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


Don’t be the follow who leads don’t want to dance with.

So I finally finished my follow-up to my blog’s all-time most popular post, Salsa Dance Etiquette for Leads.

A lot of people have been suggesting putting the article (or snippets of it) up around their dance studios, which I think is totally cool. I’m glad that my fellow dancers from salsa and other social dance communities find these tips useful. 🙂 Just please remember to credit me and my dance blog (Cathy Lau’s Vancouver Dance Class I am a professional freelance writer and editor (and hopeful children’s writer), with my own writing fan page, so all of the writing I do is meaningful to me.

Anyways, onto the article!

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

We go to social dances to dance – not to stand on the sidelines! And yet, as follows, we can spend the entire night being passed over, or even worse – being rejected when we do muster up the courage to ask someone for a dance.

We hate ourselves, we beat ourselves up, and we mope about not being attractive or skanky enough, or turn to our friends for the reassurance that guys are just jerks – to tell us: “It’s not you, it’s them.”

Sometimes, it is them, but sometimes, it is us. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we do something that turns leads off – enough to make them avoid dancing with us if they can. And, because we can’t just ask leads to tell us why and expect them to give us an honest explanation, we never find out what we are doing wrong… until now.

Using this article as my excuse, I probed the minds of leads from salsa, swing, blues, and ballroom dancing to give us follows a better picture of what behaviours we need to avoid when we go out social dancing.

Think of this article as a kind of checklist to figure out if it’s you who needs to change, and what needs changing.

rejection sucks -- girl rejected

Rejection hurts like nothing else. Minimize your chances of being passed over on the dance floor with these tips.

If you want to continue to be asked and accepted for dances, follow these tips:

1. Don’t back lead.
You’re called a “follow”/”follower” for a reason: Your role is to follow, and to listen to your lead – not only your eyes and ears, but with your body. Anticipating your lead’s moves means that you are not paying attention to what he really wants you to do. There is also a good chance you will guess incorrectly and spoil what your partner actually intended. Unless you are specifically asked to back lead (and some beginner leads do ask!), just don’t.

2. Don’t dip yourself.
This is such a major complaint that it warrants its own point: Throwing yourself down into your lead’s arms is never okay. Even if you are the skinniest person on the dance floor, you might as well be a pile of bricks if you launch or drop yourself down on your lead unexpectedly and expect him to bear all of your weight. A good dip involves both you and your lead controlling and managing the dip and your body weight. Leads won’t want to dance with you again if they are too scared of having their shoulder dislocated, back broken, or knees injured by your spontaneous, uncontrolled dips.

salsa dance dip

One of salsa’s sexiest moves is also one of its most dangerous.

3. Don’t act bored and disinterested.
Crushing your lead’s ego is a good way to guarantee you’ll never be asked to dance again. Even if your partner is just starting out and only knows a couple of moves, acting visibly bored and checking out other dancers is just plain rude, and will tear away at the most confident lead’s self-esteem. Remember that you could end up kicking yourself in the future if the lead goes on to become a great dancer. Don’t expect him to want to dance with you then.

Boredom does not entitle you to squash your lead’s self-esteem.

4. Don’t forget to listen to the music.
Salsa is danced with a specific count, and you need to respect this and your partner’s interpretations of it. When I first started out dancing salsa socially with no formal lessons, I had several leads tell me that they preferred dancing with me to dancing with other, higher level dancers because I was always on count, while other follows simply weren’t good at staying on beat, or kept focusing too much on their styling to follow the music. Leads don’t like it when follows try to rush moves and fit more in than the music allows (for example, going for a rushed, uncontrolled triple spin, when the lead was going for a smooth double spin). You can interpret the music (including the breaks, hits, fills, melody, and lyrics), with your styling, but don’t let it interfere with your following. As well, leads don’t like dancing with machines: Sometimes leads slow down, speed up, or do full stops on purpose, and if you choose ignore them in favour of plowing through what you are doing, you will fall out of sync. Don’t get so caught up with executing moves that you forget to pay attention to your partner and the music.

