A friend of mine, some time ago, challenged me to come up with my 'ten commandments' of social dance. Here, rather belatedly, they are. Perhaps you disagree with some of them, and have your own ideas. If so, let me know. Don't be put off by the term 'commandments' - they are opinions and recommendations, which I call 'commandments' so that I don't have to think of more than ten of them.


This is the Golden Rule. If you follow this one to the limit then you will automatically be following all the other rules, since they all serve this one rule.

When social dancing, you should remember that your partner is the person for whom you are dancing, and no one else. You are not dancing for yourself. If you dance merely for yourself, then you will give little to your partner, and get little in return. The leader will seem self-obsessed, and leave the follower feeling that she is just an inconvenience on the end of his arm. The follower will end up ignoring the leader's subtle playful nuances, and concentrate on looking good herself, and will miss part of what she is offered, and will disrupt the lead. The dancers will lose eye-contact, and each will be missing out on what the other has to offer.

Similarly, you are not dancing for some third party who is watching. It is rude to dance with one person while trying to impress someone else. For the three and a half minutes you are on the dance floor dancing to one number, you give your attention to your partner. This is not asking too much. Imagine how you might feel if you realised that the moves danced by your partner were not for your benefit, but designed to impress or attract future dance partners. Also, the moves selected by a dancer who is trying to impress a third party may well be selected for their flashiness, and not for their appropriateness in the context of music and partner. The best move to select is the one which fits both music and partner. You cannot tailor your dance to fit both your partner and an observer perfectly.

2. You shall ask for dances politely, and accept them politely

Today it is theoretically fine for a woman to ask a man for a dance. In practice, few women take full advantage of this. I see no reason why they should not. It seems a little unreasonable to me to hear a woman who has asked no one all evening to dance, complain that she has had few dances. If some women are happy to ask, and others not so confident, then those that lose out will be the shy.

To make it easier for people who are uneasy about asking, those asked should be gracious about accepting. Always appear to be glad to be asked. It does not boost anyone's morale to start off with the impression that one's partner is there under sufferance. By and large, it is bad form to refuse a request for a dance. If you do refuse, do so in a way which makes it appear that your refusal was not connected with the identity of the asker. One might for instance say that one is tired after a particularly frantic dance, and will dance later after a rest. A promise of a dance later is good, but be as good as your word.

My opinion on this matter is that people should be happy to dance with anyone once in an evening. If, however, one is asked over and over again by the same person one has already danced with, then I feel that one is at liberty to refuse. Similarly, if I ask a person to dance, then discover that my partner is not enjoying the partnership, or is much better than I am, then it is a bit much for me to keep on asking her over and over again. Each dancer has only so much time and energy in an evening for dancing, and at a dance of any great size, there will be more partners present than can be danced with more than once, so every extra dance with the same partner means that a dancer misses an opportunity to dance with someone else. Good dancers will be in particular demand, so it is unfair on others to hog them.

3. You shall grip your partner only as much as is necessary

Few things ruin a potentially enjoyable dance more than the vice-like grip of one's partner. While a certain amount of force is required to stop one losing contact with a partner, one can end up feeling that one is dancing with a crab, whose pincers are crushing the life out of muscle, bone, and vein. A leader needs to be able to let go of a partner without notice, so that he can lead the next move. He cannot do this if he is in the sharp clutches of his partner. Many turns and the like require both partners to alter their hand grip on the connecting arm. If my partner is hanging on for grim death as I turn her, then the dance will come to a halt, as we both nurse strained tendons. The follower needs to be gripped well enough for the lead to be clear, but it does nothing for her enjoyment of the dance to feel as though she is caught in a gin-trap.

4. The follower shall follow the leader

The leader gets pleasure from the feeling that he is giving the follower a good dance. He will not feel this if she thinks so little of his lead that she chooses not to follow it. She will be missing out on what unique things he can offer her in the dance. She should be dancing for him. For three minutes he is her king and she his dancing girl. When he gives her room to strut her stuff, she can be as flamboyant as he might wish, and when he leads a move which requires her to follow closely, then so she should. She doesn't know what he's planning next, and whatever move she chooses not to follow may well ruin the leader's attempt to lead the move after that, which she might have enjoyed. With skill and experience, it becomes perfectly possible for a follower to contribute to the dance in a creative way. There are many ways in which a follower can suggest a lead without mucking up what the leader is doing.

5. The leader shall follow the follower

This may seem to contradict the last commandment. What this really means is that the routine of moves which the leader selects, the pace and energy with which he leads them, the rhythm he uses, and all such things, should be selected in the light of the responses from the follower. He must monitor what is being well received, and what isn't. No two partners are alike, and a partner will feel more special if the dance they get seems tailored to them. A creative follower will be offering opportunities for certain leads to her partner. The leader should always be watching for this. For the length of one song, the follower is the leader's queen, and he her faithful servant attending to her wishes.

