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Social dancing can be a way to get to know locals and some aspects of their culture. In this kind of dancing, the point is to participate, contributing to the common enjoyment, not only to be a spectator.


Lindy Hop dancing in a community centre in Barcelona
Young people dancing at a wedding in Abidjan

Dancing seems to exist in some form in most any culture. Specifics differ though. The steps and figures range from simple to intricate, the character of the dance varies widely, and dancing may be the kind covered here or performances, where most of the crowd are just spectators. In some cultures all dancers are male or female, or the sexes form separate groups.

Dancing is often in pairs, in lines, in groups of pairs, in a circle or as a crowd. In the simple cases, a skilful stranger can learn the basic steps by a quick introduction and improvise in open formations or follow in familiar or less complicated patterns. The latter will be easier if there is a clear lead and if a slight confusion doesn't mess up the dance for everybody, as it will in some dances with complicated patterns. In some traditions there is a caller, who shouts out what figures to dance, mostly from a closed set participants are assumed to master. Some events include a quick course on the essential steps and figures.

While styles of dancing vary widely, many patterns and rules are the same or similar in many dances. This includes common step and move patterns, but also e.g. that having a steady arm makes it easier to communicate moves between partners – including unfamiliar moves in an unfamiliar dance. Thus learning a range of dances at home, ideally in different styles and with different teachers, may help in learning dances and variants of them abroad.

When waltz was introduced at the European courts, the closed hold used (with the man's hand at the woman's back) shocked the upper class. Still, waltz got very popular and the hold is nowadays used in most traditional European dances; formerly touching was limited to the partner's hands. An open hold, holding a partner's hands, is common in modern swing dances. Some partner dances are danced without any touch, with any coordination (beyond common understanding of tradition and the music) done visually. Slow dances at nightclubs often involves dancing with the partners' bodies close together.

Children dancing polka in Bielsko-Biała

There are folk dances, specific to some region, often primarily to its countryside. The same dances may be danced in cities, but in cities also traditional dances often have been developed by professionals, and the tradition may differ significantly.

The traditional dances may have survived as a living tradition among all local people, in a remote village or among enthusiasts. Sometimes the dances have been reconstructed and revived, perhaps with active clubs, and may be regarded as an important cultural heritage regardless of how many actually master them. Some traditional dances have later got popular outside the original region, even worldwide.

In much of Europe, dances developed at the courts have spread to the common people (where they sometimes originated). What is regarded as folk dances, often those prevalent in the countryside around 1900, mostly have their origin in dances at courts a century or a half earlier. In the 20th century dance restaurants and dance pavilions (or their improvised substitutes) were a common pastime and many dances developed further in this context, both in Europe and America, and some were imported from different parts of the world. One branch of this development has been the ballroom dances, which also have a competitive spectator form in the Standard and American Smooth sets in competitive dancing. Dances from Latin America, Spain and the jazz and swing scene (with Afro-American heritage) resulted in the Latin and American Rhythm sets.

Tango dancers posing in Buenos Aires, Argentina

While the ballroom dances usually are danced to live music, the advent of the record player allowed discothèques (discos), where a disc jockey plays recorded, mostly modern, music. They are now an essential part of the nightlife of most cities.

Many dances of Latin America (often with heritage from Europe and Africa) have got significant fame and popularity on other continents, sometimes heavily altered (or a new dance created from the originals) as they were introduced. Of these, variants of cha-cha, mambo, samba and tango are included in the ballroom Latin or Rhythm sets, and tango in the Standard and Smooth sets. Other such dances include salsa, cumbia, merengue, porro and bachata.

The number of different dances danced at an event varies widely. Sometimes an event includes dancing the folk dance of the region (or one of them), or a specific more widely known dance (such as at salsa congresses). At other times a whole slew of dances are danced in the same night, like at Finnish dance pavilions, where it isn't unusual to be able to dance a dozen different dances during the night (although some will stick to just a couple, adjusting these to the music played).

Getting to dance abroad[edit]

Friday Night Dancing, salsa at Robson square, Vancouver
U.S. country dance. Many country dance events are targeted also at occasional dancers, so you could fit in

The popularity of dance styles varies geographically. Dances in urban areas tend, naturally, to be larger. If you are visiting a region where a particular style originated or is popular, consider broadening your horizons by trying it out, rather than falling back on a more familiar style.

If there are dance restaurants or clubs at your destination that are similar to those at home, you may have no problem to fit in. You still might want to be keen-eyed for differences, and you might want to try to learn the local styles of dancing.

Similarly, if you have a local acquaintance who likes dancing, or if there is a suitable festival where strangers are welcomed, you should have no problems in being introduced to the dancing.

