Protect and Save Your Marriage: 
Learn to Dance

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical, Medical & Family Psychology

Cultures around the world create social dances as an expression of male and female relationships.  The dances look different in Europe, North America and Latin America; just as the relationships between men and women look different in those cultures.  At the core of all dance is communication. Two people, with different roles, working together to form a better union – in life or on the dance floor. 

Compared to many other countries, American men are expected to lead more by example rather than force. Unfortunately some men are raised to be bullies and brutes. In America, communication between men and women is more open, often creating a deep level of trust.  These traits can be seen in the dances America has created; primarily Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing.  West Coast Swing evolved from its big brother, Lindy Hop, as music morphed from Big Band into pop, blues, and hip hop.  These dances rely heavily on “leading” and “following” according to set rules, with a huge amount of space allowed for individual expression and the ability to create and find direction as-you-go. 

There are two primary forms of dance. The first is individual dance and the second is partner dance. Individual dance is all about you. Basically, individual dance is a “Look at me. Look at me.” art form. In contrast, partner dancing is more about the connection that people share in dance. Individual dance is about “me” and partner dancing is about “us” or “you and me”. Partner dancing is an incredible expressive, experiential and action method that provides a wonderful metaphor and example for building positive relationships. This is important. Dancing allows people to behave in ways that can change relationships.

West Coast Swing

Virtually all partner dancing is a means to deepen, strengthen and learn the responsibility of relationships. West Coast swing is one of the very best, most interesting, creative and fun dances you can learn. But there are others. Salsa is another. And there is Tango. But we are going to focus on West Coast Swing because you can use this dance with all sorts of music including smooth jazz, hip-hop, street music and even many types of rap.

So we are going to tell you what West Coast Swing has to offer people who want to have better marriages or to become a better parent, spouse, friend or lover.

A successful relationship recognizes that the role of leadership must be taken by one person at a time; not both.  In West Coast Swing, men lead and women follow.  But even this is not absolute.  The role of leadership will at times pass back and forth, but each person leads in their own way.  Initiative or creativity may pass from one to the other.  Ultimately, the question of direction should come from one person consistently.  For the sake of space, we will set aside the discussion of natural or created roles and assume the lead role of this dance drama to be played by the man. (But in reality, a woman can lead in a manner that is called “back-leading” whereby a woman’s greater awareness and personal decisions in the dance leads that man in ways that are not obvious to the casual observer. In partnership, and with every great dance team, there is a woman who can either lead or follow; but she chooses to follow.)

There are 4 key principles in partner dancing. Knowing these, as we learn dance, can help you understand, deepen and appreciate the importance and responsibility of your relationships with others.


The concept of a respectful relationship and sensitive interaction can be difficult to teach, especially to people who have never experienced such a relationship as a child or young adult. It is even more difficult to comprehend if that person was neglected or abused. The concept of “Asking” is quit different from demanding. The ultimate expression of “asking” is one where the response is invariably “Yes, I would love to.” This goes to heart of West Coast Swing. The “Ask” goes like this.  Take your partner’s hand, creating the lightest possible connection, relax your arm, center your body, feel the music, find the count, move from your center on the one count… and your already in a relationship. There is no yanking, pulling, jerking, or muscling. It is a beautiful perfectly timed moment that begins a flight of movement where you feel totally present, connected, playful and like you are communicating. These physical movements directly teach people how important a beginning, a request and communication can be. Little things matter. Marriage, at least often, is about asking, and definitely not demanding, arguing, debating and forcing your spouse to follow.

Lead and Follow

As a leader on the dance floor, a man must learn how to lead in such a way that the woman wants to follow.  His lead must be respectful, unambiguous, and must be at the appropriate time.  He invites, rather than demands, and then he waits and allows her to complete her own movement.  She is in charge of herself. There is no pulling involved; no fight over timing.  He is listening to music and he leads her on the “1” of the musical phrase.  His lead comes from his body; his core, and his heart.  He leads by example, first moving himself, then inviting her to move with him.  He never stands still and pulls her across the floor.  Imagine a military officer, who is used to yelling orders to his soldiers, talking to his wife the same way.  He would be faced with an unhappy wife – or divorce papers.  On the dance floor, his lead is gentle and she can tell he’s aware of her.  She feels cared for and therefore obliges with grace and a smile. 

