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Dance Etiquette FAQ

Welcome to Swing Dancing!


Swing dancing is a wonderful way to brighten a day! It’s a social occasion, where people of all ages and backgrounds come together to enjoy moving to their favourite music. But because it is a social occasion, we all need to be considerate of each other both on and off the dance floor.  Some aspects of the etiquette introduced below will be perceived by many as simple common sense, but some will be reminders of aspects of the dance that may not be obvious at first glance. And of course, swing dancing has a culture all of its own – so please use these pages to gain some insight into the conventions that we all use to make our swing dancing experience the best it can be.

Preparing for the dance

Smell Good!

Everyone appreciates getting up close and personal with someone who is freshly washed, wearing clean clothes, and protected by enough deodorant (applied as often as necessary!) to keep the big bad wolf of body odour at bay. Not to mention, we all enjoy someone who has sweet-smelling breath – it’s a good idea to brush your teeth just before you come to dancing, and to keep a handy supply of gum or breath-mints available to use during the night. Reminder that if you hydrate is is not only good for you but it can also help to keep odours at bay.

Colognes and Perfumes can trigger allergies and reactions in some people, so in general it is best not to use them.  

Dress Effectively! 

In terms of formality, except at dances that are particularly announced as special occasions (like the Anniversary Dance), pretty much anything goes. Some people will come to show off in their newest vintage dress or swishy skirt, while some will arrive in jeans and T-shirts. Whatever makes you and your partner comfortable is fine!

It’s important to plan your wardrobe when you are dancing. Certain types of clothing are less comfortable for your dance partner – for example, if you are a lady who sweats a lot, then wearing a backless shirt or a shirt that bares your midriff is going to be a bit slippery for your partner when he holds you in his arms. Shirts/skirts/dresses which are really baggy or which have decorative flaps of fabric can be problematic  in a way you might not expect – they can create a situation where your hand gets tangled in your partner’s clothing or you try for your partner’s back and can’t get to it through the masses of fabric.

Wear clothes that keep you from feeling wet and slimy when your partner touches you – this could involve wearing extra layers such as an undershirt, a vest or a jacket to act as a barrier between any sweat you are producing and the person you are dancing with, or bringing enough clothes to keep changing shirts as they get sweaty.

Ladies, you have a unique wardrobe trap – the cute flippy skirt! Be aware, this is an athletic dance, so if you are wearing short, flippy or swirly skirts, there’s a strong likelihood that they are going to float up, move around, or otherwise fail to keep your booty completely covered. Traditionally ladies get around this problem by wearing dance shorts, leggings, or new, full coverage boy shorts under their skirts – that way you’ll never have to think twice about how you move or whether you are turning too fast while dancing.

For men who sweat, it is nice to wear at least a short sleeve shirt to give the ladies a place to put their hands that isn’t bare skin…  If you sweat a lot, a long sleeve shirt may be better.

We've said it before, but we'll say it again, bringing extra clothes is one way to make sure you are both looking good and staying dry! 

Safety First!

Out of respect, dancers should show up in full possession of their faculties :) If your social evening started with a few drinks before dancing, evaluate whether you need to take some time to sober up in order to be a safe participant.

During a dance, we spend a lot of time holding each other’s hands. It’s important to make sure that nobody gets scratched up or impaled during the dance ;) – so make sure your hands aren’t dangerous by trimming/filing your nails until you can’t use them as a weapon! Other potential implements of injury and destruction include bulky watches, jangly keys/wallets/change in your front pockets, and jewellry. Rings, necklaces, earrings can all be dangerous for your partner and yourself. The danger is obvious with larger pieces, but even if they aren't bulky enough to deliver a knock-out punch on their own - which some necklaces can! - rings can scratch, and earrings/necklaces can get caught.

Wearing the right shoes is also important for safety - sticky shoes endanger your own knees and ankles, and slippery shoes can put those around you at risk if you fall. Read on for more info on shoes.

Equipment for Swing Dancing

A Word on Shoes

You don’t necessarily need dance shoes to participate in swing dancing; however it is very important that you have a pair of indoor shoes. Any time you wear shoes into the dance that you have worn outside, you track in grit and dust which have two nasty side effects – first, you are effectively creating sandpaper for the floor, taking off the nice oil or varnish finish, and second, you are creating that same sandpaper friction on everybody else’s dance shoes, which makes it difficult to turn or spin and can wreak havoc on dancer’s knees. Worse yet in spring/fall/winter, you could be tracking in mud, water, and salt – same problems as above but even more so!

