Elements of Dance Etiquette
Also see Beyond
Dance Etiquette: Success and Enjoyment in Social Dancing
Dance etiquette is a set of guidelines that help us navigate the
social dimensions of dancing.
Why do we care about dance etiquette?
Because it is nice to know how to go about in the dancing circles.
It makes the difference between having a happy or unhappy dancing
experience, the difference between people wanting, or not wanting to
dance with you.
Dancing 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 costums of
their dance group. One of the ways you get accepted into a group is by
the way you're dressed.
more formal the dance, the more formal the outfit. For example, if you
are invited to a formal charity ball, anything less than a tuxedo for
men or ball gown for women would be inappropriate. On the other hand, at
a dance lesson at your local studio, there is usually no need to dress
This is not as hard as it may seem; a little common sense goes a long
way. Also, if in doubt, follow the crowd! See what others do and follow
suit. If all else fails, you can always ask the dance organizers about
the dress code.
Below I give a guideline and explanation for dress code, which you may
see on invitations and announcements, as well as a general idea of what
to wear at different dance venues.
Wear clothing that makes it easy and enjoyable to dance, both for
yourself and your partner.
- White tie:
White tie is the most formal category of dressing. For the gentleman,
it means a black tailcoat with matching trousers trimmed by ribbon of
braid or satin on the outside of each trouser leg, a white pique' tie,
white pique' single or double-breasted vest, and a wing-collar shirt
with a stiff pique' front. White gloves are nice optional accessories
for gentlemen. The lady appears in a ball gown, which is an evening
dress with a full skirt, possibly with open back and low neck
line. Elbow-length gloves are a nice addition for the lady.
- Black tie: Gentlemen in black tuxedo coat, trousers
trimmed with satin ribbon along the outside of the legs, cummerband and
bow tie. The phrase ``black tie'' does not refer to the color of the
tie. In fact colorful ties (with matching cummerbands) are very
popular. Ladies appear in ball gowns.
- Black tie optional: Same as above, except gentlemen have
the option of wearing a regular suit with a tie (bow tie preferred), and
ladies wear a cocktail gown or dinner dress. Long to full-length skirts
are preferred; short skirts are not recommended.
- Formal: Gentlemen in suit and tie (nowadays a sport coat
is often an acceptable replacement for a full suit), ladies in cocktail
gown or evening dress.
- Semi-formal: Gentlemen in dress slacks with dress shirt
and tie, jacket is optional. Other options include a vest or a sweater
that shows the tie. At the lower end of formality, these events can be
attended without a tie, e.g. with a turtleneck and jacket. Ladies in
evening dress or dinner dress, but other chic outfits are also
acceptable (like flowing pants, etc.)
- Dressy Casual: Applies to most practice dances, workshops,
and dance lessons. Gentlemen can wear coton slacks with solid color
T-shirt, turtleneck, mock turtleneck, or polo shirt. Ladies have a much
wider set of clothing options. Use your imagination and sense of
fashion. In general this is a conservative and toned-down appearance
that has grown increasingly popular on the dance floors. Don't forget
your dance shoes!
- Country/Western: Country western attire has variations
across the country, but generally it is acceptable to go in blue or
black jeans (not stone-washed) and cowboy boots. Make sure that the
boots will not mark the dance floor. If you wear a hat, it may be a good
idea to take it off when going on the floor. Note that country western
folks can be very sensitive about their hats. It is improper to touch or
otherwise handle someone's hat, even if it sits on a table. For a lady
to pick up and put on a gentleman's hat is considered very flirtatious.
- Milongas: (Argentine Tango) For both ladies and gentlemen,
black or dark themes are preferred.
- Latin: This refers to venues that specialize in Salsa,
Merengue, Cumbia, etc. For gentlemen, any button-up shirt, solid T-shirt
or mock turtleneck, dress slacks, and dance shoes. Jackets are nice, but
a vest can be even more stylish. Unlike most other dance venues, bright
and colorful outfits for gentlemen are acceptable, although dark themes
are more common. Ladies can (and often do) wear sexy outfits: both short
skirts and longer slit skirts are popular. Low necklines and exposed
midriffs are not uncommon.
- Swing: There are no strict rules for swing outfits. Both
the Gentleman and the Lady wear outfits that are reasonably neat and
chic, although often not very formal. Many types of swing are fast-paced
and athletic, so wearing suitable clothing is essential. For example,
the Lady would be well advised to stay away from short, tight
skirts. See also the next section on Comfort and
Safety. A cute trend, especially in Lindy Hop circles, is to wear
vintage outfits from the 1930's and 40's. But this is not done
everywhere and is not at all a requirement.
Dancing is an activity where two people come in close contact. Before a
- Regardless of how informal the dance is, always wear dance
shoes. Do not wear sneakers or other shoes with rubber or spongy
soles. They can stick to the floor during turns and spins and cause
ankle and knee injuries.
- Avoid sleeveless shirts and strapped dresses, especially for active
dancing: It is not pleasant to have to touch the damp skin of a partner.
- Sleeves that are baggy or cut low in the armpit are not a good
idea, especially in Latin and swing dancing, because dancers need access
to partner's back, and hands may get caught in baggy sleeves.
- Accessories like big rings, watches, brooches, loose/long
necklaces, and big belt buckles can be dangerous. They can catch in
partner's clothing, scratch and bruise.
- Gentlemen: if you have no place to leave your keys and loose
change, carry them in the *left* pocket of your trousers. This makes it
less likely to bruise your partner.
- Long hair should be put up or tied in a pony tail. It is difficult
to get into closed dance position when the lady has long flowing hair
(hair gets caught in gentleman's right hand). It is also not fun to be
hit in the face with flying hair during turns and spins.
During a dance:
- Shower and use a deodorant,
- Brush teeth and use mouthwash or breath mint,
- Abstain from foods that produce strong odors, like those heavy in
- The odor of cigarettes on one's breath or clothing can be very
When asking for a dance, it is easiest to stay with traditional phrases:
Check your grooming periodically
During active dance sessions, freshen up and towel off periodically in
Gentlemen, you can carry an extra shirt with you to the dance, in case
you need a change.
In the past it has been the tradition that men asked women to dance. But
this custom has gradually changed. Today, women should feel equally
comfortable asking a partner for a dance, even in a formal setting.
- ``May I have this dance?''
- ``May I have this Waltz/Rumba/Foxtrot/etc.''
- ``Would you like to dance?''
- ``Care to dance?''
- ``Shall we dance?''
If your desired partner is with a group, be unambiguous and make eye
contact when asking for a dance. If you vaguely approach a group, two
individuals may think you are asking for a dance. You can imagine that
the one not getting the dance is going to be miffed. Let's avoid such
awkward moments by a decisive approach and solid eye contact.
What if you want to ask someone to dance, who is enganged at the moment
in a conversation? Is it acceptable to interrupt a conversation to ask
someone to dance? Some would say that one's presence in a dancing
establishment indicates a desire for dancing and everyone is fair
game. Others say that interrupting a conversation is rude.
In my opinion, ask someone to dance if you think he/she is ready to
dance and will enjoy dancing with you at that moment. This requires you
to be a good judge of the moment. Also, if you know someone well enough
to know they don't mind being interrupted, then go ahead and ask them.
Perhaps one way to handle this is to walk gently to the edge of your
intended partner's "personal space", which is about 3-4 feet (one
meter). It will give you an opportunity to ask them to dance. If your
presence is not acknowledged, then it may be a good idea to find someone
else for that dance.
Exercising common sense and social skills is always a good idea. If
someone is sitting closely with their significant other, whispering
sweet nothings to each other, then it is probably not a good time to ask
either of them for a dance. Now a different scenario: your intended
partner is cornered by a bore and being lectured on weather patterns in
lower Namibia. You can advance and stand close. Once your intended
partner makes eye contact with you, smile and say: ``Dance?'' Usually,
that is enough to do the job. If not, it is better to leave him/her to
learn about weather patterns in lower Namibia.
Sometimes two individuals simultaneously ask someone for a dance. In
that situation, dance etiquette recommends that the object of attention
should accept one of the dances, while offering a later dance to the
If each person dances with only one or two others, the social dynamics
of dancing will be compromised. For that reason, dance etiquette strongly
encourages everyone to dance with many different partners. This is to
ensure a diversity of partnerships on the floor, and to give everyone a
chance to dance. Specifically, dance etiquette rules against asking the same
partner for more than two consecutive dances.
One of the common violations of this rule occurs when someone dances
most of the night with their escort. The ruling of etiquette in this
case is much the same as for the traditional (formal) dinner parties:
one never sits down to dinner next to one's spouse. It is assumed that
if spouses were interested primarily in talking with one another, they
could have stayed home together. By the same token, going to a social
dance demonstrates a desire to dance socially. This means dancing with a
host of partners, and not just with one or a select few. I have heard a
version of this rule that reserves the first and last dance of the
evening to be done with one's escort, and other dances with others.
