Swing 101 — Etiquette & Floorcraft

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This is episode 2 of Swing 101, a series geared towards beginner dancers. Special guest editor Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Don’t know who Mr. Darcy is? Don’t worry. He’s simply Jane Austen’s most principled gentleman, and a bit of a badass. Anyway, he’s been nice enough to take over here at the Swungover manor house and put together a guide on modern swing dancing etiquette. Now, though Mr. Darcy tries to be open-minded when logic and reason prevail, he’s still very strict about what is and isn’t done.

So, if these seem too rigid — some people, and entire scenes, don’t worry about sweat very much, for instance — then consider them more as guidelines — your personal character, principles, or culture may give you reasons for not doing these. And some cultures have very specific etiquette rules that may differ from this specifically British Regency (and modern American) take on it. I will note that at the root of Mr. Darcy’s advice is respecting oneself, one’s dance partner, and others on the floor. And this is the main point of dance etiquette, is it not?

On Asking Someone To Dance

One asks another person to swing dance by simply using their words. “Would you like to dance?” “Care to dance?” “May I have this dance?” are all fine. What is not generally liked very much in the swing scene is extending your hand to someone, silently, and expecting them to jump at the chance to dance with you. Or grabbing someone and pulling them onto the floor.

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In the modern scene, everyone is allowed and welcome to ask anyone else they wish to dance. Some followers still choose to live by the old-fashioned custom of waiting to be asked. And some leaders and followers in general are shy and are not quick to ask. So, if you are not asked, do not take it personally. Being proactive in asking is a great way to dance all night and meet people.

You are allowed to reject dances. If your explanation is that you are tired, the song is not to your liking, or that you are conversing with a friend, your pursuing partner will probably be pleased to know why. Though you are not obliged to have a dance with that person at a later point in the night, if you do wish to have one, you may add “Please find me again” or “I will find you later.”

If you do add those phrases, mean it.

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If you do not wish to dance with a person who asks you, then you should reject that dance, and no further explanation is necessary. (Unless you desire to elaborate, of course.) This matter is perhaps controversial, but consider this instance:

Let’s say you are asked to dance by a person who makes you uncomfortable because of the way they touch you or look at you, or because you feel they will somehow get you injured on the dance floor. You decide to reject the dance. Since you have only been dancing a few months and are new to the scene, you desire to be polite and, so as not to hurt their feelings, add “I’m sitting this one out.”

First off, they will probably ask again, later, and so you are simply prolonging the problem rather than solving it. Secondly, your personal safety — whether physical or mental — is much more important than social graces. The rejected partner may ask why, in which case you have the opportunity to give them honest feedback on their behavior. “Well, to be honest, in the past…” (Depending on the behavior, you may want to give them feedback on it regardless of whether they ask for it or not.)

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When you ask someone to dance or they ask you, walk together with them onto the dance floor. If it is too crowded to do so, gesture to the spot you wish to dance in.

As this is a very social dance, with lots of people asking each other to dance on and off the floor, you don’t have to walk someone off of the dance floor (unless you want to). But exchange a cordial “thanks” before departing.

Sometimes those who are not welcoming to you are shy; sometimes they are arrogant. Sometimes the shy ones will come out of their shell with time or poking. Sometimes the arrogant ones will realize they are being arrogant. Sometimes their behavior will change; sometimes it won’t.

On Appearance & Odors

Often there are people (and perhaps even entire dance cultures or communities) who don’t mind dancing completely soaked, and may even feel that dancing regardless of sweat adds something visceral to the experience — so, in this matter, try to gauge your own desires, your audience and act accordingly. But otherwise, here is Mr. Darcy’s advice on dancing hygiene.

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We do not live in a time where people are likely to tell you to your face that you smell bad or that you have reached a level of sweat that is abhorrent to the general touch. Therefore, people must learn to police themselves:

Between dances, touch your own shirt sleeve if you are a leader, or the back of your shirt if you are a follower. If you find you gross, others probably will too.

