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!
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.
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.
“How long have you been dancing?” I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times while dancing with a new lead. It’s always stymied me why that would matter. A much better question to ask a newly met lead/follow would be, “When was the last time you took a class? What did you learn?”
Years of dancing frequently equate to better dancing, but that is not always the case. Once the first rush of passion for this new hobby (or new style of dance) passes, many people stop attending classes, stop improving, and reach a plateau of dance quality. Often, it’s scary and difficult to learn new things, and without the excitement and interest generated by the freshness of a new hobby, there’s no incentive to move past the discomfort of learning something new. People become content to dance in the same comfortable way for years. Frankly, I can’t deny that I fall into the exact same rut myself every couple years. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the comfortable approach, there are quite a few reasons why you should fight inertia and keep working on your blues dancing, whether that’s through classes or in other ways.
First, and let’s be honest here, most of us aren’t as good as we think we are. Judging the quality of social dancing is a subjective undertaking, so what works for one lead/follow might not work for another one. Classes, particularly private or small group lessons, are a good way to get honest feedback on the areas where improvement is warranted. More importantly, professional or semi-professional instructors can teach you how to improve. The better you are as a dancer, the more people will want to dance with you and, chances are, the more fun you’ll have while dancing.
Perhaps you already have a humongous amount of fun dancing and everyone is always lining up to dance with you. If so, good for you! But wouldn’t it be neat to learn something new? Whether it’s a very old move reincarnated by a dedicated instructor who searched through archive videos for months or crossover styling introduced by someone who’s an expert in another type of dance, it is thrilling to throw in a new move just at that amazing moment when the music calls for it. Classes or dedicated experimentation with a partner are both great ways to expand your toolbox so you’ll never be left hanging, wishing you knew how to truly express your reaction to the music.
I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, which has developed a thriving blues scene over the years thanks to some extremely dedicated folks, but in my travels I’ve met plenty of people who live in smaller towns or places where blues dancing is a niche hobby, at best. For anyone in that situation, I strongly encourage you to travel to classes, workshops, or exchanges to learn more about blues dance and bring that knowledge back with you. Alternatively, you can work with the growing cadre of traveling instructors to have them bring workshops to you. Classes are a great way to revitalize a small dance scene and build a strong sense of community.
If traveling or bringing in instructors isn’t an option, the internet has a plethora of dancing videos. Watch them, imitate them, add your own style. To get a sense of where you’re at with your own dancing, get someone to make a video of you dancing with different leads/follows and study the tapes of yourself. Where do you look goofy? Does your lead/follow ever look like they’re just putting up with you to be nice? Is there anything that looks really good that you want to continue doing or a place where it would be good to add a little polish? Practice, practice, practice, and then repeat.
Other reasons to keep working on your blues dancing have to do with age and injury. Let’s face it: nobody is getting any younger. As you get older, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that gravity, genetics, old injuries, and life in general can work together to make it harder to dance like you used to. Even if you’re still young and spry, dancing is a full body pursuit. Whether caused by dancing or something else entirely, an injury to any part of your body can wreak havoc on your ability to do certain things while you dance. Don’t let age and injury keep you from the joys of blues dancing and the amazing community that goes along with it. Yet another benefit of taking classes or working with dance instructors one-on-one is that they have a wide variety of experience at teaching dancers how to adapt to their personal, physical needs. Some instructors will do this better than others, and it’s important to remember that they’re not doctors or sports therapists (note: unless they actually are). However, there is no group of people more knowledgeable about how to adapt and keep dancing. If you have a problem with some part of your body not working the way you think it should, they’ve probably run across it before and can give you advice on how to work around it.
Finally, keep working on all kinds of dancing, not just blues dancing. Learning other kinds of dance—swing, tango, hip hop, ballroom, African, and beyond—can have a measurable effect on your blues dancing ability, too. The stronger you are as a dancer and the more you work on the craft of dancing in general, the better your blues dancing will be. The best blues dancers I know are the best overall dancers I know, too. It’s not a coincidence.
And whatever you do, keep dancing! I’ll see you out there.
1. Dance blues.
Okay, sure, there are some well-known blues DJs who don’t actually dance. And they are successful, right? Well, sometimes. However, it makes DJing blues MUCH easier if you actually do the dance yourself. You get a feel for what makes a song “danceable,” and what rhythms are interesting to dance to and which are not. You learn which songs are your favorites to dance to, and which songs make you and your friends want to leave the dance floor. It’s also good if you can try dancing to your own music that you are going to DJ – you can test it out and see if it is fun to dance to, and then if it is, maybe sneak a dance or two during your own set while DJing! Double the fun.
2. Get involved in the community.
Get to know the organizers of the venues and help them however you can. Invite friends to go dancing. Get to know your local blues dance DJs. Make friends in the community. If you have friends on the dance floor, it makes DJing a much more fun and comfortable experience.
3. Collect music, and know your music.
This is the obvious one, of course, but it is something that you have to take your time doing. And by time, I mean hours upon days upon weeks upon months. Research what blues music is defined as, and what types of blues music there are, as well as what styles of blues dance people may want to do to each kind. When you hear a song you like and you don’t know its name, find out what it is and write it down. Search for it later and download it. Use sites like Pandora to discover new songs that you might not have heard on the dance floor before. Find a way of organizing your music files to be easily searched and browsed. And listen to your music A LOT. You need to know your music inside and out, so that in a pinch, you can whip up a set without any prep time.
4. Learn the ropes.
Like I said above, get to know your local blues dance DJs, and if you can shadow a friend who DJs, this will help you learn things that you need to learn before actually DJing other than how to pick out songs. There are knobs to be turned and wires to be familiar with. Of course, each venue will have its own set of those that you will have to become familiar with, but it does come into play every single time. Being familiar with all the technology you need to use definitely helps in keeping a set running smoothly.
5. Ask to DJ!
Once you’ve collected a lot of music, gotten comfortable with it, and done some practice sets at home and at friends’ houses or house parties even, ask around at venues to see if they will let you DJ a short set. New DJs usually don’t get paid much if at all, so don’t expect much for a while, and you probably won’t get much more than a 15-minute or half hour set starting out. Take what you can get, and remember, stay humble and thankful for the opportunities you get! Even though DJing is work, it is work to be earned. Once people see that you know your stuff, you’ll be asked to DJ more. And don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and just ask! Venues are often looking to keep a good variety of DJs.
6. Know your dance venue and its expectations.
If you are going to DJ at a venue that always just plays traditional blues, then ONLY play traditional blues in your set! If you’re DJing somewhere that allows you to play some blues and some alternative stuff – turquoise, fusion, whatever you want to call it – take that freedom, but also follow what the venue outlines for you. If they ask you to play half blues and half fusion, keep track of how many songs you’re playing that are fusion and don’t go overboard. If you are DJing at a venue that you know lindy hoppers frequent, choose some blues songs that might also be appropriate for lindy. It’s all about knowing your venue and knowing the dancers.
7. Watch the crowd.
DJing takes constant vigilance. Watch the expressions on people’s faces, watch how they are dancing. This is when being a dancer yourself also comes in handy, because you know what people’s facial expressions or body language during dancing might mean. Watch to see what kind of mood people seem to be in, and whether they are into the more energetic, jukin’ songs, or if they’re feeling a more subdued or slow-drag mood. That said, it is important to also change things up and not stay in one song type for long. Choose songs that share one or two elements to be played next to each other, but make sure there is also enough variation and contrast. Keep it interesting, but not jarring! This is when knowing your music is very important.
8. Ask for feedback.
Ask your friends who were on the dance floor what they thought, and ask for a completely honest opinion. People will like your music or not, and you will have to get used to people talking about your sets behind your back. Hopefully they will talk to you directly and let you know if they really enjoyed it, but if there were songs that weren’t so great and you didn’t realize it, you won’t necessarily find out unless you ask. Get on blues DJ forums or groups online, so you can test out songs on blues dancing audiences before taking them to the dance floor.
9. Have fun!
If you are not enjoying DJing or playing blues music, or if you decide that you just hate sitting around playing music instead of dancing, then maybe DJing is not for you. It can be stressful at times, and it is work, but if you breathe and take every hiccup or failure as a learning experience, DJing will get easier and more fun with time.
Go to other towns and visit their dance venues or dance events. DJ or don’t. But it is good, regardless, to get yourself out of your comfort zone, and out of your local scene, where you can hear some different music and see how it’s done elsewhere. Learning different perspectives and meeting more people will help you relate with your crowd more and understand better how to DJ in different scenarios. Don’t be afraid to ask in advance, if you know you will be travelling somewhere, to see if you can DJ at one of their local venues for a set. It’s refreshing to be the “out of town” DJ and be surrounded by different dancers who might respond differently to your music. Proceed with caution, but have confidence in your knowledge of your music and ability to read the crowd.
Last words: It is a combination of humility and confidence that can help you succeed in anything, so keep that in mind. It is very important to have both of these as a blues DJ!