The advantage to swing dance shoes is that many of them come with suede or hard leather soles, which are slippery on a wood floor and make turning easier. You may want to invest in proper dance shoes as you get more advanced in your dancing and start doing more turns. An inexpensive short-term way to get slippery soles is to buy a sheet of moleskin from the drug-store and install it on the shoe under the ball of the foot.

You can choose to dance in shoes with any height of heel, but be aware that swing dancing can be a very athletic endeavour, so flat or low heels are likely to be the most comfortable.

The most important thing is that your shoes should be comfortable and supportive – we don’t often spend hours moving around athletically in a pair of shoes that we are also hoping will be aesthetically pleasing – so you need to choose wisely and find a way to be kind to your feet!

No matter what shoes you choose to wear, it is important to make sure that they don’t leave marks on the floor (either those black marks from rubber, or dents from really sharp heels) – a good dance floor is a precious commodity, and we need to preserve it!

More Useful Equipment

Water or $ to buy some – typically there will be water on sale at the dance, or your can bring your own – but it is important to stay hydrated! Dancing takes a lot out of you and you’ll feel much better (and often smell better) if you keep drinking plenty of water.

Extra Clothing – all that hard work leads to sweat! If you are somebody who dances a lot and sweats a lot, it is very worthwhile (from your partners’ perspective, if not your own) to bring not just one, but two or three or four extra shirts to change into during the dance.

A Hand Fan – you’d be surprised at just how popular a hand fan can make you! The ability to make your own breezes on a hot summer night can come in very handy.

A Hand Towel – for those of us who sweat a lot, having a hand towel nearby to dry off our hands and face (and for some of us, to dry the wet hair at the back of our neck too) makes the night feel a lot better!

Breath Mints or Gum – when you exercise hard, your mouth can dry out, leading to bad breath. Drinking lots of water can help with this, but a handy supply of breath mints and gum can give you the confidence to know that your breath smells great!


Respecting the Social Dance Floor

The dance floor is for dancing! Of course, we all come out swing dancing to socialize too, but the best place for having conversations and hanging out with friends is somewhere that doesn’t take up valuable dance floor real estate. Along the sides and/or sitting down on the benches is a good place for chatting, or if you are in a particularly involved conversation you could even take it into another room.

The social dance floor is not intended for teaching! During a dance night, the intention is for everybody to get out there and dance with each other on an improvised basis. If you just can’t resist sharing that cool new move with a friend, and it starts turning into a lesson, that could cause problems on the dance floor. People who are teaching each other tend to move differently – there’s more standing around talking, and less predictability about where the move is going to end up when you start to try it – and that can be dangerous on the dance floor. Take those lessons to another environment – preferably you should practice on another night, but if you are really keen to share a new dance move, find another room, or a space that people aren’t occupying for dancing or conversations.

Treat your dance floor with respect. In addition to being careful what shoes you wear on the dance floor, please also ensure that it does not get damaged by food or drink spills – keep food and drink off the side where the conversations are taking place. If you do accidentally spill your drink, please clean it up as quickly as possible – you can find a dance organizer to help with this if you can’t find any paper towels to mop up the spill, or if more involved cleaning products are necessary.


Enjoying the Social Dance Experience


Asking for Dances

Everybody has the right and the responsibility to ask other people to dance when they want to. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lead or a follow, a man or a woman, you can ask anyone at the dance to join you for a song.

Sometimes it may appear to the untutored eye that certain more advanced dancers are hard to approach. Since we all make friends if we keep coming to dance on a regular basis, most dancers are more likely to dance with their friends, and if they are a popular partner, it could be hard for a new dancer to find a time to ask. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to dance with you!

Asking for a dance is an opportunity to set the tone for the experience. If you use your words to ask: “Would you like to dance with me?” and you direct the question at one specific partner, you will make them feel respected and desired as a partner.

On the other hand, if you simply grab a random person’s hand and drag them onto the dance floor, if you rush up to ask a person before they’ve even finished thanking their last partner, if you interrupt someone who is deep in conversation, or if you wander up to a group of people and say: “Would anyone like to dance with me?” you may come across as disrespectful, needy, or rude.

Don’t be that guy (or that girl) – being respectful when you ask for a dance means that everybody has more fun! 

Saying Yes or No to a Dance

Saying “Yes” is easy, of course, a simple nod or “I’d love to” will do.

Saying “No” on the other hand, can sometimes be a challenging experience. How do you say "No" and when is it okay to do so?

How to say "No":

You are never obliged to give a reason for saying "No", a simple "No, thank you" will do. You can choose to offer a mitigating circumstance "I need to change my shirt, I don't like this song, this is too fast/slow for me, etc" but you don't have to.

