As a follower, I like to watch the floor so I can get an idea of which leaders I’d like to invite to dance. Here are some of the things I consider as I observe: How comfortable does their embrace look? Does he seem to be dancing with the music – or is he just churning about and performing lots of vocabulary in a bland or robotic way? How well does he navigate? Can she dance small when circumstances necessitate? Does he look to the other leaders before entering the ronda? Does she stay in the lane and line of dance? In short – will I be safe dancing with them?
The comfort of anyone’s embrace is a highly subjective and difficult matter to evaluate from simple observation, although some information can be gleaned by looking. However, a leader’s floor craft skill is on display for everyone to see. When I select a dance partner, I want to be able to relax into the partnership and give my best without having to worry about collisions. I don’t want to have to insist on not following the lead because I can tell that if I do, someone will be kicked or we will run into another couple. And I don’t want to have to watch the floor like an eagle because my leader is unaware of what is going on around us. Most importantly, I don’t want to be an accessory to another dancer’s self-absorbed gyrations which are performed for the “audience.” I want to be in the dance as a partner, enjoying our moments, sharing the music, collaborating, and contributing to the energy of the floor.
When the couples on a dance floor are dancing with each other, they create an atmosphere that is not just safer, but also more energetic. This spirit of co-operation is a demonstration of the values inherent in the etiquette and ethos of the dance – respect, kindness, and an egalitarian acceptance of one’s partner regardless of age or socio-economic circumstances. But, teacher and DJ, Robert Hauk, notes another reason that good floor craft/navigation is important. In this article he points to how good floor craft can be beneficial to the growth and vitality of tango communities. In a small community with, say, 50 – 80 dancers, many of whom need a dance bubble of 6 – 8 feet in order to dance without collisions, the community is in danger of stagnating. This is because in order for the community to fit more dancers in the same space, people would have to dance with a smaller footprint. Or, those who host milongas would need to keep finding ever larger spaces to accommodate the prevailing need for a larger footprint.
Recently, at an event that was quite well-attended, I danced with a familiar partner who lives in another community. The floor was full and energetic for nearly the entire weekend. Off the floor, he commented that after attending that same event the year before, he noticed his dancing had become much more expressive and subtle. He said that getting experience dancing on crowded, yet well-ordered floors had taught him the values of simplicity and elegance. That having to dance within the parameters presented by a very small space had caused him to become much more creative with his leading – more attentive to his partner, to the music, and to the other couples on the floor.
As a follower who also leads, I have learned to the value of dancing behind or in front of leaders who navigate well and share the space. They are courteous and aware of those around them, which makes everybody’s dance more enjoyable. Tango is a social dance. When we go to the milonga, we are social in many different ways – we chat with our friends, we make new ones, or we sit and enjoy the ronda, basking in the enjoyment of others. We are social when we connect in the embrace of our partners. And we are social when we connect with the other dancers on the floor. By doing so, we create a special world of beauty and mindfulness and respect that, for me, is part of what makes the tango unique.
Here are some suggestions to help leaders improve their floor craft and navigation:
1) Study with teachers who make floor craft a priority. Who teach to the social dance and not some kind of stage tango. Teachers who are aware of the conditions at festivals/marathons and will help you learn how to scale your dance for the space conditions.
2) Practice vocabulary (solo and with a partner) in increasingly smaller spaces – you could start by taping off a 4ft X 4ft square on the floor and dancing in that. Then decrease the size to 3ft X 3ft, then 2ft X 2ft, and eventually see how much you can lead while standing still and leading your partner to move around you. (There are plenty of videos online that provide solo exercises – check out Nany Peralta!).
3) Learn to spot the different types of “that guy”(it’s just a term, I’m sure there are a number of female leaders who could also benefit from improving their floor craft) – the one who holds up the flow, the leader who tailgates, the one who churns around, the one who takes big back steps against the line of dance, the one who flits all over the floor, Mr. Lane 1.5, and the leader who is dancing stage tango or some variant of big. Develop strategies for dealing with them. For example, a good place to be is in front of the grandstander and behind the tailgater – this will give you a nice little bubble to dance around in. While waiting to enter the ronda, identify who you want to be dancing near and wait for the opportunity to get in front of/behind someone who will not disrupt your dance.
4) Start working with other like-minded leaders in your community to encourage the use of leader cabeceo. Teach other leaders about forming “trains” – where skillful leaders create a train of couples who will navigate well and thereby protect each other’s space.