Such an important (and difficult) question! I’m so glad you wrote. Let’s think this out:
If you’re dancing with someone you think might be interested or you hope is interested, chances are you are at a party or some sort of social gathering. It’s possible alcohol is involved for one or both of you. This is totally normal, but important to know it might change how we read signs of interest or disinterest! When we go into these spaces we have pre-existing scripts. Things we believe about sex, gender, and alcohol. For example, if I grew up with messages from the media that women drink to loosen their inhibitions so they can hook up without feeling the social pressure to stay chaste → I might misread indicators of disinterest as interest because I am predisposed to look for signs that reinforce my scripts. And if I am drinking, my insistence on these scripts grows because my ability to read nuance decreases.
You might be thinking ‘Great, so how on earth is anyone supposed to know if someone else is interested? You can’t seriously be telling me I have to get verbal confirmation every time!’ And fair enough. Wanting to just go with the flow is normal and also maybe feels like there is less room for outright rejection. If I put my hand on someone’s waist and they move it, fine, I move on. If I ask and they say no, I’m embarrassed. Aside from the obvious fact that embarrassment is less risky and painful than sexual assault and therefore important for us to overcome when seeking consent, there are times when a verbal ask won’t be necessary. How do you know when that time has come? Well, only the people involved in the situation can answer that question. No amount of words here will be able to confirm or refute that two people (or more) are totally vibing and looking for more than just dancing.
Some helpful tips? Don’t rely on what you’ve seen on television or in movies to determine what is sexy or how people display interest. If someone moves away from you, don’t take that as hard-to-get, give them their space. If someone is dancing with their friends or solo, don’t assume you’re invited. Look for eye contact, a hand inviting you in, or find a way to dance with them without dancing ON them. Ask them if they want to dance before they make it to the dance floor. If the dancing is a go and everyone is enjoying themselves, and you know you’re interested in hooking up, but you still don’t know if they are, it might be helpful to let them take the lead. Let them take your hand or lean in for a kiss. If you know this person and you are familiar with their social cues already, it might be easier to gauge whether they are reciprocating your interest or not. If they were a stranger before this dance and there is even an off-chance that they are not interested, this is when it is time to involve more direct communication.
Even when we are asking outright there are plenty of ways to keep it sexy. The important thing is to leave room for them to say ‘No’ safely. Are you older than they are? Is there a difference in your social status? Is the party in your space and they’ve just come by for the night? What are your identities in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability? All of these things can be at play when we are asking what we think is a simple question. Being cognizant of how the other person might feel is part of how we respect their autonomy and personhood- and for some people, this is just the mood-setter they need to feel good about giving an enthusiastic yes.
Good luck out there on the dance floor!
Director of OSAPR
Thanks for writing! It’s awesome that you’re thinking hard about this rather than just making assumptions in the moment. Especially out at parties, alcohol and horniness and dancing can affect people’s judgment so it’s definitely a good idea to have some personal guidelines about party hookups before the night starts.
First, the tough reality is that dance floor horror stories are incredibly common. Too many people have had the experience of dancing casually with someone who misreads or assumes signals and makes a super unwanted move. I’m not saying this to scare you or stop you from ever trying to hook-up with someone at a party! It’s just important to realize how easy (especially especially when people have been drinking and when, like Alicia wrote, we have ingrained scripts about social cues) it is to misread a situation and do something that would be really unwanted.
The easiest answer about “getting intuition” is honestly to ask. I know, I know, it’s awkward and may feel strange but just think about how much better that quick moment of weirdness is then the feeling of ending the night as the archetypal dance floor creep. And I promise, the more practice you get asking before trying anything, the less and less weird it will seem. Like Alicia said, later on in relationships verbalized questions may be less important. But at a party, especially with people you don’t know very well, especially if alcohol is involved, and especially if there is a social power dynamic between the two off you, asking is so incredibly important. Asking about making moves doesn’t have to be this formal super scripted process. It can be casual, like an “Is this okay?” so long as you give them the space to say no.
Worry about seeming overzealous is totally understandable. I’d say that in a party situation, it’s important to take your time. Generally - but not always! - dance floor hook-ups follow a relatively standard set of steps; usually starting by dancing casually then maybe dancing more intimately and then maybe making out and possibly going further. Especially if this is your first time hooking up with the person, don’t rush forward and don’t forget to keep getting consent with each step. Enjoying the process together without trying to focus on some “hook-up goal” that you’ll be bummed if you don’t get to, will make the experience more fun for everyone involved!
Have fun and good luck!