Avoid wearing clothing that shows a lot of bare skin — leaders, especially make sure the shoulders are covered, and followers, especially make sure the back is covered. Those places are, after all, where our partners put their hands. And even though sweaty fabric can be gross, it is generally much more pleasing to put a hand on than sweaty skin.

Your hair-cut may be likely to fling sweat on your partner. Sometimes even into their mouths. Or, if it’s very long, it may whip them as you turn. If your hair cut is susceptible to these, use sweat towels or hair bands accordingly.

If you sweat through shirts or other tops, bring fresh back-ups. You may want to bring an extra for the car ride home.

Pay special attention to the effect your state will have on others. If you are sweaty and your partner is not, perhaps ask them to dance once you have changed.

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As far as odor goes, give yourself a smell test before leaving the house. Before a dance night, bathing, adding plenty of strong deodorant and antiperspirant, and wearing clean clothes is most of the battle.

On Crowded Dance Floors

Choose moves and variations wisely on crowded floors. Favor moves and variations you do well — it’s probably not the time to try the new “widow-maker” move you’ve thought about possibly working on at some point.

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Look before you send your partner there.

Look where your partner is sending you.

Both partners should be prepared to pull themselves in, pull their partner in, or redirect their direction to prevent danger.

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Acknowledge when you have collided with someone, try to make quick eye contact to assess the damage, and, if everyone seems fine and unhurt, offer a simple apology. Often times you don’t even have to stop dancing to do this.

A further explanation: “Sorry!” upon the occasion of a dance floor collision does not necessarily mean “I’m at fault.” Often it means “Somehow we collided, but everyone seems fine and, well of course it happens, and I apologize if I was the one at fault.” But “Sorry!” is easier to say in the middle of a swingout.

However, if a collision you were involved in has caused another person to stop dancing, then stop your own dancing and check in to make sure everything is alright. If the collision was your fault, (1) figure out what you did wrong, (2) apologize and try to make amends, and (3) concentrate on changing your behavior so that it doesn’t happen again.

If another couple collided with you and one of them obviously hurt you or your partner and did not acknowledge it, mention it to them (possibly waiting until the end of the song depending on the situation). They need to be aware that they did something that caused harm and didn’t know it.

On Birthday Jams and Jam Circles

A birthday jam is when a person with a birthday gets in a circle and gets new partners throughout a song. The goal of birthday jams is to give the person having a birthday a chance to shine and have partner after partner have a brief moment dancing with them. It is not the point of a birthday dance for people to fight over the birthday person or to try to “snatch” them away from other partners so much that it starts to look like a game where the goal is to try to steal as many times as you can.

It is also not the point for the birthday person to only dance with a couple people. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to join birthday jams. And yes, that means you, beginner dancer.

In birthday and other “steal” jams, give the previous partner a couple phrases before you cut in, and take a couple phrases yourself before passing the partner onto the next. If people try to butt in before you have a chance to finish your turn, don’t try to fight them, which often involves dragging the birthday partner around the floor — let them break in. It’s not worth the trouble. You can have your very own birthday dance with that person after the jam.

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A jam circle is when everyone stands in a circle and claps as dancers take turns going into the middle and exhibiting their dancing. Everyone is allowed into a jam circle. And yes, that means you, beginner dancer. If you’ve got a cool move, or just really really like the song and want to show that, or just learned a swingout and want to show that you did — it’s whatever you want to express.

A few tips on jam circles: Make sure to give the previous couple a good twenty or thirty seconds before coming on, or until they clearly make an exit. If someone was obviously itching to go before you desired to enter the jam, allow them the chance. Otherwise, you will often have to establish your turn by simply charging out into the jam — don’t expect to wait for an empty floor or an invitation. Take a couple phrases if it’s a busy jam, or a chorus if there’s not a lot of people wanting to enter. Leave them wanting more.

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Save all your air steps (aerials) for jams. There is almost never an appropriate time for a dancer to throw an air step while on a social dance floor.

On Dancing to Live Bands

Simple: Clap after every song. (Since we dance so much to recorded music, it can be easy to forget to clap when live musicians are tiring themselves out for our enjoyment on the stage.)

Clap a whole lot if you liked it.

Often times people respect the musicians not only by clapping, but by dressing up in nice clothes for the night’s dancing.

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Don’t be afraid to yell or holler when they do something that really inspires you or moves you. They’ll love it, because yelling and hollering at jazz musicians is Old School, and something they’re not going to get from their next town-hall lawn gig.


These are just some of the most common ways we approach etiquette in the modern swing dance world. And, again, remember our overall important swing rule: There are many different ways to do it. You may have a very good reason for not following some of the above advice.

As long as you conduct yourself in ways that respect yourself, your dance partner, and others on the floor, you’ve got the idea.

39 responses to “Swing 101 — Etiquette & Floorcraft”

  1. Awesome! I’m loving this series, Bobby. It’s really helpful, for beginners and long-time dancers alike.

    On birthday jams, though, I’m much more used to the opposite problem from what you’re mentioning. In the scenes I’ve been in, at different times, most of the dancers are too intimidated to jump in and dance, and so the same 3-5 people end up being the only ones who come into jams. Seems like many of the dancers in the scene think they’re not good enough…not one of the cool dancers…not one of the dancers who “shows off”, etc. I wish all those other dancers knew that 1: it doesn’t matter how good of a dancer you are! The person having a birthday dance just wants to dance with EVERYONE and have fun, and 2: no one is judging you. It’s not even like a regular jam, where people expect to be impressed… it’s for the birthday person. And there’s nothing like the awkward feeling of your birthday jam turning into one long dance with two people, because no one else will jump in…

  2. I like it. I updated…

    It is also not the point for the birthday person to only dance with a couple people. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to join birthday jams. And yes, that means you, beginner dancer.

  3. I’d add to the odor part–don’t soak yourself in cologne. I don’t know whether it’s a problem on the dance scene but it can be in many other circumstances.

    • I second this!! As someone with chemical sensitivities, it ruins my night to be grabbed by someone I don’t know (or even someone I do), and end up covered with their terrible-smelling perfume (yes, and yuck, when guys wear perfume) for the rest of the night, sometimes for the rest of the week!!

  4. When social dancing it is extremely rude to cut someones dance short by “cutting in’. Even if it your girlfriend dancing, it is very disrespectful to snatch her from whoever she is dancing with.

    Normally this seems to be done by people that are insecure or feel that they are being showed up

  5. Great post. I kept wondering… who shared our lesson plans with this guy? We cover nearly every point you make, almost word-for-word, in the our swing basics series. We have them practice asking people to dance, and also simulate a crowded dance floor.

    A few thoughts…

    In Rochester, we have a few deaf dancers in our scene. So we have to make a point that some people may not use words to ask you to dance. Then we teach everyone the sign for “dance” (think about making a dance floor with your left hand and using two fingers on your right for legs, then making them dance).

    We also talk about paying attention to body language (among other things) when asking someone to dance. Are they closed off and having an intense conversation in the corner? Maybe not the best time. Light conversation is ok. As you mentioned, this is a social dance and people are bound to talk to one another, but still want to dance!

    I’m totally adding the live band etiquette to our plan! Thanks for posting.

