How your brain might be sabotaging your dance

Reading Time:  minutes remaining

How is your brain sabotaging your dance progress.?

There are many aspects to The Mental Game of dancing - here's just one: cognitive biases.  

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information.

A learning bias is a pre-determined assumption or mindset that creates interference in your learning process. These biases often hold you back from progressing and/or enjoying your dance.

This article, taken directly from the Swing Literacy Dancer Development Program, addresses the most common learning biases in West Coast Swing.

There's little doubt that everyone is affected by one or more of these biases. it's just a matter of figuring out which one and how, being more aware when it's happening, and developing tools to overcome it.

Pattern Bias

Because dance is traditionally taught in sequences of steps (tasks), instead of in skill progressions, the vast majority of dancers have developed a "Pattern Bias". They use patterns, counts, and steps to interpret what they do with their bodies and what they observe others do.

As a dancer, you very likely unintentionally adopted this bias, so in order to access deeper learning, you need work to release this bias and begin to see movement in other ways, such as mechanical elements and developmental phases.

Here is an example. The question is "How would you briefly describe a sugar push?"  Here are two answers, both with and without a pattern-bias:

Pattern-Biased Answer

Non-Pattern-Biased Answer

The leader steps backward on counts 1 and 2, does a press-step behind on count 3 and begins compression, replaces weight on count 3&, walks forward and releases compression on count 4, triples on the spot for 5&6.

Over the course of 6 counts, the leader slingshots the follower inward, then uses 2 hands to absorb and redirect the follower back where they came from.

Notice that the non-biased answer never mentions steps or counts. It simply describes the mechanical and trajectory goals, the tools (body parts) available, and vaguely mentions key technique principles that are at play. Even though neither answer explains the follower's role, the pattern-biased answer often doesn't even acknowledge the cause and effect on the follower.

Your pattern bias will show up as you feel compelled to ask questions about where you should put your feet, what count to do the move on, or what to do if your partner doesn't do the pattern right.

Remember, not all dance learning or practice has to do with pattern context, and there is a LOT of advantage to be gained from learning dance skills outside of their pattern context.

Try This

Describe each of your basic patterns without a pattern bias. 

Application Bias

The way that most dancing has traditionally been taught has been choreography-based (pattern-based) instead of skills-based. This means that you are used to the final product of any lesson or class being a combo or or pattern. 

It also means that you are used to being taught only movements that are directly applicable to realistic WCS dancing. Which means that as you are consuming any kind of instruction, there is a constant din of a question in the back of your mind, "where would this fit into my dance?".  This is called Application Bias.

This application bias assumes that something is only worth learning if it is directly applicable to a real-dance situation.

Contrary to traditional method, Swing Literacy prioritizes skills over choreography, which means that the final product of any learning experience is not dependent on a pattern or figure.

Instead, we treat a class or workshop more like a sports practice: focused on developing skills with appropriate progressions and scaffolding exercises and drills to help students understand, automate, apply, and analyze these skills so they can apply them to any pattern.

So the question that Swing Literacy students have in the back of their mind is, "How can I master this so I can use it anywhere?" This produces dancers who are more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and resilient under pressure.

Anchor Bias

When it comes to learning, whatever you were taught first will likely have a stronger claim in your mind, "anchoring" you to be loyal to it. (Or sometimes, it's more like "long-exposure bias": you are more prone to protecting information you have been taught for a long time.)

When you allow this bias, it's harder for new information to break through unless that new information is more motivating to consider, fills in a gap in knowledge that was missing, or comes from a more reputable source than the original. This bias might be weighing you down like an anchor, keeping you stuck or stagnating in your progress.

You might experience this bias when you attend any workshop where the teacher is explaining a technique and you think to yourself "that's not what I was taught" and reflexively reject the new information. 

What you might not realize is that this is the first of many teachers who will be adding to you your total knowledge base, so this "first exposure" knowledge needs to move over and share the spotlight so you can keep an open mind and entertain new ideas - maybe one of them will help you get unstuck.

Echo Chamber Bias

This bias is very similar to the First Exposure bias, except that you are hearing the advice from several friends who heard it from the same source. Its frequency magnifies the message and gives you the illusion of validity, regardless of its actual validity or quality.

This can also be a problem if the friends misinterpreted legitimate advice from the original source, and now are spreading misinformation. Like gossip, if it sounds way off base, give the teacher the benefit of the doubt - be sure to go directly to the source to clarify rather than making biased judgements about that teacher.