5. Don’t chastise your partner.
Leads do not want to hear you complain about their leading – and you could very well be the one making the mistakes. If you feel that you really need to let a lead know about something (for example, if he is physically hurting you), then be sensitive to your lead’s feelings, and be polite and respectful about how you bring up the issue — preferably after the dance has finished. Try to remember the specific move the lead did that hurt you so that you can explain it. Telling a lead that he is “too rough” is not going to help him change.

mean teacher

Don’t make your lead see you like this.

6. Don’t teach.
If you have never learned how to lead, chances are, your advice will be wrong. I am learning to lead (Salsa Levels 1 and 2, and Beginner Bachata) at World Dance Co., and I speak from my experience learning to lead salsa moves that I already know how to do as a follow. Every time I have asked even the most experienced follows for help, the advice they have given me has been blatantly wrong, but delivered with utter conviction that they are right. Knowing the follow’s role perfectly does not make us qualified to teach a lead his part. And unless he asks you to teach him something, it will annoy a lead to have you tell him what he should and should not do. Unless what he is doing could physically hurt you, it’s best to just let it go.

7. Don’t expect a lead to teach you in the middle of a dance.
If he tries a move several times and you still don’t get it, you could get away with asking him to explain it to you if you want to learn it. But you should not ask someone for a dance with the expectation that he will teach you new tricks and critique your dancing (especially if he is a dance instructor) – that’s what private lessons are for. Social dances are their time to kick back and have fun – don’t expect a free dance lesson. And don’t ask leads to keep trying a move with you over and over again if you can’t get it the first time.

8. Don’t fluster your lead.
Before you bust out the really complicated styling, make sure your lead will be able to handle it. If he doesn’t understand what you are doing or is not ready for it, it can really throw him off and make him too intimidated to want to dance with you again. Tailor your dancing to your lead and save your playing for the leads who will be able to appreciate and not get flustered by it.

9. Don’t forget to watch your lead’s back.
Your lead can’t see everything, so if you can tell that you’re a step away from crashing into another couple, you should warn him and stop him from moving in that direction. Leads have a lot to think about and are making a lot more decisions than you are, so you have to do your part to ensure your safety too!

10. Don’t monopolize the dance floor.
If you’re on a packed dance floor, keep your steps small and your styling compact, and be aware of the space you have. Our heels and hair are dangerous weapons. Save your big moves for when you have the space to do them without hurting anyone.

11. Don’t wear potentially dangerous clothing and accessories.
Some leads will be less likely to ask you to dance if you are decked out in safety hazards. Dangly necklaces and long braids with hair ornaments can fly up and whack your lead in the face, rings can scrape and gouge his skin, and loose scarves can get caught on his arms or hands. Weigh the pros and cons of looking good versus looking “safe” when deciding what you want to wear when you go out dancing.

12. Don’t forget to shower and brush your teeth.
Girls don’t always smell like daisies, and we sweat, too, so do take all the necessary precautions of showering before a dance, using deodorant or antiperspirant, and using breath mints or gum to keep your breath smelling decent. Guys like good hygiene as much as we do! (But don’t overdo the perfume!)

nobody likes me


13. Don’t forget your frame and tension.
Maintaining a good frame and the right amount of tension in your arms (not too spaghetti-like or too rigid) makes it enormously easier for your partner to lead you. Good frame also helps keep you balanced and keeps your hands where your lead can find them. If your lead can’t get a good connection with you and has to struggle to execute every other move because your hands are all over the place, chances are, he will pick other follows to dance with over you.

14. Don’t follow too aggressively.
I had to ask about this one, because I didn’t quite understand how following could be too “rough.” Your lead should not have to put a brake on you after every move, and should not have to put muscle into starting or stopping you. You should not be going faster or harder than your lead tells you to. If your lead gives you enough force for a double spin, don’t try to muscle in or push yourself off for a triple spin. Don’t force fast, sharp movements just to look good for onlookers. In the social dance scene, your primary audience and concern should always be your partner.

15. Don’t follow too heavily or rigidly.
“Heaviness” has nothing to do with how much you weigh – it’s about how lightly you step. Dancing on the balls of your feet makes you easier and more enjoyable to lead. I have led girls who dance so heavily and rigidly that every move I do feels forced, and the dance feels like a fight. Struggles like this make dancing a lot less fun.

