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Sketchy Guys

Richard Powers

This is a touchy topic because we don't want to speak dismissively of anyone who loves to dance. However it's an important topic to some women who complain about "sketchy guys" at dances, so that makes it worth discussing.

What is a sketchy guy?

OK, that's a sexist term. So let's say that any woman who acts this way is a "sketchy girl." But we usually see more males than females behaving this way on the dance floor.

A sketchy guy is...


1) Anyone who is physically or emotionally rough with their partner, with a controlling attitude.

As you already know from reading this page, a good Lead knows and cares what is comfortable for his partner. He cares what is pleasurable or fun for her, as opposed to just showing off, or using her as an accessory to his ego.

A considerate Lead dances for his partner's ability and comfort; sketchy guys don't.

In social dancing, a good Lead clearly suggests an option, which is different from controlling his partner. He proposes, not prescribes, a certain way of moving. If his partner does not go with his proposal (does not 'follow'), he adapts to her motion instead of exerting more power to press her to accept the proposal.

But Leads, don't be so afraid of seeming sketchy that your leads become wimpy. Leads are physical, comfortably physical, and your partner depends on clear leads. If the physicality of the Lead/Follow connection is on a scale of one-to-ten, simply avoid 0 to 2 (wimpy) and avoid 8 to 10 (physically rough). It's an easy awareness.

2) Someone who corrects their partner.

Have you ever danced with one of these guys? Often the first thing he does when he begins a dance is correct his partner! "You're doing it wrong. You have to do it this way." Yikes!

The clear message to most Follows is that he's doing this to exert absolute control at the beginning of their dance. It's his way of establishing dominance, saying in effect, "This is NOT a conversation and you don't have a voice when dancing with me, so shut up and do as you're told."

To be fair, this may not be his actual intent. Maybe his teacher gave him the misguided impression that he should correct his partners if they dance differently from the only way he knows. But regardless of his intent, a correcting attitude is disrespectful, so be forewarned that your partner may reasonably not want to dance with you again.

This correcting attitude is usually either (A) antisocially pedantic or (B) it demonstrates the Lead's inexperience, showing that he only knows one way to dance (or only one style, or one kind of dance hold/frame). If he thinks, "Oh I know other ways, but they're all wrong," then he's the first version, antisocially pedantic. See Fred Astaire's advice on flexibly adapting to your partner's differences.

An Only-One-Way attitude is also unrealistic and untrue. How can anyone not understand that dancers come in different shapes, sizes and experience? Each partner has had different teachers. Or maybe they just picked up dancing on the fly, by diving in and seeing what works.  Different doesn't mean wrong. When someone has a different style from your own, try to find ways to make dancing functional, friendly, fun and social.

Follows aren't exempt from this consideration. When a Follow exhibits a correcting attitude, it's just as bad as when a Lead does it.

Exceptions: Correcting is okay if it's to let your partner know if they're hurting you, uncomfortably intimate, or "driving dangerously" on the dance floor. And correcting is OK if your partner actually asks you for advice or feedback. Some dancers do request feedback and help from their partners, so if your partner requests feedback, then yes, it's fine and even appreciated.

3) A person who tries to pick up someone on the dance floor.

Predatory behavior is never acceptable at a social dance. Assume that people come to dance, not to find a date.

This is not a new awareness—it's been acknowledged for centuries. The following rule was found in almost every 19th century dance manual:


Today, we're friendlier with acquaintances, but unfortunately, some people (not many) still try to leverage a dance friendship into unwelcome intimacy. Stanford University has taken an even firmer stance on predatory behavior, and has a detailed policy regarding harassment here. Check it out.

And if someone says no to a dance, then no means no. Period. Don't pester them.


4) Physical Intimacy

This is a fascinating topic because of its cultural complexity. By that, I mean that dance partners in some dance traditions and cultures are physically closer, or father apart, than others. Some Latin American dance traditions might involve body contact to some degree, as do many blues and fusion forms. Close embrace tango Argentino has upper body contact.

But this degree of closeness feels like a violation of personal space to many people, especially some Follows.

Since social dancing is based on respect of our dance partners, this includes respecting their preference of the physical distance from their dance partner. Leads, it's always best to assume the more conservative distance as a default. If you're at a general non-specialized social dance party, never ever assume that because a Follow agreed to dance with you, that she therefore agreed to dance as physically close as you prefer.

Question: How close are you to your dance partner?
A good answer: As close as the Follow wishes. But some Leads find physical intimacy uncomfortable, so everyone should respect their partner.

But to return to the first point about cultural traditions — many blues, Latin, Zydeco and tango traditions are based on close physical contact, and everyone who comes to those specialized venues has accepted this paradigm, which is fine. But at a general non-specialized social dance, be especially respectful of your partners' personal space preferences.

5) Stinky people

It's amazing that some people haven't learned the essential social skill of hygiene. Always shower, wear clean clothes, brush your teeth and use deodorant before going out dancing, including to dance classes. And if you tend to get really sweaty, you get bonus points for bringing a second dry shirt to change into halfway through the dance.

Avoid any perfumes or colognes when going to a social dance or classes. Some people have severe allergies to fragrances.

"Sketchy" isn't a textbook definition, so opinions about the term vary. Some people consider stinky dancers sketchy, while others say, "No, it's not sketchy, it's just disgusting!" OK, but either way it's not a good thing.

Who isn't a sketchy guy?

1) A person with "emerging social skills" isn't necessarily sketchy. Everyone has to learn somewhere. If you don't know how to respond to someone's social awkwardness, err on the side of patience and encouragement. Smile. They will appreciate your kindness more than you realize.

2) Some undergrad students call a grad student "sketchy" merely because he's a few years older. No, being a different age doesn't make someone sketchy, especially if he's a good dancer and an attentive, respectful partner.

So why does this happen so often?


Have you ever watched little kids meet at a park? What's the first question they ask each other?

"How old are you?"

The reason why children ask this is because they identify with kids their own age, and more easily become their friends. Kids the same age are considered "us".  Kids who are older or younger are "them."

Most adults no longer make this alienating distinction, and accept people of all ages as friends.

When does one make the transition from child to adult? It's often during college ages. Since everyone matures at different rates, this transition may happen sooner, or later.

What does this have to do with "sketchy guys"?

A few dancers, not many, earn the term "sketchy" through repulsive actions. They behave in ways that strike others as judgmental, overly intimate, predatory or painful. Those are the true sketchy guys, but they're rare.

On the other hand, a grad student might be a nice guy and an attentive dance partner. And his extra dance experience may make him one of the most fun dance partners on the floor. But nevertheless, a girl might consider him "sketchy" simply because he's a few years older than she is.

The good news is that not all women do this — only the ones who still think like children. Most have matured to seeing someone for who they are — the real person beneath the facade. If you haven't yet, don't worry, you will eventually. Everyone does. But you'll have a lot more fun dancing if you grow to the next stage sooner than later.

           Bottom line:

In an age of increasing divisiveness, we should try to be more tolerant and accepting of differences of any kind. But roughness, criticism, disrespect and predatory behavior are sketchy, and aren't welcome at a social dance.

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