My One Rule for Asking People to Dance

rule for asking people to dance

I recently wrote a contentious blog.

I had no idea that it was going to draw as much fire as it did. I thought people might disagree – I didn’t anticipate how emotional everyone would become about it.

In the blog post I believe in the hierarchy: 5 reasons I never ask pros to dance, I discussed my views on asking etiquette.

In the post I made the case – though honestly I think it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be made – that more ‘advanced’ dancers frequently enjoy dancing with other ‘advanced’ dancers the most (and intermediate with intermediate; pro with pro… though most people always enjoy dancing “up”). This is the case because technique and familiarity with the dance (as well as experience with musicality, creativity, etc, gained over time) facilitate a unique kind of connection. Having a reasonably equal skill set means that people can communicate at the same degree of precision, subtlety, and creativity.

This does not rule out enjoyment of “lower level” dancing by any means. It simply says that people tend to match up well at similar levels of technique and familiarity in the dance. It’s like playing any one-on-one sport, like tennis. People can enjoy playing with anyone at any level, but particularly enjoy when they can match skill sets.

And we should take these factors — in addition to many others — into account when we ask people to dance. We should do this in order to best be sensitive to the emotions and needs of the people around us. It’s perfectly okay for someone to enjoy one kind of dancing or another. I see nothing condemnable about that.

Why this is a contentious idea

People were disturbed by my post for many reasons. I cannot infer all of them, but my impression is that the most common causes for concern were:

-I was promoting an attitude which discourages beginners from the dance

-I was disrupting the credibility of instructors who for the sake of their business require their reputations to be egalitarian

-I was promoting coldness or hostility on the dance floor

-I was denying that people have more to contribute to a dance (such as musicality, or emotional connection) than technique (I wasn’t, to be clear)

-I was saying that less experienced dancers should never ask more experienced dancers to dance (I wasn’t)

-I was advocating for a world in which we pay attention to differences based on ability (I was)

I could respond at length in an attempt to refute each point above, but instead I think I’d like to just simplify the matter.

I can actually distill this idea into one specific rule.

This is the rule:

Only ask people to dance with you if you think, with your most objective and self-aware best guess, that the person you ask to dance with you will enjoy it.

That’s it. That’s all I make sure of when I ask someone to dance. Before every single dance (without fail) I ask myself the question:

“What are the chances that this person will enjoy dancing with me?” Sometimes I get a clear answer – such as 1% or 99%. Most of the time it is more ambiguous. I follow a 40% or a 75% or what-have-you based on the context.

Many factors go into my calculation of these odds. Very many. Most of them have nothing to do with technique, skill, or experience level at all. They can concern someone’s mood, social environment, or level of exhaustion, for example. But some do. Some factors most certainly do take experience into account.

Here is a small sample of questions I consider when evaluating each potential dance partner (and usually it just takes seconds): 

Do I know this person? Have I danced with them before? Did they indicate they enjoyed it or would like to do it again some time? (Examples of this would be asking my name after the dance, engaging me in conversation, appearing to be genuinely smiling and engaged with me in the dance, having open body language with respect to me both on and off the dance floor) Do they regularly ask me to dance? Do we ask each other to dance at roughly the same rate, or am I always the one asking?

Has this person had a chance to ask someone she personally wants to ask recently, or has she been asked repeatedly without a chance to choose? Does this person have a queue of people waiting to dance with her? Does she appear to enjoy it or would she rather go be among friends or take a break?

When watching this person dance with others, does she appear to enjoy or seek out dancing with people at my “level”?

Is this person surrounded by a group of friends, and does she appear to only want to socialize and dance with them specifically? How close is she to the dance floor? Is she looking about the room for a partner to do this dance with, and NOT scanning for one person in particular? Is she tapping her foot, itching to get out on the floor? Or does she appear tired? Is she sitting down, drinking water, combing her hair, or otherwise disengaged from the floor? Is her back turned to the dance floor? Is she in an intimate conversation with someone? Is she talking to or dancing with someone who looks like she’s really into them and it would be an obnoxious cock block or interruption for me to ask her right at this moment? Has this person clearly detached from her previous dance partner and moved on, or is there a chance she wants to do another with them, or talk with them as she is walking off the floor? By my best guess, is this person possibly my equal in skill, creativity, or some other important facet of dancing that would make them really enjoy dancing with me, even though we don’t know each other yet?

I literally consider each of these factors when asking someone to dance, whether it is a close friend or a stranger. A close friend might have a lot going on or  feel tired; a stranger may simply not be interested. In any case, I want them to have, at this moment, what they need or want the most. If dancing with me is not near the top of that list, then I see no reason to ask them.

Because the thing is this: everybody has different preferences, and finds themselves in different situations on the dance floor. As in life, you never really know if someone wants you until you ask. But very many people feel obligated to say yes to a dance, even if they don’t particularly want to.

So I always try to guess before I ask, in order to best take care of both of us.

Of course, I am not always right. How can I tell? I can tell by how much eye contact they make, by if they are smiling, by how earnestly they thank me after the dance. If I guessed wrong when I asked someone to dance, I feel a bit bad, but I apologize to the universe (or to the dancer, honestly, depending on the situation) and move on.

