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Beyond Dance Etiquette

People dance socially mostly for the pure joy of it. For the dancing enthusiast, nothing compares to the thrill of moving with grace and harmony to a beautiful piece of music with that wonderful partner of the moment.

But anyone who has ever been to a social dance notices that not everyone is having a good time, or at least not equally so. While some sit out many dances, others are constantly in demand. These fortunate dancers seem not only to have a great time, they also transfer their sense of joy to others around them. There is something about these individuals that transcends good looks and dancing skill. How do they do it? What are the personal qualities, habits, and skills that lead to success on the social dance floor? This article explores answers to these questions.



Etiquette and Beyond

Success in a social activity requires awareness of accepted norms of behavior. The importance of dance etiquette to the social dancer can hardly be overstated. Etiquette is important everywhere, but especially in dancing, a delicate activity where unpleasantness has no place.

Dance communities tend to be fairly small, giving a nice self-enforcing characteristic to dance etiquette. Inconsiderate individuals may temporarily enjoy themselves at other dancers' expense. But they quickly develop a reputation, mostly unbeknownst to them, and become outcasts. A good reputation, as a considerate and enjoyable partner, is a social dancer's best asset.

In the following we touch on a few of the more important aspects. For more details see the accompanying article ``Elements of Dance Etiquette.''

  • Never blame your partner for anything that may happen on the dance floor. Not if you want him/her to dance with you again.

  • A request for a dance must be accepted under almost all circumstances. If you decline a dance, you yourself cannot dance until the end of that song.

  • No unsolicited teaching on the dance floor! There is a good chance this will make your partner feel small and humiliated. Not exactly a great way of encouraging him/her, or others, to dance with you.

  • Do not monopolize a partner on the dance floor. Dancers are polite and rarely say no to a dance, but this is no carte blanche to impose on their kindness. Dance with everyone, and let everyone dance.

  • On the floor, be considerate of the other couples. Exercise good floorcraft; do not cut other couples off; no aerials or choreographed steps on the dance floor.

What we discussed so far is usually considered the domain of dance etiquette. Anyone who consistently violates the rules of dance etiquette will eventually be shunned in the local dance community, so the first step towards success in dancing is to follow the rules of dance etiquette. Once we have mastered the etiquette, it is time to move beyond it and learn what else can we do to become popular in the dancing circles. The remainder of this article is dedicated to that topic.


Make Your Partner Happy

The single biggest secret of success in social dancing is to make your partners happy. Once you succeed at this task, your popularity will soar and you will never have a shortage of willing and enthusiastic partners to dance with.

Realization of this fact is an important first step. Then, one needs to master the skills needed to actually implement this policy. There are many ways you can make your partner happy, among them:


No uncomfortable leads: Cranking your follower's arm to make her turn, pushing and pulling to bring her into position, and other forceful leads will not be appreciated. If she is not doing what you want, then probably your lead was not skillful enough. Unless you know a pattern well, do not execute it on the social dance floor. Keep it for classes and practice time, until you have mastered the pattern, then bring it on the social dance floor. If the lead is good and the follower is still not following, again the leader is at fault, because he is leading a pattern too difficult for his follower.


No back-leading: When you ask or accept to follow someone in a dance, you implicitly agree to let them lead. While this doesn't mean you have to be a perfect follower, or even a particularly good one, it does mean that you should not try to lead them. It is disrespectful and disturbing to your partner when you steal the lead; you are rejecting their contribution to the partnership.


Protect your partner: For the leader this has two aspects. The first is floorcraft. Anticipate the movement of other dancers, and match your figures to empty spaces on the floor, so that you do not run your partner into other couples. Secondly, if there is imminent danger of collision, pull your partner close and turn, so that you absorb the blow. The follower can also protect her partner by keeping an eye out behind his back. If a couple is approaching from his blind spot, a small pressure on his shoulder or hand can warn him of possible collision.


Entertain your partner: You are there not only to have a good time yourself, but also to entertain your partner. This means, among other things, making him/her comfortable, dancing at a level that is enjoyable for both, and maintaining a good sense of humor if something goes wrong. If you are a perfectionist in your dance studies, leave it behind in social dancing. Own up to mistakes if yours, but do not dwell on them either way. Playfulness and lightheartedness in dancing also goes a long way. Look at your partner and smile (except in dances one is not supposed to). Focus not on yourself, but on your partner.


Make your partner feel appreciated: The most popular dancers are not necessarily the most skillful, but rather the ones who make clear to each partner how much that person's company is appreciated and enjoyed. Most people would rather not dance with someone who acts bored or put upon, no matter how amazing their dancing is.


The annoyance factor: There are many things that may be acceptable in everyday situations, and yet can be very annoying when done at very close proximity, as one has to be while dancing. In particular, avoid humming to the music, counting the steps, or chewing gum while dancing.

It is worthwhile to repeat once more the cardinal rule of social dancing: You are happy when your partner is happy.


