What can turn a great dance into a nightmare one? An elbow to the spine, a sharp stomp on the foot, or even a slap in the face.
You can dance with the smoothest of partners and still experience a violent dance, if either they or the other dancers on the floor lack awareness. And while the odd knock is inevitable when we dance socially, we should be limiting them as much as possible.
So if you’re leaving the night with bruises, or noticing that your partner yelps or winces during the dance, read on for several tips for avoiding collisions.
Be Aware of Your Space
Floorcraft is an essential skill for a good dancer – especially if you’re the lead.
When someone agrees to a dance, don’t just begin as soon as you’re both on the floor. Look for a good spot for you and your partner, even if getting there requires some manoeuvering.
Be aware of other people’s space, as well as what they’re dancing. For example: are you doing cross-body salsa on a predominantly Cuban floor, or Cuban on a cross-body floor? This is dangerous territory; you need to be even more careful than usual. And even if you and everyone else are all dancing cross-body, are you aware of nearby partners’ lines? If most people’s lines run from east to west, don’t be the person that starts dancing from north to south.
What about how the other people around you dance? Do they fling their arms out without looking? Take huge steps? Are they clearly preparing to send their partner spinning into the space you want to step into?
Leads, are you about to take a few steps back? Quickly look behind you, if the dance permits it. (Note, however, that if you have a ponytail or braid, it may end up slapping your partner in the face while you do this, especially if you’re in close hold. Long-haired leads, you may want to consider a high bun or other “safe” hairstyle.)
Followers, if your partner is leading you both backwards, watch out for them. In close hold, a gentle pressure on their back should warn them to stop. In open hold, it’s harder, but try to clutch onto their hands and exert tension.
And on the topic of watching out for your partner…
Be Aware of Your Partner
First of all, don’t hit them! And leads, this is just as important for you as it is for followers.
Followers, be aware of your elbows, especially during turns and spins. Keep them in the “safe zones”: across/close to your body and never sticking out at head height. (That being said, leads, if you place your follower’s hands above their head and turn them, and they keep their line but still elbow you, that’s at least partly on you – just like if you’re still holding the hand or arm that hits you.)
Leads, I know it’s sometimes hard to judge how tall your follower is, but do your best to not hit them in the head… or chest, back, neck… or anywhere. True story: one time, a lead gave me a double false lead followed by a real lead, something which should have been playful and fun. However, since they hit me in the head all three times, “fun” wouldn’t really describe my experience. And while I wish I could say that this is the only time my lead has hit me in the head, that would be a big lie.
Another important point, leads: if your follower resists a move or suddenly stops, allow them to do so instead of trying to force them through it. Maybe they can see an impending collision, maybe they’re in pain, maybe they need to put their shoe back on because it got caught in someone’s stiletto and pulled off, maybe your watch is caught in their hair… Remember, leading is an offer, not a command.
Keep it small! Besides, small steps will give you more control and speed. Unless you’re doing a performance, or a dance that makes use of larger steps (like Brazilian zouk), smaller will always be better.
Leading & Following “Force”
Leads, gentler, smoother leads will generally result in more measured dancing (including smaller steps). Rougher leads will often result in less controlled dancing with partners careening rather than stepping.
What’s more, if there is going to be a collision, it will hurt a lot less if you’re leading gently. The other night, two leads led me into the exact same collision: I was dipped and then swung around into someone else on the dance floor. More specifically, my head was swung into that other person.
The first time, it hurt so badly that I walked off the dance floor clutching my head. The second, I raised an eyebrow at my apologetic lead but finished the song with them (during which they were noticeably more careful when executing dips).
The difference between the two collisions? The first one was leading me too forcefully, flinging me into the dip and then pulling me around before I even had time to react, so that I then collided at speed with the other person. The second one led me gently enough that I could choose to follow the dip and still have control over my movement (even if I couldn’t see the impending collision). In turn, this led to a more controlled, less forceful dip. In other words, this lead led a dip correctly but with poor spatial awareness.
Yes, it is a follower’s responsibility to always have control over their movement and, in doing so, both dance more safely and have more fun while dancing. However, it is a lot easier to do this when you’re not fighting your leads.
So, leads, think gentle. Think control. Think suggest rather than demand. And followers? Only give as much energy as your lead is offering or requesting. Help your partner out by trying to connect to them. The subtler the lead you respond to, the less force the lead needs to use, and the more controlled (and, in my opinion, pleasant) the dance will be.
Arms & Hands
A slap to the face has to be one of the most ranted-about dance floor collisions, and for good reason. Feminine styling often features elegantly extended arms and, with such dramatic movements, it’s tempting to take up as much space as possible. However, while this might look pretty, it can also be painful for others.
Always keep your styled arms/hands within eyesight. This means looking behind you if you extend an arm backwards, or to the side if you extend it sideways. And it also means – and I think the only teacher who I’ve heard mention this is Angelique Sinclaire of London, UK, so I’m going to credit her for this – not having both arms completely out to your sides. Think 130° or so (my number, not Angelique’s) rather than 180°.
Oh, and on a crowded floor? Bent arms take up less space than straight ones.