If you are staying for longer than a few days, there may be dance courses on some styles used in social dancing, which may work as a good introduction. If nothing else, other participants and the teachers could give you advice, and if you make friends there, you could join for some dancing event. Some dancing events include courses on the dance or dances, allowing you to learn the local variants, or a new dance, at least if you are reasonably used to picking up new moves.

Just showing up at a dance may require some more of a nerve, at least if you don't have company, but it is in many cases quite a workable strategy. If things feel strange, you might want to start by talking to people just watching or those having a break at the bar (or whatever corresponding facilities there are).

Sometimes it is worth checking what age groups a venue or event is targeted at (photos on social media can give you a good sense, there may be hints in the advertising, or you could just call and ask). A pensioner showing up among college youth may be seen as odd, and a student may feel off among pensioners. However, many venues and events cater to all ages, and may indeed be the places where to meet people of other ages – and the young may be well received among otherwise middle-age participants.

If you are travelling with children, check whether an event welcomes them and whether you can enjoy the event together with them. Some events cater well for families, some are easily manageable, while at some, coming with children just doesn't make sense, or is disallowed. The latter may be the case at an event that otherwise would be OK, but has an age limit because of serving of alcohol.


In cities, there are often several dance schools or other types of courses that might suit you. It may be possible to join a club where people learn to dance a specific dance or dances of some genre. Often courses and clubs are on local dances, internationally widespread dances or the current fashion dances. Some events have courses for those attending, to allow everybody to join the dancing. In the countryside, courses are more sparse, but there may be a club that welcomes you, or the occasional course or event which happens to time with your visit.

If a dance event offers a beginner lesson, try to show up for it. The foundation it provides will make your life easier during the social portion. If the dance is familiar from before, pay special attention to details that may differ – even if they seem to be minor at the course, some of them may be key to being able to dance in the local style. If they are just a fancy of this one teacher (or a way to teach something else), you can ignore them later, or add them to your toolbox.

If you are attending with a companion, resist the temptation to dance with them at the start of the night, and instead try to seek out experienced local partners. An experienced dancer will help you learn faster, and if you already master the dance, a local will help you learn the local style. You can then reconnect with your companion later.


Oslo Opera Ball – not what you'd put on for the average community centre dance.

Dress code varies greatly and at many venues there are expectations you may want to honour regardless of whether there is a formal dress code. At proper balls you may be expected to wear white tie or evening gown and at upmarket dance restaurants there may similarly be a formal dress code. When celebrating a local festival you should probably respect it by dressing well. At the other end, some dancing events expect relaxed more-or-less everyday non-business clothing – although appropriate well-thought-out clothing may be appreciated even there. Often you should try to look handsome without overdressing.

Besides meeting expectations, you will want to dress comfortably. Dancing is physical activity and you don't want your clothing to hinder your moves or make you sweat more than necessary. Where dances are (even partly) by a closed hold, you may also want to avoid too slippery or otherwise awkward fabrics or designs (if in doubt, have a friend try some moves with you in a realistic tempo).

Try not to carry a bag while dancing, as it easily gets in the way; at some venues advanced dancers don't ask women with a bag to dance. Some dancers add pockets to their dress for the cloakroom ticket and other essentials. Avoid having a full pocket where you might get in touch with your partners body.

While high heels are part of the expected outfit for some dances, they are not recommended and may even be banned at others. You will want to have footwear that keeps your feet happy during a long night, and if you step on somebody's feet, you don't want to injure them.

Some dances include moves where you turn on a foot while having your weight on it. This is difficult (and may cause injuries) unless you have slippery enough soles; fine-tuning may be hard as you don't know what the floor is like, but you might not want to bring sticky rubber soles (such as on most sport shoes) to a ballroom or swing dance.


Ballroom dances[edit]

Ballroom dance, this one with underarm turns

As the ballroom dances have a common international heritage, it is often possible to dance them in a foreign country with little problems, especially if oneself and one's partner both are skilful and keen-eared. Some local variants still may have to be skipped. They are danced at dance restaurants and nightclubs of this tradition, in addition to balls and other specific dancing events. In some countries weddings and similar formal events often include some ballroom dancing.

Although the term suggests a style suiting formal balls, ballroom dances are danced also in much more relaxed settings, such as at Finnish dance pavilions or at intermissions of American country dance events – and the restaurants where they are danced need not be especially classy.

