Collisions on the Dance Floor: WHAMO!

Lee Lowery & Ginger Blume

In many ways, social dancing is similar to driving a car.   When drivers are tired, distracted or inexperienced, WHAMO...collisions are bound to happen. Just like there are laws, rules and guidelines that all drivers must follow in order to avoid risking an accident, this is also true for dancing. Unfortunately, many casual and untrained dancers have never been exposed to the rules of the “Dance Road.”

Visit any ballroom, bar, club or social dance hall and you will find people violating the basic rules of social dancing all the time. Below are a few tips for social dancers that, if followed, will greatly reduce collisions on the dance floor.  These tips apply mostly  to open dance styles like Salsa, Swing, Cha cha, etc. Some ballroom dance styles like Waltz and dance hall styles  like 2-step, swing and line dance, generally dictate the  parameters of dance movement, which helps to greatly reduce (not totally eliminate) collisions.


1. Leaders must look out for their partners (Watch her back). It is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that the follower is safe from people behind her whom she cannot see.

2. Followers must look out for the leader (Watch his back). Likewise, while the leader has the responsibility to set the direction of the dance (Which way we face, the orientation of the slot, etc), if the follower notices that the leader is drifting into another couples dance space, the follower should alert the leader to the danger.

3. Both leader and follow should notice who is dancing where. When possible, stay away from hotshots, untrained dancers, and anyone holding a drink in their hand while dancing. Hotshots are typically experienced dancers who want to show off their talents on the dance floor.  They dance fast with lots of turns, spins and flash.  This is very different than dancing near a trained advanced dancer or teacher. Advanced dancers/teachers often do lots of spins and can be flashy too but typically are always aware of who is around them so that dancing near them is typically safe (Usually, they are more worried about what you are going to do).

On the other hand, true hotshots usually dance in a way that can be very intimidating and oftentimes dangerous (No aerials or lifts on the social dance floor please). If you are not dancing at that level, it is best to stay away from their dance area until you can dance with more confidence.

Untrained dancers are like unlicensed drivers.  Because they have little or no social dance training (They don’t take lessons and like to refer to themselves as"Street Dancers") they will tend to drift into your space more often than other dancers. What’s worse, they will have no awareness of this social dance faux pa. In fact, they may smile at you or even look at you as if you just did something wrong.  Lastly, People who go out onto the dance floor with a drink in their hand are beyond my comprehension to explain. Just stay away from them. That's an accident waiting to happen (Can you you say BRAWL?).

4. While there are dance styles that move (by design) circular in nature, in general, especially in clubs, dancers should definitely dance in slots. This is one reason why the better dance instructors teach their social dance patterns in slots and constantly remind students to heed this advice when social dancing. A slot might be visualized as running between 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock. The dance couple exchange positions between these two points throughout the entire dance. This is another reason why  the better instructors encourage students to initiate class patterns from wherever they end up, instead of always going back to the starting position of the pattern.

Many untrained dancers dance circularly without a sufficient understanding of why slotted dancing is important in social environments. Circular dancing (No fixed position) is perhaps the biggest cause of social dance collisions. Circular dancing happens when a particular couple keeps changing the direction of where they are facing. One minute they are facing the DJ booth, the next minute they are facing that wall, the next minute they are facing somewhere else. Nothing about where they will end up is predictable, so eventually they end up crossing over into another couple's dance space. This random style of dancing results in arguments, fights and people getting stepped on.

Similarly, over the years I've seen highly experienced competitive dancers literally dominate the dance floor in social situations. In one case a competitive couple seemed to intentionally dance into the slots of less talented dancers as a way of intimidating them. I don't think that this is what they were intending to do but their behavior had the same effect. It would be like a NASCAR driver forgetting that he was driving through a shopping mall and navigates through the parking lot like he was in competition. Wouldn't that just P%$#@ you off? Me too.

Once a slot is established, couples should try to maintain the slot, unless there is good reason to change the slot. One reason the dancer might intentionally shift the slot is when the couple is dancing defensively by hunting for a safer slot as the floor becomes crowded. Simply by following the advice in this paragraph alone will result in fewer dance floor collisions.

5.  Followers must keep a slight bend in their leader connected arm at the end of all patterns, especially in social situations. Completely extending the arm creates too much distance between the leader and follower and encourages the leader to pull the follower into the next pattern. Instead of leading, the leader ends up yanking the follower which most likely will throw her off balance and definitely won't feel good to her or to him. You may have heard the term, “Noodle Arm”. An extended arm is a distant cousin of the noodle arm. It is difficult to lead either a noodle arm or a fully extended arm.

