Who Should Choose?

This post is about Finnish social dances called ”lavatanssit”, but I am sure some argentine tango dancers will find it interesting as well.

The traditional custom in these dances is that men invite women to dance, and that women should in general accept the invitation, unless the person is visibly drunk.

There are exceptions, including ”women’s hour” where the invitation roles are reversed.

Before the song starts, women and men arrange into two opposing formations, called ”lines”. In practice they are never lines, but several lines after each other.

The custom is that these lines self-organize in a way that those who consider themselves younger or better dancers stand closer to the orchestra, whereas beginners and older people go towards the other end.

Historically, this is based on custom where there used to be a special place for the daughters of the families with the highest social ranking, i.e. daughters of the wealthiest houses. This was called ”kermapenkki”, literally meaning cream seat.

Nowadays this name is no longer used, but the corner with those who are deemed choosiest with their partners (i.e. closest to the orchestra, sometimes little
seperate from the rest of the line) are sometimes called ”nirppanurkka”. ”Nirppa” is shorthand for ”nirppanokka”, which means sourpuss, whereas ”nurkka” is ”corner”. The expression is not neutral and not used as a compliment, although some people self-identify with it.

While this is the general way the invites are organized, there are many variations on the theme (such as ladies night when the invitations are reversed ), and there are many additional quirks and unwritten rules as well.

Traditionally, the invite is done by going in the front of the person, looking them into eyes, offering your hand, and asking ”may I have the permission?” I don’t know the history of the expression, but I suspect the permission used to be asked from the chaperones, not the invitee. Some modern variations of this.

Never being rejected opens opportunities to various kind of antisocial behavior. For example, some older dancers (typically men) are considered to be preying on young dancers, and this is frowned upon.

While outright rejection on invitation is considered somewhat rude, it still happens. More typical is ”naamapakit” (literally face rejection) where the invitee leaves the line when unwanted inviter is approaching.

Some people are standing outside the line all the time,  either standing or sitting noticeably outside it. This allows the invitee more leeway in deciding whether they want to dance. It is more acceptable to refuse unwanted invitations when you are not standing in line.

The discussions in social media often revolve around the question who should be doing the invitations. Some women, especially those who feel they get less invites than others, complain about the old-fashioned customs and demand equality, so they would also get to dance.

One related peculiarity happens during women’s hours and women’s nights. As women’s line is typically next to the wall, and men are standing closer to the center of the dance hall, the uninvited men need to leave their place when the dance hall starts to be filled by dancers, underlining the fact that nobody invited them. Uninvited women can often just go back one step, and sit down on benches behind them.

Also, there is the undercurrent that these men were so undesirable as dance partners that even those women who complain that they do not get enough invites did not invite them. Often there are several men who do not get invites at all.

The reality is more complex. The social status seems to influence when women choose their dance partners. If somebody is popular, then he is more desirable by everybody, and if nobody wants to dance with somebody, he becomes undesirable, even untouchable. I have experienced both ends of the spectrum. It is mind boggling to some women to hear that I have sometimes been one of the last guys standing. But my experience is not untypical, I suspect all experienced leaders share this experience.

I do not have any actual proof, but I suspect from use of language that while it was a custom not to refuse invites, there was strong social control over who was supposed to invite whom. Hired hands would not invite daughters of wealthy houses and so on.

Some of the undesirable side effects of the current system seem to stem from the lack of social control combined with the increased selfishness. Caricature of this attitude is a person who feels they have the right to dance with anybody they want. Also, extreme choosiness creates a less positive atmosphere.

About Mikko

A man hopelessly bitten by the argentine tango bug.
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