What Women Want… from a dance! (Tips to make you a better lead)

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What do women want?

This question has stumped MAN-kind since the dawn of time and continues to frustrate the less-attractive sex on a daily basis.

Obviously, I’m not talking about knowing what women want from a potential mate in the dating-game… clearly I’ve already mastered that (hahahaha… excuse me, I couldn’t keep a straight face with that one!). No, today I want to talk about something far more pertinent to those men that spend their free time on the dance floor. I’m going to talk about what women want from a dance… not from a potential mate but from a lead!

“As if a MAN could answer that!!!”
… I can hear all you ladies screaming at your screens right now! You are right to doubt my opinion on this matter, I doubt it myself! So, with my gender-imposed shortcomings in mind I decided to take it upon myself and do something most men never do… “ask”.

R & D
I decided to write this article quite a while back so I began my research by asking a multitude of salsera friends of mine to tell me what, exactly, they most enjoyed from a dance/lead. For the sake of completeness I asked women from various different countries in Europe, Asia and North & South America who dance different styles of salsa socially and/or professionally. Basically, what that means is that I’ve ended up with information from a culturally diverse group or L.A., New York & Cuban social dancers, teachers and performers (the scientist in me wouldn’t have it any other way).

My eyes have been opened
I ended up getting a lot of different opinions but there were clearly quite a few common points that all of my sources brought up; some things I instinctively knew (after so long dancing, one would hope so); some things I needed a little reminder of and some things I had never even considered before. I imagine a lot of the gentlemen reading this will be in the same boat. In other words, I’m giving ya pure gold!

I’ve listed this cornucopia of knowledge with which I have been bestowed, below. Any points that were mentioned by multiple ladies appear near the start of the list with less commonly mentioned points following. Any commentary after the points is my own (influenced by what my sources wrote themselves).

So, without further ado, I present you with, quite possibly…

The most important tips that a salsa lead will ever need…

(you know, besides actually learning how to dance… which is kind of important too).

  • Show your partner you’re enjoying yourself
    There is nothing worse than dancing with someone who looks like they’re either bored out of their mind or terrified of making a mistake. Dancing is meant to be fun so feel it and show it. Smile and you’ll make your partner smile too.

    Letting your partner know you're having fun is one of the best things you can do as a lead.

    Letting your partner know you’re having fun is one of the best things you can do as a lead.

  • Show your partner that you’re dancing with her
    In a dance there is only the couple and the music and once you’ve asked someone for a dance you’ve basically committed to them for the entire song. Show your mutual connection with eye contact. You should only be focused on your partner when having a dance and not on whatever else is going on on the dance floor. Equally the dance is “not all about you” so don’t use your partner as prop to show off your moves.
  • Have a clear but NOT forceful lead
    You do not need to tear off a woman’s arms to get her to follow you. A good lead should be able to indicate clearly and painlessly which way you would like your partner to go. Timid leads (due to being afraid to touch your partner) and (sometimes) leading by the hips or the stomach are no good either. Also, don’t forget that if you use your thumbs to clamp down on your partners hands, she has the right to dig her nails into you in return. If you want an idea of what a good lead feels like, check out my article on the Cloudy Dancer.
  • Musicality
    This is by far the hardest concept to explain to those that don’t yet understand it. Be familiar with the music, appreciate the changes in tempo, start slow, get to know your partners style and build up into the dance, allow breaks for some shines and know when you need to up the ante or chill things out a little. I hate using this phrase but you need to learn to “Feel the Music” and translate it into your dancing.
  • KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid
    “A simple dance, danced well and on time is much better than a dance packed with moves that don’t work and end up off time”. Don’t dive straight into a dance by stringing together a unending combination of turn patterns and tricks without even listening to the song itself and exhausting your partner after just 3 minutes. Yes, use your tricks, but learn to enjoy the simpler aspects of dance.
  • Adjust to your partners level
    Just because you can do a certain move with certain people doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to follow you. It’s really disheartening and frustrating to a girl if she has a lot of trouble following you just because you’re trying to show off and don’t care if she can keep up. Start slow, adjust to her level and you can still have a great dance.
  • Don’t teach during a dance
    Following on from the last point, just because a girl can’t follow one of your moves doesn’t mean that you should stop right there in the middle of the song to show her what she’s doing wrong. It can be pretty humiliating. Finish the dance, have fun and maybe if she want’s to learn how to do it you can show her, off the dance floor.
  • Take care of your partner
    “Using me as a battering ram to clear yourself a space is NOT a good thing”. You are the lead and from the moment you lead a girl onto the floor to the moment you escort her off, you are in charge of her safety. Keep an eye out for potential collisions on the dance floor, don’t preform any dangerous moves, don’t tug roughly to lead. A good partner will of course keep an eye out for you too ;-)

