Salsa Dance Etiquette for Leads: How to Avoid Being Blacklisted When Social Dancing


Wonder why you’re hearing “no” more often than “yes” on the dance floor? Read on for 12 likely reasons.

So I decided to switch things up and post a real article here, rather than my usual random ramblings about my dancing. Let me know what you think!

Rejection stinks. When you ask someone to dance, you want them to say “yes.” But sometimes, without even knowing it, you can do things that make people never want to dance with you again.

Because the salsa scene is usually a friendly one, partners will generally suck it up if the rules you break are not too bad, but some are just taboo.

Here are 12 things to avoid if you want to keep hearing “yes” to your dance requests:

1. Don’t forget to shower and brush your teeth.
Salsa involves close contact with your partner, so the least you can do is make sure that you don’t stink. One of the top complaints dancers in general have about certain partners is poor hygiene, so if you don’t want follows to stay away from you, then make sure you try your best to smell good. If you want to be safe, use deodorant or antiperspirant, cologne, and minty gum or breath mints. (Just be sure not to over-do the cologne, can be equally gross.

2. Don’t be too rough.
Your partner is a person, not an object. There is a difference between being firm and being rough – you should give enough pressure to guide and lead your partner, but not so much that your partner doesn’t have the freedom to move on her own accord. Stay away from using iron grips, and don’t throw your partner around too violently. I have danced with guys whose idea of leading a spin was to fling a follow’s arm up and throw it forward. I spent the entire dance praying my arm wouldn’t break from his reckless leading. A follow needs to feel safe to be willing to dance with you again.

3. Don’t forget to pay attention to your surroundings.

Even if you’re dying to try out a cool new move you just learned, you have to make sure that there is enough space to lead it. Crashing your partner into other couples is not a good way to gain her trust. I have a nasty permanent scar running up the front of my foot, from being lead into another couple’s space and having the follow slice my foot with her stiletto heel.

dance injury -- sliced foot

Stiletto slice: Another way stilettos are hazardous to feet.

4. Don’t teach.
Unless your partner specifically asks you for tips, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Social dancing is supposed to be fun, and most follows are just looking for a fun dance. You could also end up giving her the wrong advice, or correcting something that applies only to your leading technique. If the follow did not want the advice to begin with, she may say to avoid future “help.” If you really feel the need to say something, ask her first: “Do you want me to explain how this move works?” etc.

5. Don’t chastise your partner.
The worst dance I have ever had was with a partner who actually “tsk”ed at me. He made comments like, “I can’t believe you can’t even get that move!” I later found out that he was in a lower level of salsa than me, and had been screwing up the moves on his own. You can bet I won’t dance with him anymore, and warn everyone I get a chance to about what a jerk he is. Knowing someone does not give you an excuse to be mean, and follows don’t keep incidents like that to themselves! If you don’t like the way a follow dances, just finish the dance and make a note not to dance with her again.

6. Don’t make follows touch your sweat.
When you are literally wring-your-shirt-out drenched and flicking-sweat-flecks-off your body wet, it’s time to change your shirt. If you don’t have an extra shirt, then the least you can do is be considerate enough to limit your moves that those that do not require the follow to touch you more than they have to. For some reason, leads think it is okay to do spin-yourself-on-your-stomach spins with follows when they are at their sweatiest – trapping the poor follow into running the full length of her arm across the lead’s soaked chest. Forcing a girl to get covered with your sweat is both unnecessary and just plain gross.

7. Don’t feel up you partner.
It should go without saying, but the chest and butt area are off-limits. Even if your fingers unintentionally go where they shouldn’t, do you really expect your follow to believe it was an accident? Some leads try to see what they can get away with, often with new dancers. Don’t try this. If you think you can get away with anything, think again, because follows talk, and you could quickly gain an unflattering reputation.

8. Don’t dance too close.
Some guys think that dances like bachata are just an excuse to grind up against girls. They pull complete strangers so close against them that they can barely breathe, let alone move. The target is usually beginner dancers who don’t know any better. You might get away with one dance like this, but chances are, you won’t get another. Unless you never want to dance with the follow again, keep the dancing to a comfortable distance.

