On the road one day, I noticed a driver next to me completely oblivious to the fact that his lane was blocked ahead. Even though I had given him chances to move over, it wasn’t until he came right up to the obstruction that it dawned on him his way was blocked. I thought about how often I’ve been seeing this kind of thing on the dance floor.
Floor craft is the skill of creating space on the dance floor. The purpose is to show off the lady as well as to be free to move, unencumbered by other dancers blocking your space. This is as much a technical skill as the footwork, frame and dynamics of dance movements. Yet it seems that a large number of guys are so busy thinking about their technique that they’re completely forgetting about managing their space on the floor. As Luca Baricchi famously put it, “You have a beautiful woman in your arms, and you’re thinking?!”
“You have a beautiful woman in your arms, and you’re thinking?!”
Not long ago I watched incredulously as a gentleman, while looking right at me the entire time, proceeded to ram his poor partner’s head into my lady’s back despite the fact that I had stopped several seconds earlier to give him opportunity to move around us. I couldn’t understand what would possess him to use his partner as a battering ram, except that he must have been so busy thinking that he wasn’t.
When I was younger, my friends and I were passionate about trying to prove who was best at “reading the road.” This is the skill of trying to figure out what other drivers are going to do. We would look at other cars. By analyzing the type, age and color of the car, as well as general behavior on the road, we would try to figure out if the drivers were male or female, their ages and whether they were aggressive or defensive or attentive or sloppy. The goal was to try to determine what the other drivers were going to do next before they knew themselves.
One of my friends was better at this than anyone else. He took reading the road to new levels. I recall one day, as he was preparing to turn right, long before we could see around the corner, he exclaimed, “What’s that guy doing in my lane?” I wondered how he knew there was a car, because I couldn’t see around the corner. He answered that he could see the reflection in the mirrored glass of the building across the street. In the years that followed, these competitive “road craft” exercises built habits that saved me from countless accidents.
In the aviation world, this is called “situational awareness.” It means knowing where all the other planes are around you, what direction they’re going and what they are likely to do next. It takes effort and practice to develop in any field, but it’s worth it.
The glory of ballroom dancing
In my view, good floor craft is the glory of ballroom dancing. It is not only one of the primary responsibilities of the gentleman, but a thrilling part of the dance itself.
When you watch a sporting event, it is not necessarily the fastest player or best goal scorer who captures your excitement and makes a game fun; it’s the unexpected achievements of one player. The lone hockey forward who winds his way through the defense to place himself in front of the net. The Formula 1 driver who can pass car after car on corners where others can’t seem to manage. The quarterback who twists, leaps and zigzags his way around the defensive tackle to score a touchdown. We thrill to these moments, getting up from our seats and shouting encouragement in support of those victories. I believe it’s just as exciting for the audience to watch a competitive couple on the dance floor find the open space on the floor when everyone else is huddled in a messy ball in one corner.
I recall one dance competition in which a couple with much shorter stature than my 6-foot frame were heading straight for us during a Waltz. With another couple only a few inches away there was little room for all three couples to fit. So I led Wendy into a High Check and allowed the traveling couple to pass underneath our arms — with room to spare. The audience loved it.
Who’s responsibility is it?
In ballroom dancing, alignment and direction are the gentleman’s responsibility. For the most part, so is floor craft. But that doesn’t mean the lady can’t help. When he’s going backwards, she will be his eyes. She can signal with her own body that there’s an object directly behind him. But she shouldn’t take control. If she tries to stop the movement when he’s trying to create momentum to squeeze through an opening, the entire dance will suffer. If she signals him with her own body cues, he can respond appropriately. A good male dancer will seem to effortlessly move through a crowded dance floor, never appearing to be affected by the other couples. In practice, that’s usually the result of both partners working together seamlessly, including the lady’s ability to follow changes in direction or steps.
The power of trust
The lady needs to give her partner freedom by trusting in him. Too often I’ve danced with partners who tense up and stop all my options when space gets tight ahead, a sign that they don’t trust me to deal with the situation. That makes solutions much harder to apply, partly because you wonder if she’ll even be able to read what you’re leading. The lady needs to trust completely, allowing the man to take advantage of the opportunities when they come.