And that’s it. There were a few more points mentioned but these were the most common ones amongst the women I asked. When I was reading all the tips that my female friends gave to me I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the mistakes I regularly make on the dance floor. I’m still learning and trying to improve and make up for my shortcomings when dancing. I hope this article gives other leads some good motivation to do the same.

If you need anymore tips, check out my guide to salsa dance etiquette part 1 and part 2 to get the ball rolling.

Men: Read them, learn them and most importantly, apply them and watch your salsa cred grow.

Ladies: What do you think? Is this what you want on the dance floor? Have I left anything out? I’d love to hear your opinions so let me know in the comments.

Keep dancing folks.


  • Fred says:

    Appreciate your column. These are great points. Teaching is one that strikes me. It’s never a good idea to teach, often even when one is invited to do so!! Personally, I absolutely avoid this. It’s usually novices, male or female, who do this during social dancing. Most dancers with experience know it almost always doesn’t go well!!!
    My worst teaching moment was a lady who tried to teach me about a year ago!! Oh, lord!! I’d just got back from two weeks in New York, doing nothing but dancing almost everyday and taking classes with the usual suspects in New York City: Eddie, Maria, Osmar of Yamuleee etc etc, the congress etc! And this lady, could hardly dance, yet, there she was lecturing me!! Haha!! She tried to do some “shines” etc, and of course, one can tell when things are kind of forced, with no real sabor or even technique!! She just didn’t have it!! She knew nothing about me, or my dancing history etc! And there she was judging me! And, she didn’t dance well, but she thought she was good!! Hah!! I just kept quiet, went through the dance, thanked her and left!! Then, she was like “I am sorry!!” etc etc! I thought “oh!! Crap!! Just shut up and get lost!!!!” Always, when one speaks to salsa people, teaching during the dance is one of the worst or classless things to do in salsa!! Don’t do it!!! Play dumb etc, avoid it! If they REALLY want to learn, invite them to a class, or do it somewhere else!!
    For ladies, one thing I’d say is that different women sometimes want different things! I am currently vacationing in NYC, taking classes and social dancing as I write this, and I’ve seen ladies with different takes! Many like musicality, connection etc. But, I’ve also seen some ladies, mostly learners, I think, who seem to want more and more and more turns etc! The latter mostly seem to be beginners, with more limited skills in my opinion. To me, they seem like beginner guys who want to do all those turns with no real appreciation for the musicality or technique involved!! Just more turns!!
    Lastly, I’d say since we have asked what women want, how about we now also ask, what do men want??? Cause its not just women or follows on the dance floor! Leads, too, want some things from follows, and often follows, too, can fall short!
    Like, following!! If leads are gonna lead, then follows need to follow, or there’s going to be no connection! Like, a lead is preparing a move, and a follow tries to do it even before the lead leads it! Again, i’ve seen this especially with beginners, and especially beginners who want to pretend to be advanced or intermediate dancers.
    So, will somebody discuss what leads want sometime! Thanks!

