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Ouch! That swollen shin, scraped foot, sore shoulder… these are not things that we should be experiencing after a blues dance, right? Dancing is and should be an enjoyable physical experience for all, allowing us to leave the dance floor feeling happy not only from social interaction, but also from physical movement.

That being said, it can be difficult to avoid injury at times on the social dance floor. I have heard many people complain that a lead “yanks” their arm, that another couple on the dance floor was not watching where they were going, which resulted in feet being stepped on, and plenty of other stories of dangerous encounters on the dance floor.

What to do? Should we just try to avoid dancing with the people who made us feel we might be injured? Should we feel offended if someone tells us that we’ve just done something that felt uncomfortable or painful?

First of all, the number one thing to remember in partner dancing is that this is a shared experience. It is not about you. It isn’t about making you look good, nor is it about how many different moves you can do to show off to your partner. It is not about how far you can flair your leg out or how gracefully you can whip your arm around. Showing off is fun, yes, and doing big moves is perfectly acceptable, as long as we are conscientious of our surroundings, and we don’t get carried away.

Not only is partner dancing an experience that you share with your partner, it is also an experience you share with the other couples on the dance floor. This means that as a lead or a follow, you need to be mindful not only your partner’s bodily safety, but also that of the other couples around you.

Here are some solutions to common problems I have seen and/or experienced on the social dance floor, and some of this advice can be extended into other specific scenarios, as well:

 

  1. The “arm yank.”

This tends to occur when the lead gives too forceful of a lead to try to get the follow to do a spin or a turn. It can result in major arm and shoulder injuries, such as dislocation, that leave dancers out of commission for weeks, if not months. That said, it is also up to the follow to pay attention in order to protect herself.

As a lead, when you want a follow to do a turn or a spin, you simply need to raise her hand up into the air to her forehead level, and gently point it in the direction you wish for her to spin. You do NOT need to do any sort of stirring or circular motion with your hand, nor do you need to try to move her hand around quickly in order to get her to spin quickly. She can hear the music, and follow the rhythm of the music in her own spin. It is perfectly okay to leave it up to the follow to control the speed of her own spin. She will feel much more in control and less like she is just being “yanked” around in the dance if you let her do this.

As a follow, there can be some warning signs that the “arm yank” might happen in a dance. If you feel that he is already leading way too forcefully for you, you can be on your guard and follow his lead a bit more cautiously. Strictly speaking, this means you will probably move less. If he starts to lead you in a turn or spin that feels like it is not going to be good for your arm, you do not have to follow the turn. You can tense up your arm and shoulder and pull it back down. If you do this, though, you will probably need to explain to the lead that the way he was moving your arm felt uncomfortable, and you would like a less forceful lead. I am not one to advocate teaching on the dance floor, but if you feel you are about to get hurt, it is important to speak up and tell your partner what they can do to make you feel safer.

 

  1. Stepping on others’ toes or feet.

This is definitely the most common danger on the dance floor, and even the most experienced dancers step on others’ toes and feet from time to time. Even so, there are things we can do to avoid it. There is this thing called “floorcraft,” and if you have not yet learned this word, you will learn it now!

Floorcraft is the ability to dance with your partner while also paying attention to the entire dance floor and where you are on the floor. Simply put, it is spatial awareness. This means you are aware of the other couples on the floor and where they are, and where there is space for you and your partner.

To have good floorcraft, it does take some practice and conscientiousness. I know that a lot of people like to try to blues dance with their eyes closed, in order to more clearly feel what their partner’s body is doing. This is perfectly fine, as long as you do not do it for the entire song, and as long as you don’t travel across the dance floor this way. Why not do it for the entire song, if you are not going to travel across the dance floor?? Well, you do not know what might be coming at you from elsewhere, and other couples will not always have good floorcraft.

To that end, preventing danger in blues dancing is as much about keeping yourself from hurting others as it is about keeping others from hurting you. If you are leading a dance and you are not travelling across the floor, but you see another couple coming straight towards you quickly, and don’t think that they will be able to stop in time before hitting you or your partner, it is time to change plans and travel a bit so you can move out of their way. This means opening your eyes often enough to know where people are on the dance floor, and definitely keeping your eyes open as you move and travel around the floor yourself.