16. Don’t apologize after every mistake.
Everyone makes mistakes, and you don’t have to draw attention to each one you make. It gets old fast, and can be pretty annoying. The dance becomes less fun for you both, and the atmosphere becomes more tense. I find that I tend to apologize a lot when dancing with leads who I know are very good. The last time I did so, the lead responded by apologizing for not leading the moves well, and the entire dance became a string of apologies, when we could have just let the mistakes go and enjoyed ourselves. This habit probably won’t get you blacklisted, but will make you a less desirable dance partner, anyway. Unless your mistake involves an accident, such as hitting your partner in the face, I’d stick with a sheepish smile acknowledging but not making a bigger deal of your mistake than it really is.

i'm sorry

Making mistakes is normal — don’t make them into a bigger deal than they really are.

17. Don’t dance too close.
I was surprised to learn that a lot of follows do this, and that they are mostly the beginners. Just because you see a lead dancing closely with a previous partner, does not mean that they are okay with dancing that close with you as well. The level of closeness people are willing to take their dancing to depends on the level of trust and connection they have with their partner. You cannot expect to grind up against a stranger the very first time you dance with them. Aside from being potentially unwelcome, it can also throw off your partner’s balance. A good rule of thumb is to always respect whatever distance your partner chooses to keep.

18. Don’t feel up your partner.
Again, don’t assume that your partner is okay with you fondling or groping him, because it can be really uncomfortable for him, and awkward to get you to stop. You should give leads the same respect you would expect for yourself.

19. Don’t treat the dance like a performance.
Remember that you are there to social dance. It’s okay to show off a little for your partner, but not for the sake of onlookers. The dance floor is an unpredictable and often crowded space, and it can be dangerous for you to attempt complicated dips, lifts, and tricks. Keep your dancing fun and safe.

20. Don’t let your styling get in the way of your following.
Even if you’re dying to try out some new styling, you can’t just throw it in whenever you feel like it: You need to make sure that your styling goes with the flow of the dance and does not throw off the beat. Staying on time and not interfering with your partner’s leading should have priority over your styling. Make sure your moves aren’t so big that you can’t finish them on time or throw off your partner. Remember – it’s a social dance, not a professional dance show!

21. Don’t act desperate.
Here’s one I have had to learn from experience: You see, I am usually the person doing the asking, because I hate sitting out dances. Once, when the last song was called and there was a lead I wanted to dance with (because I liked his leading and because there was no one in the dance area available to dance with), I went well outside of the dance area and asked him to dance anyway. Not only did I get a rejection, but I have been blacklisted. I think this is one of those situations that could only happen to me. 😦 Learn from my mistake: Don’t do things that make you appear over-eager, and respect the dance floor boundaries!


Acting desperate for a dance is not attractive.

22. Don’t complain or gossip about other leads when talking to a lead.
Even if you compliment your lead on his dancing, complaining to him about other leads will only make him wonder if you will complain about him to other people if he makes a mistake in the future. I know that in some dance scenes, like blues, follows are sometimes encouraged to let certain leads know if a partner is being inappropriate or making her uncomfortable, but if you are not seeking a remedy and just want to gossip for the sake of gossiping, keep this kind of talk to your follow friends.

23. Don’t expect more than one dance.
Even if the lead asked you to dance, this does not mean that he wants to dance the next song with you, and the next, and the next… Thank him for the dance, and ask him again later in the evening, if you to dance with him again.

24. Don’t forget to smile and have fun.
It is a huge encouragement to leads when the follow looks like she is enjoying herself. It can be intimidating to dance with a follow who takes the dance too seriously and dances the entire dance with a poker face. Lighten up and have fun, and you’ll be a lot more fun to dance with!

happy face

A big smile is the best way to communicate to a lead that you are having fun, and having fun is the most important part of social dancing!

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. 🙂

Deciding to write this article was one of the best experiences I have had in my dance journey. Because dance is a conversation between two bodies, so much is left unsaid when the music ends. Both partners part ways with their own impressions, never knowing what’s going on at the other end. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to talk with leads about their dance experiences, and share my findings with you so that you can benefit from them.

Are there any important tips you think I missed? Let me know by leaving a comment!

