Ambidancetrous Etiquette

Dancing both roles is, legitimately, one of my favorite things to do in a night — these days, I’ll spend upwards of half of my time dancing as a lead. After speaking with some friends who regularly dance both roles, we’ve noticed some common etiquette mistakes which many non-ambidancetrous friends make.

Avoiding assumptions about roles

Sometimes, I don’t have a preference what role I dance during a song — and sometimes I do. When I have a preference (or when I’m unsure what role the other person dances), I make sure to include that consideration in my request to dance. This sounds like:

  • “Would you like to lead or follow for this song?”
  • “Would you like to follow this song?”
  • “Would you mind if I lead / follow?”

You don’t necessarily need to ask everyone what role they’d like to dance every night, especially if you already have a relationship with someone and know their preferences. However, if you notice someone is ambidancetrous, then giving them an opportunity to choose their role (as long as you’re willing to dance either role) is very inclusive and affirming.


Many of the Ambidancetrous Dancers at Swingin’ at the Savoy. Look at how many people dance both roles!

Asking for consent to switch

When I ask to lead a song, I intend to lead for the entire song. When someone steals the lead from me and I didn’t expect it, I often feel a rush of negative emotions, including:

  • Annoyance — if I ask to lead a song, I usually want to lead the whole song
  • Frustration — especially when I’m working on leading a specific thing
  • Confusion — the context switch of changing roles is hardest if I don’t know it’s coming
  • Self-Doubt — do you think I can’t lead for a whole song? Do you expect me to run out of material? Was I such a bad lead that you couldn’t suffer 3 minutes as a follow?
  • Anger — no one asked me if I wanted to switch, thus taking away my ability to consent

Asking to switch roles is about consent.*

I cannot emphasize this enough. Asking someone to dance is not the same as asking them to switch roles in a song. If you wouldn’t do it to the average dancer, then why would you do it to anyone, even if they’re ambidancetrous? Whether you ask me at the beginning of the song or in the middle of the song, I just appreciate the opportunity to say yes or no. So thanks!

Complimenting an ambidancetrous dancer

About 40% of the time I dance as a lead with a new person, they’ll offer a backhanded compliment. Last night, for example, someone said “You can actually do interesting things!” I was less than enthused.

Also in this category:

  • “I’m so glad/surprised a guy made it to the finals as a follow.” (Spoiler, it’s probably because he’s a great follow, and not because he’s a man.)
  • “She actually leads like a guy!” (Or maybe she just dances like herself.)
  • “He’s better at swiveling than most women!” (Probably because he’s been working on them. Stop comparing him to women.)

There are, however, great ways to compliment someone who has lead to lead both roles. You know. Like you’d compliment anyone else for a great dance.

  • “That was a great dance! Thanks.”
  • “I love dancing with you.”

There are obviously exceptions to this suggestion. Just be careful, because even the most sincere compliments can feel slimy when coated in surprise and sprinkled with gendered expectations.

Respecting their choice

What it boils down to, in truth, is respecting the choices of those who are ambidancetrous. When someone switches the lead on me without consent, it feels disrespectful.

Switching roles can actually serve to delegitimize the person who is dancing their “other” role. There are a host of reasons why you might think it’s a good idea to switch, but the truth is that most ambidancetrous dancers are dancing that role because they want to do it. To take that away from them is to undermine them as a dancer in that role.

Similarly, when someone offers me a back-handed compliment, it undermines the work I’ve put into learning to lead. I didn’t choose to learn to lead on a whim. In fact, I’ve taken workshops and classes as a lead, and I actively dance both roles at a dance (choosing to lead, rather than leading because there’s an overabundance of follows). Leading is not a passive action — it is something I choose to do.

Go forth, and dance with everyone!

So when you dance with an ambidancetrous person, try to respect the role they choose because it is, inherently, their choice. I’d love to hear what you find is important when being considerate and respectful of your ambidancetrous friends. Thanks for considering these etiquette guidelines, and thanks for being an ally to anyone who wants to dance whatever role they choose!

*Note: this doesn’t make everyone upset — but I’d encourage you to ask, especially if you don’t know the person. If you’re friends with the person and there’s a history of stealing the lead or follow from each other, then go for it!

**Note 2: This post has been edited to add minor clarifications.

Thanks to Calvin and Dizzy for having these conversations with me so I could write a more well-rounded piece!

  One thought on “Ambidancetrous Etiquette

  1. Travis
    13 June 2016 at 3:15 am

    Beautifully said. I’m a 6′ tall, 240 pound guy that strongly prefers to follow when blues dancing. A major peeve of mine is being halfway through a song following and suddenly having the lead dropped in my lap. At least talk with me mid-song, don’t try to force me into it. Consent is key and applies to everyone on the dance floor.

    • SV
      23 January 2019 at 12:47 pm

      I disagree. In your situation, how about giving the lead back with a “Thanks but I prefer to follow”? Don’t forget that dancing is a game – with this logic dancers would also need to obtain “consent” to do certain moves or figures because the other dancer may not like them.

      • 24 January 2019 at 3:34 pm

        “with this logic dancers would also need to obtain “consent” to do certain moves or figures because the other dancer may not like them.”

        This exists, they are called air-steps/aerials…

  2. Cindy Robyn Szydlik
    23 January 2019 at 8:59 pm

    Well said!! Getting consent before doing something unexpected is crucial if you want to maintain the respect of your dance partners. Asking someone to dance then springing a role reversal on them AFTER getting them on the dance floor is also not cool.

    • Cindy Robyn Szydlik
      23 January 2019 at 9:06 pm

      I also very much appreciate that you mention leading more when there’s a surplus of follows (or vice versa). I wish more ambidancetrous folks were as conscientious & considerate. 😀

      • Richard
        25 January 2019 at 3:12 pm

        Mmmmmnnnnngggg hmmm….
        Sorry Cindy, but the problem there is that it is not the ambidancers job to balance the dance ratio. And if I did (given that almost all places have a follow surplus) as a male I am nearly always going to end up being pidgeonholed back into leading.

        I should not be expected to choose my role based on pleasing the other people in the room. Because then it isn’t a choice and the only thing i’m following then is convention.

      • Allison
        25 January 2019 at 9:27 pm

        Similarly, as a woman who leads, I sometimes sense the expectation that I follow in classes where there are *too many* (male) leads, because people are used to seeing women only lead to help balance the class, rather than lead because they really want to.

  3. Alyssa Nelson
    24 January 2019 at 7:19 pm

    As a lady who learned to follow first and who is learning to be ambidancetrous, I certainly don’t mind being compared to male leads, or those who learned to lead first. It’s like being told you sound like a native in a second language in which you have fluency to me more than a gendered statement.

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