14: Floorcraft & Etiquette
If you were taught anything at all about the etiquette of ballroom dancing, there’s a good chance it went no further than “circulate around the floor anti-clockwise”, and “don’t cross the centre line”. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal more to being well-mannered on the dance floor, and welcomed by your fellow dancers, than that – particularly at a Social Ballroom Dance rather than a Competition or a Competitive Practice.
The point is that ballroom dancing is not a solitary pastime. You have a partner, and the partnership will work best if partners are considerate to one another (and definitely do not blame the other for mistakes – chances are you were both at fault in some way, even if that was only your inability to make allowances). But more than that: you are sharing the experience of dance with everyone else in the ballroom, and every couple is dependent on every other for the enjoyment of the experience.
Let’s start with the basics: the “moving” dances (Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Samba, Paso Doble) progress around the ballroom anti-clockwise. The length of the dance floor has an imaginary centre line, and dancers do not cross that division (except at the ends to come down the other side) – because to do so would place yourself in the way of oncoming traffic. Neither do you, at any time, dance in a direction contrary to the anti-clockwise flow.
The aim is to avoid bumping into other couples, or even give another couple the fear that you are going to bump into them (but see below). So, as long as everyone trundles along at the same kind of pace and in the same general direction, watches where they are going, and doesn’t break the rules, everything will be fine.
Except it often isn’t fine. Like it or not, the dance floor is occupied by dancers of varying standards. It is inevitable that there will be less-experienced amongst more-experienced dancers, otherwise our hobby would dwindle away to nothing, with no newcomers to replace the “natural wastage” when the venerable elders have to hang up their shoes. And experienced dancers cannot afford to put off newcomers by treating them badly or being inconsiderate – you need their contribution for the future, and you have to realise that you were also a beginner once.
The main problem is when dancers who should know better do not obey the rules. Competition dancers sometimes don’t even acknowledge there are rules, because they have to be so single-minded in following their routines that they have no floorcraft, and then they are surprised that their “wonderful” dancing doesn’t work at a Social Ballroom Dance. In competition, dancers often collide, and that is taken as par for the course. On the social floor, dancers absolutely must not collide – nobody has signed up for a risk of injury. Competition dancers have a new skill to learn before they are welcome to “show off” on a social floor – and that skill is “social ballroom dancing”, which is a very different skill than “competition ballroom dancing”.
For the more-experienced social dancer, the rules have some flexibility: (1) any couples following the rules have right of way over couples who are not; (2) you may disobey the rules only to the extent that you are absolutely certain you will not bump into another couple... or even cause them fear of being bumped (but again, see below).
Inexperienced dancers do not have the skills that will allow them to disobey the rules deliberately, but they might do so inadvertently and might be slow around the floor. Experienced dancers need to make allowance for this (and take it with good grace), but at the same time experienced dancers will not enjoy being overly restricted, so inexperienced dancers must accept that they will have to share the floor!
The fear of being bumped is real, I acknowledge that, but it must not be allowed to become exaggerated – otherwise there will be a race to the bottom, and mediocrity wins out. What is the clearance to be given when passing another couple? It is impossible to say. If a couple is bothered if you come within even 6 feet of them, that is surely unreasonable – and the answer needs to be education. It is much worse for a couple to freeze or change direction when they see someone coming, than to carry on as they were, because by carrying on properly they have definite right of way, and in any case their movement has already been calculated in (or should have been!).
All dancers should be aware of where their skills are lacking, and try to improve. Typical examples:
* LOD: Line-of-Dance – the dancing term for the normal anti-clockwise direction around the floor.
“Floorcraft” is the ability to anticipate the space available to dance into, according to the disposition of the other dancers and their anticipated movement, and adapt your dancing and your choice of steps accordingly. Floorcraft requires an intimate connection with your partner, so that you read each other and react to each other practically instantly. The lady responds to the man’s lead, and if the lady does not respond in quite the way the man expected (because of a bad lead, a developing situation, or just accident), he must adapt. Both of you are involved, and both have a contribution to make. And, if all else fails, you must be able to stop on a dime to avoid collision – chances are, if you are making full use of floorcraft, you probably do not have the right of way!
The key trick to assessing the floor is rotation. Like a radar scan it gives you a sweep of the floor around you and a chance to plan your way through it. You would not reverse a car, or even drive a car forwards, without being very aware of where you are going... so don’t do it on the dance floor either!
Floorcraft is next to impossible if the floor is too narrow (like being on a minor road, with no room to overtake), or if there are too many people on it, or even if the couples are moving in a way that is unpredictable – so the ultimate skill of floorcraft is knowing when not to use it. I like to compare floorcraft to advanced driving skills: a Formula 1 or World Rally Championship car is pretty much useless in an M25 traffic jam, however skilled the driver.
And don’t read into this that it only applies to the “moving” dances. Rumba, Cha Cha Cha, and Jive might not circulate around the floor, so do not require a centre line and a one-way street, but they still move (within their confines). The man (or whoever leads!) still has to direct a Hip Twist & Fan (just as one example) so that the lady is taking her Fan into free space and not space occupied by another couple (or, if collision would be unavoidable, lead a different figure instead).
Floorcraft is the essential skill of Social Ballroom Dancing... and yet no syllabus includes it, and it is not part of any medal test (whether that be Bronze or the highest possible Award) – not even Social Medal Test – so there is little incentive to teach it. You are examined on how well you know your footwork and how nicely you can perform the steps (on an empty floor), but never how well the leader can appropriately apply those steps to navigate an actual busy dance floor, or how well the follower responds. This, in my opinion, is a severe omission by those in control of organised dance.
Other Social Tips
But there is more to ballroom etiquette than traffic rules and floorcraft (and yes, I’ve seen it all – and even, to my embarrassment, committed some of it – so take this as the voice of experience):
* Exceptions to some rules being when you are at a designated “practice dance”.
I realise this all sounds terribly proscriptive, but honestly it’s just common sense and plain common decency (obvious, and second nature, to the great majority, but lacking in just a few who spoil it for themselves and everyone else). Everyone needs to have a good time, and that is in the hands of the entire ensemble – everyone has to play their part.
In more genteel times gone by, it was normal for a ripple of applause at the end of each individual dance. This was a vote of appreciation for the band, or at least appreciation for the DJ’s choice of track.
In case you hadn’t noticed, nobody seems to do this any more. Why not? Are dancers now unappreciative? Do they think that, if it’s not a live band, it doesn’t matter? It does matter. The DJ has used skill and judgement in the choice of music, and if you enjoyed it and enjoyed dancing to it you need to let him/her know, just as much as you might make your feelings known if you didn’t.