I used to struggle with when to start a dance. I would stand stiff and motionless, like a statue, with my partner in hand, stressing over when to take the first step. I didn’t know when to break into the music. I didn’t know if it mattered. I could hear spots in the music that would have been good places to start, but I couldn’t predict when they were coming. Something was missing, but it’s hard to know what you don’t know.
I now know that those spots occur on a regular basis: every eight beats of music. It’s best to start dancing on the first beat of a set of 8, called the count 1 or “the 1 of the music.” You can also start on a count 5, the beginning of the second four-beat measure. Women expect you to start on a 1 or 5 or it’ll be an awkward start.
This brings up one of the more difficult subjects in ballroom dancing: phrasing. Technically, you can be on the beat but, if you start dancing on the wrong beat, you will be “off phrase.” In a dance with an eight count basic step pattern, like salsa or cha-cha or Lindy Hop, it’s more important to start on a count 1. A dance with a six count basic, like West Coast swing or East Coast swing or foxtrot, it’s less important (that is, it’s easier to get away with starting on a count 5).
What’s your experience when trying to start a dance?
While approaching the opposite sex often has its risks, asking someone to dance is routine. A request for a dance is the perfect cover: there’s a script, which both sides follow.
You don’t have to be creative or cool about it; just follow the script. Even better, if you’re not a good conversationalist, that’s it; after you ask her to dance you don’t have to talk again. Just dance. (Correction: it’s good etiquette to say “thank you” at the end of a dance.)
Identify someone to approach
Some good choices for potential partners include: someone who you know; someone about your dance ability; someone who dances a lot and with different partners; someone close to the dance floor; anyone on the edge of the dance floor, tapping her foot and smiling.
What to say
The opener is straight out of a playbook: “Would you like to dance?” “Shall we dance?” Or a simple “Dance?” Don’t think too hard, just follow the script. A nonverbal request is not uncommon: you offer your hand, smile and maybe nod. I’m somewhat okay with that, although I think a nonverbal request with a stranger is a bit distant (I’d at least throw in the word “Dance?”). What I often do is offer my hand, as a minor nonverbal gesture, as I’m asking her to dance. For a related tangent, Argentine tango dancers have a whole nonverbal ritual, which includes a nod of the head called a Cabeceo.
Rejection is rare
The etiquette in ballroom dance is to always accept an offer to dance. So your requests will almost always be accepted. (Note: that doesn’t mean she’ll be happy about dancing with you, which is a different topic). And you should accept virtually all requests when you’re asked to dance.
If she declines
If she declines, to save a little face, you can respond, “okay, maybe later.” If she declines, it usually comes with a reason, which is the polite way to decline a dance. If you decline, give a reason like you’re tired, or you’re sitting this one out, or you don’t know how to do the jitterbug. The proper etiquette is to sit the entire dance out and not accept a dance from someone else until the next song.
Offer your hand
After she accepts I either offer my hand or, if my hand is already out, I leave it out for her to grasp. The hand thing is a little corny but it shows confidence. I escort her onto the floor still holding her hand, which I find to be a manly gesture. At that point I’ve also established, to some degree, a dance connection before we’ve started dancing. This helps me evaluate what we’re going to do a moment later when we start dancing.
Be a desirable partner
The more dance-oriented the venue, the more it matters how well you can dance. Generally, the better you can dance, the easier it is to attract a partner. If you’re at a dedicated dance venue, the sure way to be the guy that followers seek is to be a good dancer. If you can’t dance, check out this post on how to be the ballroom dance partner women love.
So, are you going to be an arms-folded-hiding-in-the-corner wallflower or are you going to join the group? After years of being the loner on the sidelines, I came to the conclusion that it takes more effort to avoid the dance floor than it does to follow the playbook and ask someone to dance. Don’t think, don’t hesitate–just do it. Action cures fear.
Do you have a favorite way to ask someone to dance?
First, don’t worry if you can’t dance. If you’re at a social event, like a wedding, she probably can’t dance either. Nor can any of the other guys she’s dancing with.
Then, what you lack in skill you can make up for by impressing her with your character. Be confident, gentle, supportive, humble, generous, attentive, sensitive and fun. Here are some specific things to do:
Show up. Most guys won’t even attempt to dance. Stepping onto a dance floor is taking a risk. Women like risk-takers—it’s alpha male behavior.
Be gentle. Minor injuries are not uncommon, especially when doing an underarm turn. She probably won’t tell you that you tweaked out her shoulder when you turned her too rough. But she will dread the next time you ask her to dance. Warning: Do not let your ego exceed your ability. If you can’t dance and think you can, you will tend to be rough and insensitive.
Practice etiquette. Follow the Golden Rule. Act civil and polite to the point of overdoing it.
Look at her. Make good eye contact, short of giving her that stalker stare. Places not to look: at your feet and at other dancers. I’ve had partners who close their eyes when they dance. Bad move.
Chitchat. While it’s not good form to talk and dance, a little chitchat while you dance is common, fun and suave—after all, if you can tell jokes while twirling through patterns, maybe you can do anything. If you can’t dance, exchanging some pleasant words as you do an awkward sway will look better than exchanging dirty looks as you do an awkward sway. (Note: never stop dancing in the middle of the floor and just talk—move off the floor.)