While a lot of the prevention of stepping on others’ toes and feet is up to the lead, follows can also participate in this by keeping your feet underneath your body, and not making your steps larger than they need to be. If a lead is pushing me away from him out into open position, I will move myself using my core (abdomen + hips) first, feet following. This will help to keep my feet underneath my own body, and not straying out into space that maybe another couple was using for their feet.

Another important tip for follows (or whoever might wear heels) is that we should wear shoes that will not seriously injure someone else if we step on their feet. Any time I see a woman wearing stiletto heels at a dance event, it makes me scared both for the woman (that she might twist her ankle) and for myself, that she might step on my foot and injure me. Ladies, if you are going to wear heels, make sure they are heels that are low and thick enough to be appropriate for social dancing.

 

  1. Bruised hands

You might be asking me, “How do one’s hands become bruised from blues dancing?” The answer: Squeezing each other’s hands!

This is fundamental, and something I teach in every beginners’ lesson. Both leads and follows are responsible to maintain hand contact when necessary during the dance, but not to grab onto each other’s hands and squeeze. Bottom line: DON’T USE THUMBS!

What do you do if your lead or your follow is squeezing your hands? As I said before, I try to not give any tips or teaching on the social dance floor, unless I feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In this situation, I find it easiest to not say anything if I can get away with it, and simply trying to wiggle my fingers around in his hand, so to loosen his grip. When I do this, he usually gets the point and changes his grip. If he doesn’t get it, I will ask him to please loosen his grip on my hand, or stop squeezing my hand. I have almost never gotten any kind of negative reaction from this, and he is almost always apologetic and changes what he is doing.

Grabbing onto each other’s hands will not only lead to possible hand bruising; it can also lead to wrist or arm twisting and injuries. This is why it is very important to learn and practice hand-hold techniques and always be conscientious of your partner’s body and comfort.

 

  1. Being dropped(!)

This has to be the mother of all dance dangers, and the fear in the backs of the minds of all follows. This situation happens the most at the ends of songs, when leads try to dip their follows with a flourish. However, like any other dance danger, it is both parties’ responsibility to try to prevent it and do what they can to be safe.

As a lead, if you are inexperienced and want to try a dip, ask a teacher to show you how to do a dip, or at least watch how the more experienced dancers do it. Study it first, and try it in a safe situation, such as when you are with other people who can spot you and give advice. Soft flooring or ground also helps.

Important things for a lead to remember when trying a dip is that the follow should be holding up most if not all of her own weight in the dip, unless you are very experienced and are doing a more weight-sharing type of dip. As a beginner, the only dip I suggest trying is the “sit dip.” I call it this because the follow’s body goes into a sitting position, while your hand provides the “back of the chair” for her.

Likewise, it is very important for follows to know that they should be holding up most if not all of their own weight in a dip. This means that you are not going to throw yourself back into his arms super-dramatically and expect him to hold you up and catch you; this could catch him off-guard and result in him not catching you. It is also not good for your spine to lean your upper torso all the way back into his arms. In a dip, follows need to take caution and feel out how he is leading the dip. In the “sit dip,” which is the dip I recommend for beginners and intermediates, it is important to stick your butt out and pretend like you are sitting on an invisible chair. Don’t be self-conscious; it looks better than you probably think it does. And if you are holding up most of your own weight, the chances of him dropping you are slim to none.

As a final note regarding dropping people in dancing, this can also happen during lifts and attempted lifts. It is extremely important to not try any lifting or weight-sharing if you are inexperienced and do not have a professional teacher with you showing you how, along with spotters and soft flooring. Additionally, it is very important to not do any lifts on the social dance floor, as they are too big of moves and will likely hurt people around you. Lifts are rare in blues dancing, anyway, and you will be better off leaving your partner on his or her own feet.

