I want you to imagine an absolute beginners walking into their first dance social. They see all these people moving together on the floor – nothing like what they’ve seen at a dance club. Their first impulse?
“Wow! Everyone here is an amazing dancer!”
Meanwhile, their advanced dancer buddy may look at the room and think how wrong that beginner is. To them, out of the 40 dancers in the room, at least 20 of them aren’t good partners.
In fact, most of those 20 partners are barely tolerable. 7 of them are too rough, 7 of them aren’t clear with their movements, and 5 of them can’t keep time. Then, there’s that one person you should just never, ever dance with.
Out of the remaining 20, 10 are passable. They’re pleasant enough, and some are old friends. But, really, there’s only 10 people there who the advanced dancer wants to dance with. They can’t help but hope their friend realizes how sucky those first 20 partners are.
Except, 10 of those people ask the beginner to dance. Out of those 10 partners that the advanced dancer disliked, the beginner LOVES 9 of them. I mean, they DANCED. To MUSIC. How awesome is that???!!
Why are these two dancer’s perceptions so different?
Starting From Zero
When we’re an absolute beginner, it’s a fairly good bet that almost every person in the room is a better dancer than we are.
Beginner follows don’t get that hauling the partner across the floor isn’t leading – all they know is that they felt the lead do something and they went somewhere. Therefore, anyone who makes them do something is good. As long as they don’t get hurt, they remain blissfully unaware that one partner is leading through frame and one through their arms. They can feel something is different – but both are good for now.
Beginner leads don’t understand how to control their role in the dance, and don’t understand what they are missing. Therefore, a follow who predicts their movements seems like they’re following. The girl who is styling everywhere seems like they’re dancing. They’re good because they do something. They don’t understand that some of the follows are responding to their body and some are just dancing on their own – it’s all the same, unless there’s a really extreme situation.
But, after this beginner phase, dancers start to discern more about connection, timing, and partnership. They start to develop preferences and opinions. They start to learn – and with that learning comes awareness. Sometimes, that awareness backfires by turning ‘good’ partners into ‘bad’.
The Enlightened View
An advanced lead is able to tell when their follow isn’t truly following, is on autopilot, or is out of control. The lead may find this follow downright unpleasant. Common complaints can be:
- Dancing on their own
- Styling too much
- Too heavy/light; either ‘not enough’ or ‘too much’ pressure
- Not listening/doing whatever the follow feels like, rather than dancing as a partnership
- Being ‘jerky’; going in the wrong direction
- Being off-time, slow OR fast
- Not listening to the music
By contrast, advanced follows may be able to tell when a lead is not leading fully through the movement. Common complaints include:
- Being off-time, slow OR fast
- Being ‘jerky’; not finishing movements
- Using too much/too little force
- Leading ‘from the arms’
- Not giving ‘breathing room’
- Just pushing the follow through things, without regard to the partnership
- Not listening to the music
Both the advanced lead and follow have the insight to also understand how these shortcomings interact with things like floorcraft, dance safety, and etiquette. They possess an enlightened view, through which they know more than a dancer who is currently dancing at a lower level.
The stronger these dancers become, the harder it is to ‘ignore’ the faux-pas of dance. The more advanced we are, the ‘pickier’ we are in deciding what constitutes a ‘good’ – or even moderately pleasant – dance.
This is where the danger is.
The Dance Inversion
If we are a weaker dancer, we have a lot of partners that we consider comparably ‘good’. The stronger we become, the fewer dancers will meet our definition of a ‘good’ partner. For ease of reference, I’m calling this the “Dance Inversion”.
And thus, a cry rises:
“Where did all the good dancers go?”
Upon pressing further, some of these dancers lament that when they go out dancing, they’re surrounded by incompetent, dangerous dancers who put them (and other dancers) at risk.
Part of the ‘safety’ concern is totally legitimate: more advanced dancers are more sensitive (generally) to the idea of creating, maintaining, or having a ‘safe’ dance. This is extremely important – and more advanced dancers generally have a larger share of the burden on creating a safe dance because they have the skills and awareness to do so.
But, some advanced dancers use the idea of ‘safety’ to encompass everything from a minor annoyance to actually dangerous behavior.
Someone who holds hands a little too tight suddenly becomes an imminent danger risk – despite the fact that most advanced dancers have the tools to minimize or eliminate that problem with most dancers. Someone who over-styles becomes a liability to personal injury, even though advanced partners usually have the ability to anchor an out-of-control styler.
Perhaps I’m living in a wonderful dance-bubble, but I don’t see huge amount of downright dangerous dancers. Even in the case of dangerous dancers, there are only a few where I feel I am incapable of protecting myself during the dance. Those select few are the people I choose not to dance with, or I talk to them about the problem.
I do, however, see a lot of non-dangerous habits that can be irritating.
Differentiating Dangerous and Irritating
The amount of actually dangerous dancers in our social scenes is relatively low. Unfortunately, there are some – and these people do need to be dealt with. Communication is the key to managing dangerous partnerships.
You don’t have to be mean about it, but raising your concern is the best way to diffuse a dangerous dancer. If you feel unsafe for any reason and you cannot (note that this is different from ‘will not’) compensate for the issue, say something. If they won’t listen, leave the dance. This is important.
However, make sure that the behavior is actually dangerous – not just irritating. Sometimes, people squeeze my hand. It is irritating and uncomfortable. Rarely is it dangerous. Same thing with people who are dancing ‘too big’: it can be dangerous, but most of the time it’s just irritating.
If it’s irritating, compensate. Find a way to negate the issue. If you can’t, and you really can’t get past that irritating thing, ask your partner (nicely) for what you need. You can also reinforce the things you do like instead of focusing on the things you don’t.
When one or two partners in a night are ‘Bad’
If you generally have good dances with most people, you’re doing well. Usually, people have a handful of dancers that they either can’t connect with, or for whom they can’t compensate. No matter what you try, you just can’t get it to ‘work’ with these people.
This is normal. No one connects well with everyone. Don’t sweat it; move on to partners that you enjoy your time with.
When most of the partners in the room are ‘Bad’
If you are a person who walks into a room and feels like most of the partners are bad, you may need to reflect inwards. If this happens once in a long while, it could be a fluke. But, if it is a regular pattern that you find happening to you, it’s time to re-assess the situation.
Feeling that most of the partners in a room are ‘bad’ does not mean that you are doing something ‘wrong’. You may be a very, very skilled dancer – but easily annoyed. You may be someone who is unwilling to deviate from your idea of a ‘good’ dance. You may just be very picky.
This is fine; it’s your call. But, you’re eroding your own dance experience. The stronger a dancer you become, the more often this problem will surface. If you’re going to have longevity in the dance scene, you need to find a way to be happy with the majority of partners.
Basically, you have to overlook the ‘annoying’ things. You have to find other things to enjoy in dances with the ‘bad’ partners to make them at least ‘tolerable’, but preferably ‘fun’.
Turning ‘Bad’ partners ‘Good’
My advice would be to work on your ability to compensate. If you find a partner who is musical but technically terrible, see if you can focus on feeling the music together. If you have a partner who is using too much force, do what you need to protect yourself – but see if you can do this in a way that provides room for your own enjoyment.
For example, a partner who over-powers may be a great person to work with for things like counter-balance based moves. Or, perhaps that is a person where it is best to dance more slowly to prevent too much energy buildup. The more advanced you are, the more options you have to explore how to work with a weakness to minimize its impact.
Honestly, putting yourself mentally on the same wavelength as your partner can solve a lot of bad-partner problems out there. I know it’s hard – but it can be done.
At the end of the day, partner dancing is about enjoying a relationship with another person. The more flexible you are with your definition of a ‘good’ dance, the more ‘good’ dances you will have. The more rigid you are, the fewer you will get.
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Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios
Laura, your article is very true to me or any season dancer. I started out with Salsa as my first two dance I learn (which most people do) but now I don’t social dance that dance much as I find most leads painful and hurtful to dance with. I have had many injuries from Salsa even once put me down for 5 months with a sprained knee. I also do many other kinds of dancing styes about 20 kinds between Latin and Ballroom but my favorite is Argentine Tango.
The reason I really love Argentine Tango for social dancing is this dance and tango instructors really teaches connnection, light subtle small leads, body leads, leads are careful of your axis, learning both parts, they teach manners in asking a woman for a dance and guys are gentlements. In fact the best salsa dance I had is from an Argentine Tango dancer, so gentle and smooth I feel like I was floating on the floor. I feel this dance has also help me to be a light and sensitive follower which make the dance very pleasant to me. I have no problem dancing with a beginner as long as he pleasant, gentle and he can just walk. To me a bad dancer could be an advance dancer who is rough and hurtful so that’s why I avoid salsa for social dancing.