The ballroom dances are danced in pairs of a lead and a follow (mostly a man and a woman respectively); in social settings the lead improvises choices of figures depending on the music, the follow and other factors, while the follow dances according to the lead's steering and hints, possibly improvising within the given leeway (and with a good lead perhaps giving hints themself). Ideally the lead leads clearly enough that the follow can follow also in moves not familiar to them (sometimes causing a wow effect), although this may require significant skill also from the follower. Some dance just the basic steps and turns (and this is the typical way to dance some of the dances). The "standard" dances are mostly danced in a closed hold, with a small gap between the partners' bodies, while Latin and swing dances mostly use an open hold but may allow body contact in some moves. Dancing with close body contact is possible in some of the dances, but not the norm in the standard, Latin and swing ones.

The categorization of dances as "ballroom dances" has always been fluid, with new dances or folk dances being added to or removed from the non-regulated ballroom repertoire, and what actually is danced varies somewhat from country to country, although fashions tend to spread internationally. Waltz and foxtrot in some form are danced more or less everywhere. There is much dance music composed and arranged for some specific dance, but often several dances can be and are danced to the same music.

While waltz is the archetypical ballroom dance, the styles in which it is danced varies, from the fast Viennese waltz mainly consisting of turns through relaxed American country waltz to the slow and elegant English waltz. The slower forms may include underarm moves, although in English waltz the general style remains unbroken during them.

Similarly, some other dances have evolved in different directions in different parts of the world. Recognising the name of a dance may not mean that you can dance it in the local way. If also the music feels familiar, you can at least dance it your way and you may find common ground with a local partner. For some dances, a skilled lead can allow you to dance local variants of the steps and unfamiliar moves, as long as you follow keenly (and the other way round if you are the lead) – and some dances are more or less the same around the globe.

Rules of competitive dancing are often broken in the social setting, for enjoyment or because of space restraints.

Dress code varies widely across subcultures and venues. While some venues serve alcohol, good dancers may avoid places where being even slightly drunk is common.

Brazilian Zouk[edit]

Brazilian Zouk is a partner dance from the 1990s, originally based on the Lambada and Caribbean Zouk.

Chain, ring and line dances[edit]

Line dancing at the Halparke Festival in Baneh

Some folk dances have a simple basic pattern, easy to learn. The character of the dance may shift according to the music or developments in the story told in an accompanying ballad, and skilful dancers may improvise more complicated patterns, but a stranger needs not master anything beyond the basic steps.

An example is the Faroese chain dance, the national circle dance of the Faroe Islands, which is danced accompanied by Faroese ballads, with the leader singing the verses and everybody joining in the chorus. The dance has medieval roots, with similar dances probably once common all over Europe.

The Kurdish folk dance is another example. Most dancers dance in a line, with a leader at one end, while small groups may form their own lines, perhaps with a more agitated style.

Contra dance[edit]

A contra dance in Greenfield, Massachusetts, U.S. Contra is particularly popular in New England.

Contra dance is social folk dance with mixed European and American origins, danced in a line of pairs, with a caller calling out the moves. It is popular throughout the Anglophone world. It is a particularly good choice for travellers because it is easier to learn than most other dance styles and places a strong cultural emphasis on welcoming newcomers and community-building. Its social norms (see § Respect) lean progressive. Clothing is relaxed and people are sober.

The pairs that make up the formation are generally formed at the dance, with the norm being to change partners after each dance. This makes it fine to come alone.

In intermissions between the dances it is not uncommon to dance partner dances, such as waltzes, schottisches, polkas, or Swedish hambos.


Disco dancing is the dominating kind of social dancing in the nightlife of many cities. The music played is mostly modern, with also pop and rock hits from a few decades ago played at some venues. The specific style varies widely between venues, sometimes also by occasion.

Typically no daylight is let in (and discos mostly take place in the night), and the lighting is an important part of the experience. Those unused to disco should mind the often high volume (have earplugs), and those who have epilepsy should mind the strobe lights, which may cause an attack.

Here individual dancing dominates and there are no set steps or figures, although some learn and practise such to use by themselves, and certain such may be fashionable at any given time and place. Some dance in pairs, especially to slow pieces, some dance in groups. As there are no set steps, just joining should be easy.


Kizomba is a partner dance invented in 1984, mostly from Angolan heritage, especially semba. It has a slow, insistent, somewhat harsh yet sensuous rhythm. There are many clubs in Luanda, but the dance has spread to other Portuguese-speaking African countries and to some extent to some other countries, including Portugal, Brazil and China.

Latin nightclub[edit]

See also: Salsa dancing in Latin America

Latin dancing includes styles such as salsa, bachata, and tango. It is known for its sensuality and is highly popular throughout the world. It is more often danced in bars and nightclubs than in a ballroom setting. Its social norms (see § Respect) lean conservative.

