We all know that teaching on the dance floor is not a nice thing to do. But, what about asking your partner to change a particular thing when they do something you don’t like during a social dance?

For example:

  • The lead is leading too strongly/lightly
  • The follow feels too light/heavy
  • You don’t want to do dips
  • You’re not ready for certain movements
  • You don’t like close hold (or at least, not that close)
  • Your partner smells, or
  • A move your partner is doing feels off or uncomfortable

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. There are many issues that can come up on a dance floor. Along with these issues, there’s the added issue of *who* is allowed to say something:

  • Anyone?
  • The more experienced partner?
  • Teachers only?
  • Intermediate + dancers?
  • Friends?

I want to clarify that I am differentiating between asking for accommodation and teaching on the dance floor. An ‘ask’ is a request for the partner to change something for their dance with you, specifically. A ‘tell’ is offering them advice on how they should dance with everyone. An ‘ask’ is a request for accommodation, a ‘tell’ is teaching on the dancefloor.

Teaching on the dancefloor is still not OK.

Got it?

Good. Let’s unpack the idea of ‘asking’ for something on the dance floor.

Rule 1: If it could hurt you, say something.

I don’t care if you are a beginner and your partner is an advanced dancer. I don’t care if they’ve taken 500 private lessons and their teacher told them something they think is opposite of your complaint. If you feel that your body is at risk and you don’t know how to compensate in a safe way, say something.

To those being asked for accommodation: You don’t know your partner’s story. Perhaps they have an injury. Perhaps there is an accommodation that they need. Perhaps they simply aren’t ‘at your level’ yet. If it is a request for accommodation, be a gracious partner and try. You don’t have to undo all your training; just adjust for that *one dance*.

If your partner could potentially hurt you, it doesn’t matter what your level is. It doesn’t matter what the move is, either. It doesn’t even matter if the thing that could hurt you is the very thing their teacher told them was ‘right’. You have a right to ask for your partner to accommodate you and have that respected. You do not have to fake an injury. You do not have to give an explanation as to why you are asking for the accommodation.

If you are being asked: Yes, you can accommodate the request 95% of the time. Regardless of your level. Especially if you are more advanced. You just have to think about it. In my opinion, it’s better to lose some of your amazing skills to accommodate a partner who needs it than to potentially end up with an injured or unhappy partner.

Rule 2: If it crosses your personal boundaries, say something.

You do not have to dance in super-close hold. You do not need to be OK with a partner’s hand on your stomach, face, or anywhere else. You have a right to your personal space – regardless of what dance it is.

If your partner is invading your personal space, it is OK to ask for more room. The general idea is that the *less* comfortable partner determines the space – not the more comfortable partner (This means that if you like close hold, you don’t get to force your partner into a close position when that makes them uncomfortable.)

If you are being asked: be a gentle-person. Don’t tell them that it’s ‘how its done’. For example, Zouk can have super-close contact. But, I’m not going to wrangle a partner into this position and tell them they’re wrong for not wanting that contact. Sure, that may be the ‘right’ way to dance some parts of advanced Zouk… but who am I to tell someone how they should let me touch their body?

If you mention this before the dance starts because you know that partner holds you too close, then your partner has the opportunity to decline before the dance starts. If you ask them during the song, they can finish the dance after 1 song if they don’t like it.

Rule 3: If it doesn’t cross your personal boundaries and isn’t an injury or physical discomfort risk, stay quiet (generally).

Of course, you always have the *right* to say something – but just because you have the right doesn’t mean you should.

For example, an off-time partner is really annoying. They also probably can’t help it if they’re dancing off-time, and dancing off-time isn’t really an injury risk (usually). So be nice, smile, compensate for your partner, and live through the song. If it’s really a capital offense in your book, say ‘no’ the next time they ask.

If you are being asked: Yes, it can be an ego bump. Especially if you know it’s not hurting them or crossing some boundaries, it can be frustrating. My advice: just go with it. You’re not going to change them, and the dance will be a lot less intolerable if you just let it go. If it’s not hurting them or making them uncomfortable, they probably shouldn’t have said anything… but you can’t control them. Let it be water under the bridge.