9. Don’t ignore your partner.
Dancing should always involve a level of respect. Even if your partner is not as good as you are, you should at least give her your attention for the duration of the dance. Talking over her shoulder with friends or engaging in other behaviours that clearly demonstrate your lack of interest can not only hurt your partner’s feelings, but can also make you look like a jerk to onlookers. Even if you didn’t want to dance with that partner again anyway, your behavior could disgust the friend she came with, who you do want to dance with. And if, one day, the follow goes on to become an amazing dancer, she will likely remember your rudeness and possibly reject you or treat you the same way.

10. Don’t show off.
Salsa is a partner dance, which means both partners’ levels and enjoyment should be considered. Focus on your partner, not on making yourself and the dance look good for onlookers. If your partner does not know any shines, don’t break into a shine of your own and leave her to stand around and watch you. It can be annoying and uncomfortable for a follow to dance with someone who cares more about what others see than the person he is leading.

11. Don’t keep attempting moves your partner clearly doesn’t get.
It’s good to get a feel for a partner you have never before danced with to get a sense of what she does or doesn’t know how to do. If you try a move three times and the follow still doesn’t get it, you should either give up and move on, or explain what to do if your partner asks for help. Some signals have to be learned, and you will just frustrate a follow if you keep doing moves she isn’t comfortable with.

12. Don’t ask for too many dances.
At maximum, you should be dancing two dances in a row with one partner (unless you came together as an item). If you really enjoy dancing with a particular follow, ask for another dance later on, rather than trying to monopolize her for the entire evening.

These are the main things that I, as a follow, think that leads should avoid if they don’t want to turn off people from wanting to dance with them again. Even before I started taking dance lessons at World Dance Co., I was social dancing salsa for about eight months (and of course, still have my feet in the social/salsa dance scene). While I have tried to cover the major complaints of follows, I have probably missed some.

Can you think of any other behaviours leads should stay away from? Let me know with a comment below, and I might consider incorporating your suggestion into the list.

If you know any leads who could use the advice, share this article with them and make the social dance scene a happier place. 🙂

Want more tips? Check out Salsa Dance Etiquette for Follows.

Note: To make this article easier to write, I have referred to leads as “he” and follows as “she.” I acknowledge that this is not always the case, especially since I sometimes lead both guys and girls. 😛 In fact, at the Vancouver dance studio I take classes at, there are two other girls besides me learning how to lead salsa. 🙂

snoopy happy dance

Keep these tips in mind, and you can keep both you and your social dance partners happy.



Filed under Dance Tips, Salsa Dancing

31 responses to “Salsa Dance Etiquette for Leads: How to Avoid Being Blacklisted When Social Dancing

  1. I love the ‘Peanuts’ picture you chose. I think those are very true. Also, not being appropriately dressed is one of them. A guy or girl can’t wear flip flops or any type of flimsy shoe, or clothes that don’t let them bend or spin. The sweat thing is so true! I was dancing with a really sweaty guy, and it did not bother me so much, until he did one spin after another and I was getting sprinkled each time! o_0

    • I think I would personally let the inappropriate dress thing slide because some events I go to are attended by people who just drop in for spontaneous dancing, so they can’t help what they are wearing. There is also a professional dancer at the studio I go to who can dance normally in flip flops. Actually, a lot of the professionals I have seen wear non-dance shoes for social dancing. I’m not good enough to do that, but I do sometimes wear sneakers. I think that is a good tip for a things you should do list though: wear dance appropriate clothing and footwear. I actually like writing these types of articles, but I don’t know how many I should be publishing on my blog, since this is supposed to be about my personal dance journey, while this article is more like a list of tips. What do you think?

      • I think that this also applies to your blog because they are articles you read to learn more about dancing. After all, I like to read articles like these to help me improve myself as a dancer, partner, and get more invites to dance! I really like that you wrote your own thoughts on the article, because that does show your journey even further. Write more! I love your down to earth dance stories! Don’t discredit anything… even your emotional journey, like for me, it is the fear of getting rejected… that is something that gives me butterflies when I go to dance.
        The coming prepared, I should have been more specific, I was just thinking about clubs and venues like those. Parks, schools and other drop-ins, I don’t mind at all… some people are even dancing barefoot… I have no idea how they dance so well or even spin, but they do! I enjoy watching people who dance spontaneously like that! In Santa Monica, I like to see people salsa dancing on the street on Sundays, just cause they look like they are having so much fun.