  • David Sander says:

    As an early dancer one of the harder things I had to learn was to not string together too many different moves and to allow my partner the free space to do their own portion of the dance. ?Since I tended to plan a few moves ahead, I found unexpected changes to be disruptive. Social dance is best an improvisation with the music and what your partner can do, so its easy to plan moves ahead in a way that limits partnership. If you have a strict or passive follower that will be OK, but a more impish or creative follower will feel limited by a long series of planned moves. I found Magna Gopel to be famously creative in this way! I was at that time unable to dance anywhere close to her potential. So one of the keys is improvising or the ability to connect a variety of moves so your partner feels well engaged or has options with exits they know.

  • David Sander says:

    Usually if I teach on the floor, I’m invited to or its more a case of introducing someone brand new to basic Salsa or Bachata their first night. Usually the first step is one of giving encouragement and getting everyone past the apologies for not being ready trained to dance, of course! The first thing is to make them feel good about trying this and I usually explain that I had a difficult introduction to my first months of dance too. Saying that and that dance only survives because old dancers teach new dancers how to dance is usually enough. Some unskilled people can only be introduced to the basics, but if they have performance dance training or know how to take a lead from swing dancing, I can generally make them feel good about doing a few basic moves. Usually they respect me for being patient with them and if its a good night for me, I remind them that dance is supposed to be fun. For a true social dancer, they should dance with new and low level dancers in order to build up the herd and because these people can be a challenge to lead correctly. Did I mention its also a chance to drill on your basics? :)

  • Hey Richie. I love the article. I read something from Shaka Brown years ago that said “first you learn the move, then you learn the timing, and lastly you learn the styling. It’s that last part that has taken the longest to develop. Yes the nebulous “dancing to the music”. Thanks again for the word….Michael

  • Melissa West-Koistila says:

    AMEN!! Awesome article!

  • Pablo sanchez says:

    Another load of manure from this contributor….What women want….Ummmm I think a female is better suited to answer…

    You speak from a place not of fun but of judgement.

    Example: Musicality “This is by far the hardest concept to explain to those that don’t yet understand it”
    Gee hope to one day be like you….
    If you want an idea of what a good lead feels like, check out my article on the Cloudy Dancer.
    Gee let me make that my new bible….
    If you need anymore tips, check out my guide to salsa dance etiquette part 1 and part 2
    Ok great let me check it out…

    Self-centered Self-absorbed…….. and to women I know the worst type of guy to dance with an ARROGANT one…..

  • Rachel says:

    Yes, the teaching one! I danced with a guy once who counted out the cha cha counts the whole song the first time I danced with him, even though I was dancing it. I told him he could just stop and we could just dance. I saw him at another place and he asked to dance… I told him yes, as long as he didn’t count out loud again and we just danced. This time it was a salsa and he was speaking out the moves before we did them, like, “Okay, now left turn…” He was also talking down to me. He claimed to be a dance instructor, so maybe he was hoping to get someone to notice and ask him for lessons. But I’m not a beginner, and didn’t need him to do this. I told him to stop, but he wouldn’t. I don’t usually stop dancing with someone mid-song, but I had to with that guy. (On the flip side, if it’s a dance friend and it’s all in fun, I’d be okay with them telling me something/teaching me something.)

    And yes, watching out for the girl is extremely important. If there’s a guy who’s smashed me into people quite a few times, I’ll eventually get to the point where I say no when he asks me to dance with him.

    But another one I was going to say, which is maybe a small one, is when a guy pushes you away for some solo time during the “boring” parts of the song where nothing’s happening, but then doesn’t let you go during the awesome parts where the drums are going crazy and you just want to move with it! :P

    • Hey Rachel, sounds like that guy was a bit of a d!#k. At least you know now and can avoid him in the future. Sounds like it would have been an awful way yo spend a dance.

  • Wil says:

    Hey Richie, great article and really enjoyed the info you shared. However I would like you to buy please elaborate on what you mean by “leading by the hips or even the stomach are not good either”.

    Thank you

    • Hi Wil
      Some proficient male leads place their hands on women’s hips or stomachs to lead them. While it can work, a lot of women who responded to my survey said they didn’t really like it so I said it was worth mentioning

  • Randy says:

    Give your follow the space to do her own thing.

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