Reacting on the Dance Floor
By Eric Dahlman
Competition and rehearsal are often separate realities in the world of ballroom dance. We build our perfect routines during practice. We refine each of our movements.Then when our first round starts, another couple cuts you off on accident. Learning to react to other competitors is not only a hazard of the floor but one of challenges in ballroom. Ballroom dancing separates itself from other dance competitions. Some improv always remains in each round. A dancer must always have a trick up their sleeve to avoid colliding into other dancers. Learning floorcraft is often a struggle for beginners, but if you are having trouble, here are a few tips:
Think in short chains of steps. Ballroom dancing is often a juggle between planning and reaction. Many couples will practice long strings of moves during practice. However, come competition, there are too many "bumps" in the road for the routines to come to fruition. Instead of thinking in longer chains (such as travelling an entire side of the floor), predict your moves in combinations of three. The lead can see the space in front of them. From that knowledge, one should be able to determine how to react. "I'll do a basic step to get around the couple in front of me, then a clean promenade where the judges can see us. After that I'll do a spin turn to get around the corner." After that chain, a new one forms after analysing the next situation. These chains allow for interesting combinations, but allow dancers to react to what lies ahead.
Have other options in mind. Going off of the idea of dancing in short chains of steps, dancers should always have a plan B. Sometimes surprises happen that could not have been predicted. During practice, couples should work on variations of chains. Sometimes they can be extending or cutting short traveling moves like a 'butterfly'. Other times, they could be ending a chain with a completely different step. The goal should be to always have an answer to a "what if?" If the couple next to you suddenly stops, what do you do? If you have more open space to move, how can you take advantage of it? As long as you have a smart way to react to common situations in dance, you will already have most of your floorcraft problems solved.
Stick to the basics. Sometimes the best answer to a problem can be the simplest one. If you don't have the space to successfully pull off a complex move, instead do a safe basic step. In lower levels, judges tend to respect solid basic step over grandiose moves. Less is more, and a clean, solid foundation says a lot. Basic steps can not only make you look better but also keep you from colliding with another couple. You will rank higher for playing it safe rather than causing a collision.
Stop. If all else fails and you are about to run into someone, just do not move. If you have the time to save yourself with a hesitation step, go for that. Otherwise, simply pausing to avoid disaster will look better than a collision. Judges only have a short time to look at each couple on the floor, so it is unlikely that every judge will notice if you need to take a quick pause. Crashing into another couple causes some commotion though, which will be far more noticeable. Hesitations or a short, complete stop show control or at the very least, dodge a problem before it happens.
Practice. The only way you can every truly improve floorcraft is by practicing it. Competitions are not the only place where you might run into other people. Dancing socially is my favorite method of practicing as it also teaches you to communicate with different partners. Additionally, social dances have people of different skill levels on the same floor. You will have to practice dodging both more experienced dancers making large moves across the floor as well as shyer ones who you might have to move around. If you are looking for floor craft practice in a studio, place obstacles around the floor that you have to move around or limit which parts of the room you can move though. As long as you have something to plan around, you can still practice reacting.