Dos, Don'ts, and How-Tos for Surviving in Public with Too Left Feet

"And now, here to tell you everything about anything is Mr. Know-It-All." 

... Rocket J. Squirrel 

Etiquette concerns seem to generate more questions from beginners than any technical issue. Etiquette is a set of rules that help guide our behavior in a social situation, and dancing can feel like a very alien situation to the new dancer. Some basic knowledge of dance etiquette can make the difference between having a good dancing experience and a bad one. It can make the difference between other people wanting to dance with you, or not. 

Dancing definitely has its own culture. If you want to join a group of dancers and enjoy their company, it is a good idea to follow the accepted customs of their dance group. When dancing at a new place, or with a new group, be on the watch for how the other dancers conduct themselves. 

I have no idea who might be the official authority on dance etiquette. There are a number of books on the subject, and innumerable web pages offering advice. The following points are not a definitive list, but are my favorite set of rules to mention to new dancers. If you want to know more, I suggest you type "dance etiquette" into a search engine, and do some reading. 

What to Wear

Every dance event has its own personality and style. The only real answer is that you should call ahead and ask about the style of dress customary for the event you want to attend. For many ongoing events you can simply drop by and look around without actually "attending" the first time. For many "special event" dances the style of clothing is often mentioned in the invitation or advertisement. If still in doubt, dress to impress; dancers are accustomed to seeing people in outrageous costumes; it is doubtful you could dress so "well" that you would seem out of place. 

Personal Grooming 

Being neat, clean, and good-smelling is always a plus. Dancing is exercise, and human beings perspire. Nothing much can be done about the dampness; dancers ignore it like other athletes do. Dark clothes tend to hid dampness, so you see lots of dark clothing on experienced dancers. 


At any given time, there are often people at a dance who are not dancing. Spectators should stay off the floor, and not block the access to or from the floor. Being near or on the floor, while not being mindful of the dancers, is dangerous. Dancers move quickly and strongly, and are not expecting anyone to blindly stumble onto the floor moving in a strange direction. Children too young to understand this issue should never be left unattended. 

Whom to Ask for a Dance

Anyone attending a dance is fair game to be asked to dance; the presumption is that everyone is there to dance. It is very routine to dance with many partners in an evening, including total strangers. At some dances, it is rare to see the same partners dance together twice in a row. If you come to a dance "with" someone, do not be surprised or annoyed if someone else asks your date to dance. Social dancing is not dating, or flirting, or "courting" (although all those things happen at a dance, just as they do everywhere else). 

How to recognize the type of dance (Waltz, Cha-Cha, etc)

This sounds like a technical question, but it plays into etiquette, too. Before inviting someone to dance, or accepting an invitation, you should know what dance you're doing. To be polite, you should generally "go along with the crowd" so as not to interfere with other dancers on the floor. Sometimes the type of dance is announced by the DJ, sometimes (rarely) the entire event is dedicated to one style of dance (Swing, Latin, etc), and sometimes all the regulars at the dance recognize a particular song and know what is danced to that music. When in doubt ask anyone around you, or watch the dancers already dancing. 

Realize that dancers touch, at lot

This may be obvious, but sometimes new dancers are shocked. Dancers hold hands with complete strangers, touch them on the back or shoulders, lead, guide, and invite each other by touching. Expect to be touched, and be prepared for the initial shock of new dancers when you touch them. 

Issuing a Dance Invitation; "asking for a Dance"

Anyone may ask for a dance: male, female, leader or follower. Convention and tradition is that males lead and females follow; most dances will assume this as the norm. If you want some nonconventional arrangement, simply say so as part of your invitation. Because not everyone knows or recognizes every type of dance, your invitation should include that information: "Would you like to Waltz?" 

Declining a Dance Invitation

If for any reason you do not want to dance with the person asking you, just say "No, thank you." If you intend to decline all further requests from that person, nothing else needs to be said. Having rejected someone for a particular dance, do not accept an invitation from anyone else until the next song- allowing the rejected individual to believe (or pretend) that you were rejecting the dance, not the person. If you're declining temporarily, say why: "I need a break; could you ask me later?" or "I don't care for Samba; could you ask me for a Waltz, later?" or "I don't know this dance." 

