“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:
- Assume the rest of your dance will be ‘meh’ at best
- 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?
Thank you for writing this article (and… erm… just about all of your other ones) from such a positive point of view.
I know I’ve written off some dances without even being aware of the term 5-second rule, but I also know that, based at least partially on some of your other articles, I’ve taken that attitude and changed it into “let’s see what the two of us *can* make out of this.”
So thank you for raising awareness 🙂
Thank you, Erik!
I have reverse 5 second rule as well. I would have a very fun and crazy connection with someone for the first night, then following nights I wouldn’t feel it with the same person. Something in the dance changed to make it different for me, even though my partner is still enjoying herself. And to top it off I forgot who she was until she reminded me of something spontaneous in our previous dance that made me remember her…
I am not really certain why I am like this.
Just a theory, and may not be totally accurate at all, but…
Are you perhaps going into the dance with a different attitude? Something similar has happened to me in the past, and it usually was internally-driven, or the fact that I didn’t like the music that was playing, or one of the following:
– Too sore
– Too tired
– The style of that person’s dance was not what I needed just then
– I forgot who they were and was craving someone more familiar.
I think the last 2 points resonate with me. When I dance I try to be an honest dancer and interpret the music exactly as I feel it that time. Sometimes it can be artsy, sometimes it can be provocative, sometimes simple, sometimes filled with tricks. How do I find a balance between what I want at that moment and make it enjoyable for her?
Sometimes, the best way to do that is to try to set aside what you want. Basically, be selfless for a short time and see what happens.
I find that sometimes doing this helps me to ‘reset’ and ends up making me more fulfilled by the end of the song.
If you tend towards musical interpretation, see if you can match the follow’s musical wavelength instead.
Your 2 last points really resonate with me. The way I dance is how I feel the music at that particular moment. The style I want to dance at that moment may not necessarily be the style I am accustomed to dancing with that partner at that particular moment. Where is the balance between dancing what’s comfortable for you vs what is comfortable for her vs what you hear vs what you think she hears?
Where is the balance? (for you)
“Rules” like this should always be taken with a grain of salt or, more frequently, a huge pile of salt.
As a lead, ask yourself: how much can I try out in the first five seconds of a dance? Probably a quite a lot if you really go in for it, but not everything.
You can get a basic but pretty good feel for connection. You probably will feel the mood (nervous, tense, etc). Sometimes, depending on the music/intro, you might get a feeling for sense of rythm. You might even get a feel of how easy the follow is to lead. But beyond that? You most likely need more than five seconds.
(Think about it. In 5 seconds you have had 10-11 beats if the song is around 130 BPM, that is less than one and a half eight. You have probably just started the second basic with your partner by the end of these 5 seconds.)
At the same time, if you just go for a maxed out “test” in the first five seconds of a dance, you probably won’t give your dance partner a pleasant dance. Dance to the music with your partner instead of trying to tick off a mental checklist. So don’t try to find out everything within the first few moments. Take it slowly. This is not a race to a finish line, this is about having a good dance. Most songs we dance to are far longer than 5 seconds.
In my experience, the thing I find out first when dancing, whether it takes 5 seconds or more, is connection. In social dancing, connection is everything. Unless you find that connection anything else you do will build on a very shaky foundation.
Then, I would say, use the dance and ramp it up slowly, trying out what works and what doesn’t. Each dance partner is different and have different strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you enhance the strengths and downplay the weaknesses. If your follow has bad shoulders and cannot lift the arms above his/her head, don’t try advanced arm throws. This should be obvious to anyone.
If you find that you, as a dance couple, are getting in too deep – you are pushing the limits and it doesn’t feel fun/safe anymore, dial it down a notch and try something else. Make it fun, not forced.
What you are trying to achieve during the “5 second rule” should actually be done all the time when dancing socially. Even at the end of the night you might find out new things about the partner that you haven’t let go of all evening. Of course we should adjust accordingly. Anything else is not good social dancing.
Judging a dance partner based on 5 seconds of experience is ignorant and arrogant. Not giving someone second chances are stupid.