When is it okay to say "No":

First of all, you are never obliged to put yourself into a situation where you feel that your personal safety is in danger or where you feel uncomfortable. It is okay to say no to the guy who has had one too many accidental boob grabs, or to the girl who holds onto you so tightly that your shoulder is aching by the end of the dance and you fear injury, or even to the person who is really smelly. (Side Note – we’d appreciate it if you would point out these people to the dance organizers – in some cases, they may not realize how they are perceived, or the impact of their dance style, and a gentle conversation can clear up any issues and make the dance more comfortable for everybody).

It is more of a grey area to say "No" to somebody who you just don't like - while we recognize that not everybody is going to have great chemistry with somebody else on the dance floor, everyone comes to dancing to be social and to have a good time. You have to ask yourself whether you really dislike somebody so much that you can't bear to spend three minutes dancing with them.

Finally, it is a general truth that at swing dancing if you are perceived to say “No” for frivolous reasons, such as the person not being at as advanced a level as you are, you will be perceived as being rude.

In cases where you are saying "No" because of a circumstance such as being tired, not liking the song, needing to change your shirt or get water, being in the middle of a conversation, and so on, there are things you can do to soften the rejection of saying “No” and make it less likely that people will think you are a jerk:  1) once you have said “No” to a partner for a given song, sit out the rest of the song and 2) offer to dance with the person at a later time (and actually go find them when you are ready to dance).

Now, if someone says no to you, because they don’t like the song, or it is too fast/slow for them, or they are tired, or they need a water break, don’t feel rejected! All of those situations are valid, and even the most fit individual on the dance floor will need a break once in a while.



Everybody has a lot more fun when they aren’t injured!

We all need to work together to ensure that social dancing is a safe and fun event. To do this, we need to cultivate a skill known as “Floorcraft.” Floorcraft is basically the ability to share the dance floor while executing dance moves – this means knowing when and how to stay on the spot, or move to a different place on the dance floor to make space for everyone to dance and avoid collisions.

Leads, you have the primary responsibility for keeping your follow and the dancers around you safe. This is because you get to decide what moves you are doing next – so you are the one deciding where to send your follow. Please be especially careful about moving backwards – even more so when you are kicking – so that you don’t accidentally run into other people.

Follows, you can participate in floorcraft too – if you see that you are being sent into a dangerous situation, don’t go! And when you are in closed position, you can often see over the lead’s shoulder, so a gentle pressure on their back will alert them to potential danger when they are moving backwards (or even when somebody else is moving backwards towards them).

On a crowded dance floor, you may need to dance differently, making your footwork very small and keeping your feet directly underneath you, perhaps choosing not to do kicks at all, in order to share the floor and keep everybody injury-free.

All of this said, accidents do happen and it is common for minor bumps and foot tramplings to occur on the dance floor. When they happen, be sure to make eye contact, ensure the other person is okay, apologize and smile. That way everybody will be able to move on and keep enjoying the dance. If the worst happens and you accidentally hurt somebody enough that they have to stop dancing, please stop and help them. In cases of serious injury, please notify an Exec!

Dancing to the level of your partner

Not everyone is at the same level in their dancing – so you will sometimes end up dancing with people who are more advanced than you, and sometimes with people who are less advanced than you.

You may not know the level of your partner when you first step onto the dance floor, so it is always best to start with basic moves, and then, as you get to know each other, you can introduce different moves and stylings that will fit with your partnership.

When dancing with a less advanced partner - be gracious! Stick to stuff she or he can handle, and then, when you are comfortable with each other's dancing, slip in something one degree harder, and then (maybe) two degrees harder. Come back to those one or two things until your partner is comfortable with them. Always try to make your partner look and feel like a terrific dancer.

When dancing with a more advanced partner – relax! Concentrate on your dancing, and remember to smile, and remember that it can be a lot of fun for an advanced dancer to share the experience of dancing with someone less advanced. It can be a real kick when you lead a move that you know the follow has never done before and it not just works, but causes a big smile, or when you add a styling into the basic move the lead is giving you and get an appreciative reaction. As long as you are having fun, your partner will be too, no matter how much more advanced they are than you – it is only when you worry, tighten up and stress out that your partner will have to work hard to create an enjoyable dance experience. Apologies are not required during swing dancing – mistakes are just opportunities to create new moves, after all, and nobody knows that better than an advanced dancer!

Respecting your partner’s body and physical capacity

We are responsible for being gentle with each other. At all times, both the lead and the follow should be trying to exert the minimum amount of force on each other in order to make the dance work. If the lead pushes the follow around, makes abrupt direction changes, and gives her a lot of energy with his lead, he can make it more likely that she will lose her balance, or hurt her shoulder. The follow can also injure the lead if she responds with more energy than he gave, or yanks her arm around on her own. Dancing is a team activity, and it is only fun if nobody is getting hurt.

