, who has hundreds of chances to father a child, a woman has maybe 12 chances in a life time. This concentrates her mind and refines her decision making.

This is a strange kind of open secret. Men audition; women encourage, “Show me what you got.” Men find this invitation hard to resist.

What a woman wants to know is how far will a man extend himself to please her. What a man wants to know is how well he will be appreciated. Some men show how much they have to give just for the joy of showing it.

Women carry a double edged sword. They must, and do, consciously, create sexual atmosphere. Clothing, cleavage, legs, perfumes, lipstick, poses. At the same time they are hundreds of times more particular than men about who gets close to them.

At midlife, for the most part, the time for coupling to create families is past. But the mechanisms and habits of flirtation and courtship linger.

At the very least, for long term relationships, women still want men to display how much they are willing to, and capable of, investing. But being capable of is not the same as being willing to. How much a man is willing to invest becomes more evident only over time.

You can see the inevitable tension. This does not change at midlife.

If any of you dear readers have some thoughts, or ideas about the implications of what I’ve said, I would appreciate hearing from you. And I will share some of the response in the next letter. Thanks
What’s New At Dating At Midlife.

Last month I did my first teleclass and it was, well, a learning experience. One week the conference call line double booked us and when we called in we were in the middle of someone else’s class. But still, the conversations were great.

Web site seems to be averaging 70 hits a day. You readers seem to be forwarding this letter and the link to your friends. It’s a great vote of confidence. thank you.

I’ve opened a new local office in town with a very gifted therapist, Luanne Hightower. We have some very promising ways to help people through their midlife transformation. I deeply appreciate having such a wise collaborator.

The on-the-phone coaching and counseling practice keeps developing steadily. In addition to regular one-on-one coaching I am now working with small groups. The fee is less and the groups become support groups.

Sue has a new article up. Someone wrote in and asked for a definition of love. It prompted a good essay by her. She is also working on a piece about how women respond to the tendency for older men to go out with younger women. If you have any thoughts on this, please write her.

Finally, (forgive me for this) an editorial.

These are strange times. Part of maturity is the capacity to face reality and think about it. Still, it is amazing how powerful the invitations are to not become more mature. This week’s TV Guide, staring at me from the Supermarket Check-out has a picture of the cartoon character, Spongebob Squarepants, and the following headline: “Sad? Lonely? Anxious. Watch these TV shows and feel better fast.”


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