Have you ever seen a couple dancing patterns that no one else seemed to know? Did you wonder if their moves were for real?  Or heard someone say they’re full silver and thought, “What the heck are they talking about?” Are there right steps and wrong steps? To answer these (and many other) questions, you need to understand what a ballroom dance syllabus is and how it pertains to you.

couples dancing in a competition following a ballroom dance syllabus

What Is a Ballroom Dance Syllabus?

A ballroom dance syllabus is a list of approved steps for a particular level of a dance. The levels are Bronze (beginner), Silver (intermediate), Gold (advanced) and Supreme Gold (the icing on the cake). Some studios and competitions break the categories down even more so students don’t feel overwhelmed. For instance, the first 5 steps in an American style rumba syllabus might be called Beginner Bronze Rumba, Pre-bronze Rumba, or Social Rumba, depending on where you learn them.

Who “Approves” the Steps?

Lots of people actually. There are at least five (5!) major dance organizations that produce syllabi. On top of that, some studios also develop their own. Confused? Don’t worry. Almost everyone recognizes The National Dance Council of America (NDCA) syllabi for American Smooth and Rhythm dances and The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) syllabi for International Standard and Latin dances. Consider them the OG’s of the dancing world. The others will generally include the same patterns (although sometimes with different names), and a few additional steps that can be fun to learn.

Do I Need to Follow a Ballroom Dance Syllabus?

It depends on what you’re trying to do, but generally, yes. The good news though is that a qualified instructor or coach will be familiar with the appropriate syllabi. They should be able to keep you on track. 

As a social dancer there are some commonly accepted practices (see Ballroom Etiquette), but otherwise you aren’t really bound by any formal rules. The most important thing for you is to learn to lead or follow effectively. A syllabus can still act as a useful guide though. If you want to be able to dance anywhere and with anyone, you need to know the generally accepted patterns for your skill level.

If you plan to compete, then you must abide by the rules of each competition. Since competitors and judges come from a variety of backgrounds, many competitions will allow several different syllabi. Be sure to check which ones are allowed. And again, almost everyone recognizes NDCA and ISTD syllabi.

For shows and exhibitions the rules kind of go out the window a bit. Choreographers will sometimes mix patterns from different levels (and even different dances) to add some zing to a performance or challenge a student a bit. This is fine (within reason), so if you’re a beginner and your teacher adds a sit-drop to your studio showcase routine, don’t panic.

judges at a ballroom competition - ballroom dance syllabus

Hmm, that penalty judge looks familiar.

A Little Hack for Competition

Instead of trying to memorize every approved pattern of every dance at your level, you may want to familiarize yourself with the restrictions for each category. For example, in all bronze smooth dances (waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz) the feet must close at the end of the pattern, so if you’ve learned some patterns in which the feet don’t close (continuity), then you’ll know not to use them when competing at a bronze level. Easy peasy.

couple in a dramatic dance pose

Dancing in the moonlight…

Our first free couple’s class in the Downtown Memphis Commission Sunken Mall was a hit! (The decorating plans not so much. Outdoors. Candles. Breezes. Should have seen that coming.) Four intrepid couples came out for some dancing and romancing. We started smooth and sweet with slow lounge, and then kicked it up a notch with some push-pull swing. There were lots of smiles, a few missteps, some pretty good dancing, and no broken toes. I call that a win!

Socially distanced fun for all!

What to do (or not do) on the dance floor.

Just exercising common courtesy will go a long way on the dance floor, but there are a few ballroom specific things you might want to know.



Navigating the Floor

First of all, where should you be on the floor? For spot dances (swing, rumba, etc.) it really doesn’t matter. Any open space is fine (*usually). But for travelling dances (waltz, foxtrot, etc.) there is a structure similar to a racetrack. If you aren’t moving at all, stay in the center. Move out a little when you are ready to progress and utilize the periphery when you have the skill to move quickly and navigate effectively. And always keep in mind that the flow is counterclockwise, so you don’t end up going the wrong way on a one-way street. [*Some songs are appropriate for multiple dances, so even if you are doing a spot dance, be aware if others are travelling. In other words, don’t do swing in the foxtrot lane.]

Asking For/Accepting a Dance

It is a convention when at a ballroom event to dance with a variety of partners. This is partly to ensure that everyone has a good time, and partly to improve your own dancing. You can dance with more accomplished partners to elevate your own skills, then pay it back by dancing with the less experienced. If you are part of a group, try to dance with everyone at least once. If you’re on your own, spend some of your dances on the wallflowers. Not only is it kind, but you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the experience. You don’t need to avoid approaching someone who is clearly part of a couple, but it is generally a good idea to ask their partner if they mind. Most don’t, but it’s better to ask. And if you are the one being asked, say yes unless there is a compelling reason not to. You don’t have to subject yourself to a partner that is known to be handsy or has extreme body odor, but don’t reject someone because they are inexperienced, socially awkward, or not part of your immediate circle. Again, you might be surprised.

Once you have asked someone to dance you should escort them onto the floor and back off again afterward. Simply walking away and leaving someone standing alone on the floor is rude and probably won’t get you many second dances. When the music ends, thank your partner, offer your arm, and return them to their seat. You may be a little less formal with someone you know well and dance with often, but it’s always appropriate to show appreciation for your partner.


Always strive to complement your partner. For the leader that means not being rough or trying to force patterns far beyond your partners current capabilities. Making someone look good and feel comfortable is far more effective than showing off every move you know on someone who isn’t ready for them. Being able to assess a partner’s competency is a valuable skill, and dancing at (or slightly above) their level will make them feel accomplished and you look like a good leader.

As for followers, they should follow. It may be tempting to try and anticipate your partner’s next move. It’s also hard to resist “helping” a leader who seems to be struggling. Neither makes you or your partner a better dancer. Also, avoid breaking out things like dramatic styling or advanced syncopations on inexperienced partners. It will confuse and short-circuit them. Instead, concentrate on perfecting the basics and save the frills for someone who can match and appreciate them.

And no matter what, avoid blaming and complaining. Even if you’re right, it won’t make you very popular. It’s far too common (and a particular pet peeve of mine) to hear weak dancers complaining about the perceived inadequacies of their partners. You will always be sought-after and admired if you concentrate on improving your own skill and are generally kind and encouraging to others.

Showing Off

Save the tricks for performances. Full body drops, lifts, and the like have no place in social dancing. That kind of behavior is potentially dangerous, intimidates beginners, and irritates experienced dancers. If you’re truly a good dancer, you don’t need to prove it by slinging someone over your head on a crowded floor.


Even the best dancers following all the rules will occasionally bump into one another. So will you. Often it is unclear who bumped into whom. Never try to assign blame. Simply say “excuse me” (or gracefully acknowledge the apology if you where clearly the bumpee) and move on. If you do encounter the rare aggressive (or oblivious) dancer that frequently plows into others, it is best to simply avoid them.

Common (Or Not) Sense

And finally, a few general guidelines that apply whether in a lesson or at a gala. They may seem like common sense, but experience tells me they still bear mentioning.

  • Don’t eat garlic or onions beforehand (unless everyone does), and don’t convince yourself that you can cover it up with a swig of mouthwash.
  • Take a shower and wear clean clothes.
  • Carry gum or mints.
  • Don’t douse yourself in cologne/perfume.
  • Put away the cell phone (unless you’re a surgeon or volunteer fireman on call) and pay attention to the people you’re with.


Now you know, so go out and have fun!