We know how awesome it feels to dance with a great lead or follow. We know that it’s important to be able to assess your partner during the dance to maximize your positive experience. We know that attitude plays an important part, and that there are some things you just shouldn’t do.

But, how much should we compensate for a partner who is doing stuff wrong? When there’s a person who is obviously not trying to really mess with the dance, but they’re just not at a place yet where the dance is comfortable?

Note: compensation does not mean putting yourself in danger. Both leads and follows have the right to not engage with something that they feel is dangerous. Compensation means things you can do to mitigate the negative without sacrificing your safety.

For an extreme example, think about if you’re in a confrontation with a drunk friend. Mitigation and compensation would be using your words to calm the individual down, even if it wasn’t your fault the fight started. Confronting the situation would be escalating it (like by telling them to throw that punch they’ve been threatening). This would be the equivalent of digging in your heels and refusing to compensate: your way or the high way. You could also just ‘take’ the punches (the equivalent of putting yourself in dance danger), or you could choose to completely disengage and walk away – if the situation was threatening enough.

My Rule: Compensation First

If I enter a dance with the attitude that I will ONLY do what they lead and will NOT compensate, I will generally be disappointed. If I enter a dance with the attitude that they WILL follow what I lead, I will also generally be disappointed. I prefer to save this attitude for the classroom, where it is actually helpful.

You know those leads and follows that EVERYONE loves to dance with? Everyone loves to dance with them because they compensate for their partners like crazy.

I do not necessarily claim to be an expert in this all the time, but the results of trying are quite successful. I have had dances with people who could barely do the basic who told me afterwards that it was the most amazing dance ever – and that they finally figured out how fun this was. That they didn’t feel self-conscious with me, despite the fact that I’m a teacher.

Usually what I did were not ‘official’ steps or techniques. Leads went in weird directions at weird times. Feet weren’t necessarily where they needed to be. But, I made it fun for myself. I played a little more, worried about dancing ‘correctly’ a little less. I didn’t take the stance that I would NOT do the movement if it wasn’t a ‘good’ lead. The result? They loved it. I had fun. Everyone was happy.

I want you to think of a pro who you really really enjoy social dancing with. I want you to think of that feeling that they give you: everything works in some way. You feel great about your dancing. You aren’t nervous. I guarantee that at some point you have done something they weren’t expecting, or that was imperfect.

The reason it felt like it worked? Usually, they decided to roll with it. They ENJOY rolling with the unexpected.  Conversely, when a pro that we really want to impress does something unexpected or messes up a little, we try really hard to work with it because we assume it is our fault – not theirs. So, it feels like it worked anyways. And suddenly, you have a happy, connected dance because you and they wanted to make it a happy, connected dance.

Compensation Opens Up Possibilities

The beautiful thing about compensation is that it adds a sense of creativity to the dance that cannot be found by only following ‘the rules’. Some of my best playful moments as a follow have been when I screwed up and said “F**k it, I’ll just play.” Some of my best and most creative leads have been when something reaaaally didn’t work, but the follow found a creative way to interpret it. Suddenly, it turns into a ‘really cool thing’ that I would never have thought about by playing within the rules.

Playing outside the rules doesn’t  mean you don’t know and appreciate the foundations of the dance. The more advanced and trained you are, the easier it is to compensate for a partner. The newer you are, the more difficult. This does not mean taking responsibility for the other person, but when an individual says that they ‘can’t’ dance with a less experienced dancer because they’re ‘advanced’, it usually immediately tells me that this person only *thinks* they are advanced. The truly advanced can literally dance with almost every person – if they want to. They also have a stronger ability to compensate for more problems.

“But it isn’t my responsibility!”

Well, yes, and it’s not my responsibility to lend a quarter to that person who will miss the bus. Or return that person’s wallet. Or to give that upset person a hug. Or to give that person a compliment. Or any other number of things. They’re still nice things to do, and can make you feel good.

Just because it isn’t your ‘responsibility’ doesn’t mean it’s something that would make the world any worse. You’re absolutely right: my responsibility is not to compensate for a lead or follow. My responsibility is to have fun while dancing. If I feel uncomfortable with a lead or in danger, sometimes I don’t compensate. Sometimes I’m tired and really don’t feel like compensating. That’s fine – but this isn’t my rule or default because it doesn’t ‘add’ anything to the dance.

Compensation doesn’t mean a follower is suddenly a leader, or vice versa. It means that you care about trying to elevate the dance, and to turn the experience into an incredible, positive feeling. Sometimes, it’s not even about you: it’s about making that beginner feel like they are AWESOME and can actually have a decent dance – inspiring them to become a great dancer in the future

This happens! You can be that person who inspires someone to not just ‘give up’ and instead become amazing. I have had a person tell me YEARS after I first danced with them that it was a turning point. That they felt like they could ‘do this’ after our dance. That it gave them the courage to pursue learning properly. Trust me: there is no. better. compliment. ever.

In Conclusion

I’m not telling you that compensation is mandatory. I’m saying it’s something you can do to enrich the dance. You will have more positive dance experiences by working with partners instead of putting up a wall. Feel free to take this advice or not – but I would suggest at least giving it a try the next time you’re stuck in a ‘not-ideal’ dance.

Photo: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios