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Pragmatic Dance Etiquette Tips
(Primarily for Swing Dancers)
Practical Partner-changing & Related Advice


Swing folks are friendly around here (Boston area), and typically change partners almost every song -- although you certainly don't have to! We have put together a few practical tips, mostly related to partner-changing, based on what we've observed of Boston-area customs.

(1) Who may ask for a dance?

           Both men and women may ask someone for a dance. The classical phrasing is "May I have this dance?" The contemporary wording is usually "Would you like to dance?" but anything even remotely resembling it will do.
           Note: People have a mild natural tendency to dance with people they already know, just because it's easier. This gives an initial appearance of cliquishness at the local dances -- but in almost all cases it's a false impression, and the dancers are happy to dance with anyone who knows even slightly how to dance. So just ask for a dance! (However, the local lindy hop clique is an unpleasant exception; most will not dance with anyone except their fellow cliquesters.)

(2) Timing: when EXACTLY to ask someone to dance -- a pragmatic tip for novice gentlemen dancers.

           Normally, one asks at the beginning of a song. However, when we Gentlemen are brand new at Swing and don't have a very big repertoire, we often get dismayed by the prospect of leading our 5 or 6 moves for an entire three-minute song -- we feel that the fascination is gone (for her) long before the end of the song. So here's a secret tip: wait on the sidelines until halfway through a song and then ask her to dance. Ingenious, yes? (Also, during the song, switch back to Closed Position from time to time.)

(3) Be specific!

           Always ask one particular person to dance. Do not go up to 2 people standing together and ask, "Would either of you care to dance?" What will happen is each of them will hesitate and defer politely to the other, but you'll see it as total rejection. (This is the Voice of Bitter Experience talking at ya -- from both ends of the experience.)
           Reverse advice: Sometimes the only reasonable option is to go up to 2 or more people standing together and ask "Would any of you like to dance?" If you do this, be prepared for an embarrassingly long period (it's only a few seconds, but it feels like forever) while the people hem and haw, checking politely and nonverbally with each other to see if anyone has a strong preference one way or the other. At some point, each and every one of them will defer to the others, and you'll feel like an idiot the entire time this is happening. Just stand there and keep smiling, and eventually someone will say yes. Probably.

(4) When to say yes.

           If someone asks you to dance, dance with 'em -- unless you don't want to. On the one hand, it's friendlier to say yes, and the dance is only 3 minutes, so it won't kill you. On the other hand, it's the 21st century and you are no one's slave. Etiquette strongly supports you in saying no if the person is dangerous or offensive (physically, morally or olfactorily), or if you've promised the dance to someone else already, or if you are resting or heading for the water trough.

(5) How to say no.

           If you want to say no to someone who asks you to dance, do so. It's your life and limbs. Etiquette explicitly says that you do not have to give reasons, despite the strong American predilection for doing so. Something like, "No thank you, not just now; perhaps later" works fine. (You can keep saying it all night if you have to.) Add a smile to cushion the blow. Then wait out the whole song (gracious classical approach) -- or at least 20 seconds (modern approach) -- before you dash onto the dance floor with someone else.

(6) When someone says no.

           If someone declines to dance with you, accept it graciously. If he or she offers an excuse, pretend to believe it. Let's face it: either the excuse is true or it's because of you personally. If it's personal, you probably don't want to know about it, so just assume that the excuse is true. Around here, you'll almost certainly be right -- the local Swing dancers are remarkably nice in general. For example, if you get rejected right after a fast song, chances are the person is genuinely fatigued. Wait about two songs and then ask again. When to give up and assume it's personal? You might want to use the Rule that someone once told us was standard amongst the Country Club set in which he grew up: if someone declines 3 times without offering a compensating alternative (such as "next song, okay?"), forget it.

(7) Danger, Will Robinson!

