Have you ever intentionally hurt or made someone uncomfortable while you were social dancing?

(No? That’s what I thought)

Now the trickier one… have you ever felt like someone intentionally hurt or made YOU uncomfortable while you were social dancing with them? What about, while not intentional, negligence (a lack of care) was responsible for the injury?

I think it’s likely a lot of us would answer ‘Yes’ to that statement.

Actor-Observer Bias

Earlier, I was reading an article on something called Actor-Observer Bias. The short explanation of this bias is:

  • When we do something, we focus on the good intentions and the situational factors that caused something negative to happen
  • When someone else does something, we focus on the shortcomings of their personality or their ‘bad intentions’.

Obviously, it’s a lot more nuanced than that in long form. If you’re interested in those nuances, there are some fantastic articles and explanations out there.

I think this bias affects us in our social dance world. For example, our experiences with ‘bad’ leads or follows. I’m going to lay out a couple scenarios:

Example A:

The follow’s perspective: You’re a follow dancing with a lead. This lead is rough, and is jerking you through movements at 2x the speed. You feel you need to be very careful to protect yourself. It is an unpleasant dance. During the entire dance, you are frustrated at the lead for being so inconsiderate of your physical needs, and for being dangerous. He is clearly an uncaring person.

The lead’s perspective: You’re trying really hard to give your partner a great dance. You notice she’s not smiling, so you throw every pattern you know at her in an attempt to stimulate her smile. You know you’re not that proficient, but figure that at least as you’re leading it approximately right it will be more interesting for her than just doing basics. But, she still won’t smile. What a sour, egotistical woman.


In this example, the follow assumes that the lead is inconsiderate because the lead is rough and uncomfortable. The assumption isn’t a lack of knowledge; it’s an assumption that this is a result of his carelessness and insensitivity to the follow.

Meanwhile, the lead feels that they is trying to give the follow a good dance. However, the lead is frustrated and annoyed by the fact that the follow won’t smile when they’re trying everything they can to make a fun dance happen.

Example B:

The lead’s perspective: You’re trying to lead, and the follow just won’t listen. They’re so wrapped up in their own appearance; all they care about is styling and looking good. The follow is clearly superficial; they won’t listen to any communication between the partners. It’s so frustrating when a follow won’t actually dance with you. They need to stop focusing on themselves so much.

The follow’s perspective: You’re really concerned that your partner isn’t going to like what you’re doing, or that you’re going to look bad doing it. You want to make the best possible impression. You’ve seen head movement, so you add it to everything in hopes that it will satisfy your lead that you. can. dance. Maybe if you show the lead what you can do, they’ll lead the cool stuff that you’ve seen them do with other follows.

But, this lead is stubborn. They’re giving you that ‘pity dance’ attitude. If they didn’t want to dance, they should have just said ‘no’ instead of being an egotistical asshole who tries to make their partner feel like crap.


In this dance, the lead assumes that the follow is self-centered and superficial because they’re not contributing properly to the connection of the dance. Meanwhile, the follow feels the lead is being a selfish prick for giving a ‘pity dance’ feeling.

The Problem

Aside from people engaging in blatantly disrespectful behaviors (i.e. butt grabbing; neck-licking), most people are not trying to be jerks when they’re dancing. Most people really are trying to give the best dance they can to their partner.

If you ask almost anyone, they have never tried to ‘be a dick’ to their partner on the floor. But, if you talk to that same person, they’ll be able to tell you who they feel has ‘attitude’ and many other issues. They’ll tell you who is inconsiderate, who hurts, and more.

It’s important to note that there are people in dance who have a legitimately bad attitude. There are people out there who simply don’t dance with people on the basis of partners being ‘boring’ or ‘not advanced enough’. But, those are their words – not the description we cast upon them from limited interactions. This article does not apply to those people.

The problem this article discusses is when we project a perceived ‘negative’ quality onto someone because we didn’t like how they physically danced.

For example: the rough lead. Most leads that I’ve met aren’t trying to be rough. Some may actively be trying to correct their roughness. But, seething at them silently is a heck of a lot less constructive than telling them what you DO like.

The same can be applied to ‘crazy’ follows. Telling them how much you love when a follow is calm and in the moment is a lot more effective than thinking they’re just a selfish, superficial woman who ignores their dance partners and is ‘performing’ for an ‘audience’.

The (Potential) Fix

I’m not advocating for teaching on the floor – but I am advocating for an understanding that people generally come into dancing with good intentions. No one wants to be a bad partner. Everyone is doing the best they can to be a good partner with whatever skills they have.

Therefore, Step 1 is assuming the best of intentions from all but the most obviously ill-intended partners. This basically includes everyone but people who are molesting, grabbing, groping, or otherwise harassing a partner on the floor.

If you have the skills, this is where compensation can come in. This is where you use your skills to keep yourself safe, but you can also use your generosity to make the dance fun. You can also use body language to try to get your point across without projecting negative energy. If necessary, you can also say something if a particular behavior feels really unsafe or uncomfortable.

Step 2 is finding a constructive way to field the problem, if you want to. There’s no obligation to say something, but depending on your relationship with the person it can be constructive.

For example, it could be telling a rough lead that you love leads who are very gentle and soft. Or, complimenting them when they have a move that was very pleasant to follow. It can even be mentioning to them (if the appropriate situation arises) that sometimes you have difficulty dancing with them because they use more forceful movements than you need.

For a ‘crazy’ follow, it could be mentioning how much you love follows who wait for the next movement, or how easy it is when a follow waits for a lead before entering a certain movement. Or, if the situation arises, you could mention that you sometimes are worried about dancing with them because some of the follow’s movements make you worried for their safety.


Good intentions don’t necessarily change the negative experience of a particular dance. However, they also shouldn’t be what we use to judge the other dancer as a person.

The next time a dancer does something you don’t like, take a moment to think: are they doing this intentionally because they are a bad person, or is this simply a symptom that they don’t have the skills yet?

If you realize that it’s not a sign that they’re a bad person, do your best to treat them with dignity, respect and care. Recognize that your own biases and the experience you’re having does not necessarily reflect who this person is – it’s situational. It’s experience, misunderstanding, or a misguided attempt to make a dance good.

You’ll both be the happier for it.


Have thoughts? Share, and leave your comments below.