People seem to agree that you can improve by dancing with people above your skill level, but take care not to avoid the newer dancers. Aside from being the future of the community (who we want to encourage and nurture), new dancers can also help us hone a special set of skills.
More experienced follows will often do what you ask even if the lead is a little off or confusing, because they know what you meant to lead, and they just want to dance–they’re not going to stop and critique you on the dance floor. Experienced follows can cover for you, and you can rely somewhat on history and shared experience. If you listen to them and give them space, they might show you some cool new things.
Newer follows, on the other hand, don’t have all of those instincts honed from hours and hours of practice; everything is new for them, and their toolbox is still pretty sparce. If a less experienced follow doesn’t do what you thought you asked, evaluate yourself and see if there’s some way you could clarify your lead. New follows can show you where you may be relying on your partner knowing the steps, where you give conflicting signals, and how to feel out a connection to find your partner’s comfort level. They also give you more opportunity to practice “following your follow” or “tracking”. Especially helpful for those leads who are more pattern-based, new follows will help you keep an open and responsive mind and practice flexibility in using what your follow gives you (whatever it may be).
More experienced leads can readjust if you lose your balance or interpret something in a way they didn’t expect. They know how to make things comfortable, and they can be clear enough to guide you through moves you’ve never done before, which will add to your foundation of experience so that next time you’ll recognize it and need less support. Sometimes they cover for you so smoothly that you barely notice the little hiccups.
Newer leads are probably still thinking super hard about their timing, their steps, the other people on the floor, and how to lead you. It’s a lot to keep track of, so sometimes they miss things. If their timing is a bit off, you have the choice of either providing some extra support as they find the structure of the dance, or using the opportunity to really wait for their lead without the crutch of a predictable rhythm (which also gives them more accurate feedback on what they are leading). This can be useful training for dancing with leads who respond to accents or tempo changes in the music. You may need to take a more proactive role in protecting yourself–being more aware of other couples on the floor to avoid possible collisions, as well as becoming more familiar with the outer bounds of what will still work and what is safer to abort. Since a beginner will not be doing any strenuous or fancy moves, this is also a great time to practice balance and stability, polish your basics, or experiment with styling.
Aside from honing your partnering skills, dancing with new dancers is good karma and good for building community. As they say at contra-dances:
Beginner + Beginner = Slow progress
Beginner + Experienced dancer = Fast progress
New dancers who feel welcomed and encouraged are more likely to stick with it and become regulars, so go ask them to dance!