 

  1. Elbow or hand contact with the face

If being dropped is the biggest fear of all follows, then this is the biggest fear of all leads. This will mostly happen mid-turn or spin, and results from the follow not positioning her arms properly. This especially happens when a lead is turning a follow during the process of bringing her into closed position.

In any lesson in which you are learning how to do a spin or turn, your teacher should show you proper arm positioning for all stages of the turn. To break it down:

A. When a lead is leading an open turn that will not result in the follow coming into closed position, her free hand should stay at her side, readily available for the lead to pick up, but not flailing and not raising up.

B. When a lead is leading a turn that will result in the follow going into closed position, he will signal this by touching his fingers on the side of her ribcage as he folds her into his arm.

C. When the follow feels this touch on the side of her ribcage, that is the cue to lift up her free arm. How high should she lift it? It should be just high enough to clear the lead’s shoulder, and not any higher. Err on the side of hitting him in the chest, as this hurts MUCH less than being hit in the face with an elbow. Generally speaking, he will be tall enough that you can lift your hand up high enough that your wrist is in line with your own eyes, as though you are looking at your watch. However, if he is shorter than you, you may have to adjust this.

 

Conclusion

The most important things to remember regarding safety in blues dancing are:

  • Blues dancing is a shared experience, so be conscientious of those around you, and be cautious.
  • Do not try to teach or give tips on the social dance floor, but DO tell your partner if they are making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
  • Learn good dance technique through lessons, and practice in safe environments.

As you gain more experience, these ideas will embed themselves in your dancing, and you will be able to dance with almost anybody and feel safe. So keep practicing, communicate with your partner, and protect yourself!

Photo by Shane Karns

There is an age old debate in social dance scenes. When, if ever, is teaching okay on the dance floor? Ask a dozen different dancers and you’ll probably get a dozen different replies. Some people forbid it outright, some people feel like it’s their duty. Most people fall somewhere in between. Here we’ll discuss the merits of both ends, as well as the most common solutions to the issue.

 

On the Dance Floor

In many dance scenes, any kind of teaching on the dance floor is considered rude. Especially if there are lessons before the dance, many blues scenes try to keep a clear line between class time and dance time. In these scenes, people just want to have fun during dances. When the music starts and the lights dim, you go into social mode. You want to see your friends, talk to people, dance and have a good time. Learning something more is the last thing on your mind. This is also true of teachers, who frequently just want to dance like everybody else, instead of teaching everyone who dances with them. In addition, not everyone has a thorough grasp of dance mechanics. When people start teaching on the dance floor, you get well meaning dancers giving lessons in dance technique that is anywhere from slightly off, to dangerous. While we do not all need to be perfect, technical dancers, discouraging instruction on the dance floor can help minimize passing on dangerous habits. (Dips and tricks are the thing most often taught on a dance floor.) Finally, discouraging teaching also discourages unsolicited feedback. There is nothing worse, for a new dancer especially, than being told after a dance about all the things they need to fix. So many scenes have discouraged any kind of teaching, in order to create an environment that is more welcoming for their dancers.

 

Practicas/Blues Labs

Some dance scenes go the other way and actually make teaching on the social floor an expected and regulated thing. Often called practicas or blues labs, these sessions range from formal dance and feedback sessions with a moderator, to something that looks like a normal dance, but started the night with a quick lesson on how to give and receive feedback. A benefit to these is the spirit of learning they foster. Dancers in these scenes can give and receive feedback gracefully, in a way that is incorporated into the fun, rather than diminishing it. This spirit also allows scenes, especially small scenes without access to professional instruction, to continue growing and improving when they would otherwise stagnate. Practicas are also used as a community building tool, fostering a sense of collaboration and ownership by everyone involved, often helping with retention in those same, smaller scenes.

 

In the Middle

Most dances around the country fall somewhere in the middle. Some allow teaching in their code of conduct only if a partner is doing something dangerous or uncomfortable. In some scenes it is rude to offer feedback, but if feedback is asked for, it is kosher to give it. When you come to a new scene, check in with the host or organizer of the dance you are attending. They should know what the implicit or explicit code of conduct is for that particular dance and can help you navigate whatever the rules and expectations for dance floor teaching may be.