If you know any follows who you think would benefit from this list, please do share it with them.

And if you haven’t read it already, check out Salsa Dance Etiquette for Leads.

We could all stand to understand each other a little better. 🙂

the differences between men and women

I’ll leave you with another peek at how men and women think. 😉



Filed under Dance Tips, Salsa Dancing

16 responses to “Salsa Dance Etiquette for Follows: How to Avoid Being Blacklisted When Social Dancing

  1. Loved this article!! I felt embarrassed at some, but I really appreciate that you wrote your mistakes down too cause it made me not take my mistakes too seriously and learn from them. The one that stood out to me what the apologizing one, I used to do that a lot too as well, and now I just have a big sheepish smile… I am working on ignoring my mistakes lol! Last week I danced with someone who did not know how to do the cha cha, and even though it was killing me inside, I followed his wrong footsteps *sigh* just cause I know I suck at dancing bachata lol!
    I have a question though, how about when I am a teacher? I am teaching my friend how to dance, and in a club, I am teaching him, and at home I am teaching him. Although I don’t like to show my frustration, my pet peeve is getting hurt, or seeing how I could get hurt in the future by some close-hit moves he has done that was easily avoidable, like letting me go at a random time during a spin, or not bending my arm at the right time. Can you do an article on teaching etiquette from the side of teacher and student?
    And you made me laugh when you wrote about moping and wanting to be more attractive cause I feel that way sometimes; like “If I only wore more black around my eyes” or “If I had flirt-tier clothes on guys would ask me to dance.” Did I get blacklist here? I asked this guy that I wanted to dance with him because I was a fan of his dancing, and he said no because he wanted to dance with someone else. Then she told him to dance with me, so we danced together, and my hand got tangled in his curly hair and I could not stop staring at him cause I could not believe I was dancing with him (cause he is a professional dancer I admired and watched all his videos) T_T yeah… I’ll just stop right there…

  2. suburbaknght

    Instead of focusing on don’ts, try some do’s:

    DO stand up. Men ask women whom they think will say yes and a woman standing near the dance floor is more likely to say yes than a woman sitting in the corner with her friends and a drink. You can have a drink, you can be with your friends, but stand so you’re approachable. I’ve actually gone to dances with clipboard in hand and counted how many songs it takes different women to be asked to dance. Standing vs. sitting was the biggest determining factor, beating out clothing, shoes, skill, experience, and whether the dancer knew people there. Only having a dedicated partner guaranteed more dancing.

    DO invest in dance shoes. If you’re going to dance with a bunch of turns you need shoes that make it possible.

    DO drink water. Without it your breath starts to smell as you become dehydrated, and unlike alcohol it won’t destroy your balance. When you get water at a club, DO tip the bartender.

    DO thank the leaders for the dance. You don’t need to be overly sycophantic but make sure they know you appreciate the dance.

    DO get to know the leaders. Social dance is social. Leaders are more likely to dance with their friends.

    DO take class. You don’t need to become an expert in every dance, and by all means try dances you may have never done and see if you can follow, but please learn your role. Nothing makes a leader hate dancing with beginners more than a beginner who insists she doesn’t need lessons.

  3. Joe

    Late to the party, but the main thing is just at least giving the impression that you’re having fun, and having a positive and respectful attitude. Some salseros have feelings!

    If I see a follow on the dance floor who looks unhappy with her partner for any reason other than a breach of etiquette on his part, there’s virtually zero chance I’ll ask her to dance, since the most miserable thing in social dancing is leading someone with an attitude, even if it’s just from boredom. When I was just starting out as an intermediate dancer, I’d run into at least one or two girls a night who were noticeably disappointed/unhappy with my dancing, and it’s an absolutely crushing, humiliating feeling that lasts long beyond the grueling 4-5 minute song. This is why I think nice guys (guys who care about ladies’ feelings) quit before they get good, unless they have a really deep well-spring of determination!

