Social Dance Etiquette: Why You Shouldn’t Coach Your Dance Partners

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This week I want to dive into something that happens all the time. It can get a little touchy and you’ve probably either done it yourself or been on the receiving end. The big question is this: should we be coaching our dance partners? Let’s dig in.

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You’re out on the floor dancing to one of your favourite songs, but things just aren’t going well. All of a sudden you have a growing urge to tell your partner what they’re doing wrong.

Stop. Right. There.

If you’re not qualified to teach, don’t do it.

When your dance feels like it’s falling apart, coaching your partner might seem like a great idea, but it ain’t. Here’s why:

1) You might give out poor information

If you don’t give someone good information you’re just going to make the problem worse. Habits are sensitive things and if you’re contributing to making a bad habit worse that’s no bueno. On the flip side, maybe it was you who was doing something wrong and you’re attempting to give your partner advice to cover up a mistake on your end without knowing it. Also not helpful.

But what if your certain you know exactly what’s going wrong, you ask? Well, think about this before you speak up…

2) You might offend your partner

Ego is a tough pill to swallow and if your partner isn’t keen on taking some constructive criticism, he or she will probably get a little annoyed. They haven’t requested your help and you’re probably not qualified to give it. If someone isn’t ready to receive feedback it won’t be helpful, just harmful.

Behaviour psychologist B.J. Fogg from Stanford dropped a gem on us at the Design for Dance conference in 2014 (and I paraphrase):

In order for behaviour change to occur two things need to be present:

  1. The ability to change (in this case, this one is probably present )
  2. The willingness to change (this one probably isn’t)

If your partner hasn’t requested advice, chances are they lack sufficient motivation or desire to change what they’re doing. It’s not going to happen. And they might get pissed. Worst case scenario is they may not want to dance with you again.

So, What Should I Do if My Dance Has Turned Into a Disaster? Should I Coach Then?

No, silly. I thought I told you that already?

If you’re in the middle of a bad social dance…

Smile, suck it up and make the best of the situation. Most important of all, be respectful and finish it all the way through.

If you’re dancing with a beginner remember you were there too and they need to struggle and mistakes to improve. To your best to be supportive and nurture that process by being considerate and helpful – it’s the people who do that, that make up a supportive salsa community.

If you don’t want to dance with the person again after this dance — that’s cool — but never abandon someone in the middle of a dance because you’re not satisfied with their skill level. If they’re harming you or you’ve asked them to stop doing something and they don’t that’s another story.

If you’re at a salsa class…

Take advantage of the fact there’s a qualified instructor in the room that can answer any question you or your partner have. Don’t start correcting your partner, because you could be giving them “tips” that aren’t correct. Don’t be a part of the problem. Be patient (I know it’s hard – I’ve been there!) and wait for the teacher to come around and help you.

If group classes end up being too slow for you or you feel like you need more personal attention, try setting up a private lesson.

Warning: Coaching Your Significant Other Can Get Messy

Ever been in a relationship? Then you know how easy it can be to rub someone your close with the wrong way. Learning a new skill is stressful enough, so if your partner is already struggling, a couple misplaced comments are all that’s needed to turn the situation sour and have them projecting their frustration directly at you.

From experience, Patrick and Scarlet recommend completely avoiding any sort of back and forth coaching between intimate partners. They’ve seen things go very wrong in the past – consider yourself warned! Break-ups have happened.

 

Let the Q&A Begin…

Q: How do you recommend people with a significant other to learn to dance? How do professionals manage to improve when they’re partner is their significant other?

A: (by 3x Canadian Salsa Champ, Patrick Moriarity)
A dance partnership is not unlike any other relationship. Typically those involved communicate their individual and shared needs and wants and come up with an agreement. Maybe your needs and wants align, maybe they won’t. Maybe it will include a dance partnership, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will include sharing suggestions, maybe it won’t. When you know what both you and your partner want it is so much easier to have clearer working guidelines. Ultimately you define your own partnership.

Here are a few simple tips:

  1. Don’t be a know it all
  2. Be open to suggestion
  3. Have a coach
  4. There’s a time for talking and a time for doing
  5. Accept your current level of ability and knowledge
  6. Be patient, encouraging and have a positive attitude
  7. If you get upset, apologize.
  8. Keep it fun

As for Scarlet and I, we compete and perform and have several lofty goals. In light of this it is paramount we communicate to one another our strengths and weaknesses and at times this may fall under “coaching” but we don’t see it, nor receive it that way. We are a team and we strive to make our product better. We care for one another and for what we are doing. We both bring value to the team and trust suggestions are given for the good of the team, thus making it easier for us to be relaxed and open to suggestion. And yes, there are times we get frustrated and upset but we are very conscious about communicating and apologizing quickly.