Consent is a topic that has popped up everywhere in the last year and blues dance communities all over the country are no exception. Consent is often brought up as a piece of the larger debate centered around how to make our dances safer and more welcoming places, for both new and existing members.

From Merriam-Webster:

consent – to agree to do or allow something : to give permission for something to happen or be done

When we’re talking about consent in the dance community, there are two categories of things that ‘can be done’ that we talk about. Dance things and non dance things. This article will focus on the dance related consent issues.

Historical Model

The historical model for consent on the dance floor looks something like this. Men are supposed to ask women to dance. Men are often encouraged to ask non-verbally with an extended hand or enticing eyes (maybe borrowed from tango’s cabaseo). If a woman declines, she should give an excuse, then sit out the rest of the dance.

This historical model has some obvious problems. For one it disempowers women. Not only are women not allowed to dance whenever they want, but they are penalized for being discriminating about who they want to dance with. If the people you want to dance with happen to be slower than the creepy guy who always breaths on your neck, you’re out of luck. It breeds a culture of fear and mistrust in women that leads to things like refusing to make eye contact and secret signals to friends when you need a rescue from a would be dance partner. This does not help make our dance scene as welcoming as possible.

At the same time, there are good things about this model. The guys who really believe in the chivalry aspect will often escort their partner back to their seat after a dance, offer to get them water, etc. The model allows them to take on the role of gentleman, which can encourage a really wonderful sense of respect in how they treat the women in their community. Especially when looking at the men who come from tango they treat cabaseo as a way to put the power in a woman’s hands. She may decline the dances she doesn’t want, without the requirement of sitting out because nothing has been said.

So while the historical model has some unfortunate gender issues, there is a sense of politeness and respect that comes from it that can often be very nice.

New Consent Model

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a very new consent model coming primarily out of the recess community. This model prioritizes degendered initiation and explicit verbal consent. Everyone is allowed to ask everyone else to dance and verbal requests are strongly encouraged. This model also takes consent beyond just consent to dance and includes things like consent to be dipped and consent to dance in different positions. Also, a no may be given without a reason and without sitting out for the rest of the dance.

Just like the historical model, dancers often run into some issues here. For many people, asking for explicit verbal consent is scary. Especially if you can receive a no without explanation, that’s a really hard thing to handle and takes a lot of courage. Especially for new dancers, this often makes the community feel less welcoming. And asking for consent for everything, including small dips and close embrace often feels cumbersome. Finally, the degendering of the community may make some new converts uncomfortable. It is true that men especially are often uncomfortable dancing with other men, and may be uncomfortable being asked by men. This is something that may make the community less accessible to new members.

On the other hand, this model certainly has it’s benefits. It is much more empowering to women, since they can ask for dances they want, and aren’t limited by their choices not to dance with some people. An explicit consent model makes it much less likely that anyone’s boundaries will be crossed. It’s true that not everyone will be comfortable dancing in close embrace and it’s nice to have the chance to tell your partner that, rather than awkwardly holding them away with a hand on their shoulder every time they try.

Most modern blues scenes fall somewhere in between these two extremes. At most dances around the country, it is acceptable for women to ask people to dance. There is generally some combination of verbal and non-verbal dance requests, often varying based on the existing familiarity of the partners. Frequently people who know each other well will use non-verbal cues, while still using verbal requests with new people. And most modern blues scenes have become lax on the the ‘if you said no, sit out the song’ rule, though this one is still up for debate in some places.

Overall, the goal of discussing consent in dance scenes is to make those scenes as safe and welcoming for dancers as possible. How that safety is achieved is different across different scenes, and different approaches will resonate with different people. Figure out what makes you, as a dancer, feel safe and comfortable. Then engage with your partners and engage with your scene to help get those needs met. If need be, travel around and find a scene where the expectations of consent most closely match what you want to see. All these things will help make sure we each have safe, comfortable dance scenes for everyone.