Partner Dancing: The Power of a Good Cue

by Stuck in Customs
Thats happy partner dancing!
by Stuck in Customs

Dancing with a partner can seem so complicated, so intricate, so HARD. The stylised TV shows of media personalities in dancing competitions paints a skewed picture of what its actually like.

Its actually quite simple to learn, especially for the follower in the dance. Usually its a woman following, and generally, a man leads the dance. Leading, especially at first is a bit harder work than following though!

I want to share the 1 cue that will help women focus on what matters most when following a lead. It will help men see what cue to be aware of to make dances more fun for both their partner and themselves.

A Little Background

I dance for fun, socially. When partner dancing, I dance mostly latin styles like salsa, meringue and bacchata. Its been 7 years since my first salsa dance at a barn dance in the Costa Rican countryside, and almost as long since my first salsa class. I am definitely not a technically brilliant dancer, nor am I flashy. But I do know how to lead, so that the follower gets the cues she needs to feel good, even if she claims to not know how to dance salsa/with a parter/etc.

In my teens, I was far from confident on any dancefloor. I am glad to say that learning to dance without judging myself has freed me to enjoy social dancing a lot lot more.

Ok, enough about me, onward.

I will refer to the follower in a dance as “she”, and the lead as “he”.


For a woman who has never felt confident in partner dancing, her reward is to feel amazed at how quickly she can follow a simple lead.

As a lead, I always feel great knowing I have helped someone feel more capable in their abilities. Its a real buzz!


So he asks her to dance, and she agrees. They walk to the dancefloor, hold hands, right hand holding the other person’s left hand, and vice versa… then what?

The follower looks for cues from the lead as to how to move.

When a woman has never partner danced before, and/or feels less than confident in her dancing skills, she will, in most cases, attempt to follow the mans feet.

I say attempt as this is very hard to do. Mostly because she does not know the steps (nor does she need to, especially at first). Trying to match the man’s steps, at the full speed of the song, is often near impossible!

The cues being offered by the lead’s footwork would seem unpredictable, and often impossible to think through. This makes her analytical and hesitant about what she should be doing, rather than just dancing and following a much simpler cue.

The 1st Cue to Follow

The latin dancing I have done, and it seems, other partner dancing, all have various steps to learn. Its important for a lead to learn these (though he can just improv his own steps in the beginning).

Its not important at all for the follower to learn the steps at first.

Regardless of the fancy footwork, one thing that all partner dancing has in common is hand holding. To lead simply and effectively, lead with your hands.

Thats it. Lead using your hand movements to guide her.

Keep hand movements as relaxed, certain and consistent as possible. Sudden and rushed never work as well. This comes with practice and having fun.

The Behaviours that Follow

Cue: he moves his left hand forward (and also steps forward on his left foot, though she does not focus on that). Behaviour: through the push she feels on her right hand, she steps back with her right foot.

Cue: he pulls his right hand back (and steps back with his right foot). Behaviour: through the pull she feels on her left hand, she steps forward with her left foot.

Cue: he raises his left hand up and spins it in a small circle anticlockwise. Behaviour: she spins in the same direction as the pull she feels on her right hand.

When even a first timer is looking for cues from her lead’s hands, and not his feet, she responds with a lot less effort, and a lot more fun.

Men need to lead a partner dance, which means part of the deal is we have to do all the “thinking”. Anyone with some dancing experience can tell you the thinking becomes second nature and eventually does not feel like thinking at all.

Pick the important cues to focus on

Its not just in partner dancing that being aware of the important cues can help. Every behaviour and habit in all aspects of life are triggered by a cue (or combination of them)… most of these unconscious.

Thats perfect for almost all behaviours we have, but to change existing or start doing new behaviours, identifying the most important cue is vital.

by _Tawcan
Time to take a dip
by _Tawcan

With behaviour, simplicity always wins

Some experienced and technical female dancers will give me some tough love once in a while. They say things like my hips do not move loose enough, or its my shoulders, etc. While I appreciate the feedback, I’m only dancing for fun.