Floor craft isn’t easy, especially if your choreography is new or your partnership is new, because it becomes harder to apply your mental energy to this part of dancing. The lead has to hear the music, listen for the phrasing, lead his partner into the steps, and watch the floor around him so that he knows where space will free up in the next few seconds. Floor craft is not about where space is available now, but where the space will be when you arrive there. As you gain experience, working on this makes it possible to develop “eyes in the back of your head.” A very experienced lead will instinctively feel when there’s someone behind him, using everything from auditory cues to his partner’s pressure to even the way the air feels. I’ve learned to listen for such subtle things as the rustle of a dress or heels on the floor to know where people are behind me.
A dying art?
Unfortunately, an organization called the WDSF, the governing body for most amateur dance competition worldwide, in its seemingly endless quest to put ballroom dancing into the Olympics, is rapidly moving away from floor craft as an element of ballroom dance. The WDSF is attempting to create a judging system where each couple dances individually rather than as a group. The result of this approach has been final rounds judged in the same way as skating competition, with points awarded for different elements rather than placings awarded on a comparative basis.
This approach has taken out the element of floor craft since it no longer has any value. With only one couple on the floor, there’s no way to evaluate how well the couple can deal with traffic and how flexible they are in moving around obstacles without falling apart or losing their technical skills in the process. That’s a real shame, because floor craft is one of the most exciting parts of ballroom dancing.
If this emphasis continues, competitive couples will be even less inclined than ever to put any training into the art of floor craft.
I’ve made mistakes in reading the dance floor, and as a result accidents have happened. There are times you can’t avoid a collision. There are times you’ll turn and be unaware that someone is behind you. But, as one teacher told me years ago, “if you crash into someone, make sure you do it together.” The message was that trust is critical.
Partners need to develop trust to work as one at all times. Usually you can see what’s going on ahead and make adjustments in your routine to take advantage of new space that will shortly become available, or move to a part of the floor that is free of dancers. This involves active dancing — going beyond the moment. The gentleman needs to dance slightly in the future, especially in the Standard dances.
It’s harder to do this in the Latin dances of course, but just as important. At the Canadian Championships in Montreal a few years ago I watched Canadian champions Anton Belyayev and Antoaneta Popova come across a big crowd in the final Paso Doble. Now, the Paso is the hardest dance in which to improvise because of the linkage of choreography to the music. Yet Anton, without missing a beat, simply turned his lady with a beautifully executed series of basic Twist Turns away from the crowd, ending in a highlight exactly on time in an open corner of the floor. She followed as if she knew it was coming, a sign of his excellence as a leader and her skill in following. Brilliantly done!
During the 2007 Vancouver Open, Wendy and I were dancing the Paso Doble when a couple moved directly into the line of travel while we were doing a side-by-side run. We simply parted, without breaking stride, to run on each side of the obstruction, then joined together on the other side to carry on with our routine. It was great fun.
Tips for managing the floor
You don’t need to change your routine or planned steps if there are obstacles in your way. Making a big change is the last resort. Here’s how you deal with floor issues:
1. The first step is to address your energy level. If you were planning to move with power and a couple gets in your way, convert that energy to vertical energy. Simply move less, with smaller steps. In some cases, you can even power up to squeeze through an opening before it closes.
2. The second option is to change direction. You can often change the direction of your step to go around the obstacle. If you are starting a Whisk and Chasse and your way gets blocked, move your Chasse diagonally instead of going down the Line of Dance.
3. Your third option is to draw out your timing. Many steps can be held or stretched out for more bars of music, especially in the Standard dances. You can hold a Hesitation Change, Hover Corte, Wing or Contra Check in Waltz for more than one bar. With a Hesitation, why not do several back and forth on both sides until the obstacle is clear?
4. Your final option is to change your step pattern. You may be able to get by with simple alternatives such as doing multiple Double Reverse Spins which keep you from traveling too much but keep you moving. You can use a basic step like an Outside Change to move around the obstacle, then continue with the steps you planned to do before you were blocked. This is your last resort because it can be challenging to lead, but familiarity with the dance steps available to you can make it powerful.
It’s a good idea to put some focus on floor craft during your practice sessions. Practice on a crowded floor as much as you can, with a goal to keep dancing no matter what happens. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll improve and how much more enjoyment you’ll get out of competing, as well as give to others through the skill of floorcraft.