Each dance has its own style and ‘standard’ look. Lindy Hoppers love their retro gear, while WCS dancers favour slacks and pants. Brazilian Zouk loves its body suits, and Tango is all about emphasizing the legs.

Beyond how we dress our bodies, there are usually ‘standard’ body highlights present in styles. For example, Kizomba showcases the derriere, and Zouk the hair. WCS emphasizes lines, and (once again) Tango emphasizes the legs.

Then, there’s also ‘genre-ideal’ body types. Are the icons of the dance tall and slender, or are they curvy and sexy? Generally, the icons of the dance start to highlight what body type will become the ‘it’ style.

‘It’ style means the body type or look that becomes (often unconsciously) synonymous with “that person is more likely going to be a good dancer”. Naturally, the ‘look’ is often a poor indication of how someone will actually dance – but in a room packed with unknown dancers, it may be one of the first things that influences someone’s decision to ask for a dance.

There are a spectrum of assumptions we make based on how a person looks. For example, assuming:

  • a person is a beginner or non-dancer because they’re not in dance shoes
  • someone will not be a good dancer because they are wearing the wrong type of dance shoes, or not dressed ‘for the genre’
  • someone heavier set will not be able to move
  • someone older will not be able to move
  • a person who is not traditionally ‘sexy’ will not be able to move sensually on the floor
  • a dancer is too tall/short to make a good partner
  • a person is the ‘wrong race’ (yes, it happens) to dance a particular style well
  • a dancer is there to pick up because they are hot/dressed sexy, or that they aren’t a ‘real’ dancer because they’re riding on looks instead of dance skills

Some of these are considered socially acceptable; others are not. For example, assuming that someone who is not wearing dance shoes is a beginner is not a ‘bad’ thing – but if you are willing to admit a bias towards ‘sexier’ people as dance partners, that is considered a big no-no.

The problem is these assumptions are not reliably accurate.

For example, almost all complete beginners will wear street shoes. However, many social dancers may also wear street shoes for a different reason. They may have forgotten their shoes at home, or may have sueded a pair of street soles. Or, their dance shoes may not be responding well to the current dance floor. However, our experience with newbies being in non-dance shoes inclines us to use that as a ‘sorting’ factor to determine if someone is a beginner dancer.

Naturally, we tend to be generally OK with beginners who are wearing street shoes. Not everyone is open to dancing regularly with beginners, but generally people tend to understand beginners because every dancer has been one. However, the people who ‘screen’ out beginners based on footwear are also the people likely to ‘screen’ others based on other appearance factors.

In addition to this, there is a disproportionate expectation on women to fulfill more of the physical ‘checkboxes’ than men… but that’s a whole other conversation.

Your look does not affect your ability to social dance… but it may affect how you are perceived in the dance scene.

You can be an awesome dancer and wear anything you like, be any weight, any race, any age, and anything else you want (or are genetically coded to be).

Your ABILITY to dance is not tied to what your body looks like or how you dress your body, unless you dress in a restrictive way or have a condition that physically prevents you from dancing in a specific fashion. For example, if you have inflexible hamstrings, you’re not going to be doing the splits on the dance floor.

I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. I’ve gone into genres where I know next-to-nothing and fit the ‘traditional’ look of what a dancer should be – and danced non-stop. I’ve also been in new venues where I don’t ‘fit’ the standard but know the dance – and have experienced the ‘waiting to be asked’ for long periods of time, before deciding to just do the asking myself.

It certainly feels nicer to be in the former category, but it’s not the only way to have a ton of fun.

One of the easiest ways to get past that idea is to remember that there are people of the opposite role who are having the SAME problems you are having. They know what they’re doing – but don’t fit the ‘image’. If you are open to asking for your dances (dance culture permitting), you can find these people. This is, of course, more from the perspective of a female follow, since the burden often falls on traditional male leads or non-traditional leads/follows to do the asking.