People generally tend to dance with others at their own level, but you
should try to dance socially with partners of all levels. Dance
etiquette frowns disapprovingly on those who only dance with the best
dancers on the floor. Although this is not a terrible offense, it is
still bad form. Better dancers are especially advised to ask beginners
to dance. Not only does this help the social dynamics of a dance, it
also helps the better dancer (although it is outside the scope of this
discussion to explain why or how).
Unfortunately, there are some social dancers who consider themselves too
good to dance with beginners, who cannot ``keep up'' with their level of
dancing. It is often the case that these dancers are not as good as they
think. They need good partners because only good partners can compensate
for their mistakes, bad technique, or other inadequacies. The truly good
dancers often seek the challenge of dancing with those at lower levels,
and enjoy it. Good dancers make their partners look good.
Being declined is always unpleasant. For beginners and shy individuals
it is even harder to take, and may discourage them from social
dancing. Dance etiquette requires that one should avoid declining a
dance under most circumstances. For example, there is no correct way of
refusing an invitation on the basis of preferring to dance with
someone else. According to tradition, the only graceful way of
declining a dance is either (a) you do not know the dance, (b) you need
to take a rest, or (c) you have promised the dance to someone else.
The last excuse should be used only sparingly. When declining a dance, it is
good form to offer another dance instead: ``No, thank you, I'm taking a
break. Would you like to do another dance later?'' Also,
declining a dance means sitting out the whole song. It is inconsiderate
and outright rude to dance a song with anyone after you have declined to
dance it with someone else. If you are asked to dance a song before you
can ask (or get asked by) your desired partner, that's the luck of the
draw. The choices are to dance it with whomever asked first, or to sit
out the dance.
Does dance etiquette allow declining a dance outside of the cases
mentioned above? The answer is yes, if someone is trying to monopolize
you on the dance floor, make inappropriate advances, is unsafe
(e.g. collides with others on the floor), or is in other ways unsavory,
you are within the bounds of etiquette to politely but firmly decline
any more dances. Perhaps the simplest, best way is to say ``No, thank
you,'' without further explanation or argument. Dancers are encouraged
to use discretion and restraint when exercising this option.
The first thing to do when one is turned down for a dance is to take the
excuse at face value. Typical social dance sessions can be as long as
three to four hours, and there are few dancers who have the stamina of
dancing non-stop. Everyone has to take a break once in a
while, and that means possibly turning down one or two people each time
one takes a break. The advice to shy dancers and especially beginners is
not to get discouraged if they are turned down once or twice.
However, since social dancers are generally nice and polite, being
repeatedly declined can be a signal. In that case, it is a good idea to
examine one's dancing and social interactions to see if anything is
The dancing on a floor is done along a counter clockwise direction,
known as the Line Of Dance. This applies to traveling dances including
Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep, and Viennese Waltz, as well as Polka
and two-step in the country western repertoire. Latin and Swing dances
are more or less stationary and have no line of dance. Sometimes it is
possible to dance more than one type of dance to the same song. For
example, some Foxtrots can also be swings, and many Lindy Hop songs are
just great for Quickstep. In that case, swing dancers take the middle of
the floor, and the moving dancers move along the periphery in the
direction of the line of dance.
Some caution should be exercised when getting on the dance floor,
especially if the song has already started and couples are dancing on
the floor. It is the responsibility of incoming couples to make sure
that they stay out of the way of the couples already dancing.
Specifically, before getting into dance position, one should always look
opposite the line of dance to avoid blocking someone's way, or even
worse, causing a collision.
After the dance is finished and before parting, thank your partner. This
reminds me of a social partner who, upon being thanked at the end of the
dance, would answer: ``You're welcome!'' This always gave me a funny
feeling. The proper answer to ``Thank you!'' on the dance floor is:
``Thank you!'' The point is that the thanks is not due to a favor, but
If you enjoyed the dance, let your partner know. Compliment your partner
on her/his dancing. Be generous, even if he/she is not the greatest of
dancers. Be specific about it if you can: ``I really enjoyed that
double reverse spin. You led/followed that beautifully!'' If you
enjoyed it so much that you would like to have another dance with
him/her again, this is a good time to mention it: ``This Waltz went
really great! I'd like to try a Cha-Cha with you later.'' Although
remember that dancing too many dances with the same partner and booking
many dances ahead are both violations of social dance rules.