Slow dances[edit]

In the Western tradition, there is a concept of "slow" dances. They have a rhythm slow enough that you don't need to know any steps in advance, and they are often danced by partners in close body contact, enjoying that more than any of the moves. The pieces can be danced also in a normal open hold, e.g. as slow fox or with more elaborate steps of different kinds (such as if the piece is a rumba). Such pieces are not played all night, but now and then among ballroom dances or more energetic disco pieces, often more frequently towards the end of the night.


Swing dancing in the street, Vancouver

While some swing dances belong to the established set of ballroom dances, they can be seen as a group with many variants. They are often danced to jazz or big band music, but adaptation to dance orchestras of other genres is not uncommon. The swing dancing style has much bounce and energy and includes many spins and underarm turns.

Some swing dances, such as Lindy Hop, have clubs and events dedicated to them around the world. In Sweden, most dancing nights at dance pavilions and community centres are dedicated to bugg, the smooth Swedish swing dance (some dance foxtrot or one-step at these dances; there are separate gammeldans nights for traditional ballroom dances).

Square dance[edit]

While "square dance" may refer to any dance danced in a square, typically the term refers to dances descended from the quadrille and similar dances danced at European courts (which spread to European country dances), and especially to such U.S. country dances. The dancers form groups of four interacting pairs in a square.

There are many variants of traditional square dance also in the U.S.A,, some a living local tradition learnt from childhood, some revived or altered versions. Some events are targeted at occasional dancers, with beginners' instruction.

The standardised modern western square dance has a number of levels, each with a specific set of moves that participants are assumed to master. It is danced also outside America. As in the American contra dance, moves are called out.

Like at contra dance events, it is not uncommon to dance some partner dances in intermissions of square dance events.


Ask your partner before introducing more intimate moves like a close embrace.

Social norms among dance communities vary widely by style and by location. Do not assume that they are the same as back home, and do your best to emulate the behaviour you observe from others.

In some dances, participants just join the formation, in others, the configurations are arranged in some way, such as by the caller at some contra dance events. In partner dances, the pairs are often expected to form by agreement between the two. In more traditional styles and locations, men tend to ask women to dance; in more progressive styles and dances, people of all genders ask each other to dance, and it is more common to see same-gender pairings. At some formal dances, partners to each dance are agreed on beforehand (such as by a dance card, like in 19th-century Vienna).

Assume that anyone you ask may choose to decline a dance for any reason. If someone declines your offer to dance, thank them and move on, and do not take it personally (they may just be tired). When declining a dance, be polite but brief, so that they have time to find another partner. In some settings, those who don't want to be asked signal that clearly, e.g. by sitting instead of standing or by not joining the line of those to be asked. If so, and if you signalled you wanted to dance, you should have a good reason to decline (which you don't need to call out; try to be nice), such as the asker being intoxicated or rude, or you need to sincerely apologise. In ballroom dancing, it is common for music to come in pairs, so that you dance two dances of the same style with the same partner before returning (a way to show that you enjoyed the first one, but nowadays often a fixed pattern).

At events where music for different dances is played, it may happen that you, the one that asked you or the one you asked to dance, don't know how to dance to the music played (or in the way that seems expected). Sometimes one of you may be willing to try to show how to dance it, but otherwise you should quickly excuse, thank and break up to allow them time to find another partner. It may be courteous to ask the person to dance the next dance instead.

Sometimes part of the dancing crowd advance around the dance floor (often contra-clockwise for ballroom dances) while other dance stationary styles, which may still have quick moves around. Don't get in the way; often the fastest dancers get the outermost "lane". If you are the lead, make sure you have control over the situation.

Although social dancing can include a flirtatious element, do not assume that someone who has agreed to dance with you is interested in anything more – even if they dance in a manner suggesting so. At the end of a dance, avoid getting into an extended conversation with your partner, as this can interfere with them finding a partner for the next dance.

Consent norms vary, so it is always best to err on the safe side and ask before introducing any element that is not a standard part of the dance and may cause embarrassment. This often includes close embrace and other more intimate moves, as well as dips and other advanced or energetic moves.

Maintain good personal hygiene to help your partners feel comfortable. If you sweat a lot, bring extra clothes to change into. Some dance communities advise against wearing strong fragrances, as some people are sensitive to them. Some dance communities require masking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. There may be hand sanitiser available.

Alcohol norms also vary. At some dances, drinks are served or allowed as a part of the event, whereas at others everyone is expected to be sober. Drinks being served does not mean that being drunk is accepted.

See also[edit]

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