      • Dance Class Challenge

        That’s funny that you mentioned getting rejected as a fear, because I was thinking of writing an article on why you shouldn’t feel bad if someone rejects you when you ask them to dance. I’ll see if I can come up with something. 😉 I wish more people randomly salsa danced on the street! I’ve only done it once, during a Latin street festival. It was neat! Crummy floor not good for free spinning, though. 😛

      • virtuous and beautiful

        One of my goals is that during a complete stop in traffic, I want to blow salsa music and ask someone in the car to dance with me ^_^ I saw the director of “Heart of Salsa” do it, so I want to do it too!

      • Dance Class Challenge

        Looks like I’m going to have to add “Heart of Salsa” to my to-watch list. 😉

      • Oh no! I wrote a long response here and it did not show! U_U Well, in a nutshell, I think this article is part of your journey as you learn from them, and write more! I love reading your posts!

      • Dance Class Challenge

        Thank you so much for your encouraging comments! And I think that the last comment did work. 🙂

  2. eese

    Perfect!!! All of it! (for ALL types of dance!) 🙂

    • Dance Class Challenge

      Thanks! I do a bit of a lot of different types of social dances, but not enough to be certain that everything I’ve said applies to them all. 🙂

  3. NLNM

    If the dance is in a dance studio that has mirrors against the wall, leads should not be watching themselves in the mirror constantly and thus not paying attention to the follow. I find that incredibly irritating. It’s fine to do that in a class or even a practice session, but not at a social dance.

    • Dance Class Challenge

      I don’t think I’ve actually ever had that happen to me, but it would annoy me a lot if it did! This fits in well under “Don’t ignore your partner.” Thanks for your comment!

      • J123P

        I have seen this and it drives me crazy. My supposed boyfriend does this to me!! He also commits about six of your blacklist behaviors. But to be clear, he is the expert who has danced salsa for 25 years. Seriously, that’s his view of the world. If he has danced so long how can he constantly spin me into couples and blame me because I don’t “have eyes behind my head”? You should add that to your list. Turning or spinning a woman by creating torque by lifting follower’s arm low to high and back rapidly and forcefully such that the follower is lite a large top and when said human top runs into another couple or a wall, blames follower for not looking out for herself and “having eyes behind head”. What a jerk! I am a former gymnast and know how to do a turn and a spin and know that you need to “spot” so you don’t get dizzy, fall down, not get fully around. How he thinks you can spot and navigate other couples while you quickly bring your head back around to the “spot”, I will never know. He is a guy who could benefit from following someone who is as rough and self centered dread as he is. I know, pissed much!? Grrrr. I’m planning to get really good and show him up.

  4. Nayeli

    Hello, I like your list!!!
    I think that every dance-school should put it in their doors.I´m a social dancer and I have had the chance of dancing Salsa and Tango in many countries.
    I went from being the “pain in the ass follower” by doing the moves on my own, thing that does not help at all to the follower (not only in his/her confidence) during the learning process, to the “friendly teacher” and the “smily girl” that dances (most of the time) with everyone that ask me to.
    I will add one more: “Enjoy the dance with your partner”: by looking to his/her eyes and smile… it can be a great difference! even if you are dancing with the best dancer.
    Some people are too focused on improving their level that forget how fun it can be. I always prefer dancing with leaders that feel the music and show their pasion (even if they know only the basic step and the simple turn) that with those focused only their own dance, those counting and the very serious ones that does not show any expression.

    • Hi Nayeli. That’s awesome that you dance both salsa and tango — I take Argentine tango lessons but am too scared to go out and dance it because I don’t think I am good enough yet. Thanks for your suggestion — enjoying a dance is very important, and I included the point in my follow-up article, Salsa Dance Etiquette for Follows ( The leads I like best are the ones whose leading I can follow best, but who don’t take the dance way too seriously..