    If we’re just talking tips about how to get asked, though, I’d suggest two that haven’t been covered above:
    1. Don’t hold stuff–usually drinks and purses. A drink signals to me that you’re taking a break. Beyond being a tip off that you are a beginner (which most leads don’t mind), a purse signals that you are going to carry that purse through the whole dance (!) and make it really hard to lead you through anything fun. If you’re standing at the edge of the dance floor, watching the dancers, with nothing in your hands, guys know you want to be asked.
    2. Dress nicely. This might be counterintuitive based on experience in bars or hip hop clubs, but an overly sexual presentation can actually repel the usually sober salsero. Those who are there *because* we like dancing salsa might think the, ah, less classy outfits mean the lady isn’t really that into dancing. Whereas someone who took the time to look nice and classy is a seasoned salsera, or at least someone who’s there for the right reasons. Physical appearance is far less important than a thoughtful presentation–which is in turn even less important than a friendly smile!

  4. Please comment on cutting in on a dance, the do’s and don’ts. A drunk woman, not a dancer, cut in on a dance last weekend, and then expected the lead to give her a mini lesson. She blind-sided me – I hadn’t seen her coming because she tapped on the leads shoulder and then turned her back on me.

  5. Waoh, you didn’t leave ANYTHING out!

  6. Francois

    Don’t be rough with your partner: Avoid the “lobster claws” .
    Don’t grab your partner hands using your thumbs at any time.

  7. Francois

    Don’t be rough with your partner: Stop doing “windmill” with your arms. Move your feet, not your arms.
    Many beginners excited on the dance floor feel the need of moving every parts of their body without paying attention to the lead received (or given). Leader try to give signals to follower through the “connection” with the position or their arms and body. If these arms are constantly moving without specific message, the connection is off and the signal is completely disturbed. It is also very tiring for the leader as it is for the follower.

    Personal note: As a leader, I like to try new partners and always invite new comers on the Salsa scene. After one dance only, I run away from ladies with crazy arms and/or lobster claws. I wait for a month before inviting them again hoping they will improve and quit these 2 terrible habits. If they do it again the second time, I wait for a year before asking again.

  8. Yuli

    Hello :). Interesting article, but from a followers perspective, there are some of these that I have to say I don’t quite agree with. As a dance teacher, I tend to focus on technique and feeling when it comes to my students first learning salsa and bachata. I believe it is of course always important to be polite. That is the general etiquette for both leaders and followers. But if a leader is too rough and is physically hurting the follower, it’s usually because they don’t understand that every follower is different and needs a certain amount of tension. This is due to a follower’s size, height, or experience. If a leader is being rough and you wait until the end of the dance, what tends to happen is that they won’t listen or will run off quickly because they don’t want to be critiqued. Understandable, but I think is a VERY important thing to be mentioning. If not, they will just keep hurting other followers and might not even be realizing it. An ego is a hard thing do deal with for an experienced dancer, but you must be genuine if something is wrong because if it hurts……you are not doing it right. 🙂
    What tends to happen, at least for many followers I know and including myself, is that the lead will most of the time treat a dance like a performance, which is where the rough leading tends to come in.
    And the “feeling up” as well….usually the leader is the one doing this….ESPECIALLY bachata. But I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to get close to your partner, as long as both parties consent to it and are feeling the music in their dance. And a very normal comment I get when a lead isn’t as experienced is he’ll tell me, “Sorry, I’m not that good” or “Sorry, I don’t think you’ll enjoy this”….. probably not the best thing to say ;). It’s okay if a beginner asks an experienced dancer for a dance, just don’t be afraid to lead with what you know and the follower will keep in time to the music and help you if necessary.
    And leads…..please PLEASE bring deodorant. If you sweat a lot, and I think many MANY leads do, kindly bring an extra shirt and try to keep clean. Believe me, most followers I know including myself don’t like it when we are drenched with someone else’s sweat.
    It takes experience and body language to feel comfortable with dancers. I doesn’t matter how fancy you dress, what shiny heels you wear, what level of excitement or boredom you put off (playing hard to get in order to get a dance seems strange to me). If you love to dance, that is all the partner wants. For you to ENJOY it. We are creating art on the floor, it’s a beautiful thing. No need complicating t. If you are enjoying yourself and are enthusiastic when you are dancing with an awesome dancer, there’s no shame to expressing it. I always am very flattered when a lead or follower wants me to dance with them because they like my footwork and personality on the floor.
    So focus on the do’s. We as followers are extension of the leads, but the leads must also balance with us. Be kind, be genuine if you are being hurt, be clean, and be excited because dance is a beautiful thing ❤

