Everyone has their favourite social dance partners – which is awesome. Sometimes we just get those oh-so-sweet, buttery smooth dances that make us feel amazing all over.

However, it is important to remember that (almost) every partner you encounter has something very, very valuable to teach you on the dance floor. This can either be from a habit they have, or the level they are dancing at. Today, we endeavor to discern what you stand to gain from every social dance partner.

I say (almost) every partner to account for the handsy or mean dancers that occasionally find their way onto our precious social dance floors. When someone is disrespecting you or hurting you (emotionally or physically), there isn’t much to learn – aside from how to stand your ground. Here, I would say feel free to use your voice and do whatever you need to in order to keep the social floor a pleasurable and safe place.

The Pro

Pro’s make us feel like we can literally. do. anything. I mean, who even thought we could do that many spins or lead that super-cool pattern? This is obviously a good marker of how well I dance!

Well… not exactly. Chances are they’re compensating for your shortcomings… but that doesn’t mean you won’t learn anything.

Pro follows are usually more sensitive to if something is going wrong and they need to abort. They are more likely to abort when something is really off, and they’re more likely to go exactly where you lead than lower-level dancers. This gives you good insight into where your technique and skill is lacking.

Pro leads are usually really good at putting you exactly where they want you – no matter how heavy your following is. You can get introduced to new concepts and get an idea of where to go. They are also often more patient about letting the follow recognize the movement rather than pushing through it. Once again, it helps push the boundaries further and explore more.

The Beginner

They may be a little off-time, and they may be a bit rough-around-the-edges. Those are definitely not dance shoes, and no seasoned dancer would ever wear that outfit for a night of heavy dancing. Perhaps they’re terrified, or perhaps they’re REALLY REALLY EXCITED.

Beginner follows allow leads to really see how well they are leading something. If you can simultaneously see in their face that they’re having fun AND doing new things that they’ve never done, that was a really good lead. If you see their steps going to the right place at the right time, you’re leading it well. There is nothing like a beginner to tell you if you’re actually leading something.

Beginner leads are great for developing impeccable connection. Usually, they only have a few moves under their belt. Sometimes they’re off-time too. A good follow is able to keep in time with their lead – regardless of what the timing is (on music or not). They can also translate that general-approximation-of-what-that-move-is and turn it into a beautiful rendition of the movement.

A note about rough beginners: generally, you adjust your connection to cover their shortcomings. This means that you don’t extend your movements to the point that you are relying on them to keep you safe, simply because they’re not ABLE to keep you safe yet. They’re a beginner. It’s the more advanced dancer’s job to keep the couple safe (yes, even if you’re the follow). For example, if they are hauling on the arm, keep your shoulder engaged and don’t settle back into a movement where a sharp movement can winch your shoulder. Usually, you know exactly what beginners are trying to do simply because they don’t have more repertoire yet – which puts you in a better position to compensate for misleads.

The Musical One

OK, so maybe this isn’t exactly the best interpretation of what your dance style is. Maybe this is more contact improv, or a little too much solo dancing. Maybe you love that, maybe you don’t.

But, the bottom line is there’s nothing like a musical partner to get you to hear the music. See if you can understand what they’re hitting in the music. What are they hearing? Why are they accenting it? Are they hitting it smoothly or sharply?

Especially if it’s a dance existing outside the normal confines of the ‘rules’, just go with the musicality. It’s the best way to have fun – and learn something awesome. These kinds of dances are very often my favourite (within reason).

The Off-Time One

Not to be conflated with a beginner necessarily, people who are off-time simply aren’t dancing on the music. Not my favourite, but you can still learn something here: connection.

If you can connect with someone when you’re not dancing to music, you can connect anytime. If your feet and their feet match despite going 1/2 speed or 2x speed, you’re doing great. Seriously – if you can connect where there’s no music telling you WHEN to step, you’ll definitely be able to connect when there IS music telling you when to step.

The Really Soft One

It feels like they’re almost not there… almost. But somehow, they are still leading or following, and the technique feels OK – albeit light (I personally love these leads and follows, but it’s certainly not everyone’s taste).

This is a great way to work on your ability to control your body and to adjust how heavily you need to lead or follow. It requires controlling your own balance and body. It also requires paying very careful connection attention.

When it’s a light lead, see how sensitive you can be to slowdowns, speedups, and pauses. See if you can match and still effectively follow that barely-there. It’s such a relaxing place when you find it.

When it’s a light follow, see if you can reduce the amount of force using to lead and still get the same result. Focus on showing where to go with the body (trust me, she/he is very tuned in to where your body is). Use this to relax.

The Really Strong One

This is the opposite of the Soft One. When something is executed, it would take a heck of a lot of strength to stop it. I’m not talking about ‘Rough’, I’m talking ‘Strong’. As in, muscles. Engaged core. Engaged legs. Engaged everything.

These are the dances where you can really create contrast. It’s easy to get into the arms if you’re leading a Strong follow, but resist the temptation. Use your core, shoulder and leg muscles to lead. These are much more clear – and pleasant – than leading with your bicep muscles.

If you are dancing with a strong lead, engage the core and shoulders. See if you can really use your power to execute movements. Make sure you are holding your own instead of ‘caving in’ when they lead you. You still need to maintain your own balance and control – not fall all over them.

The Backleader

This is the follow who already knows where they want to go – and they’re going to go there. Not pleasant, but also gives you a valuable opportunity to work on how to care for your partner – and perhaps discover something new.

The key with backleaders is to let them go where they want to go. Your job becomes anticipating where they will go, making sure they don’t crash, making sure you don’t crash, and making sure no one gets hurt. You can learn here how to redirect him or her, position your body to prevent collisions, and potentially even how to calm a backleader and get back in the lead position

Hint: go WITH the movement and then overtake the lead while continuing the same movement the follow is in. DO NOT try to stop the movement or ‘shock’ the follow; be subtle.

The Lead with No Creativity

This is the lead where everything is fine. Just fine. Not great, not bad – just fine. It’s the same moves every time, sometimes in the same order, and regardless of what song is playing.

Well, that means you know what to expect. Which means you can work on refining your technique and style – while trying not to backlead. If you aren’t having fun with this dance but want to take something away from it, refine yourself. It makes it fun for you, and gives you something back.

The Partner who Dances Like You

This is the happy place. Both of you share the same level of dance, so it’s not intimidating. Both of you will likely have a similar level of proficiency, so you’ll generally understand the same concepts.

So, have fun with it! These have the potential to be your best dances: you feel like you can dance, without feeling terrified of messing up. Here is where you remind yourself that social dancing is about connecting and having fun!

A Note Before We Part:

These are things you can focus on in a dance to GET the most out of the dance – but not about what you can GIVE to the dance. If you can focus on a positive that you can gain from the dance, it sometimes helps you also give back in positive energy to create a fun and constructive experience for yourself.

If you can enjoy any of these dances without thinking and breaking it down, do it – that’s the most fun way to social dance. However, if you are someone who feels ‘trapped’ in less than ideal dances, this is a good way to re-invent the way you are thinking about the dance to really turn it into a positive experience.


Photo: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios