An Idiots Guide to Social Dance Etiquette: Part 1 (5 Tips)

Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba etc are not just dances but social outlets.

Be it the ubiquitous night out dancing that salsa represents in Latin countries and communities or the seemingly hidden sub-culture of salseros in non-Latin countries like Ireland and Japan, salsa is a way to enjoy yourself with other people, to socialize and to make friends.

And, as with any other social phenomena, there are certain rules that, to a greater of lesser degree, one must abide by.

Of course, these rules never get written down nor are they ever explained to you at your first salsa class or at the start of your first social night (although mentioning them in class to beginners would really help prevent a lot of unpleasant “misunderstandings”). You learn them yourself, over time, sometimes through trial and error, sometimes through the words of a friend and they begin to form part of your behavior whenever you step out on the dance floor.

I write them down here today so that you won’t have to go through the whole (embarrassing) procedure of trial and error, hopefully helping you integrate into your local salsa scene much more smoothly. In case anyone is wondering who the idiot in the title is… it’s me, I’ve made most of the mistakes you’ll read here already so hopefully you won’t have to 😉  .

Obviously the rules will vary depending on the social norms of the country/culture where you are but I feel that these pointers here represent a pretty decent guideline to follow wherever you are in the world. Feel free to add more to your own list if need be.


The very nature of dance means you are going to be in close physical contact with other human beings. There is nothing worse than beginning to dance with someone only to catch the whiff of BO and have to endure it for the next 4 minutes or so.

Shower well before you plan on going out dancing, put on some decent deodorant and wear clean clothes. Otherwise you risk developing a reputation as a “smelly dancer” and let’s face it, no one wants to dance with that guy.

Brush your teeth

For the exact same reason as above, it is not pleasant dancing with someone who has breath bad enough to strip paint off walls. Brush those pearly whites.

Carry a Salsa Survival Kit (SSK)

To combat issues with the above two points I started to bring a salsa survival kit with me whenever I go out dancing. While you can wash yourself as much as you like before hand, the fact of the matter is that you are going to dance, which means you are going to sweat (if you are like me, you are going to sweat a lot). Thus, you may not smell that same as you did at the start of the night. This is where the SSK comes in. It consists of the following items but feel free to add more as you feel is needed.

  • Handkerchief: (or any small cloth you can fit in your back pocket or handbag) You will sweat and you will touch other people’s sweat when you dance. It simply can’t be helped. It is nice though, if you can wipe the sweat from your face and hands after every dance. Carrying a “sweat-rag” is a handy little habit I picked up to deal with the shockingly humid summers when in lived in Japan (where I learned to dance).
  • Antibacterial wet-wipes: If you notice that you’re starting to smell as the night goes on, you may have to take emergency action, run to a toilet cubicle and give your underarms a quick cleaning. Antibacterial wipes should help ensure that you don’t start to smell again for a few hours. Nowadays you can get wet-wipes in handy pocket size packs, perfect to carry along on a night out.
  • Chewing gum: (preferably sugar-free) If you go out to eat with friends before you dance or if you smoke, you may need to freshen your breath during the night. Chewing gum is so portable too that you have no excuse not to bring it along (just don’t chew it during a dance… it just ain’t classy).
  • A spare T-shirt: this is more for the guys as it’s a more manageable solution but having a spare T-shirt (or three) can really help make you and the people you dance with feel more comfortable as the night goes on.

This is my SSK and is probably one of the simplest there is. I know of other people who add other “essentials to their list; cologne/perfume, deodorant, make-up etc. (my friend I recommended that I also include Pepper Spray! I’ll leave that choice up to you). It all depends on your own necessities and how much you can carry. Men obviously don’t have the luxury of a handbag, although I rarely leave the house without my courier bag (notice how I didn’t call it a man-bag!!!).

Asking for a dance

Both men and women should make the effort to ask out the people they want to dance with. It should not be left up entirely to the men and thankfully in Europe and the U.S.  women feel a lot more comfortable asking men out to dance.

It’s not rocket science either, just remember to be polite and smile. Simply approach the person you want to dance with, smile, say something along the lines of “Excuse me, would you like to dance” and when they say yes, take them by the hand and gently lead them out to the dance floor. You may now begin to dance. That’s it.

If you know the person already you might get a little playful and do what I do; from a distance, grab their attention with your eyes, give a cheeky little wink and a little head nod in the direction of the dance floor and voilà, time to get your dance on. This is guaranteed to make you feel like pro.

DO NOT REFUSE A DANCE! (The Golden Rule)

I would prefer to say “NEVER refuse a dance” but I rarely use the word “never”, as life is full of exceptions. I’m also aware that there are occasions when you simple don’t want to dance with someone and I would never tell someone they have to dance with a person that makes them uncomfortable. However, in general, I encourage people to not make refusing a dance a common policy.

The reason; IT HURTS!