Not everybody on the dance floor has the same physical capacity. Some of us are able to dance Charleston at lightning speed, but some of us need to stick to a comfort zone of low-key East Coast swing moves. Never force your partner to do something that makes them obviously uncomfortable. For someone who has a limited range of physical ability, you can make them glow with happiness by selecting your dance moves and styling to make the best of their abilities.

How to end the dance

First, thank your partner for the dance, and if you had an especially fun time, let your partner know that. This goes for both parties – it doesn’t matter who asked whom! Everyone likes to feel good about themselves, and a sincere thanks and compliment at the end of the dance is the best way to end the dance on a high note.

Second, escort your partner off the dance floor. Don’t just leave them standing alone in the middle of the floor, abandoned and wondering what to do next! It’s much nicer to finish off the dance with a final courteous gesture, and then look for your next partner.

Number of songs with your partner

In our dance scene, when you ask a person to dance, the convention is that you are asking for one song. If you simply don’t leave your partner and assume that they will keep dancing with you, or if you ask for another dance immediately, you may be perceived as a little bit odd. In some other dance scenes, particularly in Europe, the convention can be that if you are asked to dance you are automatically dancing with that partner for two songs, and they would feel insulted or rejected if you walk away after one. However, for our dance scene (and those in nearby scenes such as Kingston, Montreal and Toronto), unless you know the person really well or the chemistry makes a second dance inevitable for both parties, you should wait and ask that partner to dance again later.

That goes triple and quadruple for the idea of dancing a third, fourth, or fifth song - as long as you and your partner are in complete agreement about continuing to dance together, go for it, but at that point you really need to check in and make sure that they still want to dance with you!

Band Etiquette

Now that we have regular band nights, we will all benefit from some consideration of how to interact favourably with the band. First of all, band members are right there to see how we are enjoying their music, which means they will respond positively if we make them feel appreciated. Take a moment to clap at the end of every song!

If you really enjoyed the band, make a point of speaking to one of the band members while they are on break or after the dance. They will appreciate the feedback and will play even harder for us!

If you have any complaints about the band, in terms of music choice, speed, length of songs, etc, please bring those concerns to the dance organizers, not to the band. It is the organizers’ responsibility to set expectations with the band, and this way we will learn for future band nights.

Finally, remember that we try to have music which appeals to a wide variety of people, so something that doesn’t appeal to you may still be a good choice for our dance scene.

Personal Boundaries

Personal Space

Some dancers are very comfortable with dancing in a close embrace position that involves a lot of contact with their partner’s body, but not everybody feels that way.  In the swing dance world, a close embrace position is typically not a come-on or sign of romantic interest – it just allows for different dance moves and styles that are not an option in a more open position.

In general, the dancer who requires the most personal space will set the boundary (typically by stiffening up if their partner gets too close, or by using their hand connections to resist being moved any closer).  Out of respect, each dancer is responsible to pay attention to their partners’ physical signals, and not ask for a closer position than their partner is comfortable with. If you feel that your boundaries are not being respected, it is okay to tell your dance partner “I’m not comfortable dancing this close,” and if they persist in making you uncomfortable you should end the dance.  If this happens, please tell someone on the executive, so that we can take appropriate action to make the dance safe for everyone!

Constructive Criticism/Soliciting Feedback

Most people want to know whether they are dancing well or not, and whether you had a good time dancing with them. They may even be interested in any tips/hints that you could give them. On the other hand, if you provide those tips/hints without having been asked, it could be perceived as criticism.  Nobody wants to feel criticized on the dance floor – at that point, they are likely to be under the impression that you didn’t have fun dancing with them.

The fact is that people come out to social dance for fun, and so while they may be working on improving their dancing, they probably aren’t interested in everybody on the dance floor telling them how they could do things better. It is best to avoid providing feedback on how to improve unless it is related to a health/safety issue.

Even asking for feedback from your dance partner can be an uncomfortable thing to do. Teachers and advanced dancers come out to social dance out of the same motivation that everyone else does – they want to relax and have fun! It takes a specific skill and state of mind to evaluate a student and figure out the next step for improving their dancing, a state of mind that gets switched on when they are working. Asking a teacher for feedback on your dancing can be a bit like asking for a free mini-private lesson. 

If your partner does ask you for feedback on their dancing, you could choose to avoid the request, by saying that you aren’t comfortable giving feedback in this situation, or if you do feel comfortable and are confident in your ability to be constructive without hurting the person’s feelings, of course you have the option to provide some feedback.