6. Leaders must always look down the slot to be sure that the slot is clear before leading, turning or spinning the follower down the slot. Recently, Lee danced with a lady and as he began to initiate a cross body lead, as always, he looked to see if the slot was clear, it was. However, after re-establishing eye contact with her and leading the pattern, unexpectedly, she fully extended her arm at the end of the pattern and WHAMO...crashed into a guy who was cutting across the dance floor (His bad).   Of course, as the lead, the crash was his fault (he was driving), but the incident could have been avoided if she had stayed within his lead (don’t open the car door while the car is moving). 

A slight bent in her arm would have allowed him to immediately shorten the pattern upon realizing the once clear slot was now obstructed. With her arm straight, he had no control over her body position and it felt similar to driving a car with no brakes. All he could do was watch.  To this day, we both don’t know if this lady knows why the collision occurred.

7. Followers should also try to end up in the same slot at the end of a spin or complicated turn pattern (6 o'clock & 12 o'clock from where they start the pattern) or 180 degrees from where they started the pattern. Admittedly, often it’s the leader’s fault that the slot changes during a cross body pattern because he fails to get out of the lady’s way. As a result, she compensates for him by going off the slot at an angle and then he adjusts to her, slot.

Sometimes the slot shifts because the leader's signals are unclear about which way he wants her to go. Have you ever followed behind  a driver that leaves their turn signal on for a while? You are constantly guessing, should I slow down, should I go around? That's what an unclear lead feels like to a follower. Either way, a new slot appears because of the unclear lead and WHAMO... a collision happens.  Sometimes, it’s all of the above factors at once. 

8. As the floor gets crowded, the leaders' fancier turn patterns and the followers' beautiful extended arm-styling’s and leg sweeps must take a back seat to more simple social dance friendly patterns. The couple must “Dance Tight,” the more crowded the floor becomes.

9. When the music is fast, both leaders and followers should take smaller steps and become even more vigilant. Big steps usually leads to stepping too far back and thereby crashing into other couples and more "Yanking behavior." Again, as the pace of the music increases and the dance floor gets crowded, keep the patterns and styling simple and tight.

10. While everyone knows you shouldn't “Drink and Drive,” it’s probably wise not to “Drink and Dance.” While many enjoy having a drink while out for an evening, it is widely known that drinking too much then getting behind the wheel of a car can have disastrous consequences. Similarly, drinking too much and then trying to dance can also lead to impaired judgment and then, WHAMO…you do or say something stupid. Dance and drink responsibly.

11. When the floor gets too crowed to dance safely, leave the dance floor.  Dancing into the wee hours of the morning can be exhilarating and a lot of fun. In fact, many of the better dancers will stop dancing when the floor gets crowded and wait until the crowd has thinned out before they will get back out on the dance floor. This of course means staying out really late.  Bottom line, if you start feeling tired, you will probably get sloppy and then WHAMO…an accident is more likely to happen.

Our motto is: 

“Arrive early/Leave early”

E-mail or message us in FB and we'll post your comments below:

And one more thing...

NOTE: The term leader and follower in dance is just a useful terminology of convenience while teaching of discussing dance. The lead and follower each have specific responsibilities while dancing and both men and women can function in the role of leader or follower. Where comments relate specifically to men or women, we will make an effort to denote the distinction.

Additional Comments:

"There are always exceptions to every rule. Example: There are times when extending the arm at the beginning or end of a pattern is desirable for styling or musical interpretation.  True, but, in general, this should be done cautiously on a crowded dance floor."

"In tip # 4 "This is another reason why  the better instructors force students to initiate class patterns from wherever they end up instead of always going back to the starting position of the pattern" This is only valuable once the student has a grasp of the actual steps of the pattern. In general, it is good teaching practice to keep the student's orientation (Especially beginning students) facing the same direction when new patterns are being taught. When the student first learns a pattern, by definition, they are not "Leading and Following." They are simply doing instructed steps which require memorization. Before real "Lead & Follow" can happen, the students must first memorizing the steps for both leader and follower then, understand the count and timing.  Real "Lead and Follow" only happens "in the wild" and when the instructor is no longer counting out the steps. Keeping the same starting orientation reduces the learning curve for both the leader and follower. "

"In class, instructors should clarify what is meant when they use the expression, "If he's not leading it, don't follow it."  Again, this is true "IN THE WILD" but in class what usually happens is that while the leader is still memorizing the steps "HE IN FACT IS NOT LEADING" so the follower should "DO HER STEPS" no matter what he's doing as long as what he is doing is a close approximation of the pattern being taught and she is not at risk of getting hurt. If she aborts the newly learned pattern simply because "HE DIDN'T LEAD IT" this creates tension in the class and places a learning hurtle in the path of  both leader and follower.  If she stops because she did not feel the lead, then the instructor never gets to actually see the problem. If the LEAD is not really learning the steps of the pattern, then the problem is not a LEADER PROBLEM it's likely a TEACHING PROBLEM. At any rate, the teacher should be the one to step in and make necessary adjustments. How to teach patterns is best saved for another article.