To dance for fun, simplicity always wins.


By Tsung Xu


Lōōk: There’s Plenty of Time

The Initial Feeling

Running late for events and meetings was never fun. I’m a guy who can get quite anxious in those situations.

I find my level of stress depends on what mode of transport I have at hand. Walking or cycling is always easier on my stress levels, probably because I can always move that little faster, and be a little less late, if I want to.

While driving though, 20 min late triggers a higher stress alert in me. I can’t do anything to speed up if I am stuck in traffic or I’m near the speed limit. Living in inner city Sydney, being stuck in traffic  happens alot.

So how can I feel more relaxed when I’m driving and 20 min late to where I need to be?

After doing BJ Fogg’s workshop last year, one day I realised the answer was seeing that there is Plenty of Time.

The Existing Behaviour

So before we get to that answer, let me briefly make clear what my problem was, as a behaviour.

Trigger (or cue):

When I was driving and running late, I would feel anxious.

Existing behaviour:

I would glance at the time, on my car’s clock, in the centre of my dashboard.

Feeling after the behaviour:

In my immediate anxious state, this indulgent glance made me feel good for a split second, before I actually registered what the time was. But then I realised I was late. So, that blip of a good feeling was always replaced by a stronger, reinforced, sense of stress. Not good!

Side note: don’t get me wrong here. I was not having panic attacks or hyperventilating. I was just anxious. Some deep breathing always helped, and are always recommended… but there was another way to relax that required far less of a jedi sense of presence and breath.

So back to the behaviour: Every time after my behaviour was triggered, there was a clear cause of my heightened stress. This was my judgement about the time my car clock showed me, and how late that made me feel I was.

I wanted to change that feeling of stress I that I reinforced in myself. To do this, I needed to do two things.

  • Make it very hard to do the existing behaviour – see the time.
  • Replace that behaviour with one that reinforces better feelings – in this case of being super relaxed.

What change to my behaviour would allow me to do these two things?

Enter the Plenty of Time Behaviour

The simplest solutions always seem to work best. I cut a strip of post-it note, wrote on it with black marker, and stuck it over my car clock:

When time anxious, I would look at my clock and see Plenty of Time
When time anxious, I would look at my car ‘s clock and see Plenty of Time

The New Behaviour

The first few times, my new behaviour was like this:

Existing trigger/cue:

When I am driving and running late, I felt anxious.

New Behaviour:

I glance at the space where I used to see my car clock and the time. I see Plenty of Time

Improved Feeling after the Behaviour:

which makes me laugh, forgetting in that moment that I had used this behavioural trick on myself! Immediately, I realise the absurdity of feeling rushed when I’m stuck in traffic.  This calms me down a lot.

Win! The Plenty of Time behaviour made me feel so much better then the “Judge my Lateness” behaviour.

The best part is this has helped me to feel better about running late in general. Like in my last post on creating a new daily cardio behaviour, the feeling you experience after the behaviour (being more relaxed) actually reinforces and motivates you to do the new behaviour. With no more than a post-it note worth of effort on my behalf.

Behavioural scientists call what I just outlined: training an incompatible behaviour. I first learned about this while reading Karen Pryor’s excellent Don’t Shoot the Dog, recommended by BJ Fogg before his workshop.

More recently, I came across it again in Charles Duhigg’s awesome book The Power of

I removed the time from my phone's lock screen
I removed the time from my phone’s lock screen

Habit. He uses a similar approach for changing habits.

I will be look at more behaviours in life and work through the simple lenses offered by these frameworks in the coming weeks.

Oh, and I should mention I used the same principle when I looked at my phone to check the time. That usually made me feel anxious! But with a little tweaking, my iPhone screen looked like this —->

Until next post!

Tsung Xu