When a woman feels respected and loved, she is open to being asked and she will naturally and often say yes.  In dance, like marriage, there is already a willingness to ask and be asked. If not, then problems are likely to surface. A women does not need to lead if the direction is clear.  She actually knows that she has much more interesting, challenging and rewarding things to do. Her role is not just to respond but also to “run her own life” on the dance floor.  She knows how to hold her hand, her frame, how to move her center when he initiates a movement and so she moves on her own power.  She is balanced so she does not depend on him for her movement.  She doesn’t use him to help her move across the floor.  She keeps her center over her feet so when he asks her to move, she reacts from her core and glides easily.  Essentially she is an independent, balanced entity, but she chooses to connect with him and let him guide.  She can walk away at any moment if she wants and not lose her balance. The connection is gentle, powerful and without force. It is a healthy partnership.

Connection and Communication

Partner dancing happens from your center, just as life communication happens from the heart.  However the partners are connected by about four feet of arms and hands, which makes the issue a bit more difficult.  Arms and fingers can distract from the important communication happening in the center, therefore how both partners hold their fingers is just as important as how a person speaks and listens in a conversation.  The lead must be clear, with enough tension to “say” something to her but without unnecessary movements feel and that sounds like “babbling”.  If he constantly moves his hand when he is not intending to lead a move, she will quickly learn that he likes to babble and she will ignore him.  Likewise, the woman’s arm must be loose so she can “hear” what he’s saying.  If she tenses the muscles in her arm, it is as if she is interrupting the conversation and she’s unable to listen.  

The Play

Within his lead a man leaves more space for her to play.  A man actually does not get to play as much. If he plays to much, the dance looks foolish. Women are almost always better dancers and more fun to watch. She adds the fun stuff; the sensuality and spice to the dance.  His lead is sometimes direct, other times open-ended. Since she’s listening, she can tell when he’s creating her free time to play.  He is thinking about her, himself, where they might go next and whether or not he can lead her is a way where she says “Yes!”

Every leader who is a beginner feels the pressure of being rejected. In time, his leadership will become more than leadership. It is harmony. The play of the dance is based on the music, so if both partners understand the music and know what’s coming, they know to expect the other person to react to a change in instruments or vocals or rhythm.  They don’t know what the other person will do, but she’s ready for something that (hopefully) allows her to interpret the music.  There are times when it’s appropriate for her to interrupt, with a signal, and add something he hadn’t thought of or didn’t hear in the music.  The relationship is deeper and more worthwhile because of what she adds.  But just like a conversation, an interruption should be relevant to what’s being “said”, or what he’s leading.  She can enhance the dance with as much spice as she wants as long as she doesn’t take away from what he’s leading.  Basically, she plays within the moves he leads.  And almost without exception, she’s the prettier part of the pair and the one who warrants the most attention because she has the freedom to add color.  If he stifles her, the dance will not flourish.  If she steals the lead, synergy is quelled.  But when a man and a woman know their roles and operate to their best within their framework, magic is created. 

 Therapy and Dance

 Dance is not only an art form but a means of communication. Dance is also an interaction and expression of many things human. Therapists have studied and even incorporated dance as a therapy. This is not really hard to imagine, because if you dance, or are learning to dance, you will discover that dancing will cause many feeling and thoughts. Dance therapy is used as an expressive, experiential or action method. The way we move our body alone, or in public, is a deeply personal and sometimes a rewarding or threatening behavior. We learn a great deal when we move and especially when we move in relation with or to others. . We discover our self and others by dancing and watching others dance. We can learn a great deal about respect, responsibility, cooperation, collaboration and the achievement of goals.

 copyright 2008, Michael G. Conner