Would you like to dance? Etiquette of the dance floor

Dance etiquette is a set of guidelines that help us navigate the social dimensions of dancing.

Why do we care about dance etiquette? Because it is nice to know how to go about in the dancing circles. It makes the difference between having a happy or unhappy dancing experience, the difference between people wanting, or not wanting to dance with you.

I have read a very interesting study by Professor Nosratinia from the University of Dallas exploring the world of social dance etiquette, and I find it extremely interesting,  especially the part of  Asking for a dance so I need to share it with you. Enjoy!

Asking for a Dance

When asking for a dance, it is easiest to stay with traditional phrases:

  • ``May I have this dance?''
  • ``May I have this Waltz/Rumba/Foxtrot/etc.''
  • ``Would you like to dance?''
  • ``Care to dance?''
  • ``Shall we dance?''

In the past it has been the tradition that men asked women to dance. But this custom has gradually changed. Today, women should feel equally comfortable asking a partner for a dance, even in a formal setting.

If your desired partner is with a group, be unambiguous and make eye contact when asking for a dance. If you vaguely approach a group, two individuals may think you are asking for a dance. You can imagine that the one not getting the dance is going to be miffed. Let's avoid such awkward moments by a decisive approach and solid eye contact.

What if you want to ask someone to dance, who is enganged at the moment in a conversation? Is it acceptable to interrupt a conversation to ask someone to dance? Some would say that one's presence in a dancing establishment indicates a desire for dancing and everyone is fair game. Others say that interrupting a conversation is rude.

In my opinion, ask someone to dance if you think he/she is ready to dance and will enjoy dancing with you at that moment. This requires you to be a good judge of the moment. Also, if you know someone well enough to know they don't mind being interrupted, then go ahead and ask them.

Perhaps one way to handle this is to walk gently to the edge of your intended partner's "personal space", which is about one meter. It will give you an opportunity to ask them to dance. If your presence is not acknowledged, then it may be a good idea to find someone else for that dance.

Exercising common sense and social skills is always a good idea. If someone is sitting closely with their significant other, whispering sweet nothings to each other, then it is probably not a good time to ask either of them for a dance. Now a different scenario: your intended partner is cornered by a bore and being lectured on weather patterns in lower Namibia. You can advance and stand close. Once your intended partner makes eye contact with you, smile and say: ``Dance?'' Usually, that is enough to do the job. If not, it is better to leave him/her to learn about weather patterns in lower Namibia.

Sometimes two individuals simultaneously ask someone for a dance. In that situation, dance etiquette recommends that the object of attention should accept one of the dances, while offering a later dance to the other one.

Whom to Ask

If each person dances with only one or two others, the social dynamics of dancing will be compromised. For that reason, dance etiquette strongly encourages everyone to dance with many different partners. This is to ensure a diversity of partnerships on the floor, and to give everyone a chance to dance. Specifically, dance etiquette rules against asking the same partner for more than two consecutive dances.

One of the common violations of this rule occurs when someone dances most of the night with their escort. The ruling of etiquette in this case is much the same as for the traditional (formal) dinner parties: one never sits down to dinner next to one's spouse. It is assumed that if spouses were interested primarily in talking with one another, they could have stayed home together. By the same token, going to a social dance demonstrates a desire to dance socially. This means dancing with a host of partners, and not just with one or a select few. I have heard a version of this rule that reserves the first and last dance of the evening to be done with one's escort, and other dances with others.

People generally tend to dance with others at their own level, but you should try to dance socially with partners of all levels. Dance etiquette frowns disapprovingly on those who only dance with the best dancers on the floor. Although this is not a terrible offense, it is still bad form. Better dancers are especially advised to ask beginners to dance. Not only does this help the social dynamics of a dance, it also helps the better dancer (although it is outside the scope of this discussion to explain why or how).

Declining a Dance

Being declined is always unpleasant. Dance etiquette requires that one should avoid declining a dance under most circumstances. For example, there is no correct way of refusing an invitation on the basis of preferring to dance with someone else. According to tradition, the only graceful way of declining a dance is either (a) in social dancing set up, you do not know the dance, (b) you need to take a rest, or (c) you have promised the dance to someone else.

The last excuse should be used only sparingly. When declining a dance, it is good form to offer another dance instead: ``No, thank you, I'm taking a break. Would you like to do another dance later?'' Also, declining a dance means sitting out the whole song. It is inconsiderate and outright rude to dance a song with anyone after you have declined to dance it with someone else. If you are asked to dance a song before you can ask (or get asked by) your desired partner, that's the luck of the draw. The choices are to dance it with whomever asked first, or to sit out the dance.

Does dance etiquette allow declining a dance outside of the cases mentioned above? The answer is yes, if someone is trying to monopolize you on the dance floor, make inappropriate advances, is unsafe (e.g. collides with others on the floor), or is in other ways unsavory, you are within the bounds of etiquette to politely but firmly decline any more dances. Perhaps the simplest, best way is to say ``No, thank you,'' without further explanation or argument. Dancers are encouraged to use discretion and restraint when exercising this option.

Being Declined

The first thing to do when one is turned down for a dance is to take the excuse at face value. Typical social dance sessions can be as long as three to four hours, and there are few dancers who have the stamina of dancing non-stop. Everyone has to take a break once in a while, and that means possibly turning down one or two people each time one takes a break. The advice to shy dancers and especially beginners is not to get discouraged if they are turned down once or twice.

However, since social dancers are generally nice and polite, being repeatedly declined can be a signal. In that case, it is a good idea to examine one's dancing and social interactions to see if anything is wrong.