Who is Popular?

At this point you are a considerate social dancer who always puts his/her partner first. But building a reputation takes time. What makes someone popular at first sight? If you look around a dance hall at the start of a song, you will see dancers going around, scanning the crowd, looking for their next partner. Surely, you think to yourself, they don't all know their potential partners. Then what are they looking for? Here are some answers:


Good dancers are in demand: This is by far the most effective way of becoming popular in the dancing circles. Regardless of everything else, good dancers are always in demand. This should serve as a powerful incentive to try and improve your dancing. There is no need to know a million patterns; but one needs to have good technique and lead/follow. Practice, practice, practice! Then practice some more.


Dancers seek dancers: Dancers are more likely to seek those they see dancing on the floor. Only as a second choice do they turn to those sitting on the sidelines. Maybe this is due to a feeling of confidence that someone seen on the floor is actually a dancer, or a pleasant dancer, or is less likely to decline a dance. Whatever the reason, if you are seen dancing on the floor, you have a better chance of getting the next dance. Think of it as a form of dancers' inertia. Getting over this inertia will help you have a pleasant night of dancing. Do your best to get the first few dances once you arrive at a dance event; it gets easier afterwards.


Dance shoes: Dancers look for dancers, but how does one spot a dancer (unless you see one dancing)? The answer is: dance shoes! At a dance event where people don't know each other, you will see experienced dancers scan the crowd, not looking at faces, but rather looking at the feet! Making an investment in a pair of dance shoes is a sign of enthusiasm for dancing. Dancers know that, so wearing dance shoes will increase your chances of getting asked to dance.


Dancers seek those who say ``yes'': Being turned down for a dance is never fun. Besides, it is a waste of time: with only a few seconds between songs, if one gets turned down once or twice, the next song is a loss. If you decline dances, or if you look stern, or hard to please, your chances of being asked to dance will be reduced, which brings us to the next point.


Eagerness, willingness to dance: Stand close to the edge of the dance floor. Watch the dancers on the floor, tap your foot to the music. Smile. Dancers will be attracted to you if they feel you want to dance. Better yet, don't wait to be asked. Go ask someone to dance! What is the worst that can happen? Even if you are turned down, you have demonstrated your willingness to dance.


Sense of humor, pleasantness: Be nice to your partner. He/She was certainly nice enough to ask you to dance, or agree to dance with you, so return the favor. Remember, you are there to have fun, so have fun! Have, or at least emulate, a pleasant demeanor. Most importantly, smile!


Physical attraction: This is the one factor that is somewhat out of our control, but it is undeniable that in dancing, as everywhere else, good-looking people have an advantage. Men, especially, will gravitate to pretty women. Women, while lamenting the shallowness of men, generally behave no better.

That said, for the most of us who are not endowed with movie-star looks, there is good news. Good looks might help in getting the first dance, but in the long run, personality, sense of humor, and most importantly good dancing skills, trumps good looks (at least on the dance floor).


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Looking Inside

When all is said and done, your happiness in social dancing depends more on you than anyone else. If you are determined to have a good time, and have a good attitude, you have a good chance of enjoying your dancing experience.


The first ingredient of a good attitude is a sense of humor. Take all that comes to you in stride. If you are not asked for dances, or are turned down a few times, don't be bothered. If a particular dance does not go well, if you misstep in a pattern or two, let it pass. You can do no better than your best. Be nice to other dancers, continue to improve your dancing, and you will have a progressively more enjoyable dancing experience.


Dancers are in general a likeable bunch. But in dancing, as elsewhere, you will come across all types. Sooner or later, someone may rub you the wrong way, or even worse, be directly obnoxious to you. You may see gigantic egos, unsightly ambitions, and plain unkindness. Especially if you are a novice dancer, these circumstances can be frustratingly difficult to deal with. Thankfully these situations are rare, but at such times it is especially important to look inside and draw on your strength of character.

The key to enjoyment in dancing is awareness of your goal: to enjoy dancing. Enjoyment is contagious and cumulative. People like to be around individuals who enjoy themselves. Be one of those individuals. Be determined not to let small things spoil your evening of dancing.


To enjoy dancing, you must enjoy the music. If you are not already a musical person, develop an understanding and appreciation of the music. It will also help your understanding of the dance.


Active, outgoing personalities have an advantage in social dancing. Even if you are not naturally that way, try and cultivate a pro-active approach to your dancing. If you like a song and want to dance, if you like a partner and want to dance with him/her, don't hesitate to go and ask. Make friends in the dancing community. You would be surprised how much an occasional smile and salutation can do. There are virtually hundreds of individuals out there waiting to be friends with you. All it takes is a minimum level of effort from you.


Ultimately no-one and nothing can make you happy or unhappy. Only you can make you happy. Dancing can help.



'Excerpts' from Success and Enjoyment in Social Dancing "Aria Nosratinia"


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