When it comes to people who ‘discriminate’ based on your dance appearance, they generally fall into two categories:

The People who are Actively Avoiding Dances with Specific People

There is a small subset of people in the dance scene who are particularly prone to ‘judge-a-book-by-its-cover-itis’. If dancing with these people is important to you, you’ll need to show them how well you do dance and ‘prove’ that you are not defined by your appearance.

Whether or not dancing with those people is important enough for you to try to impress them is your call – and your call alone. There are plenty of people who will be totally willing to dance with you even if you don’t fit into the ‘ideal’ visual category for that genre – including frigging amazing dancers and many professionals. 

These are the typically people who come to mind when we talk about judgemental dancers. However, they are definitely in the minority of dance partners out there. The vast majority of people who are ‘judging’ people by how they look aren’t actually trying to avoid certain people; they are just Accidental Overlookers.

The Accidental Overlookers

You may run into a lot of accidental-overlookers. These are the people who are not specifically avoiding dances with you because of your appearance. Instead, they are drawn towards others first and therefore never get around to asking you.  If you ask them, they may give you a GREAT dance and be very happy to dance with you. They simply needed help to notice you.

For example, they could be drawn more overtly to people who fit a stereotypical image of what a dancer looks like. It doesn’t mean that they have anything against non-stereotypical dancers; it simply is that stereotypical dancers catch their eye more. Particularly in larger scenes or at event weekends, there’s a huge array of potential partners. Therefore, many people subconsciously select someone based on a first ‘visual’ impression.

With Accidental Overlookers, one of the best ways to catch their attention is to make eye contact, smile, or otherwise look like you want to dance with them. Or, even better, ask them to dance! Often, they’ll be more than happy to dance with almost anyone who asks them; they just needed help noticing you over every other person in the room.

Could the Accidental Overlookers go out of their way to ask people who fall outside the norms? Yes. But, no one is perfect – and many aren’t even aware that they’re selecting based on these criteria. For them, they just see someone who catches their eye. It doesn’t even register that they had to ignore 100 other people in order to see that person who caught their attention.

If you want to be asked frequently for dances, you will improve your chances by ‘looking the part’

This is simply a fact. When I go to a tango social, I dress up. I get dolled-up, and I wear my most tango-esque dance shoes. Why? Because I really don’t know all that much tango, and it’s considered culturally inappropriate for me to ask for dances (which I still think is utterly ridiculous). So, I’m riding on the fact that if I ‘look’ like a tango dancer, I’m more likely to attract the attention of unknown tango leads.

This approach works almost *too* well. Luckily for me, I have transferable follow skills that also make me at least pleasant (albeit not thrilling) to dance with. So, it works on both fronts: the leads ask, and then they are pleased enough with my actual dancing to ask me again at a later time.

This contrasts deeply with when I go to Zouk socials in my city. In Zouk, everyone knows me, so I have no issue getting dances. I also can ask for dances, without being dance-culture inappropriate. This means I’m more likely to dress in line with my ‘normal’ standard of dance attire – clean, appropriate, but not dressed to the nines.

The decision whether you prefer to ‘look the part’ is yours alone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing whatever you want to social dancing – but unfortunately it will impact your chances of getting asked to dance in venues where you are not a familiar face. If you look like you are outside the mold, you will likely need to take a more active role in pursuing partners.

Of course, my favourite idea is to simply focus on the good-natured dancers in the community.

Accidental Overlookers don’t bother me because they still will generally be warm and inviting once they notice you. However, when there are truly judgmental dancers, I prefer to simply move on. There’s so many wonderful people in the dance world; why get bogged down by those who have decided to practice dance based on exclusion?

Whatever your appearance, you belong in the dance scene – and there are people who are happy to dance with you. At the end of the day, a good attitude will open the doors to many amazing dances with many fantastic people – regardless of appearance, skill, or anything else. Always remember that 🙂


Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios