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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!