Pretend you’re in love with her for three minutes. This was the advice of the late, great Frankie Manning, the grandfather of swing dancing. Learn it well.
Smile and look confident. Do not be bothered by your inability to ballroom dance. Pretend you’re having fun. Fake your confidence.
Ignore mistakes. It’s common to feel spotlighted when you dance; but it’s unlikely many people, if any, are watching. If a mistake is made, do not stop dancing–keep moving. Add a smile and it may look like you were improvising a new move. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Laugh at yourself. Keep a light attitude; be able to laugh at yourself so when you make a mistake your reaction is to flash a genuine smile. Don’t have high expectations, have fun.
Look at her face for fear, confusion or disgust. She’s not going to tell you that she’s unhappy so you’ll have to use your intuition. If she looks disturbed, stop what you’re doing and try something else.
Relax. Granted, it’s hard to relax when you’re just a beginner and don’t know what you’re doing. Nonetheless, tension will make you look stiff; relaxation will make your movements look effortless. Would you rather be a stiff guy who can’t dance or a relaxed guy who can’t dance?
The only time you look embarrassingly bad is when you’re uptight and bothered by your inability to dance. So, if you flat out can’t dance, the solution is not so much faking the dance, which requires some skill. The secret, as noted in number 7 above, is faking your confidence.
If you can’t dance, what’s your biggest issue when you step onto the dance floor?
A basic side step will work with most kinds of dance music, from foxtrot and rumba, to salsa and swing, to unfamiliar music (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page):
Here are two reasons why, if you need a crash course in ballroom dancing, you should learn to do a basic side step:
It uses the versatile double—single—double—single rhythm pattern (that’s eight beats of music: STEP STEP—STEP HOLD—STEP STEP—STEP HOLD), which is easy and fits a vast range of tempos and musical genres. This simple footwork creates a rhythm for the feet that anybody can groove on.
If you don’t have a good dance connection with your partner—two newbies will not have a good dance connection—it will be easier to move your partner side-to-side than to move her forward-and-back.
Even if you know some dances, the plight of many beginners is that they can’t identify the music and what dance to do. If you get stuck on the dance floor not knowing what dance to do, start with a basic side step; then, see what develops and transition into something else if it’s appropriate. Watch other dancers on the floor for clues.
If you’re looking for minimal choreography, the basic side step is a good foundation step pattern for a wedding dance and a slow dance. Learn it well.
Note: The basic side step will not work for a waltz because waltz music is counted in sets of 6 (all other ballroom music is counted in sets of 8).
Single rhythm, one weight change in two beats of music (e.g., a STEP HOLD or a SIDE TOUCH, no weight change on the HOLD or the TOUCH), can be a lifesaver when you’re ballroom dancing (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page):
Doing all single rhythm is the rhythm pattern to use for a sway (single–single is the rhythm pattern, SIDE TOUCH—SIDE TOUCH is the verbal call, keep repeating), which is what to fall back on if you get stuck, lost or confused–or if you flat-out don’t know what you’re doing. If you neglected to take lessons before your wedding, use this to survive your wedding dance—but choose a wedding song with a beat you can hear. You still have to connect to the music or you’ll just get an awkward rocking back and forth. If you can’t hear the beat, I urge you to learn how to count sets of 8.
Not all music is dance music, although most popular music is danceable. Dance music varies in difficulty so some music is better for dancing than other music, which is, in part, a personal preference. But some music is just not danceable. The jazz music of Count Basie, known as swing, is usually good dance music but the jazz of Miles Davis, known as bee bop, is not dance music at all.
I don’t typically dance every song in an evening of dance so, strategically, I sit out the music that’s not dance music or is music that’ll be difficult for me. This makes me appear to be a better dancer. If you struggle with dance, choose your music wisely.
For me, if I can count sets of 8 and if it makes me feel like dancing and if I can visualize myself doing some steps (that’s when I evaluate if the tempo is too fast), then it’s dance music. If I can’t count sets of 8 I try counting sets of 6 to see if it’s a waltz, although my guess is that less than 2% of popular music is a waltz. If that doesn’t work it probably isn’t dance music or, at least, it’s not good dance music for me.
If I can’t count sets of 8 and it still feels danceable—it’s usually something with a slow tempo–I might try an improvisational slow dance. If that doesn’t work and the song isn’t over, I sometimes let it evolve into a Steve-Martin-esque parody of a slow dance. There’s a classic parody of a “slow fox trot”—not sure what you call it—by Steve Martin and Gilda Ratner from Saturday Night Live. I was going to give the youtube link but the video “is no longer available.” If I ever find it, I’ll post the link.
I don’t want to be the best dancer on the floor. I don’t want to compete in dance. When called to action, I just want to NOT be embarrassed. My mission, which I believe is every man’s mission:
To be able to walk onto any dance floor, from a wedding to a nightclub to a New Year’s Eve ball to a cruise to a concert, and perform an admirable dance, with any partner, to any music, with confidence and grace.