           Physical danger. If you are being maimed during a song, stop dancing and head for the sidelines -- even if it's the middle of a song. Say something along the lines of, "Gee, my shoulder suddenly seems to be hurting" if you are timid, or, if you are more straightforward, "Excuse me, but you've hurt my arm. I'm going to stop now." And then walk away -- it's not a discussion; it's not a negotiation; and you do not need permission or approval from the maimer to stop dancing with him/her.
           TIP: If it happens once, it might just be a random accident. But if it happens twice, it will happen a dozen times -- your partner just doesn't know what's going wrong nor how to fix it. End it! For your shoulders' sake!
           WARNING: You will probably feel completely weird the first 2 or 3 times you do this, and the look of stunned surprise and hurt on the maimer's face will make you feel even weirder. In our dance classes, we actually practice this business 3 or 4 times, to get those weird initial repetitions out of the way -- it should be a part of your natural behavioral repertoire, not some theoretical construct that you have never used. If it helps steel you for the effort, we'll mention that one of our favorite female dancers was out of commission for over 2 weeks once because a guy repeatedly hurt her shoulders while she was being too "polite" to end the dance early.
           DIAGNOSIS: Most casual injuries in Swing happen at two points: (a) Yanking-jerking. Some men -- and far too many women! -- will yank during the Rock-Step. Disaster. (b) Outside Turns. These include the Arch Turns and even the standard exit from the Sweetheart / Cuddle / Wrap / Basket. Many guys will pull the Lady's hand down towards the end of an Outside Turn move -- very bad for the Lady's shoulder. Worse, many Ladies were never taught good arm skills (super-short summary: elbows down, elbows in!), compounding the disaster.

           Fondling and groping. Same principle applies if you are being fondled in ways you dislike: stop dancing, say something to the creep, and head for the sidelines. How can you know if the groping was intended or accidental? Trust your feelings, Luke -- you will be correct 99.99 percent of the time. Yes, there are one or two gropers on the local dance scene, all male at the moment -- the most common local technique is that he switches to a swoopy ballroom-ish style and pulls the woman's upper body so close that her breasts are pressed against his chest, while he pretends that he doesn't notice. (In case you are wondering, this was NEVER correct for ballroom styles, and every guy on the planet knows this. If it happens, you are being groped.)
           We strongly encourage the victims of gropers to say something: to the creep, to the managers of the dance, and to your dance teacher past or present -- your dance teacher can direct the information quietly to the right people, if you want it handled quietly and anonymously. And to everyone else you know. If you don't, a lot of other people are going to get victimized. And you could have prevented it.

           Gentlemen Moving/Kicking Backwards: Gents, never move or kick backwards until you check that the area there is unoccupied! Usually, it happens halfway through a move that started out forward, so you are not as attentive to danger as usual -- get attentive! Note to others: If you see a guy moving or kicking backwards towards you, assume that he does NOT know what he's doing and, for your and your partner's safety, get out of the way.

(8) When the song ends.

           When finished a dance, (i) APPLAUD THE BAND EVERY TIME (many people rudely forget), then (ii) thank your partner with something like, "Thanks for the dance!" Traditionally, one added a third step: (iii) walk your partner back to the sidelines. However, the time for finding a new partner between songs is so short these days, that most partners prefer that you skip this bit.

(9) How many songs in a row?

           Dance one song with someone, then change partners. Maybe two in a row, but not more than that. (We have no idea why, but this seems to be the way it works around here.)

(10) Dance with partners of all skill levels.

           Overcome your shyness and do it. It's good for you. And it makes everyone a better dancer sooner, which means more fun the next time out.

           Dancing with someone LESS skilled than you. Be gracious -- stick to stuff she or he can handle, and then, when you are comfortable with each other's dancing, slip in something one degree harder, and then (maybe) two degrees harder. Come back to those one or two things until your partner is comfortable with them. Never over-dance your partner's capabilities. Always try to make your partner look and feel like a terrific dancer. And for heaven's sake, NEVER criticize or offer instruction, unless your partner explicitly and repeatedly demands that you do so. (Do all instructing on the sidelines, by the way, never on the dance floor.)

           Dancing with someone MORE skilled than you. Concentrate! Smile! Do your best! Suppress the urge to apologize, except maybe once per song just to get it out of your system. Don't worry if you flub things -- the second or third time they happen you'll get the hang of 'em.


See you on the dance floor!

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Page updated 8-22-2000, minor edits 10-15-2003
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