Notes on Dancing with an Instructor or Advanced Dancer

I’d like to address a comment I hear now again about the challenge that newcomers feel they have of getting a chance to dance with “the good dancers” at local dances.

I’ve heard the comment in three general ways:

  • “This isn’t really a dance, it’s a practice/show for the good dancers to dance with each other.”
  • “I don’t have a regular partner and I never get asked to dance.”
  • “The instructors never ask students/beginners to dance.”

The first thing I’d like to say is that a frequent topic of conversation among the local instructors that I know is how to strike the right balance between helping to ensure that other dancers and students get good quality practice in, while also ensuring that we get the same opportunity for ourselves. Because let’s face it – EVERYONE wants to dance with someone who’s better than they are – it’s the best way to learn! Instructors are no different.

Note: I’m going to refer to “newcomers” as a catch-all to include dancers new to a scene, new to a dance, or students

Instructors are Students, Too

I’d like to speak to the “us versus them” mentality that those comments imply. One of my dance mentors, Mario Robau Jr., says, “I’m not better than you, I’m just further down the path than you are.” The majority of local instructors I know – including myself – consider themselves to be students first, instructors second. The only way to build a dance community is to have a good stable of local instructors, and many of the better dancers are therefore asked to start teaching. But they don’t cease to become students themselves.

So, although we don’t generally think of ourselves as a rarefied species separate from the people in the classes we teach, many newcomers and even experienced dancers often make us feel that way. From my personal experience, these are common mistakes that dancers sometimes make with respect to dancing with instructors or advanced dancers:

  1. Freaking out when an instructor or advanced dancer asks them to dance. When I ask someone from a class I’ve taught to dance, I get this reaction  50% of the time or more: “Oh my god, I have to dance with the teacher?!” This makes me feel that I have intimidated the person or imposed upon them, and I will not likely ask that person to dance again for some time – at least not until they give me some indication that they are ready or comfortable to dance with me.
  2. Failing to distinguish between a dance and a lesson. Another experience I have had with students when I ask them to dance goes something like this: “Okay, well, I only know three patterns so maybe you could show me a few new things while we’re a it.” I’ve even had leaders stop dead in the middle of a song and say, “Okay, that’s all I know. Teach me something new.” Dances are a practice opportunity for me as well. If I’m dancing with a leader who has a limited repertoire, I  practice my own basic technique as well as some new styling ideas I’m trying out (it’s easier to practice those on basic patterns). Asking me turn it into a lesson is a definite faux pas, and I will not be likely to ask a leader who does that to dance again any time soon.
  3. Not asking the instructor to dance. EVERYONE likes to be asked to dance. It is a compliment to be asked and it doesn’t matter who is doing the asking – a beginner or a pro. For the reasons noted in #1 and #2 above, as well as some of the other reasons discussed below, instructors simply can’t be expected to do all the asking. PLEASE ask us to dance, too.

The Life of an Instructor and/or Advanced Dancer

I’m mystified when I hear those comments about newcomers or people without regular partners feeling that they don’t get to dance enough with instructors or advanced dancers. When I’m at a local dance, I’m lucky if I get three dances in with my dance partner – because we’re both dancing more with other people.

I personally make a point of asking anyone/everyone to dance, including newcomers. I tend to do this mostly earlier in the evening when the newcomers are there (because they tend to leave dances early, so that is where my focus is for the first 1-2 hours). All the instructors I know do this as well, to varying degrees. When I was first learning, a few local leaders in particular (Donnie, Bob, Charlie, Dale) would ALWAYS ask me to dance at least once every dance. I both dreaded those dances and wished for them – they challenged me, scared me, excited me – most importantly, they showed me a path that I wanted to follow. Without those experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain interest in partnered dancing.

