Navigating a crowded floor

We’ve all been there. All too often. The couple that keeps intruding on our slot. The guy who leads his follower right into us. The woman whose arm styling means a whack to the head. The floor that’s too crowded.

It never ceases to amaze me that some people just don’t learn how to dance on a crowded floor. At the same time, how often do we teach people how to dance on a crowded floor? Let’s face it: the dance class is an idyllic environment compared to the social dance floor, where people tend to have enough room and they are hyper-aware of themselves and those around them under the watchful eye of a teacher.

Every now and then I get around to teaching a class on floorcraft – the art of dance floor navigation and etiquette. Here are ten tips for successful dancing on a crowded floor:

  1. Look around you. Seems obvious enough, but we tend to get focused on what we’re doing and lose sight of how what we’re doing fits into the space around us. Leaders in particular should look to where they are sending their followers, before sending them there.
  2. Narrow the slot. Pretty obvious here too. If there’s less space on the floor, then occupy less space.
  3. Use the slot you have. Leaders, if you don’t have room for a full slot, consider dancing with half a slot, think about what you can do in closed position, or maybe use a change of places to keep the flow of your patterns.
  4. Keep things simple. Not only are simpler moves less risky to execute successfully, but it’s also easier to interrupt a simpler move to make course corrections. This goes for leaders and followers.
  5. Learn to abort smoothly. If someone moves into your slot as you’re executing a move, find a way to gracefully change the ending. Cutoffs and moving into closed position are great options for leaders, while bending the slot and pattern extensions are helpful tools for followers. (Remember: Communicate kindly to your partner.)
  6. Protect your partner. If your partner is going to get hit or is going to collide with someone they can’t see, let them know. A simple squeeze of the hand is usually effective.
  7. Adjust your frame. Your body is yours to control, so if you have less space, adjust your frame so it’s shorter (but not tighter). Leaders, think about the timing of your anchor and how much counterbalance you provide, and followers think about keeping a closer relationship between your center and hand.
  8. Consider moving your slot. If the space at either end of your slot is too cramped, think about shifting your slot to open space left or right (assuming you’re not moving into someone else’s slot).
  9. Be sure to finish. Remember that good communication depends on good connection, and good connection comes from good movement. If we don’t finish patterns by moving our centers into or away from our partners, we won’t create extension or compression, and we’ll have a harder time communicating in an environment where communication is even more important.
  10. Apologize. We’re both responsible for a successful dance, so take responsibility when something goes awry. (You’d be surprised how often people don’t acknowledge collisions and other accidents or check in with their partners.)

The joy of partner dancing is that we get to share in the experience with someone else. So let’s all do our part to make sure everyone has a good time.

What do you all do to adjust to crowded floors? What are some of the biggest dangers you’ve encountered? Teachers, how do you prepare your students and teach them floorcraft?

A phrase by any other name…

Oftentimes when we are taught musicality and phrasing, we are taught, appropriately, to mark the phrase change. The biggest accent is on the one of a new phrase and we strive to reflect that in our dancing.

But there’s another part to phrasing: the fact that phrases are different. A verse is different from the chorus, and the chorus from a pre-chorus, and all of the above from the intro. Phrases differ in their chord progressions, their melodies, and their lyrical rhythms, but the difference most notable for dancing is the energy level, indicated by the volume and complexity – and sometimes emotion or expressiveness – of the music. If we are to really phrase our dancing with the music, we should dance each of these phrases differently.

Phrasing our dance means thinking about how the energy and feel of our dancing matches the energy and feel of the song. This is reflected in our choice of patterns and styling, the complexity of our movements, the size and pace of our dancing, and the overall dynamic we create with our partner. As the song changes, so should our dance.

And if we do dance these phrases differently, we create a dynamic and growing dance, riding the rollercoaster of energy that good songs have. If we don’t, we miss an opportunity to be musical, to create variation in our dance, and to engage our partners on a different level.

How much do you pay attention to making one phrase feel different from another in your dancing? How much do you just focus on the phrase change? Have you ever been taught how to phrase in the way described above? Teachers, do you work with your students on this level of musicality, either hearing the music in this way or how to dance to it in this way?

Moving beyond rhythm

As I work with my students on musical interpretation, I often have them focus on articulating the lyrics of a song. But every time I do this, at least one student points out the difficulty of hearing the melody, adding that they naturally turn to the rhythm.

The rhythm is often dominant in the music we dance to, in part because it has a driving beat that lends itself to swing, but also in part because much of the music we dance to today is increasingly rhythm-heavy. This makes the rhythm easy to hear, but the problem with letting it drive our dancing is that the rhythm of a song is inherently flat. Sure, a good beat often compels us to dance, but the primary purpose of a rhythm section in a band is to keep time, and to that end it is deliberately repetitive and monotonous. If we let the timing of the song be our only guide, we might as well dance to a metronome or someone clapping.

Not only does dancing to the rhythm or timing of a song create flat, monotonous dancing, but flat, monotonous dancing in turn creates a weak foundation for partnership. As humans, when we receive the same stimulus over and over, we start to tune it out. It becomes white noise that fades into the background. The same thing happens with monotonous partner dancing: the repetitive feel of it leads both partners to tune out and detach from one another.

So how do you keep the dance interesting and engaging? A good place to start is by connecting with the variable part of the song: the melody.

The melody is where the variation is. Whereas the rhythm chugs along at a steady pace, the melody ebbs and flows with changes in both rhythm and energy. The melody is also the emotional heart of a song. Whereas rhythm provides the beat and groove for a song, melody expresses the feeling and soul of a song. Whether it’s a voice or an instrument, connecting with the melody not only helps you mix things up but it also gives you emotions to incorporate into your dancing. And dancing that captures emotions is certainly more interesting and engaging.

