We go to social dances to dance – not to stand on the sidelines! And yet, as follows, we can spend the entire night being passed over, or even worse – being rejected when we do muster up the courage to ask someone for a dance.
We hate ourselves, we beat ourselves up, and we mope about not being attractive or skanky enough, or turn to our friends for the reassurance that guys are just jerks – to tell us: “It’s not you, it’s them.”
Sometimes, it is them, but sometimes, it is us. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we do something that turns leads off – enough to make them avoid dancing with us if they can. And, because we can’t just ask leads to tell us why and expect them to give us an honest explanation, we never find out what we are doing wrong… until now.
Using this article as my excuse, I probed the minds of leads from salsa, swing, blues, and ballroom dancing to give us follows a better picture of what behaviours we need to avoid when we go out social dancing.
Think of this article as a kind of checklist to figure out if it’s you who needs to change, and what needs changing.
If you want to continue to be asked and accepted for dances, follow these tips:
1. Don’t back lead.
You’re called a “follow”/”follower” for a reason: Your role is to follow, and to listen to your lead – not only your eyes and ears, but with your body. Anticipating your lead’s moves means that you are not paying attention to what he really wants you to do. There is also a good chance you will guess incorrectly and spoil what your partner actually intended. Unless you are specifically asked to back lead (and some beginner leads do ask!), just don’t.
2. Don’t dip yourself.
This is such a major complaint that it warrants its own point: Throwing yourself down into your lead’s arms is never okay. Even if you are the skinniest person on the dance floor, you might as well be a pile of bricks if you launch or drop yourself down on your lead unexpectedly and expect him to bear all of your weight. A good dip involves both you and your lead controlling and managing the dip and your body weight. Leads won’t want to dance with you again if they are too scared of having their shoulder dislocated, back broken, or knees injured by your spontaneous, uncontrolled dips.
3. Don’t act bored and disinterested.
Crushing your lead’s ego is a good way to guarantee you’ll never be asked to dance again. Even if your partner is just starting out and only knows a couple of moves, acting visibly bored and checking out other dancers is just plain rude, and will tear away at the most confident lead’s self-esteem. Remember that you could end up kicking yourself in the future if the lead goes on to become a great dancer. Don’t expect him to want to dance with you then.
4. Don’t forget to listen to the music.
Salsa is danced with a specific count, and you need to respect this and your partner’s interpretations of it. When I first started out dancing salsa socially with no formal lessons, I had several leads tell me that they preferred dancing with me to dancing with other, higher level dancers because I was always on count, while other follows simply weren’t good at staying on beat, or kept focusing too much on their styling to follow the music. Leads don’t like it when follows try to rush moves and fit more in than the music allows (for example, going for a rushed, uncontrolled triple spin, when the lead was going for a smooth double spin). You can interpret the music (including the breaks, hits, fills, melody, and lyrics), with your styling, but don’t let it interfere with your following. As well, leads don’t like dancing with machines: Sometimes leads slow down, speed up, or do full stops on purpose, and if you choose ignore them in favour of plowing through what you are doing, you will fall out of sync. Don’t get so caught up with executing moves that you forget to pay attention to your partner and the music.
5. Don’t chastise your partner.
Leads do not want to hear you complain about their leading – and you could very well be the one making the mistakes. If you feel that you really need to let a lead know about something (for example, if he is physically hurting you), then be sensitive to your lead’s feelings, and be polite and respectful about how you bring up the issue — preferably after the dance has finished. Try to remember the specific move the lead did that hurt you so that you can explain it. Telling a lead that he is “too rough” is not going to help him change.
6. Don’t teach.
If you have never learned how to lead, chances are, your advice will be wrong. I am learning to lead (Salsa Levels 1 and 2, and Beginner Bachata) at World Dance Co., and I speak from my experience learning to lead salsa moves that I already know how to do as a follow. Every time I have asked even the most experienced follows for help, the advice they have given me has been blatantly wrong, but delivered with utter conviction that they are right. Knowing the follow’s role perfectly does not make us qualified to teach a lead his part. And unless he asks you to teach him something, it will annoy a lead to have you tell him what he should and should not do. Unless what he is doing could physically hurt you, it’s best to just let it go.
7. Don’t expect a lead to teach you in the middle of a dance.
If he tries a move several times and you still don’t get it, you could get away with asking him to explain it to you if you want to learn it. But you should not ask someone for a dance with the expectation that he will teach you new tricks and critique your dancing (especially if he is a dance instructor) – that’s what private lessons are for. Social dances are their time to kick back and have fun – don’t expect a free dance lesson. And don’t ask leads to keep trying a move with you over and over again if you can’t get it the first time.
8. Don’t fluster your lead.
Before you bust out the really complicated styling, make sure your lead will be able to handle it. If he doesn’t understand what you are doing or is not ready for it, it can really throw him off and make him too intimidated to want to dance with you again. Tailor your dancing to your lead and save your playing for the leads who will be able to appreciate and not get flustered by it.
9. Don’t forget to watch your lead’s back.
Your lead can’t see everything, so if you can tell that you’re a step away from crashing into another couple, you should warn him and stop him from moving in that direction. Leads have a lot to think about and are making a lot more decisions than you are, so you have to do your part to ensure your safety too!
10. Don’t monopolize the dance floor.
If you’re on a packed dance floor, keep your steps small and your styling compact, and be aware of the space you have. Our heels and hair are dangerous weapons. Save your big moves for when you have the space to do them without hurting anyone.