Accepting a Dance Invitation

If you are uncertain, ask questions: "What kind of dance is this?" If you don't know the dance, but would like to learn, say so: "I don't know this dance. Could you teach me?" If you decide to accept, just say "Yes!" or "Sure!" or "I'd love to!" Stand up. 

The Floor 

"The floor" is the section of the room where the dancing is actually happening. Usually, but not always, there is a physical distinction between the floor and sitting/spectating areas. For instance, the floor may be hardwood and the seating area carpeted, or there may be some separator (a rail, low wall, a line on the floor) between two areas. In any case, make sure you notice and remember the distinction between "the floor" and other areas. 

Getting on the Floor: Ballroom

In ballroom, dancers trickle onto the floor in pairs at any time during the current music. After an acceptance, the leader is responsible for getting the follower to the edge of the floor, choosing a spot on the floor to begin dancing, getting the follower to that spot, and then offering arms or hands in an appropriate position for that type of dance. Often this process will mean taking the follower's hand and leading leading all the way out to the spot on the floor. Sometimes it will include gesturing or otherwise indicating (maybe verbally) where the follower should go: "Let's go around the floor to that open spot on the left, OK?" 

Getting on the Floor: Country 

When a line dance is announced, country dancers drop whatever they're doing and scramble for a spot on the floor in a mass surge. In this dance form it is important to start together, so everybody tries to be in position before anybody moves. It's somewhat rare, but OK, for anyone to enter the dance after it starts. 

Getting off the Floor: Ballroom

When the music ends, it's generally assumed that the partners will separate and find new partners. Some partners won't by mutual agreement. Traditionally, leaders should quickly escort their followers to at least the edge of the floor before seeking a new partner. However, in a group of dancers familiar to each other, many new partnerships often form quickly without leaving the floor. 

When you are not dancing...

When you're not dancing, get off the floor, and do not block entrance or exit from the floor for others! Do not congregate at the edge of the floor, or in the asiles leading to the floor. Again, and I repeat this because it's the most common bit of thoughtlessness I see at social dances: do not stand around on the dance floor if you are not dancing: Get Off the Floor! 

Line of Dance

Many dances feature steps that constantly move the partners around the dance floor. These are called Progressive Dances, and they include all forms of Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep, Polka, American Tango and Two-Step. Progressing dancers should move around the edge of the dance floor in a counter-clockwise direction; the fastest dancers nearest the edge and slower dancers somewhat farther from the edge. The center of the floor should be reserved for non-progressive steps. 

Wild moves: Lifts, Aerials and choreography 

Save the crazy stuff for practice sessions, competitions, and nearly empty floors. In a social setting, nobody wants to see a couple take over the floor or scare the bejezzus out of the beginners! 

Sharing the Floor 

Dance floors are shared by many dancers simultaneously, and sometimes by many different dances and dance styles. There may be Swing dancers in the center of the floor, and Foxtroters circling in Line Of Dance. There may also be an area set aside for line or partner-pattern dancers. Look around, be aware, be nice and share the floor! 

Sometimes the floor gets too full 

Sharing the floor sometimes means leaving the floor! If there are too many dancers to fit on the floor, then a considerate dancer should withdraw every few dances to let others dance in comfort. 

Dance to the Level of Your Partner 

It's rare that both partners are at exactly the same level of experience and ability. It's the responsibility of the more experienced dancer to not push their partner beyond their ability. 

Who's Fault is It? 

It's always the leader's fault, but never blame your partner for a problem. The leader is responsible for thinking ahead, making decisions, steering, dodging and watching. Technically, either partner can (and will) make a mistake. Try to ignore mistakes, try to recover from mistakes, try to forgive mistakes. Apologize quickly and move on. Keep dancing, don't stop. 

Teaching on the Floor 

In general, don't teach while dancing, unless asked. If you feel you must help, ask first: "May I show you how to do that?" Don't expect to be taught, unless you asked before you went on the floor: even professional teachers want a night off, sometimes.