Q: What’s your advice for when someone gives you advice that is unhelpful or just wrong in the middle of a dance?

A: (me, Robin)
If someone who clearly knows less than me, tries to coach me to fix “issues” that they’re likely causing, then a quick “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind” makes them feel better, while getting them off your back.

I’ll also avoid that person in the future. I’m not a fan of people who are unaware of themselves and are quick to teach others. The trick is to be aware of yourself and make your best attempt at realizing when you might to adjust your technique.

That said, I’ve also received feedback during a dance and during workshops, that’s been awesomely helpful, but that I didn’t ask for. The most recent was a Kizomba workshop, from a girl I knew had a lot more experience than me, so I was super grateful she was sharing. Because of the value I place on learning, I love that and I can push my ego aside.

In the end it depends on the receiver’s openness to feedback. Often times it’s really difficult for the receiver to check their ego, listen, absorb and utilize the feedack. That’s why we caution people about giving advice, because more often than not, it can harm relationships with people.

Q: Is it ok to give advice when dancing socially if you’re an instructor?

A (me, Robin):
If I’m an instructor here’s how I’d handle the following situations:

If I’m social dancing the intention is to have fun and socialize, not learn. In this case, unless someone has asked me, I would definitely not give any advice. I would simply try and lead to the follow’s level and be as clear as possible in my signals.

If I’m in a class environment but I’m not the teacher, and my partner is having trouble following something or I know she’s doing something wrong, I’ll ask the teacher something like, “Hey I’m having trouble leading my partner through ____, can you take a look?” The teacher can then review us both, and assist as needed.

If I’m in a private practice environment with friends or other people who are learning I will suggest to my partner up front, “Hey, I”d love it if we could exchange feedback both ways, so we can help each other improve. How does that sound?” By setting the expectation up front that feedback is going to be given, the other parties will be A LOT more receptive too it.

Q: How do you know when you are qualified to give advice? Does one need a degree or what sort of certificates are there out there that one should have or what is a reasonable time to know when its ok?

A (me, Robin):
Unfortunately degrees and certificates don’t guarantee you’re knowledge and how well you teach as an instructor – they’re just pieces of paper, and many dances and art forms don’t have them. A lot of people who have pieces of paper also totally suck at teaching.

Teaching is a skill that is cultivated from being an incredible student and continuing to learn forever, always replacing the information you have with better information as you receive it and test it out.

The hard part is there is no obvious threshold you’ll pass when you think you’re ready to teach. It’s easy to get caught up in listening to beginners tell you “Oh you dance so well, you should teach!”

For myself, I ensure I study the dance for years (and in my case it was breakdancing before salsa), and deeply understand it as best I can, it’s traditions, grooves, vocabulary, community and it’s competitive/performance side. I think the feeling of being ready to teach comes from within.

There are times when you will be a relative expert who knows more than anyone else in the area, and at those times, it does feel helpful to pass on what you do know, to help that scene grow further, or just have some FUN!. But in the presence of more knowledgable instructors, I tend to let them nurture the scene to grow, and only pass on the things I’m 100% sure of to closer friends.

Always be learning, always be growing.

To Summarize…

The reason we tend to advise against giving advice, is because it might offend someone – they may not want to hear it, or might just not be in the mood to learn.

If you haven’t agreed to exchange feedback with your partner, or if someone hasn’t asked you directly, try not to give unsolicited advice.

If someone asks you for advice while dancing, or says “oh I totally messed up, what was I supposed to do there?” then sharing the best advice you can is no problem. If you’re not 100% sure on the answer, let them know and suggest they check it out with an instructor.

If you’re in a practice environment and haven’t talked about exchanging feedback yet, ask, “would you like a suggestion? I think I know something that could help.” Or agree how, or if, you’ll give each other feedback.

Have You Ever Received Unsolicited Advice?

I’m super curious if anyone out there has a good story about a time when they’ve been unwillingly coached? I know it happens all the time, so go ahead and spill the beans and leave a comment.

Enjoy this post and want to learn more? Try a sample lesson with 3x Canadian Salsa Champs Patrick and Scarlet at TheDanceDojo.com. We make learning salsa easier.