  9. J

    Yes, what makes me not want to dance with a follower is that look of displeasure because I’m not a super dancer. Or they roll their eyes when dancing because I’m not a good enough dancer. I worked through that and just kept dancing and I became a good dancer. Followers forget that it is harder for a lead because he has to know how to lead you, know a variety of moves and patterns to not bore you or himself and keep you safe when the dance floor is packed. They also seem to forget that they were beginners or intermediate dancers not that long ago and showing boredom or displeasure is just mean. Given that, I still will not dance with some of the women who thought they were such wonderful dancers that they rolled their eyes because I just wasn’t good enough for them.

  10. I think many of these issues would be cleared up simply by, continued dance education

  11. not a fool

    teachers are no gods gift to any one if have to make your self noticed do it because of your style that’s why you are a teacher in the first place ……. please not with your voice or your actions . any teachers that have to make themselves known with flirting and showing of really should be asked to stop or not to be had as a teacher …it just gives it a bad name

  12. BlueCat

    Carl – the point is that what some of us take as normal procedure or have got used to ….. some people do need guidance.. Clearly its not you or me… but some people as indicated by other responses really appreciated the in depth comments.. As here. It made me smile…. and it made me recall occasions… its good to remember stuff… Pleasant memories.. If nothing else filter through ones mind.

  13. Don´t judge by skin colour og race, Dance with the lead, even if he is white.

    In my Salsa time of fifteen years, i have been rejcted by white women, because I was white.

    I have danced with women who danced like a beginner with me, while in her next dance with a lead with substantially darker skin she dances like a super pro with extensive ladystyling.

    I know girls who fakes a sore foot when asked by a white lead, but in the next tune it suddenly dissapears if the guy is anything but white.

    White Salsaras can be obvious racists against white leads.

  14. I found your site because there was a bachatera who wanted to dance close to me in a dance studio and I was curious what her expectations were. Also, I was curious about the social rules around dancing bachata in clubs.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see your suggestions to not grope a lead or dance too close. Dancing close in ChaCha is just weird. It generally leads to knees knocking. There was this 5’6″ blonde in a red dress who wanted to dance ChaCha close with me while doing lots of wild hip gyrations and it was weird.

    Dancing close and small is often needed on crowded dance floors. So, the suggestion to not dance close just depends….

    Dancing close in upscale dance studios is weird for bachata. Dancing close in bachata is fine in clubs. Otoh, dancing tight (thigh-to-thigh) if you don’t know the man is way too aggressive. I see this some in country two-step, but not in salsa clubs so much. Believe it or not, some of us men like a little comfort, too. Get to know us a bit before putting on the moves. (Besides, men are usually better at putting on moves, though we may be clumsy at times.)

    In your image of a woman’s brain, I think that the questions “Will he commit” and “How does he feel about me” and “Does he think I’m pretty” and “Does he desire me” probably deserve decent-sized sections, heh.

    I have a few other rules to suggest:

    Don’t flirt with other men or chat with other women while you’re dancing. It’s very disrespectful. Give your lead all of your attention.

    Don’t wear inappropriate clothing to the venue. Something appropriate for a club might not be appropriate for a dance studio and vice-versa.

    Don’t expect your lead to chat you up while you’re dancing or after you’ve finished a dance. He might be there just to dance. Otoh, it’s always Ok to ask a lead if you can chat after a dance.

    Don’t rub your tits all over a man to get his attention. Use socially acceptable flirting techniques like eye-flirting, smiles, double-entendres, and other sub-communications. This is one of my pet peeves with women.

    Don’t drink too much booze. Too much booze is bad for dancing. Sometimes it’s difficult for a man to tell if a woman has had too much liquor to be able to dance. Another pet peeve of mine.

    Don’t stare at the lead while you’re dancing. It’s disconcerting. Besides, you can’t watch your lead’s back if you’re staring at him. Sometimes experienced follows do this and it’s annoying. (No, I don’t have movie star good looks, lol.)


  15. Janet

    Absolutely great article!!! Thank you 🙂

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