  6. With all due respect, I don’t think that those not averse to sweat are as rare as you make it out to be. I know you’ve travelled a lot, and I’ve only lived in 3 scenes, but my experience has been that people tend not to care. I consider myself lucky to have lived in areas with very friendly and welcoming scenes – so perhaps my experience is different from the norm, but I used to bring changes of shirts to dances all the time. (I started wearing vests pretty regularly which pretty much solves the problem, but) when I was bringing shirts, I would change once or twice a night. When I was getting close to a shirt change, I would warn partners that I was getting sweaty and pretty universally, the response was that they didn’t care and they would dismiss the notion of being too sweaty to dance because they wanted to dance with me – they’d even scoff at the notion that someone would decline a dance based on sweat. It happened so much, I started forgetting to change shirts and eventually stopped bringing them all together (before I started with vests). I’ve even had some funny conversations on the topic (though I won’t get into them here – for fear of grossing anyone out). I know there are those out there who are really turned off by a sweaty dance partner – I have encountered them, but honestly, I couldn’t even name one. I can’t even remember having been turned down for a dance on the basis of sweat. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with disliking a sweaty dance experience. I’m just saying that those who don’t mind are not as few and far between as you may have heard or experienced. Now odor is another topic entirely… Dude, you just have to shower regularly and even if you sweat, it’s not going to stink. 1 shower isn’t going to do it either. You have to shower daily for at least a couple weeks. I’ve been there. It’s no fun, and embarrassing as hell. The thing which is the worst is sweating on top of old dried sweat. That’s when it starts to be an odor issue and it takes a lot of showering to come back from the brink. So shower right before a dance, at least until it’s under control and then keep up a regular shower frequency. Also, It’s not someone’s fault if they sweat. Some people sweat a lot, others not so much. It can be because of heat or humidity, regardless of diet, exercise, or weight. It could be cold, and I’ll still sweat if it’s humid – even on the first or second dance or before I start dancing. My body just doesn’t regulate heat in the same way as others. So if you don’t like dancing with someone sweaty, remind yourself, it’s not their fault, and treat them kindly and with respect. They just want to have fun too.

    • I appreciate your comments. The sweat section was one Mr. Darcy and I fought over quite a bit for the very reason you stated: often it seems like many people don’t really care. But then, of course, there are the ones that do. (And, between you and me, Mr. Darcy is a hard man to win an argument with where sweat is concerned.)

      But, I think I talked him into altering the final line in the section, for the sake of a more realistic take on it. Also, we will change the order, which will diminish its priority (as well as give it a pleasing chronological feel: asking someone to dance — sweating on them—- apologizing to others for kicking them— entering a jam— and then clapping for the band. A very common night of dancing for myself.)

      What once read:

      “Some people (and perhaps certain dance cultures or communities) don’t mind dancing completely soaked, and may even feel that dancing regardless of sweat adds something visceral to the experience — however, note those who feel that way are few and far between.”

      will now read:

      “Often there are people (and perhaps certain dance cultures or communities) who don’t mind dancing completely soaked, and may even feel that dancing regardless of sweat adds something visceral to the experience — so, in this matter, try to gauge your audience and act accordingly.”

      • Bobby, I like that you update according to your audience’s feedback! And Rob, thank you for the info on where the smell comes from — I did not know that!! I offer Airbnb rooms here in London and a couple of times now have had people with very smelly feet — methinks you might have offered me a useful piece of information…tho how to use it with an actual guest may take a bit more thinking!

    • The part about sweat is so idiotic it borders on absurdity. When someone is smells badly for you, tell him/her or dismiss the invitation. Be polite, but be direct.

      If you dont like sweat then I do not know why you would want to engage in an ACTIVITY – some might even call a sport – with OTHER people. Just no to changing shirts and dresses (absurd!) and reapplying deodorant the entire night. Mysophobia is what I´d call this.

  7. I would be interested to know just how much yelping and hollering the average live band today would want to tolerate. After each number, screaming is great. But I would stop short of yelling out a soloist’s name or applauding every time he is up. I wonder what the musicians think of noise during their tunes.

    • Speaking as one of those musicians, a fair amount. Especially if we’re playing old-school jazz gigs. We holler at ourselves in the middle of pieces, when there’s a good solo or particularly fine lick, and more audience participation is almost always better than less. Or such has been my experience, anyway. There’s always a chance that someone is going to take it too far, but I’d rather have an over-enthusiastic audience than a non-responsive one. Other musicians’ mileage may vary on the subject, though. If you’re concerned, I’d ask the band in question what their preferred amount of interaction is.