I wish I learned Argentine Tango as my first dance but I would highly recommend this dance to anyone to learn. Most people would say it’s hard which I totally agree but so is connection, being gentle and a light lead and follower. It is a hard dance to learn but I highly encouraged it to everyone.
Great article, Laura, I love your blog.
The big question behind this – and you end on it, is: what is the dance about? Obviously, every dancer that is investing time and energy will progress, technically. The steps, figures, spins, and if really motivated even the musicality, the connection, the creativity will add to the dance. But social dance, at least in my conception, will always be about the encounter of two people before it is the encounter of two dancers. I have crappy dances with some of the best dancers in town, because we don’t really get along personnaly, and fantastic dances with crappy dancers, because we are able to share something personal.
I would venture to suggest that maybe the dance inversion should actually a curve instead of a straight line, with the lowest point (for the number of good dancers line) being about two thirds from the end, and then going back up.
In my experience in a variety of different dance scenes, dancers do get pickier as they get better, but the pickiest dancers are usually mid-high intermediate dancers, not advanced dancers. They’ve learned enough to notice all the faux pas and get irritated, but haven’t yet learned how to compensate. The truly best dancers in the scene, though they may look forward to a few of their favourite partners, do find ways to have fun with most of the people in the room.
Do people mostly choose the people to ask to dance based on whether they look like bad partners on the dance floor? I would bet that mostly asking to dance happens (or is skipped) with less analysis on their technique or skill level.
In my experience people are not very good at judging how good others are at social dancing based purely on how it looks. Someone can move nicely and still have poor connection or be rough and another may not look so great just because they’re trying to cope with a not so great partner.
I dont believe many people ask partners based how they look on the dancefloor. First reason is that after a while you know most of the people, so you can ask based on experience. And even with the newcomers I learned that appereances may be missleading. I know follows that looks totaly great when they dance, yet I dont enjoy dancing with them at all, because it feels like fighting.
On the other hand there is this girls that looks like she dont know how to dance. Her movements looks akward. She looks like she will loose her balance anytime. In the movements where she should be smooth, she looks like jumping. I mean she is not someone who you would look at a say “hay she is great”. Especially because she is kind of new. Yet she is one of my favourite followers. I dont know how she does it, but she follows anything I lead. I dont have to use force. I always get the expected response in our connection. When we dance together we probably dont look very look for the audience. But the feeling and enjoyment is awesome. She one of my 5 top followers. One of these where I dont feel I need to rescrtict myself in anyway to match partners level, but I can do whatever I want and it will work. You know the rare follows who make you fells like “wow, I had no idea I can lead this and that it is so easy!”
So especially this lady taught me to not judge by apperances.
When Im considering asking someone new to a dance I learned the best way is to always look at a shoes. I dont mean you should be picky too much. But it will help you to sort the people who are there by mistake. When you see a winter cossack shoes (especially for ballroom), it is always better to go ask another girl.
I have been to so many dances everywhere and as a new person I try to be nice and accept any dance. Sometimes I get a bad dancer where he could be someone who is creepy and making inappropriate moves or telling u they learn their style growing up or they are born with it and not actually learn it. Someone who hurts me by his shoe constantly nibbling on my toes without realizing it or turning me by twisting my fingers. To me he is bad because he is not actually a dancer.
Great article for discussion Laura! There is definitely a change in my perception and what constitutes a ‘good’ partner/dance from my beginner days to where I am now, and I expect it to continue to redefine itself. What I notice the most is that when I was a beginner: I treated everything as a learning experience, and assumed that I am not familiar enough with the dance to identify what’s wrong and what’s right and the reason I feel like a pinballed ragdoll was because I didn’t know the music and the steps well enough. As I got better with listening to the music, controlling my own movements, my tolerance for rough leading is slipping incredibly fast. The jerking of the fingers, and the yanking of the arms – I’ve danced enough to know that this pain and discomfort is not necessary. This is my only criterion that merits a ‘bad’ dance label. Everything else I can swing with, but being manhandled tips me over the edge. I know you’ve written articles about how to politely address this in a socially acceptable manner, but it’s truly difficult for me.
Thanks for your thoughts on dancing. It helps find solutions or reasons for what happens as one begins to advance in dance.
Is this about Salsa, Bachata, Tango, Waltz, Swing or any kind of dance? Just curious.
My primary genre is Brazilian Zouk, but I try to write most of my articles for a larger audience.