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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?!”

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.

“You have a beautiful woman in your arms, and you’re thinking?!”

The glory of ballroom dancing

In my view, good floor craft is one of the most impressive attributes of ballroom dancing. It is not only one of the primary responsibilities of the gentleman, but a thrilling part of the dance itself.

In the competitive dance world, floor craft can be exciting for the audience. 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.

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.

Accidents happen

I’ve made mistakes in reading the dance floor, or simply haven’t seen someone coming up from behind me, and as a result accidents have happened. There are times you can’t avoid a collision. 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. This is especially true in faster dances like Quickstep, where sudden changes or syncopated figures make it exceptionally hard for the lady to follow when you apply something she was not ready for. When changes are made, make them in such a way that your partner is comfortable with the change. Here are some ways to deal with floor issues:

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.

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.

Change 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? You also have the option in some cases of speeding up your normal choreography to get through an opening in the floor before it closes. This is more challenging and because it is harder for your follow, it should be avoided. Using extra time is almost always preferred.

Change your step pattern.

The last resort is to change your choreography. 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. One of my favorites in Waltz is a combination of Reverse Corte and Closed Impetus, which continues to move as you swivel right and then left until you can clear the barrier to progress. Changing your planned choreography is challenging, 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 floor craft.

George Pytlik

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the Senior (30+) Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in Senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in 30+ Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy are professional teachers with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • James Simmons says:

    What about “Floorcraft” for those of us who dance at clubs and cruise ships? Is it different from the “Floorcraft” couples use in a Dance Studio’s Student Dance Nites?

    Should we be aware that there are ONLY (2) types of Dance Styles that are always done at Social clubs and other Bar & Lounge venues?

    • George Pytlik says:

      Floor craft is floor craft. The venue doesn’t matter. It’s simply the art of avoiding collisions and creating space to dance effectively. During a social dance on the Delta Dance Alaska cruise in 2019, one gent who was unaware of floor craft kept running into people and was getting increasingly agitated. Eventually he yelled at someone and stormed off the floor. He had been dancing what looked like memorized patterns that he stuck to no matter who was in the way. He had never adapted his dancing to the application of floor craft. I don’t understand your second comment about two styles. There are more than two styles. I’ve observed many styles in such venues. In some communities or geographic regions dance might be limited to a couple of styles. For example, when I travel in Alberta, Texas or Mexico I’ll find specific styles used almost exclusively, but in other regions I’ll come across many styles being used.

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