  8. Very informative, good length and level of detail, and well organized. Been told or picked up most of these but the reiterating and reminding is great. Thanks.

  9. Mr. Darcy,
    It might behoove you to also mention to the ladies the issue of long hair and sweat. On many occasions I have found myself be smacked in the face by a wet mop of long hair. A lovely updo, adorned with beautiful hair accessories is not just a thing of beauty, but also very practical.

    • Mr. Darcy liked the idea and even scorned himself for not having thought of it himself. Once he finished brooding most of the afternoon about his “most severe negligence,” he added the following (with our help):

      Your hair-cut may be likely to fling sweat on your partner. Sometimes even into their mouths. Or, if it’s very long, it may whip them as you turn. If your hair cut is susceptible to these, use sweat towels or hair bands accordingly.

  10. @Hannah, September 23, 2013 10:33 pm:
    Even though I have been dancing for 16 months, have been to Herräng (learned a lot), and have had 1 class about stealing, I still find it very hard to do without interrupting the flow. Maybe the difference scenes should put more emphasis on learning to steal.

    @Rob, September 26, 2013 5:16 pm:
    On some swing parties I get so many dances I dont have time to change my shirt before it is soaked. And sometimes even my vest gets soaked.
    It is my experience that people not yet sweaty seems to have a lower acceptance for their partner being sweaty, but later when they are sweaty, they dont seem to care.

  11. Maybe Bingley should be a guest on your blog. Or even…gasp….George Wickham.
    I’ll bet he was a great dauncer, all uninhibited and scary like. He could teach us how to steal away with flippant little girls.

  12. It might be a good idea to update the hygiene section with a word about bad breath and how to prevent that re brushing, mouthwash, and mints. And if you are not sure about bad breath, ask a friend to check.

  13. Great stuff! I totally agree, especially on you advising people to not always say yes to every dance (when the dancers stink etc).

    I think it’s very important to dance when you really “mean” it, or, at least, when there is nothing wrong. But dancing is also emotional and about expressing yourself, and pretending to enjoy yourself just sounds so contrived.

    Many Web writers encourage dancers to fake it. But this article is a nice refreshing point of view! :)

    • Hmm, I have a lot of opinions about this blog! And the question of saying no to dances is to me a sensitive one. While I try to be aware that the very experienced dancers among us get asked a lot and may want a break, I travel a lot to different scenes, so know from experience that it can be a lonely and frustrating experience to try to break into a new scene. When I’ve worked up my courage to ask someone to dance and they glance down on me from on-high and say, simply, “no”, or worse mumble something and turn away, it feels really yucky, and makes me reluctant to ask others (and, I fear, hardens my heart against the first person). This is a social interaction, after all. So while I agree with not tethering yourself to someone who stinks or is otherwise uncomfortable to dance with, I’d also suggest that all of us remember what it’s like to be a newcomer (or, what many of you probably don’t know yet, what it’s like to be getting older), and think twice about saying no to someone just because you don’t know them or aren’t sure they are up to your exalted level of dancing. If you are willing to open your horizons a bit and really connect with another human being, as this dance allows us to do, you may be very pleasantly surprised. If nothing else you may have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done the noble thing, which is what Mr. Darcy was about, after all.

  14. […] Lo que tiene de maravilloso este tipo de bailes que se definen como bailes sociales es que podés encontrarte en la pista con personas muy distintas a vos pero conectadas por el lenguaje del baile, por lo tanto pueden compartir varios temas juntos sin ni siquiera hablar el mismo idioma. El riesgo de esto es dar por sentado que los otros se guían por nuestros mismos códigos: muy probablemente no sea así. Es por eso que te recomiendo leer algunos de estos documentos antes de comenzar o, si ya bailás, revisarlos: siempre es un buen ejercicio que nos ayuda a reflexionar sobre nuestro comportamiento. Les comparto esta nota que es clara y está en español: Guía del baile social Swing en Estilo Swing. Nota original en inglés: Swing 101 – Ettiquete & Floorcraft de Bobby White. […]

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