For those of you who are more experienced dancers, try to imagine how nervous you were when you first started dancing. For beginners, it takes a hell of a lot of courage to work up the nerve to ask someone out for a dance. Imagine yourself trying to work up all that courage and finally asking that person you’ve been wanting to dance with all night, only to get shot down. For guys, it ranks pretty close to castration (at least it did for me) and I’d imagine it feels worse for ladies who have the extra hurdle to get over, of not being the sex that normally requests a dance (which I personally believe shouldn’t be the case. I love it when a girl asks me out for a dance).

I remember the first time I was refused a dance all too well. I was in a salsa club in Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong on the second leg of my first salsa training expedition. I was pretty green but I knew a few moves so I decided do ask a dance of a girl I’d seen dancing really well earlier. I walked up to her, smiled and politely asked “Would you like to dance?” to which she responded, without so much as a smile to dull the blow, with “no”, followed by a halfhearted “maybe later”.

After recoiling form the initial shock of (what felt like) having my internal organs ripped out and stepped on in front of me, I picked up what was left of my testicles and scurried away to a dark corner to hide my shame. I did however recover and go on to have plenty more dances that night but I will never forget how I felt.

Beginning salseros need to be encouraged especially  by dancers with more experience. I will dance with anyone (I’ve even danced with men who want to practice their following. That usually gets a few odd looks) because I know how it feels to be refused a dance. I’ll even dance with someone who tells me before hand that they’re not the best dancer or that they’re only a beginner. I’ll just modify what I do to make sure they have as fun a dance as possible.

There are a few situations, however, where it’s ok to say “no”, for example if you don’t like dancing a particular style (like merengue for me), if your last dance was particularly vigorous and you want to take a breather, if you need to go to the restroom etc. You should always smile and explain the reason and tell the person that you will dance the next song with them instead. Be nice.

I try to imagine myself in the shoes of beginners and I try to encourage them with salsa as much as possible along with trying to help them avoid any of the “unpleasant” situations I’ve experienced in the past.

That’s it for Part One folks, check out Part Two and if you feel like I’ve missed something amongst the points I’ve mentioned, feel free to let me know about it in the comments (bear in mind I’ll probably be talking about them in Part Two).

Keep Dancing Folks. 

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  1. says: JeaneL

    There was a article in LDC earlier that discussed more in detail about the reasons “we say no” that I resonated with. I think for Dance Etiquette, “try to be encouraging” is a better way of putting it than “do not refuse a dance”. Because for long term dance enjoyment, leads and followers really have to get over the “it hurts” part of the rejection and learn to lead it slide.

    Honestly, when I was a beginner (and definitely showed it), I was comfortable with asking leads to dance because I was adamant about learning. However, if the lead is not going to enjoy the dance with a beginner, and instead throw all his/her advance moves to show how great they are and toss me around nonchalantly, or ignore me for shines – PLEASE SAY NO. I think a better golden rule is if you do accept a dance, do put in some effort to enjoy it. If you don’t think you are going to enjoy it, you should reject it. It doesn’t help to accept a dance to nurse the lead’s ego, and then be sour faced for the rest of it.

  2. says: Fred

    I agree with you 100 percent! I dance in polyester, period! I love cotton and would love an awesome shirt, however, I came to the conclusion that cotton simply wasn’t up to the task. I don’t know how people still do cotton!! I have a couple of polyester t-shirts that seem to work for me. I buy them in all the usual places, which is to say, any sports or outdoor stores, 100% polyester. I’ve found they come in all colors and dry fast enough. I usually carry 1 or 2 extra. In desperate circumstances even wringing out one in the bathroom can work quite nicely! There’re some parties where people are so laid back that one might get away with a sweaty cotton, I think, like Jimmy Anton’s social! Folks there are so easy, so cotton might work there. But most places, a soaked shirt might get one a few denials!
    Speaking of denials, I must agree with you there, too! My personal policy is that I try to always always say yes! I can’t remember if I’ve ever said no! Simply cause in my view it’s a nasty thing to do!! I see people say no to others for poor reasons many times! People say no to one person with an excuse, then immediately turn around and dance with somebody else! Honestly, to me that borders on hateful, period!!! As hateful as anything else out there, and I think its not smart, too, to put it kindly!! I think it also depends on how it’s done. There’re genuine good reasons and ways to say no, and there are poor ways to do so. When people do that to me in a poor way, and we can all tell when it’s a poor way, I mark them very very carefully, and that’s the end!! I do everything in my power to never dance with them ever again!! Ever!! Seriously!!!
    Example: when I was a poorer dancer, I asked this one lady and she declined like in a bad way! Over time I trained, went to congresses etc, and got much much better. So one evening she asked me to dance, there were few leads, and I could tell she was interested in showing off! I declined, and she’s still in my “black book!” There’s one or two ladies in it! I never forget the way they treated me when I was an poorer dancer!