When a song comes to an end, leave the floor as quickly as it is
gracefully possible. Tradition requires that the gentleman give his arm
to the lady and take her back to her seat at the end of the dance. While
this custom is linked to the outdated tradition requiring the gentlemen
to ask ladies for dances, it is still a nice touch, although it may be
impractical on the more crowded dance floors. In any case, remember that
your partner may want to get the next dance. Don't keep them talking
after the dance is over, if they seem ready to break away to look for
their next partner.
Some dance floors, especially in country western dance establishments,
have limited access space (most of the periphery is railed). Dancers and
onlookers should avoid blocking these entrances. In particular, avoid
stopping to chat immediately after exiting the dance floor. Another
issue in Country Western dancing regards line dancers, who sometimes
share the floor with other dancers. They should avoid blocking entrances
from the inside while dancing.
Responsible usage of the floor requires that one stays out of the way of
others. Some figures require a momentary movement against line of
dance. These figures should be executed with great caution on a social
dance floor, and only when there is no danger of collision. Avoid
getting too close to other couples, especially less experienced ones. Be
prepared to change the directions of your patterns to avoid congested
areas. This requires thinking ahead and matching your patterns to the
free areas on the floor (floorcraft). While this may sound complicated
to the novice dancer, it gradually becomes second nature.
Sharing the floor sometimes means leaving the floor! For
example, if there are too many dancers to fit on the floor, then
a considerate dancer would withdraw
every few dances to let everyone dance. The same idea applies if there
aren't the same number of men and women. Then there is a mismatch and
for each song some people will be left without a partner.
If there aren't enough partners, it would be nice to voluntarily withdraw every few dances so that
everyone gets a chance to dance.
Another aspect of sharing the floor is to match one's speed to that of
others. In a recent social dance, a particularly tall and handsome
couple caught my eye. They were moving with great speed and skill across
the floor, and I began to enjoy watching them dance. But then I noticed
they were coming dangerously close to other dancers on the crowded dance
floor, and many times other couples came to a stop and moved out of
their way. It was easy to see they were unhappy
about this couple ``taking over'' the floor.
The only thing to be said about aerials on the social dance floor is:
don't do them. While they may look ``cool,'' the execution of aerials
requires training by a qualified instructor. Don't do them by yourself
unless you are trained, and certainly don't do them on the social dance
floor. Dancers have been badly hurt by either participating in aerials,
or unluckily being in the proximity of those who did. In fact, in 1996,
a swing dancer died during
the execution of an aerial. Aerials can be extremely dangerous, please
take this issue seriously.
The same principle applies to other lifts and drops, as well as
choreographed patterns that require a large amount of floor space.
Never blame a partner for missed execution of figures. Once in a social
dance I accidentally overheard a novice couple, where the lady said: ``I
can do this step with everyone but you!'' The fact that she was wrong (I
had seen her other attempts) is irrelevant. The point is that she was
unkind and out of line. Even if the gentleman were at fault, she was not
to say something like that (more about this in the section: ``dancing to the level of partner.'')
Regardless of who is at fault when a dancing mishap occurs, both parties
are supposed to smile and go on. This applies to the better dancer in
particular, who bears a greater responsibility. Accepting the blame is
especially a nice touch for the gentleman. But at the same time, do not
apologize profusely. There is no time for it, and it makes your partner
My personal preference is the following: whenever something untoward
happens, I first see if my partner noticed. Sometimes the partner may
not be aware, for example, that a figure was slightly off-time or that a fine
point in technique was missed, in which case it is better to let it go. If
she has noticed, I just smile and whisper ``sorry...'' and go on,
regardless of whose fault it was.
It often happens that the two partners dancing socially are not at the
same level. It is important that the more experienced partner dances at
the level of the less experienced partner. This is mostly a comment for
leaders: when dancing with a new partner, start with simple figures, and
gradually work your way up to more complicated patterns. You will
discover a comfort level, file it away in memory for the next time you
dance with the same partner.
The same principle applies to Latin and Swing followers, although to a
lesser degree. Doing extra syncopations, footwork, free spins etc. can
be distracting and even intimidating for a less experienced
leader. Although I must say that the show-off follower is rather rare;
most of the violations of this sort are by leaders who lead
inexperienced partners into complicated figures.
Social dancers strive to make their partners comfortable and help them
enjoy the dance. This requires sensitivity to the likes and dislikes of
the partner. These preferences can take a variety of forms. For example,
I remember that one of my West Coast Swing social partners found neck
wraps uncomfortable. In the same manner, some dancers don't like spins
(or many spins in a row), while others really enjoy them. Some like
extended syncopations and others don't. There are many more examples in
various dance venues. Be sensitive to your partners. It is not too hard
to detect their likes and dislikes, and if in doubt, ask.