11. Don’t wear potentially dangerous clothing and accessories.
Some leads will be less likely to ask you to dance if you are decked out in safety hazards. Dangly necklaces and long braids with hair ornaments can fly up and whack your lead in the face, rings can scrape and gouge his skin, and loose scarves can get caught on his arms or hands. Weigh the pros and cons of looking good versus looking “safe” when deciding what you want to wear when you go out dancing.
12. Don’t forget to shower and brush your teeth.
Girls don’t always smell like daisies, and we sweat, too, so do take all the necessary precautions of showering before a dance, using deodorant or antiperspirant, and using breath mints or gum to keep your breath smelling decent. Guys like good hygiene as much as we do! (But don’t overdo the perfume!)
13. Don’t forget your frame and tension.
Maintaining a good frame and the right amount of tension in your arms (not too spaghetti-like or too rigid) makes it enormously easier for your partner to lead you. Good frame also helps keep you balanced and keeps your hands where your lead can find them. If your lead can’t get a good connection with you and has to struggle to execute every other move because your hands are all over the place, chances are, he will pick other follows to dance with over you.
14. Don’t follow too aggressively.
I had to ask about this one, because I didn’t quite understand how following could be too “rough.” Your lead should not have to put a brake on you after every move, and should not have to put muscle into starting or stopping you. You should not be going faster or harder than your lead tells you to. If your lead gives you enough force for a double spin, don’t try to muscle in or push yourself off for a triple spin. Don’t force fast, sharp movements just to look good for onlookers. In the social dance scene, your primary audience and concern should always be your partner.
15. Don’t follow too heavily or rigidly.
“Heaviness” has nothing to do with how much you weigh – it’s about how lightly you step. Dancing on the balls of your feet makes you easier and more enjoyable to lead. I have led girls who dance so heavily and rigidly that every move I do feels forced, and the dance feels like a fight. Struggles like this make dancing a lot less fun.
16. Don’t apologize after every mistake.
Everyone makes mistakes, and you don’t have to draw attention to each one you make. It gets old fast, and can be pretty annoying. The dance becomes less fun for you both, and the atmosphere becomes more tense. I find that I tend to apologize a lot when dancing with leads who I know are very good. The last time I did so, the lead responded by apologizing for not leading the moves well, and the entire dance became a string of apologies, when we could have just let the mistakes go and enjoyed ourselves. This habit probably won’t get you blacklisted, but will make you a less desirable dance partner, anyway. Unless your mistake involves an accident, such as hitting your partner in the face, I’d stick with a sheepish smile acknowledging but not making a bigger deal of your mistake than it really is.
17. Don’t dance too close.
I was surprised to learn that a lot of follows do this, and that they are mostly the beginners. Just because you see a lead dancing closely with a previous partner, does not mean that they are okay with dancing that close with you as well. The level of closeness people are willing to take their dancing to depends on the level of trust and connection they have with their partner. You cannot expect to grind up against a stranger the very first time you dance with them. Aside from being potentially unwelcome, it can also throw off your partner’s balance. A good rule of thumb is to always respect whatever distance your partner chooses to keep.
18. Don’t feel up your partner.
Again, don’t assume that your partner is okay with you fondling or groping him, because it can be really uncomfortable for him, and awkward to get you to stop. You should give leads the same respect you would expect for yourself.
19. Don’t treat the dance like a performance.
Remember that you are there to social dance. It’s okay to show off a little for your partner, but not for the sake of onlookers. The dance floor is an unpredictable and often crowded space, and it can be dangerous for you to attempt complicated dips, lifts, and tricks. Keep your dancing fun and safe.
20. Don’t let your styling get in the way of your following.
Even if you’re dying to try out some new styling, you can’t just throw it in whenever you feel like it: You need to make sure that your styling goes with the flow of the dance and does not throw off the beat. Staying on time and not interfering with your partner’s leading should have priority over your styling. Make sure your moves aren’t so big that you can’t finish them on time or throw off your partner. Remember – it’s a social dance, not a professional dance show!
21. Don’t act desperate.
Here’s one I have had to learn from experience: You see, I am usually the person doing the asking, because I hate sitting out dances. Once, when the last song was called and there was a lead I wanted to dance with (because I liked his leading and because there was no one in the dance area available to dance with), I went well outside of the dance area and asked him to dance anyway. Not only did I get a rejection, but I have been blacklisted. I think this is one of those situations that could only happen to me. Learn from my mistake: Don’t do things that make you appear over-eager, and respect the dance floor boundaries!
22. Don’t complain or gossip about other leads when talking to a lead.
Even if you compliment your lead on his dancing, complaining to him about other leads will only make him wonder if you will complain about him to other people if he makes a mistake in the future. I know that in some dance scenes, like blues, follows are sometimes encouraged to let certain leads know if a partner is being inappropriate or making her uncomfortable, but if you are not seeking a remedy and just want to gossip for the sake of gossiping, keep this kind of talk to your follow friends.
23. Don’t expect more than one dance.
Even if the lead asked you to dance, this does not mean that he wants to dance the next song with you, and the next, and the next… Thank him for the dance, and ask him again later in the evening, if you to dance with him again.
24. Don’t forget to smile and have fun.
It is a huge encouragement to leads when the follow looks like she is enjoying herself. It can be intimidating to dance with a follow who takes the dance too seriously and dances the entire dance with a poker face. Lighten up and have fun, and you’ll be a lot more fun to dance