“I can tell exactly how my partner dances in the first 5 seconds”

I’ve said it before. I know I’m not the only one; this is a pretty common idea in the social dance world. I’ve even written about how critical those first 5 seconds can be for understanding how to compensate for your partner.

The 5-second rule is a good ‘pulse’ on how the dance is likely to unfold. Those first 5 seconds can tell you a lot about a person’s connection, nervousness, and general dance experience. As a result, it can be an extremely useful tool.

However, it has a downside.

Sometimes, the 5-second rule backfires. Instead of using it to determine how we can compensate for our partner, we use it as a way to see what our partner will give to us. Instead of using it to adjust our dance, we use it as a way to write off the partner’s dance abilities.

In a nutshell: the 5-Second Rule can be used to judge rather than compensate.

I’ll give an example from my own dance experience:


A few months ago, I was at a social for a style I don’t often dance. As a result, I’m not as ‘trained’ as a follow – although I can still keep up decently well (emphasize the ‘decently’). There was a particular lead that looked like A LOT of fun to dance with.

So, I decided to ask him for a dance. I saw the hesitation in his eyes, but he said yes anyways. Cool stuff – I can appreciate I was an unknown dancer, and that he was taking a ‘gamble’ on dancing with me.

We started the dance, and it took me a few seconds to adjust myself to his lead. After all, it’s harder to adjust when you’re not as familiar with a dance and are used to a separate set of connection rules.

By the time that I’d figured out how to adjust my connection to resemble what he was asking for, the 5-second-test was already over. I could see it in his face and in what he ‘gave’ to the dance that he was settling in for a run-through-the-motions with a newer dancer.

It wasn’t a bad dance, but it certainly wasn’t very connected or interesting. I wrote it off as he just wasn’t digging me as a partner – which is cool.

However, I found myself longing for him to give me an opening to show what else I had on offer for the dance. After all, my background gives me some other non-traditional elements that have worked quite well with many partners. I found myself craving an opportunity to try to also give him a good dance to the best of my abilities.

Alas, that night it was not to be.

Fast forward a few months, and I’m dancing at the same place again. He’s there again. He sees me dancing with someone else, having tons of fun in a basic but playful dance. He immediately asks me to dance the next song, this time with a beaming smile.

It was a really, really fun dance full of play, musicality, and creativity. I guarantee you I was no better at connection, since I hadn’t really danced much at all in between our dances.

At the end of the song, he told me how astounded he was that he’d never seen me before – since I was so awesome. He had no idea that we had previously danced.

To be clear – there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with what this lead did. He was always a perfectly nice person both times. Perfectly respectful, not rude, etc. Gave me a perfectly decent dance. I was likely just a ‘write off’ the first time (Of course, there could have been other reasons – but this is my best guess based on the behavior).


Now, there’s more than one issue at play in this story. It touches on the idea of saying ‘yes’ when we don’t want to. It also touches on going into a dance with a positive attitude. But – I think it also illustrates the hidden problem with the 5-second rule.

The 5-second rule gives us a chance to write-off a dance instead of simply adjust our level.

Sometimes, there really is no connection. But, you could be missing out on something more if you don’t follow up with another try at connection. Or, maybe there’s still a way to make the dance ‘more fun’ for that song, even if they don’t know what the heck they’re doing with connection.

Sometimes, our dance partners have more to offer than what’s shown in the first 5 seconds. Sometimes, you have an incredibly creative and musical partner just waiting to play with you.Sometimes, you have a dancer who just doesn’t understand your dance’s nuanced connection – but can connect brilliantly if you try to understand their ‘language’.

Sometimes, you have a really nervous partner that just needs some time to breathe or calm down. This happens more than you think, and writing the partner off just makes the nerves worse. This, of course, makes the connection worse. What can follow is a less-than-lovely downward spiral of nerves and unpleasantness.

If the 5-second test doesn’t work out so well, you have two options:

  1. Assume the rest of your dance will be ‘meh’ at best
  2. See what you can make out of what there is.

If you use the 5-second test to judge your partner, you cannot move beyond ‘meh’ without a massive effort on your partner’s part. Basically, you’re sitting there waiting for them to impress you. Which they already didn’t. This means they have to do really, really well to change your opinion.

If you decide to use the 5-second test to assess where to start your dance, you can have an entirely different outcome. You can still use it as a starting point to what you’ll try first, but see if you can pull out more. If your partner didn’t do so well on the ‘test’, play. See if they respond to your musicality. Maybe they respond to your body movement. Maybe they’ve got great spins or self-expression.Work with it. This is the cornerstone of the idea of compensation.  

This goes for both leads and follows. As a follow, we can compensate for some missed leads. We can also elect not to follow one unsafe lead our partner in a dance, but still engage with all the other suitably safe leads the same person gives. We can add musicality and style where it doesn’t interfere with the leader. We can hold the lead in a way that promotes confidence, connection and relaxation.

Leaders can elect to modify or attempt movements at a follow’s skill level that work with the strengths of the dancer. If the follow can spin, work with more spins. If they have great isolations, work with isolations. If they have a set of specific movements they’ll backlead no matter what, work with variations of those movements or the speed.

Adjusting to your partner can turn a ‘meh’ dance into something wonderful.

It’s social dancing. No one said you had to play by one set of rules. If you are flexible and adaptable, you can work with what your partner gives you. You can turn it into something wonderful for both of you by playing to the strengths you DO have.

The next time someone misses your 5-second test, ask yourself: 
Am I writing off a potentially wonderful dance?


Photo Credit: SV Photography