Be personable, smile, and make eye contact with your partner. Try to
project a warm and positive image on the dance floor, even if that is
not your personal style. Many of us lead hectic lives that include a
difficult balance between study, work, family, and other
obligations. Having a difficult and tiring day, however, is not an
acceptable excuse for a depressing or otherwise unpleasant demeanor on
the dance floor. Because of the setting of a social dance, we do not
always dance with our favorite partners. This is also not grounds for a
cold treatment of the partner. Once one asks or accepts a dance, it is
important to be outwardly positive, even if not feeling exactly
The social dancer is also well advised to be watchful of an unchecked
ego. While a healthy sense of self is helpful in all social
interactions, it is more attractive when mixed with an equal dose of
modesty. Don't let perceived dancing abilities or physical
attractiveness go to your head. It is helpful to remember that
overestimating one's dance prowess or attractiveness is quite common.
There are two aspects to this point of etiquette:
This is unfortunately one of the more common breaches of dance
etiquette. This often happens when a dancer stops in the middle of a
song to correct his or her partner, or tell them how to execute a dance
figure. Ironically, this error is often committed by individuals who are
not fit to teach! Experienced social dancers dance at the level of their partners. Even for
experienced dancers, the social dance floor is not the place to teach or
to correct your partner. It is better to concentrate on patterns
that both partners can do and enjoy. Unsolicited teaching can be
humiliating and takes the fun out of dancing.
This is not necessarily a flagrant violation. For many, it is flattering
to be consulted about a point of dancing. However, a little care and
caution is always a good idea. Consider this hypothetical scenario: A
polite dancer is excited when his favorite song comes on, and he asks
the closest stranger for the dance. He really wants to dance this song,
but she replies: ``I have never done this dance before. Can you please
It is debatable how much one can learn, from scratch, in the 2-3 minutes
a typical song plays, but that is beside the point. This is a song
he really wants to dance to. For this or any other reason, he may not
wish to spend time at that moment teaching someone, but she has left him
no polite way of getting out. In this situation: (a) She doesn't know
him (so cannot justify the imposition based on friendship), (b) she
solicits teaching at the time he is asking her to dance, which puts him
at a disadvantage, and (c) she does not know anything about the dance,
so he cannot say: ``let's just do basic steps.''
Of course it's not always that bad. Dancers can learn quite a bit from
each other in social dancing; observing a few simple points will
make things enjoyable for all:
- Don't say "teach me" the moment someone asks you to dance. If they
are shy, they will feel trapped, will spend the next few minutes with
you, and then for the rest of the night will avoid you like the
plague. If they are not so shy, they will not teach you, and
for the rest of the night will avoid you like the plague.
- A good approach is the following: when asked to dance, one can say
``I would like to, but I don't know the dance.'' This shows that help
would be appreciated, but without any pressure.
- The asker in this situation can either offer to take the partner on
the floor and do some basic steps, or if s/he is not so inclined, take
it as a decline of dance: ``Oh, it would have been fun, perhaps we can
do a different dance later?''
- It is better to request help from friends, or at least someone you have
had a dance or two with already, rather than someone you just met. If
anythings, this is a great motivation to make friends in the dance community.
- If you want to get pointers from someone, wait until s/he
sits out a dance. Then go talk to her/him. This way they are not missing
out on a dance by helping you.
Etiquette is here to ensure everyone has a good time in a social dance
setting, so pay attention to it.
Your outfit and accessories should be comfortable, safe, and also
reflect the culture and level of formality of the dance group.
Most importantly, do not forget your dance shoes.
Ask everyone to dance. Do not monopolize one partner for the whole
Today's beginners will be the good dancers of tomorrow,
so be nice to them and dance with them.
Do not decline a dance unless you absolutely have to. Having declined a
dance, you cannot dance the same song with someone else.
Be considerate of other couples on the floor. Exercise good
floorcraft. Do not cut other couples off. No aerials or choreographed
steps on the social dance floor!
Stationary dancers (e.g. Swing dancers) stay in the middle, traveling
dancers move on the boundary along the line of dance.
Avoid patterns that your partner cannot do: dance to the level of your
Never blame your partner for missteps.
No unsolicited teaching on the floor!
Smile, be warm, be personable, be nice.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also wish to read Beyond Dance Etiquette: Success and Enjoyment in
Last modified 19 March 2005
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