All that said, newcomers must try to empathize with instructors and/or advanced dancers on these points:

  • There’s always a shortage of resources. In any growing community you’ll find a pyramid, with more newcomers than long-standing/experienced members – in fact, that is the sign of a strong community. Instructors and advanced dancers will therefore dance the most dances with less experienced dancers. If you didn’t get to dance with your instructor or advanced dancers of choice, it’s likely not because that person wasn’t dancing with newcomers – it’s more likely that it’s because they were dancing with so many.
  • Most local instructors are “on duty” at some point during dances. They may be teaching the beginner lesson, hosting the dance, or DJing. Andre DJs and he finds it disruptive to dance while he is planning music – and because he plans music (versus just playing from a playlist), we all benefit from GREAT dances. I generally have to BEG him to get a dance when he’s working … and I sleep with the guy! Don’t be upset if you’re turned down for a dance by someone who’s on-duty – simply ask them when they will be free later in the evening.
  • Not everyone is on the same dance schedule. Some instructors own/run the dance studios, dance literally all day, and are responsible for running the dances. During a dance, they may be DJing, answering questions about classes, collecting payment, covering for volunteers who weren’t able to make it, etc. (Remember to thank the heavens for these people – without their willingness to sacrifice the fun of dance for the business of dance, we’d have no opportunities to learn or to practice). Their dancing generally starts later at night when the “business” of the dance has wound up. Unfortunately by that time, many newcomers have left the dance and may therefore miss the best chance to dance with those people.
  • Instructors and Advanced dancers need practice and social time, too. As I’ve already noted, instructors are students too, and EVERYONE wants to dance with people who are better than them. Instructors and Advanced dancers are no different – and in doing so, we hone our skills and acquire new knowledge that we in turn share with our students. Having given my first few hours of a dance to more newcomers, I make no apologies for focusing my attention on more partners at my level later in the evening. That doesn’t mean a student can’t still ask me to dance or that I’d be happy to oblige.

My Social Dance Strategy

I’m relatively new to partnered dancing – I started in 2005 after a lifetime of solo dancing. I had to learn very quickly that there is a strategy required if you want to dance a lot – or even once – at a social dance. Hey, I didn’t make the rules, I just learned how to play them. Now that I’m an instructor and often in the role of “dance host”, I see a few common mistakes that dancers make – mistakes that definitely deplete their chances of getting to dance.

So, in addition to the three tips that I gave earlier, I’ll offer this “social dance strategy”. This is NOT an essay on “dance etiquette”, of which there are many that you can find on the Internet. This is strictly my advice about how to get asked to dance.

  1. Create your own experience. Although this can be difficult for many new dancers – and particularly, I find, for women – you simply MUST be willing to ask others to dance. It is JUST as difficult for a man to ask a woman to dance than vice-versa but too many women feel that it’s the man’s responsibility. It’s now socially acceptable – even expected – for a woman to ask a man to dance. Too often, I see woman waiting to be asked – and complaining when they are not. Create your own dance experience by being willing to ask. If you’re goal oriented, set yourself a goal to ask one new person to dance every dance – it gets easier every time!
  2. Remove barriers. Too often, I see dancers – and especially women – sitting behind tables or standing against walls, “waiting” to be asked to dance. As any expert in body language will tell you, putting a barrier in front of yourself is a way of indicating that you do not want to be approached. Barriers at a dance can include objects (table, other people), yourself (crossed arms, unhappy face), and space (standing against a wall creates a large space between you and the dance floor; sitting down creates space above you and prevents easy eye contact). On the contrary, you can USE barriers if you want to take a break from dancing for a while.
  3. Stand at the edge of the dance floor & smile. This is the second-best way to get asked to dance: stand near the edge of the dance floor with arms at your sides (not crossed in front of you), smile and make eye contact with dancers as they leave the floor.
  4. Dance. Once you are dancing, you’re in the ideal situation to dance some more. The first-best way to keep dancing is this: once a dance has ended smile and make eye contact with other dancers who are now looking for a new partner – while they are still on the dance floor.
  5. De-gender your dancing. I lead as well as follow … and that means that I like to practice leading and that I can offer followers another leader to dance with. However, through experience I have learned to not ask women to follow me unless I am very familiar with them and know they are comfortable to dance with me. If you want to dance an “open-role” dance with an instructor or advanced dancer, you’ll have to ask them the first time at least. The majority of advanced dancers are used to dancing open role (in either role, with either gender). But through experience, we know that many newcomers are NOT comfortable with it, so we won’t make the first move.

I’ve personally found the Ottawa West Coast Swing dance community to be the most welcoming and social dance communities that I’ve tried out, and definitely the most open to dancing with people who are not regular partners. There are other dance styles that appealed to me when I first saw them danced – WCS was simply the most accessible one for me at the time, thanks in large part to the people at the local dances.