So learn to hear the melody and learn to connect and stay connected with it in your dancing. You’ll be more likely to have an exciting dance and to create an engaging partnership.

What is easiest for you to hear in a song? Where does your ear naturally go when listening while dancing? How does the genre of music affect what you hear? Teachers, what do you have your students focus on? How do you teach your students to hear different parts of the song?

Leading and following naturally

My apologies for the long silence, but as many of you know, my life has gone through a lot of change over the last few months. I’m happy to say that I’m back online and I’ve got a backlog of posts awaiting your reading and feedback! – Eric

Anyone who has ever walked somewhere with someone else already knows how to lead and follow. And if you’ve ever walked down the street holding someone’s hand, then you know how to lead and follow… while holding someone’s hand.

If you’ve done this you know how to move in a way that guides the other person and in a way that responds to another person – without forcing them, without manhandling them, without hanging onto them. You already know how to move yourself in a way that communicates with someone else without using words.

It’s my belief that the reason so many people struggle with lead and follow is because we as dance teachers give them all sorts of information that distracts from what they already know. We focus you on how to hold hands, how to hold your arms, where to lead, and where to put your feet. Plus, we teach classes focused on patterns, where the leader learns how to move the follower and the follower learns to do what he wants. The result is a mindset in which “leading” becomes equated with “dictating” and “following” means “being forced.”

I started working with my students last month to shift the current paradigm, attempting to define “leading” and “following” as something other than “move” and “be moved.” For the leaders, we looked at the physical change in leading that results when you think of it as “inviting” – invite the follower to go down the slot, invite the follower to go under your arm, invite the follower in and back out. The body movement is the same, but nature and feel is more relaxed, more natural, and, well, more inviting. For the followers, we looked at just going where you were being directed. The followers assume the responsibility of moving themselves, which improves their posture, balance, and ultimately their body flight. It also takes the mental focus off of the leader and puts it more on what they feel, which helps to avoid anticipation and anxiety about what is being led. The result for both partners is more in line with what we do naturally when we guide and are guided through physical contact.

It never ceases to amaze me how much our mindset affects and influences how our bodies move and react. By returning to what our bodies already know, and adopting a different mindset about what it means to lead and follow, we can establish a more relaxed, trusting, and stable partnership, which opens the possibilities for collaboration and creativity.

How do you think of leading and following based on what you’ve learned? How does this new paradigm above make you think about your role in the dance? Teachers, what do you think about leading and following and does the way you teach reinforce that idea or something else?

Push it real good

Alright, people, we’ve got to address a serious problem facing our community. We’ve all faced it, felt its effects, and yet we continue to let it permeate our dancing.

That’s right. I’m talking about our failure to properly compress. 

Let’s get something straight: compression is a kind of connection, and connection is the result of movement. In this case, the movement of one partner towards the other, or both partners towards each other. Compression happens as the partners get close together and reach the closest they can get. The prime example of compression is the push break, one of the most basic and fundamental patterns of the dance, where the follower moves into the leader, creating compression, and then is sent back to the end of the slot.

So compression happens as one partner moves closer to the other, but it’s not so simple – there’s more to it than that. In order to create compression, some fundamental technique must be in place. 

For one, the partners must maintain their posture, such that they are moving from their centers and their centers are in front of their feet. At the same time, they should be holding their own weight, and not leaning forward such that their partner are supporting most of their weight. Of course, all too often, during a push break, you see followers who not only don’t bring their centers forward, but actually lean back, reaching with their feet and pushing their hips forward instead.

This leads me to the second important technique: following through. On a push break, the compression results from the follower moving into the leader, but frequently followers slow and stop themselves before they get to full compression. Not only is this anticipating (and thus poor following) but it is poor technique and sacrifices proper connection. The follower must continue and go forward as far as she can, making the leader do the work of slowing her down and stopping her by absorbing her weight as she comes in. (The leader should allow the follower to come in and compress, rather than abruptly stopping her by keeping his arms out in front of him. Which leads me to my next point…)

Third, we call this compression because there is actual compressing involved – compressing of the frame. If the arms, shoulders, and elbows are relaxed (as part of proper frame), then as the leader draws the follower in, his hands will get closer to his center, and as the follower moves into the leader, she will move her center in towards her hands. As a result, the distance between the partners narrows, and the pattern is literally compressed. This elasticity in the arms is also what creates the elasticity in the connection, providing a build up of energy during compression that facilitates the movement out of compression.

Finally, while some people may learn to create compression by doing all of the above, there is still the matter of properly and effectively exiting from compression. If compression results from the follower moving into the leader, then the next natural movement is to have the follower move away from the leader. As always, whenever there is a change of direction, the leader should initiate from his center (rather than his arms) and the follower should wait for his signal and then be proactive in her response. On top of this, the partners should not push the other away – pushing engages the arm muscles and creates a jarring experience for the partner. Rather, the leader should initiate the follower away with his body only, and the follower should send her center away from her own hands (the reverse of compressing). This is not only a more comfortable way to exit, but it ensures both partners maintain their posture and thus are more balanced and stable in their movement.

Compression is a difficult to master as extension, though we rarely spend as much time working on it. However, a focus on maintaining the fundamental technique of movement – from the center with proper frame – can dramatically improve one’s compression along with any other change in connection.

What are your observations of how people compress on the dance floor? What goes wrong and when does it feel right? At what point in your dance education did you first learn compression and what were you taught? At what point after you first learned about compression did you feel you learned how to do it properly? And teachers, how do you approach the subject with your students? What exercises or approaches have you found to work best in order to help your students understand and execute properly?