Rule 4: If it is more than an ‘ask’, don’t.

DON’T tell partners how they should do something.
DON’T tell partners they’re doing it ‘wrong’.
DON’T interrupt a dance to ask for something if it’s not an actual concern.

Use ‘asks’ responsibly. This is plain ol’ etiquette. You have a right to use your voice, but use it responsibly. Use it respectfully. Be kind.

Otherwise, you turn into the two different guys where, in back-to-back dances, one told me to ‘lean more into him’ and one to ‘lean more away from him’. Neither was really affecting the dance. But, they just felt the need to ‘say something’. They actually took it one step further and ‘taught’ me how to do it.

I still did listen to them. I had nothing to lose. So, why not? Made them happy, and although I was peeved/amused, I didn’t get any further ‘corrections’ of this nature. It also wasn’t worth getting ‘offended’ over, or questioning everything I’ve ever learned in dance.

By contrast, if I were heavy and they simply said ‘this is a bit heavy for me. Can you stop leaning as much in ___ direction?’ I would be much less peeved.

Rule 5: Ask non-verbally…

Using body language can be a great way to ask for a specific result with intermediate + dancers. Sometimes, it can also work on beginners – but not always.

Each dance has their own set of ‘tells’ in terms of your body. For example, wiggling the hands if the grip is too tight. Deliberately slowing down or speeding up a step if a partner is off time. A hand on the front of the shoulder pressing away if a hold is too close. A death-grip on the shoulders if a dip is unwanted.

 If you are being subtly asked: Pay attention!! These ‘asks’ do not mean ‘try harder’ – they mean ‘please stop this behavior – it’s uncomfortable’. The better you get at recognizing these ‘asks’, the less you’ll be verbally asked to change something, and the more fun your dances will be.

If you’re not sure what the right body language is, ask your teacher. They can help you develop these skills.

Rule 6: …Or watch your phrasing

No one likes to hear “you’re doing it wrong”. However, most people are OK with hearing “Can you please ____ when we dance?”

Constructive asks are asking FOR a behavior, not asking to ELIMINATE a behavior. Less harsh asks also turn the ask into a question instead of a demand. Example:

  • “Stop leading me so forcefully” vs.
  • “Can you please lead me a little more gently?”

You don’t even necessarily need to explain why. You certainly shouldn’t need to ‘fabricate’ an injury. However, even I sometimes ‘fib’ when I think it’s the only way I will get the result I need without causing offense… but this is used rarely.

Rule 7: If it can wait ’til you’re not at a dance, ask off the floor

Say someone smells. Or, maybe smells occasionally. It can be anxiety-inducing to learn that they smell when they have no deodorant nearby.

If you are going to raise points of hygiene and other related issues, try to offer a solution when you let them know. If you have deodorant to offer, great! Breath mints? Check! In a hotel with showers? Fantastic! Otherwise (in my opinion only), be gentle. If they have no access to some way to smell less, it can be a night-ruiner to be told that you are odorous.

Depending on the extent of the smell, you may even want to let them know on a day AFTER the dance that they should double-up on their deodorant. If the stench isn’t overpowering, it can be a better option to let them enjoy the rest of the night rather than reveal that they’re not the absolute freshest.

Some people will have a different opinion on this. I personally find the best safeguard is to have ‘honest friends’, who know to tell you if anything is amiss. If you are the type of person who prefers to find out if you have a hygiene offence AT the dance, make sure someone knows that this type of feedback will be welcomed.

Exception: wardrobe malfunctions. Always say something. Immediately. Please. The longer it goes on, the more embarrassed the poor person will be.

The Golden Rule: Use your judgement and be respectful.

There’s nothing wrong with using your voice, but you usually will have a gut instinct if it is a constructive ‘ask’ or not. Listen to that gut instinct most of the time –  it will serve you well.


Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios