A person doesn't all of a sudden morph into a Ballroom Dancer. It has been my experience that a person evolves through a specific learning process towards becoming a Ballroom Dancer. The fact is: you are never a Ballroom Dancer in the technical sense of the word; you are always a Ballroom Dancer in training. When a person tells me that they know how to Waltz or Rumba or whatever, I know they don't know much about Ballroom Dancing. The more you know about Ballroom Dancing, the more you realize that the unknown becomes bigger not smaller. I have been Ballroom Dancing over twenty years and I am definitely still a dancer in training. The sport of Ballroom Dancing is constantly evolving as well. Over time and experience new ways of doing things are discovered and developed. That is the beauty of it, there is always more to learn.
The non-dancer's primary goal is to not step on his/her partner and to find a safe place to put his/her hands. The next thing is to be able to move with some semblance of being in partnership. The leaders least concern is the music. The follower is trying to respond and not get stepped on, knowing that the leader does not hear the music. He is completely caught up in the mechanics of what he is trying to do and she is working very hard to guess what to do.
The beginning dancer typically has very little knowledge about leading and following and is consumed with trying to learn patterns. The leader dances his part of the pattern and the follower dances her part of the pattern. One of his/her goals is; when the music starts, what should I dance to it. All is good and no one gets hurt.
The level of intermediate dancer is generally defined by the individual dancer themselves. Usually if the dancer knows some patterns beyond the basic patterns, he/she considers himself/herself an intermediate dancer. There is a little more knowledge regarding lead and follow but they are still a pattern oriented dancer. There is some knowledge regarding line of dance and the character of each dance. At this point the dancer considers his/her self a Ballroom Dancer.
The advanced dancer is again generally "self proclaimed". The dancer knows a lot of patterns beyond the basics and is starting to understand some of the concepts of lead and follow and is more aware of the technical aspects of Ballroom Dancing. He/she is still a pattern oriented dancer. At this point the dancer thinks that he/she has arrived as a Ballroom Dancer.
The competitive or exhibition dancer is a dancer that enters competitions and or dances exhibitions. These dancers can be at any level but generally they are advanced dancers. Competitive or exhibition dancers generally dance for others not themselves. These dancers usually dance specific sequences of patterns to specific music. There is less lead and follow because the sequence of patterns is already pre-determined. There are usually patterns that are not "leadable" but are danced because each partner knows when and where it is supposed to happen. The dance performance is designed to be danced with a lot of flare and to be very showy. Many times the partnership is compromised for look and show. The emphasis for these dancers is show, not feeling. Unfortunately, many of these dancers also dance their routines in a social environment which results in collisions on the dance floor.
In my opinion, the skilled social dancer is the highest level of Ballroom Dancer. The skilled social dancer is dancing with a very high level of lead and follow and his/her primary goal is what I call the "four-legged feeling". It is that "feeling" that a dancer can only achieve with a partner. This "feeling" does not exist any where else. The goal of this dancer is the "feeling" of his/her partner, the "feeling" of the character of the particular dance and the "feeling" of the music. The dancing is all about "feeling" not patterns.
The beginning, intermediate and advanced dancers tend to get caught up in just learning "patterns". The truth is that if there is no "feeling", all of the patterns eventually start feeling the same. Then the dancer thinks he/she needs more and more patterns. The competitive or exhibition dancer gets caught up in pattern sequences and dances more for others rather than for themselves. All of these levels of dancers often end up becoming "pattern dancers".
It is unfortunate that many dancers never go beyond being a "pattern dancer", no matter what their perceived level of dancing is. They never get to the "feeling". In my opinion, the goal of Ballroom Dancing is the "four-legged feeling". Taking only Group lessons only creates "pattern dancers". Private lessons are where the dancer develops the "four-legged feeling". The instructor has to have his/her hands on the student so he/she can experience the "feeling" of what is trying to be taught. If there is no "four-legged feeling" you may as well be dancing free style.