      • Nayeli

        Hola again 🙂
        I´ve just read your article on “Salsa Dance Etiquette for Follows” and It´s just as good as this one!
        For a while I´ve been thinking that there aren´t many good books about the dancing environment (out of “some techniques”), maybe there are, but they aren´t that easy to find in a bookstore. Besides etiquette rules, there are many emotions and histories that should be shared because it is another fantastic world language, with its own characteristics.
        Tango is another dance that involves dedication and passion, it has its own etiquettes and codes, which I think that are very useful such as “cabeceo”*.
        You should start going to “Milongas” where the REAL tango happens. There should be leaders understanding your level and they should do easy steps like just walking with the rhythm of the music (which can be also very enjoyable once the connection between the couple exist).
        Thanks for your writing: is fun, easy to understand and very aware of the dancing scene.

        Saludos desde México

        The literal translation of cabeceo is ‘nod of the head’. In simple terms it is a non-verbal invitation to dance the tango from man to woman. The man looks at the woman and indicates with a movement of his head that he would like to dance. if she accepts the cabeceo, she will move towards him and they will tango; if she refuses she will look away.
        he cabeceo’s immense charm is in its subtlety – it avoids an awkward situation and unpleasantness by the smallest of gestures, whose meaning – particularly if the woman declines – is kept private between the requester and requestee. Indeed what could be more natural at a milonga than to communicate by eye contact? No longer is there the danger to cross a crowded room to invite a woman to dance, only to be turned down in front of everyone.

  5. Cynta E.

    Great post – useful reminders.

  6. Chevin

    To avoid rejection which in the US East Coast is 9 out of 10 attempts, I use cabeceo. That follows the saying “perro que no llaman, ya sabe cuanto lo quieren”. No cabeceo agreement, no dance.

  7. Great tips! As a Swing dancer, many of these apply to our scene as well. We made an infographic about dancefloor etiquette, which you might find interesting:

  8. Jay

    Great points and lots of info that people can learn from. I would encourage you to make your headings as what the guys can do to stay off the list rather than a whole sheet of “Don’ts”. So instead of “Dont feel up your partner” frame it as “respect your partners’ personal space”. Just a suggestion, so it doesn’t sound like an angry preach but more of an educational piece as I assume you intend it to be?
    In regards to spatial awareness, 1-sorry to hear about your injury, 2-that is also up to the lady/follow to minimize steps and styling to fit the available space. I believe it is the leads’ responsibility to keep his(/her) partner safe on the floor, but with the follow paying attention to her(/his) movements.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ps. Added bonus would be to bring a sweat towel, most hotels (if traveling to a Congress) have the little ones that work great.

  9. Melissa

    I’m a newbie 2 yrs plus, when I’ve gone somewhere i and trying to social dance and lead talks the whooole dance, I’m like I’m trying to get my practice/fun dance or what I’ve learned and they just wanna talk or asks a million questions….1 or 2 questions is nice but I mean the music’s on, a good salsa or bachata, im trying to feel the music and boom they’re like…. where you from? You come here often? How old are u, who you here with?, wanna drink, what’s your name, Etc etc.😕…lol Sometimes a girl just wants to social dance. 😀

  10. Jon

    As a male dancer, I actually don’t like it when females wear rings on their finger. The ring can cut up my hand and fingers. Another incident, I wore a watch and the ring from my partner or another girl broke the glass on the watch. I stop wearing watches as it might hurt the girls also. I’m actually 6’3, I can smell when someone haven’t washed their hair for like a week! It smells really awful.

  11. Ken

    There should be a rule about not constantly smacking your partner in the face with your pony tail whenever you turn and whip your head.

  12. Imoni

    This is right on! Thanks, Thanks, Etiquette for all dancing.

  13. Pingback: Salsa Dance Etiquette for Leads | Todo Latino Dance Co.

  14. I agree on ALL your points. All of them are accurate! I’m glad someone is speaking up. I have danced all the social ballroom dances, salsa, bachata, etc. for over 20 years. I have had many similar experiences on the dance floor! You give good advice. I had a Hustle partner about 20 years ago. He thought he knew how to lead… NOT ….. He flung me around in a turn so hard I thought my arm was out of it’s socket! Next time he tried that move I just spun way away from him. I did not dance with that lead again ever!! He thought my spinning move was cool. Interesting. LOL You are spot on with your advice! Thank you so much. We have been teaching social ballroom for at least 20 years and Always advise our students according to the rules you mentioned. Again thank you for the back-up! It’s appreciated very much!!

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