10 Comments

  • Abbey Plotkin says:

    I have been dancing Salsa for over TWENTY FIVE years, I had my OWN dance company for ELEVEN years, I ran Salsa Socials for about TEN years and I have taught Salsa in the past. Although it doesn’t happen often, every now & again someone, usually someone who knows NOTHING about Salsa or dancing will give me unsolicited advice but most people know me and know better than to mess with this old broad! I always ask a guy to repeat a move that I don’t get but they RARELY do. But I must say, one of pet peeves is a guy who asks me do I dance on 1 or 2 and when I say, whatever you lead me on or I prefer 2 but dance both, and THEN they proceed to dance on NO timing WHATSOEVER!!!! Do NOT ask if you don’t even know what it means, just DANCE!

  • Sandra says:

    I have had a partner stop in the middle of a dance and start giving me “lessons”. This would happen all the time. Lead me to think maybe we just don’t connect when I told him that and suggested maybe we not dance together he was insulted. Can’t win. Good advice unless you are the teacher don’t tell people how to dance.

    • It’s funny isn’t in Sandra? It can be so hard for them to put themselves in your shoes and think ‘hmmm why might this person not enjoy me completely disrupting their experience and lecturing them without asking?’

      I hope you don’t run into too many more unsolicted-advice-givers. Have fun out there!

  • David Sander says:

    A competent salsa instructor and performance dancer with about five years of experience was watching me doing a complex turn with a follow new to salsa dancing last year. The follow’s turn was of course happening out of position and out of time but l do this for new dancers to give them a thrill, a feel for what more advanced moves feel like and because I’m good and patient with beginners. Her being out of position was throwing off my timing when I tried to accommodate her moves to get to a reasonable ending.
    So this instructor comes over and starts telling me how to do the move! I resisted being insulted and decided to watch the instruction comedy go on as he told me how to do the move I already knew.
    It is often a good policy to remain friendly with people and be non-judgmental even in such situations.

    • Some people just can’t help themselves hey David? It’s great that you have the resolve to stand back and enjoy the experience instead of getting offended or enraged. Keep enjoying that dance floor David!

    • Abbey Plotkin says:

      Hey David. As, I mentioned above, I’ve been dancing Salsa for over 25 years, trained with Eddie & Maria Torres from 1990-1993 before starting my own dance company which I had for eleven years. The other night I went to a studio social with a friend. A guy asked me to dance. His lead wasn’t great and at one point he tried to do some turn and I said, “Oh, you wanted me to go THAT way? (to the R & it felt like he was turning me L)” He said in a VERY instructional tone, “Oh yes, ALWAYS follow your elbow.” I almost burst out laughing. Instead I told the studio owner, HIS instructor that he should let the guys know that if a girl doesn’t follow properly, then MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, YOU, THE MAN, is not LEADING PROPERLY!!! Oh LORD, give me patience!!! LOL

  • Mick says:

    Abbey, have you considered that it was actually you who instigated the ‘coaching’ in this example?

    Perhaps you should wear a badge declaring up-front “25 years, I know Eddie, blah, blah blah” as a warning to social leads to be super good. You could print it in CAPITALS in case we did not have the capacity to understand plain english.

    🙂

  • Abbey Plotkin says:

    Hey, GOOD idea, Mick!!! I see you don’t post your last name like the rest of us…

  • Elba Colon says:

    Some people take a few lessons & out of no where declare themselves dance instructors. These are the most difficult people to dance with because, even when you try to be polite, they insist on instructing you. Sometimes you are forced to say listen, I came to dance not to take a class.
    Like Abbey, I’ve also been in the circuit since 1993 & have taken classes with many wonderful instructors. So, yes, I feel after so many years of experience I’m allowed to say please clarify because this is not working.
    Encountering a dance floor instructor becomes irritating when they insist on announcing what dance school they’re from like somehow that validates their rudeness. I’ve had leads twist my hands, fingers, & arms in unnatural ways & they feel insulted when I protest being tortured.
    I’ve never instructed anyone on the dance floor. If they’re bad dancers, I just figure it’ll be over soon. Sometimes, it not enough to try to roll with the dances. I was very polite to one lead who after asking me if I danced on 2, danced the whole song off beat & on 1. I didn’t say a word until he announced that I wasn’t dancing on 2, which I couldn’t because he was so off beat & also on 1, and that he knew I was off because his teacher was M D & he teaches on 2. Then he said arrogantly, do you even know M D is? With fumes probably emitting from my ears, I told him not only do I know & have known M D for years, I’ve dance on 2 with M D many times, & you sir, did NOT dance on 2, you were dancing on 1 & were completely off beat.
    Sometimes these on floor instructors just can’t let you walk away without adding insult to injury.

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