The best way to meet your dance partner’s desire to know whether you had a good time dancing with them is to tell them so! This can be verbal, by giving compliments and/or thanking them after the dance, or non-verbal, by using smiles and body language to convey how much fun you are having :)

Dealing with dangerous situations

Injury - If you are being hurt during a dance, stop dancing and head for the sidelines -- even if it's the middle of a song. You have the option of being straightforward and saying: “Excuse me, but you've hurt my arm. I'm going to stop now," or of making an excuse like “My shoulder has started to hurt so I need to stop now,” but either way, it's not a discussion; it's not a negotiation; and you do not need permission or approval from someone who has hurt you to stop dancing with him/her.

If someone stops dancing with you for this reason, recognize that this is not a personal indictment. Accidents can happen, and some people have physical limitations that make them more prone to injury. However, it is worth looking at your dancing carefully to see if there’s anything you could change to make your dancing gentler.

Sexual harassment – Once again, if you perceive that your partner is touching you in inappropriate ways, and you don’t believe it was an accident (trust your gut on this – only you know how somebody else’s actions make you feel!), stop dancing, say whatever you need to say to get away from the person, and head for the sidelines. If you feel that complete honesty in this matter is unsafe, you can make an excuse, or you can be very direct about the behaviour that has made you uncomfortable. No matter what, please report the incident to the dance organizers so that we can take action.  The only way to prevent your harasser from preying on future victims is to speak up – publicly if you feel comfortable with that, or privately to the executive so that we can handle it and you can remain anonymous. We take this very seriously, and we want to do everything possible to keep our scene safe! 

Feedback to the OSDS Executive

If you’ve read these etiquette guidelines all the way through, you’ll know that the OSDS Executives are interested in hearing from you. We’re here to facilitate a fun and safe experience for everyone, so please talk to us if you have any issues, especially relating to the following topics:

·         Accidents and Injuries – any injuries that occur, damage to the dance venue, and so on

·         Unacceptable behaviour – incidents of harassment, inappropriate touching, etc

·         Safety Issues – any safety issue, from a spill creating a slick spot on the floor, to a dancer who is out of control on the dance floor, to ice outside the front door, to whatever you can think of

·         Comfort Issues – obviouslyeven if the issue isn't serious enough that you would term it "unacceptable" or "dangerous," if you think it would really help someone out if they were told that they are prone to wrenching their partners shoulder, or that they would benefit from more deoderant, and you aren't comfortable having that discussion yourself, we can assist on this

·         Band and Music Selection – obviously, this will elicit a slower reaction than the above two, but if we hear the same comments from a lot of people, it will give us the chance to learn how to make our dances even better

·         Ideas for improving the event – creative ideas are always welcome!

·         Compliments on what a good job we’re doingwe’re human, we like compliments too J


Dancing is being willing to show who you are

When you get out on the dance floor to strut your stuff, whether solo or with a partner, you are putting yourself out there in a very real and intimate way. When you watch a dancer, you can learn a lot about them – not just in terms of how much dance experience they have, whether they have a good sense of rhythm or fine control over their body, but also as a person. As a dancer, you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and to show the world how you feel – whether that be confident or insecure, sad or happy, bored or engaged, ready to listen or interested in talking. It takes a lot of courage to get up and dance, especially at the beginning when you don’t have any experience with the steps, the rhythm or the music, and you’re only just starting to meet the people you are dancing with. It’s important that we all remember that, and be both respectful and encouraging. Everyone who steps out on the dance floor has done an amazing thing!

Bringing your best self!

Swing dancing is about having fun! Good times and happy people create more of the same – and so often a social dance creates a snowball of happy energy and everybody leaves feeling amazing. But we need to seed the snowball with our best selves – bringing our confidence and the joy that we all share in dancing to the forefront when we get on the dance floor.

If you find yourself in a dark mood while dancing, take a deep breath, or maybe a brief walk, and remind yourself that you are a great dancer and everyone loves to dance with you! That attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy – when you feel that way about yourself, everyone else will too!


All of this dance etiquette may seem like a lot to remember! But it is all there to provide guidelines for having a happy, healthy dance community, and you’ll find that it will quickly become natural.

If you slip up once in a while, don’t beat yourself up over it – people make mistakes, and we all grow from those experiences.

The most important thing is that you have everyone you dance with has a good time. How do you know if you’ve succeeded? If, at the end of the song, your partner is smiling, you are smiling, you thank each other, you felt like you spent the length of the song dancing together and appreciating each other’s company, you are doing great!


Further Reading

Re-written based on a 2006 article by Claudia Petrilli (Amended in 2012 & 2015)