Shoes (& The Feet Inside Them)
Contrary to reputation, this is as important for men as for women. While I’ve been trodden on by far more stilettoed-shoes than flat ones, my worst foot-induced injuries were all caused by men. In one particular case, it took six weeks for a large lump on my calf to disappear. And the bruise on top of that lump? It was in the neat outline of a Cuban heel.
So, how can we avoid this? Once again, take small steps and watch out for other people. Try not to stomp (yes, I know there’s a whole salsa step for stomping, but save it for when there’s plenty of space). And unless it’s for styling purposes, try to keep your feet relatively close to the ground.
Raising a heeled foot for styling? It’s common to run that foot along your calf. However, in another tip from Angelique Sinclaire, run the bottom of your stiletto heel along your calf instead of your actual heel. This will prevent it from sticking out and acting as a mini-dagger.
Outfits & Hairstyles
Got beaded tassels on your top? Long hair? A plaited beard? All of these have one thing in common: they’re long, whip-like things that could easily hit your partner mid-dance. Anything that could fly into other people’s dance space is a potential weapon, so pay close attention to what you’re wearing when getting ready to go dancing.
Oh, and remember: outfits can exacerbate other forms of collisions. A slap in the face stings a lot more when there’s a chunky ring involved.
Before you step foot on the dance floor, take a moment to evaluate it. Specifically, is it slippery?
We’ve all danced somewhere where a well-meaning but non-dancing venue owner decided to polish the floor before the event, leading to dancers slipping and sliding everywhere. When the floor is very slippery, tone down your dancing until you’re sure that no, that triple spin won’t result in the spinner flying away and colliding with another couple. (Yes, that’s a true, and painful, story.)
Dips, Lifts, & Leans
First of all, for the leads: if in doubt, don’t do them. And learn how to recognise all the signs that you shouldn’t dip this particular follower.
Secondly, make sure you know how much space your follower needs. Remember, some followers are more flexible than others, some have longer torsos or legs than others. It can also be hard for the follower to judge exactly how far they’re being dipped, especially when it’s done at speed or they’re not used to deep dips. (And if it’s your first time dipping a particular partner, please don’t opt for both deep and fast – I’m sure I’m not the only follower who’s had their head dipped into the floor that way.)
Remember that if your follower’s feet are in the wrong place, they might dip in an unexpected way. Make sure you know that they’re capable of following both the dip and the particular sequence leading up to it that you’ve chosen.
A hand on the back of the follower’s head is also a nice way to make sure that you can quickly and smoothly pull them back out of the way, should you see an impending collision.
Followers, we’re not off the hook here, either. We also share responsibility. No, we can’t normally see what direction our head and torso are going in and so have to trust our lead. And yes, with some dips, we give over complete control to that lead. But for the majority of dips, we maintain control of our own body and of our weight and balance.
Tense your core and allow yourself to gently dip, rather than throwing yourself into it. It will help you to execute the move in a more measured, controlled, and ultimately safer way.
And if you can’t hold your own weight and/or don’t trust your partner? Check out Robin Campbell’s advice for resisting dips.
And If There’s A Collision?
No matter our best intentions, we all mess up sometimes (myself most definitely included). Collisions on the dance floor will occasionally happen. So, what should you do? Apologise! It’s that simple.
You should also probably prioritise apologising to the most injured person. It’s frustrating to get hit in the head or neck, only to notice that the people responsible are too busy apologising to each other to ask if you’re okay.
Know that, after a collision (no matter who caused it), your partner might need a moment to recover. That could mean waiting an eight-count, sitting out the next song, or even going home.
If this does happen, you don’t have to wait out with your partner the whole time. However, don’t just dive back onto the dance floor, either. Make sure they’re sat somewhere comfortable and offer to get them water or ice. Ask if they have painkillers and, if not, would they like you to ask around for some. Check back in with them later to see how they’re doing. Don’t be the person who ignores the fact that their partner is in pain (and definitely don’t be the person who gets grumpy with them for it, either).
The key to handling collisions? Being considerate.
Bonus Point: Teachers – Teach This!
Teachers, your role is to teach us to dance safely. And that includes floorcraft, partner awareness, and everything else this article has covered.
I’ll always remember telling a teacher that, during a travelling cross-body neck-led turn, every single lead except them had hit me in the head, only for that teacher to laugh, inform me that the problem was the leads rather than me, and then continue the class without telling those leads. Don’t be this teacher.
Going over styling for social dancing? Make sure that people are looking at where they’re extending their arms. Teaching dips or a move that takes the couple backwards? Stress the importance of looking for space. About to start the social? Remind people to pick their spot carefully and watch out for other people on the floor.
Because what you don’t teach your students, they won’t do.
I’ve left the dance floor aching many times, and I’m sure you have too. Sometimes, this aching is the sign of a great night: my feet are throbbing from dancing for eight hours straight.
But sometimes, it’s not so great. It’s not my feet that are throbbing; it’s my head. Or I’m counting the bruises on my arms. Or my back is stiff and twinging. (And that’s not to mention the unfortunate people who end up on crutches or unable to dance for weeks to come.)
So, let’s try to avoid how many times this happens. Let’s start by paying attention to the dance floor, to our partners, and our outfits. Let’s watch out for other people, as well as looking where our arms and legs are going. And let’s think smaller, safer, more controlled dancing.
After all, our partners will thank us for it.