The more your dancing grows, the less feedback you'll get for the things you don't do well.
Partners don't lie to you on purpose. Often they just tell you what they like and conveniently ignore what is a little off. That means you'll need to seek out feedback if you want to be your best. That can be via an instructor (recommended), video taping yourself and/or maybe working with someone else you trust who will actually tell you the truth and who is qualified to give appropriate advice.
This is rare--unless they are getting paid they often sugar coat things. And remember, if you are social dancing with an instructor, few will tell you on the floor what could be fine-tuned unless you are their current student, and even then it's generally not the right time or place.
Don’t mistake a "nice" partner's smile for “I’m amazing!” Maybe you are, but that sexy smile doesn’t mean everything you do is the best it can be.
As a young dancer, we all get plenty of feedback, and most people are open to suggestions since they know they are still figuring it out. Some people are more open to suggestions; many don’t take any negative feedback well, especially in a social dance. This varies from person to person, although men are less likely to take advice than women are. Even if the guy is open to suggestions and feedback, there is a right time and place, and rarely is that the dance floor.
If you’ve matured and have been dancing a couple years or more, and you're anyplace above average, few partners want to say, "You dance really well, but that one move dislocates my shoulder," or, "Wow, you are so sexy, but your steps are so large we end up in another zip code." They may be thinking something similar (except in my case they skip the sexy part), but they are not likely to tell you directly.
Most will enjoy dancing with you because overall, you're better than average, even if a few moves are uncomfortable. Instead of laying the total truth on you, they smile and say, "Thanks for the dance," and maybe they point out what they liked. That is totally acceptable and normal, especially for the ladies telling the guys, because most guys are already thinking about their next dance and can’t be bothered with what didn’t work in the last dance.
If the lady does make a "fine-tuning" suggestion, many guys will shoot the messenger and not dance with her again, even if the woman is totally right. Unless a guy goes and finds a quality instructor (often a female) to provide feedback, he generally doesn't realize how much better he could be with some tuning. Most understand their cars need tune-ups every so often, but they don't feel that concept applies to their dancing.
Oh... and the closer you are to someone, the less likely they are to take your advice! This means your significant other (S.O.), who told you last night they were nominating you for the next People Magazine “Sexiest Person Alive” issue, doesn't want to hear your opinion on fixing their dancing. Let someone else “fix ‘em” or you’ll hear about it all the way home. You stay in the "Honey, I'm so proud of your progress" camp, and life is better for everybody.
This especially applies to ladies. You may be the next Edie the Salsa Freak or Josie Neglia, but your male friend probably won't take your feedback on the floor without resistance. On the other hand, an instructor who says the SAME THING YOU HAVE SAID THIRTY TIMES will get an, "Oh, that's a great idea, I love that concept!" from your guy, twenty minutes after telling you the same suggestion was out to lunch. I know, it’s not fair and it’s maddening, but I’ve seen it over and over in classes.
The lady calls me over and says, “He isn’t doing this right,” and that kills the whole night for the guy. He is fuming at her and doesn’t hear a thing I say. The smarter ones call me over and say something like, “I think I’m missing something on this move, can you go over it with us?” The lady knows it's the guys lead, but she pretends she is clueless for a few and then the guy is open to suggestions. Sure you have to treat us guys like little kids sometimes, but I know this isn't news to you.
As you advance, if you want real feedback and fine-tuning, you’re probably going to have to pay for it! I know some guys think learning on their own is a badge of honor; some are proud they have “never taken a lesson in their life,” but frankly, most are missing some simple things that would dramatically improve their dancing. They are simply too proud to work with someone else.
They rely on the fact that a set of women keep dancing with them, so in their mind they are great dancers. They may be, but often times their regular partners don’t say anything negative because on the floor isn’t the right time or place.
Even if you dance with an "instructor" type person, don't expect feedback. If Edie the Salsa Freak is social dancing, she doesn't try to "fix" anybody during her floor time. Instead she focuses on making you look good, and she'll deal with whatever lead she gets and have a good time doing it, all while making you look better. Most instructors focus on having fun with their partners and stay out of "instructor mode" while social dancing.
If I'm dancing with someone and I'm not teaching at that club, I never give advice, even if something is obvious. (I learned that from Edie.) I'm there to dance, not teach, and I'm certainly not there to judge someone else's work in progress. I have plenty of room for my own growth. I'm there to have as much fun as possible with my partners. If something doesn't work, so what! I try and find a way to cover the mistake and make it look like the results where planned.
Hopefully it's obvious you shouldn't expect constructive feedback during social time, unless you two have explicit arrangements in place in advance.
Musicians have producers, great writers have strong editors, athletes have coaches from little league through the big leagues, and most world-class artists seek an outside perspective on their craft. The above average dancers should find some mentors too, since few partners are going to tell them the truth and move them from above average to great.
The stronger dancers often learn from their peers, taking privates and seeking advice from others they respect. If they are performing, they have others they trust watch and coach them, knowing an outside perspective is critical to long-term success.
If they consider an outside perspective helpful, I have to believe the rest of us should consider the same approach as we get better. Your partners aren't going to do it, so find someone who will be brutally honest with you. You'll get even more smiles from your partners along the way, but now they won't be lying to you when they tell you what they think.
Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.
-Thomas Alva Edison
Originally published in July 2007. Minor tweaks before republish.
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