It's important to always apply a critical-thinking filter to everything you hear (the same way you do on the internet!), regardless of the source or how frequently you hear it.

You can disrupt the effect of this bias by striving to experience a variety of instruction so you can hear multiple perspectives, analogies, and explanations of advice from both new and familiar sources. Then when you hear something that seems to make more sense than what you heard before, pass it on to your friends!

Completion Bias

Your brain needs to hear information presented in different ways, with different examples, from different teachers, while you are in different moods, multiple times in order for it to sink in.

Even if you listened carefully the first time in the workshop:

  • It doesn't mean that your body actually got it
  • It doesn't mean the teacher explained all there is to know about it
  • It doesn't mean that you retained all the details
  • It doesn't mean you understand the "why" and the "how"

Skills are not something you can check off a list once you've heard them explained in a workshop. Hearing and understanding is not the same as learning.

Completion bias is treating instruction like a reading list: once you've heard it once, you consider it "complete" and are not interested in hearing it again. "If it's not new, I don't need it".

Another example of completion bias is a dancer who gets upset when they are denied from advancing to the next level class because they've "already been dancing long enough they've earned it". In their mind, they have "completed" their lower level classes (sometimes several times), and have nothing left to learn in them.

This is not how learning dance works. Or any art or sport for that matter. In order to progress, you need to release any need to "complete a checklist" and instead take on a mastery mindset of an endless improvement spiral. So buckle up and learn to love the fact that there are so many repeat opportunities to get reminders and new perspectives on the skills you want to master!

The Dunning-Kreuger Effect

The Dunning-Krueger Effect: when a person's lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence.

When you are in the early stages of learning WCS (first few years), once you get past that initial rookie phase and start to feel like your brain doesn't need to think as hard in order to enjoy each dance, this tends to give you an inflated sense of competence.

Since you are no longer struggling as you were in the rookie phase, you might interpret this "ease" as "proficiency", when they are not the same thing:  It's very possible for skills to feel easier as you get used to them, but this is not an indication that you are actually doing the skills correctly, or even completely.

The danger of this is that it might fool you into thinking that you "don't need to learn more" about a skill. This causes you to stop learning, which stunts your growth and prevents you from being able to build higher level skills that require those fundamentals as pre-requisites.

The much healthier approach for long term learning is to embrace the idea that while gaining confidence early is an advantage, it is not the end of the learning - just the beginning. So #alwayskeeplearning and embrace struggle as a healthy and normal part of the learning journey, because the real and lasting results are on the other side of it.

Point to ponder

Which biases can you relate to? When do you notice them acting up? 

This article is an except of Module 1 of the Swing Literacy Dancer Development Program. In the program, it is followed up by all the juicy details on exactly how to hack your brain to overcome each of these biases with thorough and practical applications to all West Coast Swing skills for all levels.

Know some people in your dance community who could use this? Pass it on!

Got any suggestions of things to say that worked for you? Leave a comment below!

As a leader, do you wish playful followers would let you lead more? Or wonder why more followers don’t play with you they way they do when they dance with other leaders?

As a follower, do you wonder how you can “be a good follower” when you have so many ideas of your own during a song? Or wish you had more playful repertoire? It’s all about balancing role and self-expression.

West Coast Swing attracts both men and women because of the music and the easy cool factor of the movement. But it attracts the women a bit more for a different reason: the freedom.


This article describes historical events and their influence on modern-day West Coast Swing, and therefore refers to the traditional roles of male leaders and female followers. It is not a commentary on the evolution of gender neutrality in leader/follower roles. Binary terms are used for simplicity, but we assume that any gender can dance either role.


The unique conversation balance

WCS is the most liberating partner dance available. While there is structure, there exists far more of a conversation in WCS than in other dance styles. The very nature of improvisation lends itself to both partners participating – it would be pretty boring to go to a dinner party just to talk to yourself. 

In any civilized conversation, there are two roles to be played: speaker and listener. One can not function without the other. In most partner dances, the dancers stick to their designated roles: the (traditionally male) leader only speaks and the (traditionally female) follower only listens, creating a lecture.  But in a conversation, the roles get exchanged: they transfer fluidly between the participants – when one stops speaking, the other takes over, and the original speaker yields to become the listener. In most circumstances, assuming you were raised well, this is done effortlessly and without a struggle. WCS is this conversation. There is an intriguing exchange of speaking that is unique to WCS. 