6. You shall dance to the music

Amazingly enough, a great many people flout this commandment. Many people dance as if the music were nothing more than a metronome, supplying tempo. A good dance number has ‘breaks' in it, where the rhythm comes to a halt for a bar or two. A good dancer will honour these breaks in the way he dances, and perhaps pause with them. If the music suddenly goes quiet, he might move with smaller steps. If it rises to a great crescendo, then he might take large steps and execute some spectacular move in time with it. How dancers honour the music is their own choice, but they should honour it in their way. A large part of the fun from dancing comes from the music, and this is lost if one doesn't pay attention to it. If two people dance in a way which fits a song perfectly, then that dance will be one which would fit no other song, and so it will be more special for being unique in that way. People who dance the same routine whatever the music, merely altering the tempo to fit, will stagnate, and are missing out.

7. You shall not be malodorous

There are many general tips as to how one might dress for a dance. Large rings are uncomfortable for gripper and grippee alike. Very long hair or necklaces, and big baggy clothes, can all get in the way. Certain shoes are unwise to dance in. Opinions vary on such details. One thing, though, that most people agree on, and women seem to put particular emphasis on, is that it is very unpleasant to dance with someone who stinks. A shirt which doesn't smell too bad when it is first put on may smell quite a lot worse when the person wearing it has warmed up a lot from dancing. It is inevitable that a dancer will sweat, and dancers will tolerate this, but one does on occasion encounter people who smell of more than a little sweat. If you want to spend a while in a close hold with your partner, then bear in mind that they may not have a gas mask handy.

On a more personal individual note here, I'd like to state that I prefer the smell of a woman who has been dancing for a while, and has broken sweat, to the smell of a woman who, embarrassed that she might smell of anything so animal, has masked the smell entirely by applying a huge amount of perfume. There have been times when I have feared to dance past someone who was smoking, lest some hot ash might set the cloud of perfume around my partner into a blazing fireball.

8. The lady shall choose the distance

There are many smoochy moves, to be danced perhaps in a very close hold. Unfortunately, partners sometimes disagree as to what the ideal partner-to-partner distance is, particularly with regard to torso-to-torso distance. Though some people may scream "Stereotyping!" in response to this, it is nevertheless true that it is usually the woman who favours the greater distance, and the man who would prefer, and occasionally insist on, the closer distance. In recognition of this sexual bias, the general rule is that the woman gets her way. There are many ways in which she can signal that she would prefer him to keep his distance, just as there are many ways in which he can signal that she should come in closer. Gallantry requires the man to honour her wishes over his.

In practice, my experience is that the man should not be afraid to come in close (though perhaps not near the start of the dance) once, to test the waters so-to-speak, and similarly the woman should not be afraid to make her preferences on this matter clear. If he comes in and she advances to meet him, and then gives no clue that she'd rather he retreat, then she can't complain later that he danced too close.

9. You will say sorry, especially if you're a chap

It is amazing that people crash into each other on the dance floor as seldom as they do. A dance floor might be filled to near capacity with people, all dancing wildly, and paying attention mainly to their partners, and yet still it is fairly rare that any serious damage is done to anyone. If you do bump into someone on the dance floor, say sorry. You don't necessarily know whose fault it was. It may have been yours, it may not. Either way, if you feel a bump, turn and say a simple "sorry" and carry on. People will only think more of you if you apologise for something which wasn't your fault.

By and large, men do the leading in social dance. One of the many responsibilities the leader has is to make sure that the follower does not crash into anyone else. If the follower does crash into someone, then the leader should bear in mind that he was doing the steering at the time, and so the crash was probably his fault. Don't be the guy whose partner has to apologise for him. Be the splendid magnanimous chap who says sorry without reluctance.

Similarly, a quick "sorry" can work wonders when, for instance, you have led a move a bit too vigorously, and you have jarred your partner's shoulder slightly. Perhaps she doesn't really mind all that much, but at least you have shown that you are aware of what happened, and so she might feel more secure dancing with you, in the knowledge that you will try to avoid a repetition of that sort of thing. A friendly tone of voice is better than an abject one.

The word "sorry" can be over-used by the follower who feels a bit lost. Sometimes, I dance with a beginner and lead many moves which she has never done before. If I lead them well, then she is able to follow them despite not knowing them. It is very satisfying to be able to do this. This is spoiled, though, if my partner keeps saying "sorry" when she's not sure if she's followed correctly. A woman might sometimes apologise if she knows beyond doubt that she has mucked up some big moment, or brought the dance to a crunching halt, but otherwise the best thing she can do is keep smiling and keep dancing.

10. You will look as though you are enjoying yourself

There is nothing more dampening to the spirit of fun when dancing than to dance with someone who looks glum. One of the pair might be trying like mad, and the other may be having fun, but if they don't show this, then it will be very difficult for their partner to have fun too. Even if you are not having a great dance, you will do a lot to cheer the other one up, or at least stop them from feeling down, if you make an effort to look reasonably happy.

Back to top