Question: Should followers memorize the patterns taught in class? Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the patterns being taught in class will become part of her knowledge universe. This means that every pattern she is exposed to in class becomes one less surprise for her when dancing socially. During class, followers should focus on the count, timing, styling and leader signal points of patterns being taught.  Followers who take this approach generally progress faster than leads for this very reason. In other words, as she learns to recognize more and more complicated patterns, a blue print is etched in her mind as to the possibilities of various leads . Now when she dances with someone she has never danced with before or dances with a more advanced dancer than her partner or classmates, she is less likely to be surprised by some fancy combination. Not because she knows or has memorized lots of combinations or patterns, but because by being an active participant in class, she consciously expands her "Dance Pattern Recognition Capability."

Generally, she should not "Memorize" patterns because she will not likely lead the patterns in social settings. Yes, it makes sense for her to learn the patterns if she is a teacher in training or has aspirations of becoming an instructor or if she has a dance partner that struggles with memorizing the steps or if she is typically the lead in her social dancing.  There have been times in a fast paced class when I might casually say to my female classmate "I missed that last step, is it a turn to the right or left?" many times they will respond with, "I have no idea, I just follow." SAY WHAT??? Had she been paying attention to the pattern, we would have both benefited. Also, it is possible that some lady's may simply enjoy learning patterns. This is fine as long as she doesn't backlead the pattern during social dancing or during the class. It's obvious why lady's shouldn't backlead in social dancing, in class, backleading the pattern actually hinders the leads ability to learn because he may become reliant on the lady to lead the pattern. Also as mentioned earlier, backleading hides the problem from the instructor. The instructor thinks the guy is leading but in fact, the lady is REALLY leading. This is not to say that lady's shouldn't offer a little suggestion/correction now and then.  Student's should discreetly help each other out in class whenever possible. 

Conclusion: The benefit of progressive classes and more advanced pattern classes for the follower is the actual class content exposure which gives her experience and the opportunity to add to her pattern recognition data base. This is in  addition to doing a lot of social dancing with a variety of dancers (Which is the other way followers add to their database of pattern possibilities).

How about the sweaty dancer?   This is a tricky topic because there are a lot of really great dancers both male and female who sweat a lot (Lee is one of them). It took him a long time to figure out how not to be the sweaty guy on the dance floor. Most of the time he is able to control it but generally, we both need a back up plan.  Here are some general tips to manage the sweat:

1. Don't dance. Sounds simple but it needs to be said. Dancing is a vigorous activity that involves sweating. If you don't want to sweat, don't dance. If you don't want to ever dance with someone that sweats, don't dance. Case closed. Now, assuming you want to dance, read on.

2. Carry an extra shirt or top with you so that you can change midway through the evening.

3. Avoid wearing cotton. A lot of guys like to wear cotton tees or nice lose fitting cotton shirts when dancing. Unfortunately, cotton holds the sweat like a sponge. Wear mixed blend (Micro-fiber or polyester blend) clothing or even silk to get a much better ventilated wardrobe established. A trick Lee uses is the layered effect. Mixed blend wicking tee shirt under a microfiber, silk or other mixed blend shirt.  He also wears his shirt tails out whenever he can as this helps with ventilation. Oh, and I'm sure you can imagine what the "Samuel L. Jackson" hat is for.

4.  The same way lady's don't like dancing with a sweaty palmed guy, some guys may feel the same way when dancing with a lady who's shoulder feels like she just stepped out of the sauna.  Lady's, if you sweat a lot, defiantly don't stop wearing the shoulderless tops but at least bring a dance towel to wipe yourself down. Guys, you should carry a dance rag or hanky too.

About the authors:

Currently, we don't teach regular dance classes but can teach many beginner level dance styles (East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Hustle, Night-Club 2 Step, Cajun Zydeco). The comments expressed in this article are a combination of our personal teaching and social dance experiences. Additionally, we've borrowed heavily from the comments of our own dance instructors and other dancers of all levels. While we are not professional dance instructors, we both personally have over twenty five years of cooperate teaching and non-dance competition experience in a variety of  performance based activities. Many of our students have gone on to become well known trainers, performers and presenters in their respective fields - Lee & Ginger