The women’s chance to speak

Clearly not a “lady of the evening”, but gotta love this sailor’s pose

Historically, there is a version that tells of “ladies of the evening” trying their best to dance flirtatiously with the drunken sailors on shore leave who couldn’t quite manage to lead them. The women have kept this self-expression through the decades, and the leaders have enjoyed the entertainment even when sober. Let’s face it – it’s a relief to let someone else drive for a spell.

But sober leaders had ideas. They valued patterns and spins – the more the better. There was hardly any room for play. A good follower was determined by her ability to keep up with the most amount of crazy s**t leaders could throw at her. This kept her so busy there was no time for self-expression unless the leader showed rare mercy on her and granted her a few beats at the end of a pattern to fill time, or “throwing her the scraps”. Dancers from this era became masters of fast spins and pre-set, rhythmic patterns.


The pendulum swings

The conversation had become such a dictatorship that the followers were rebelling, insisting on expressing themselves. When I first started WCS in 2000, it was at the height of a trend called “hijacking”. This trend influence many, but not all – enough to see common behaviour patterns emerge:


The experienced followers of this era became extremely adept at stealing the lead, but they did so with no regard for the flow of the dance, regardless of the leader’s intentions or positioning. Phrasing was often sacrificed, because neither dancer was in control of the team hitting the break. This turned the conversation into a battle of interruption.

It got so brutal that it was disempowering the men. It was common to see leaders sullenly abandoning their footwork and resorting to just acting as the jungle gym as the follower had their way with the slot. The musicality belonged to the follower. The leader was just there to provide the framework, which the follower might decide to change anyway. Over time the leaders became so complacent, their progress as dancers suffered.

Let’s be clear: hijacking is bad news, just as hijacking a bus or a plane. Nobody joins dancing for the battle. In the traditional roles of partner dancing, the men might like the idea that they get to be the boss for 3 minutes and the ladies are supposed to follow them. The followers might like the idea of letting the man sweep her off her feet and take her for a ride. There was no battle – it was an agreement both could benefit from. I’m not saying WCS doesn’t still deliver in that department, but the priorities are different. 

Also, to be clear: self-leading is also bad news. Initiating a movement before the leader has a chance to lead it sabotages the partnership much like hijacking does. Backleading, on the other hand, is an advanced skill that is productive and cooperative: the follower notices that the mechanics required for the move to function are not happening, so she produces them herself without changing roles or the original intention of the movement. This requires an advanced skillset and involves a keen awareness of both roles.  


The pendulum swings back

The hijacking trend passed (or evolved) as leaders started stepping up and being more proactive. They started leading more musically – adapting and tailoring their patterns to suit the slower, more interpretive music. The followers were so entertained and occupied by the variable patterns they couldn’t predict, they were not able to hijack as much. They found the leaders had more interesting things to say that were worth listening to. So they started listening again.

For some, listening is already in their comfort zone, so they don’t bother speaking up. Which is fine because it’s their choice. But for others who found and fell in love with this dance because of the self-expression opportunities, it’s the conversation; the banter; the game that they’re after. 

When the leaders weren’t being hijacked incessantly, they became more willing to offer opportunities for the follower to play – after all, it’s a relief to let someone else drive for a while, remember? But now the game has changed. The patterns are different, the music is slower and more interpretive. The leaders have started getting better at improvising: good leaders are not as attached to their choreographed patterns as they used to be – there are more open-ended questions. They invite the followers to play (when it is convenient for them), because there is no rush to get to the next move. When the leaders invite the followers to speak for a while, they themselves assume the listener role. 


How to use turn-taking principles in the conversation of a dance


WCS has always been a dance of action-reaction. But this concept is vague, and not always well-explained. There is the obvious biomechanics application of Newtonian laws. But in terms of the conversation, there is a easy, effortless, respectful, back-and-forth agreement between partners. They exchange roles agreeably and fluidly: the primary leader guiding most of the structure of the dance, the follower decorating it whenever possible.

But as anyone would hope in a balanced conversation, at some point the speaker pauses to ask questions, hear feedback, or yield a turn: allow the listener to speak for a while, then builds off of what they said to progress the conversation forward.

In WCS, this is called an “invitation lead”. If a leader invites the follower to play, he should allow her to finish her idea and give the lead back to him. With few exceptions, interrupting her before she’s “done” would make him guilty of hijacking.

Sometimes the listener can prompt the speaker to pause so that she may have an opportunity to contribute. In WCS, this is called a “request”, which involves the follower giving a physical signal with a change in connection or grip that indicates to the leader that she has an idea to contribute. This is welcome occasionally if it does not interrupt the flow of what the leader was leading, but if it causes an interruption in momentum that is too challenging for the leader to react and adapt to, it will be annoying. If it is a convenient moment, the leader should grant her request and yield to or support her idea by pausing to listen (reciprocating her connection or pausing his movement).

If the speaker does not respond, this might be because he is unaware, he does not have these advanced conversation skills yet, or he is not in a good position to stop and attend to her. In this case, the follower must make her following role take priority and save her idea for a later opportunity – prepared to abandon her idea in a split second to salvage the flow of the dance. Just as in a conversation, if the follower insists, it would be considered interrupting/hijacking, and might sacrifice both partners’ safety. You may have heard the advice, “Follow first, play second”. Now you have the details you needed to really understand that phrase.


Both partners’ responsibilities

It is crucial for both partners to understand how to listen and how to speak. This does not change the primary roles, however. Part of the primary speaker’s role is to be sensitive and responsive to the primary listener. And part of the primary follower’s role is to be aware of the general game plan and detect and take advantage of convenient opportunities to direct and contribute to the conversation.

This is particularly evident these days as dancers are struggling to recapture the neglected art of phrasing. This element of our dance was second nature to dancers 20 years ago in the era when pre-set rhythmic patterns were the commodity. But with so much interpretive shaping and conversation-ing going on over the last 10 years or so, many dancers have come up through the ranks not understanding how to count phrases and dance appropriately to music math. The degeneration of this dominant aspect of musicality is not only calling the leaders to task, but also the followers in their responsibility to be aware of the phrasing game and their role in it.

Teachers also have a responsibility to explain the nature of this unique aspect of WCS to students as they progress. Around the world, we see eager dancers eating YouTube clips for breakfast, trying to copy moves they admire without understanding the mechanics and rules involved. When these “learners” start teaching, rather than getting appropriate training they make up their own rules about how followers should express themselves, and pass these misunderstandings on to their students. I have heard reports from overseas students that a few teachers advise the followers, “If you want to play, you have to ‘surprise’ your leader so he’s thrown off guard and he has no choice”…  This isn’t martial arts.

As for getting training, yes, this is a topic that is included in the Swing Literacy Teacher Development Program. Of course, you can’t expect to learn the technical intricacies of invitation lead or musical phrasing from reading a article! And don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can visually lead “signals” for it to work.  There is a ton of technique involved in the connection skills required for this type of conversation, which is beyond the scope of this article. Where can you get it? Well, private lessons of course (live or online), and tailored Intensives. We also have some damn good video resources at the bottom of this page.  


What good listening gets you 

Followers love leaders who listen. Even if the follower has nothing to contribute, the leader needs to pay attention to the effect his efforts are having on the follower. In other words, check to see if you (leader) are being heard.

Leaders love followers who listen. It’s annoying when a follower self-leads before the leader has had a chance to do it himself. In other words, just because you (follower) can predict what the leader will say, doesn’t mean you should say it simultaneously.  Stay behind.

This ease of exchanging turns speaking has lent itself to many dancers’ curiosity in exploring the opposite role. This has nothing to do with sexuality – simply dancers looking for a challenge and enjoying learning a new “language”. Dancers are also experimenting with role-switching, which involves trading roles completely for only a few measures or phrases at a time, assuming each partner is skilled at the opposite role. This trading is still an easy, effortless conversation: the game is to create smooth transitions – to disturb the flow as little as possible. Learning the opposite role trains you to empathize and appreciate the needs of your partner. Learning to role-switch trains you to observe and analyze flow in order to manipulate it.

Today, hijacking is considered as rude as interrupting in a conversation. The leaders should be trained to offer opportunities for play to the follower regularly during any social dance. If the followers are offered sufficient opportunities to express themselves, they don’t feel the need to “steal” them. Followers should be trained to detect invitation leads and armed with an arsenal of dance movements they can choose from to contribute in the moment.

In order to have a good time social dancing today, WCS dancers need to respect their responsibilities as good communicators. No one likes an argument, and everyone likes to be listened to. 


Further Study






Looking for more technical advice like this?

Of course, this is just a quick sample, a fraction, of the type of technical detail that you deserve and we supply in the Swing Literacy Dancer Development Program. For more information about how you can get the whole program:


Like this content? This is just the tip of the iceberg! Get regular tips & advice sent directly to your inbox:

  [activecampaign form=1]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}