Very often, the people who do not enjoy dancing with me are better dancers than I, professional or not. This is in large part why, as I indicated in my earlier post, I rarely ask “pros” to dance. I am waiting until they (and everyone else) are just as excited to dance with me as I am with them. Sometimes people accuse me of having this perspective because I now consider myself a hotshot dancer, having learned a thing or two. I want to rationalize saying “no.” This could not be further from the truth. I have felt this way from my very first dance several years ago. My allegiance to this principle is more about respecting the needs of the people I ask than it is about protecting myself. Dancing for me is like sex. I won’t do it unless both of us are excited.

So that’s my rule: I only ask people to dance if I believe there is a reasonably good chance they will enjoy dancing with me.

What do you think? Still contentious? Let me have it. 🙂



6 Comments, RSS

  1. Average dancer September 1, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

    I agree 100%.

    The problem with this perspective are that

    1) most people don’t put that much thought into how their actions impact others, and

    2) it is not politically correct to suggest someone’s social opportunities should be impacted by their aptitude.

    • Stefani September 1, 2016 @ 8:54 pm

      lol. I agree. Thank you <3

  2. Candace September 8, 2016 @ 8:35 pm

    I’m not by any stretch “a dancer”, but I grew-up on the feet of my grandfather and went out dancing frequently throughout my younger years. I two-step, polka, waltz, and rock-step or three-step. Don’t judge…I’m from Texas. j/k LOL I’ve enjoyed your discussions around dancing. I agree that I don’t want to dance with men who are less experienced than I am; I want them to know what they are doing, do it well, and lead me like a man. I’m a damn good follower and the stronger leader my partner is the better I dance. Men like to dance with me because I’m a good follower. For some reason, I think that “dancing-up” happens more for women than men, because they are leaders…the balance gets all off if the man is a less proficient dancer than the woman. So, yes…I pick and choose my partners because they are equal or better dancers than I am. The times I’ve danced with men who are less experienced as me, we looked like crazy fools and I didn’t enjoy it. Eventually, I give up and walk off the floor. I have been known to ask men who are better than me to dance, most of the time they will have seen me on the floor before then and can make an assessment if they want to say yes or not. And if not, I find they are most gracious and happy to teach me – it is a great ego boost for them when I do so well under their tutelage. 😉

  3. Emma T March 14, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    Interesting post. I’m sure there would be lots of people in the dance forums I’m on who would argue for this as well. There’s certainly a lot of commentary around whether teachers should feel obliged to dance with everyone when they’re not teaching and this would tend to fit your reasoning.

    On the whole I’d not like it to happen like this. I think there would be a lot of people not getting a dance, and you’d certainly sit out for a long time in some events where there was a gender imbalance. I do a lot of asking, yes with regular partners, and others I see around, but I’ll also ask people I think I’ll have a good dance with. On that basis I’d hope that I could also give them a reasonable dance – however good they are. I do agree that generally similar level or style of dancer would get the best dances together, although I have had really nice dances (not mindblowing ones, but really lovely dances) with much more basic level leaders, so I think we’d potentially miss out on some nice dances by only sticking to our same level.

    But in the modern jive world, the etiiquette is you should always accept a dance request to encourage everyone to dance. Obviously that’s not essential – I’ve certainly turned down a few dances in my time due to the person asking, or not the right time etc. I’ve also been turned down on occasion – mostly by people looking down their noses (mostly in salsa tbh which was a lot more cliquey, and even after a few years of lessons and being at events it was still hard to find people to dance with outside people we knew).

    I think it would take me too long to assess the people I should/want to ask as well. In the quick changeovers, there’s not a lot of time to ask people, and I fear there would be a lot of sitting out and not dancing as much as i’d like.

    I suppose it depends on the ethos of the social dance. Maybe it would work better where there’s a more similar level of dancers. But otherwise I think we’d all miss out on learning and experiences if we all stuck to this theory.

    • Stefani March 17, 2017 @ 11:22 am

      Hey, thank you for chiming in. I think most of all it is very context dependent. Sometimes however the context clues for me are really clear – and it doesn’t take ANY time to figure them out. Ie, if someone is away from the floor, with their back to the floor, in a personal conversation. Sure, it’s possible they MAY want to dance, but I always err on the side of caution and remind myself to ask them later. I don’t recommend that all people necessarily do it this way, but I personally don’t mind it. You’re right too that the ethics of each dance is different. Jive and the swing dances in which I participate are quite egalitarian and the pressure to accept a dance is pretty high. Also, these dances provide for a lot of physical distance. On the other hand, the latin social dances can often be quite intimate, and in that case it feels much more important to me to be able to say ‘no,’ since i don’t want to be uncomfortable in an intimate or even romantic way. Plus those scenes are bigger and often clubbier so the standards, yes, are just different, and the acceptability of saying ‘no’ also much higher. All of which is to say I have no concrete answers though I do typically attempt to be respectful of people’s body language and desires while I seek dances 🙂

  4. Just. Say. No. – The Perfect Follow May 24, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

    […] before about asking etiquette (I believe in the hierarchy: 5 reasons I never ask pros to dance, and My one rule for asking people to dance) that people have disagreed with vociferously. In the end, to be clear, I like saying yes to […]

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