This article provides some guidelines that contribute to better movement of the dance floor. They are inspired by my own experiences in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s at milongas filled with older dancers who had danced most of their lives. Despite the crowding, these milongas were not so hard to dance in because the dancers moved so nicely around the floor. If these guidelines are followed everyone will have enough room to dance and everyone can share the floor and have a good time together.
On a well-organized dance floor the outer part of the floor will be organized into lanes like a race track. The outermost lane will be the best organized because it is contained by the perimeter of the dance floor. As you move toward the center of the floor the lanes get less and less organized until the middle of the floor may be a bit chaotic. The dancers who like dancing in lanes and who navigate well will tend to be found in the outermost two lanes on a big floor. Those who need a little more space will tend toward the inner lanes. At times the center may be nearly empty. The dancers in the middle will use the space they have and not enter or disrupt the lanes near them.
When we dance in lanes it is best if we don’t change lanes. This means that the first thing to do when the movement of the lane stops is to dance in place. Turns are the key to dancing in place. A dancer who has a few left and right turning movements in their repertoire, and understands how to combine these turns will have plenty of things to do when dancing in place. Turning also gives you a view of what is going on around you. With practice it is possible to predict the movement of the dancers near you. Knowing when you can use space close to your neighbors, and when they may need space close to you allows you, and them, to effectively use what space there is.
As you move in your lane it is important to stay in your lane and not crowd the dancers in the other lanes. This way you are not disrupting the flow of the other lanes near you. It is frustratingly common for dancers to dance in what might be called lane 1.5. Dancers in the outside lane and the second lane don’t have room to get by someone doing this. If this person is moving slowly then both the outside lane and the second lane will be affected.
Why shouldn’t we pass? Mostly we don’t pass because in passing we have to enter another line of dance. You will be entering the new lane coming from a direction that will not be easily visible to the dancers in the lane we are entering. This is especially true if you are moving from an outer lane toward the middle. Because of the position of the follower’s head in the dance frame, often the leader’s view to the right is blocked. If you move from an outer lane to the next lane in, the dancer you are moving in front of may not see you until you are really in the way. Then it is a big disruptive surprise, and that dancer may have to react very quickly. At a minimum the flow of their dance is disrupted, and possibly the dancers behind them as well.
Sometimes you may feel that you have to pass, because, for some reason the people ahead of you have stopped to talk, or they are moving very slowly and there is a lot of space ahead of them and the dancers behind you are crowding you. Just make sure you won’t be blocking the space of someone in the next lane and keep moving after you change lanes.
Entering the dance floor in the middle of the song presents the same problems. Everyone does this so we all have to be aware of how it affects the existing line of dance. It is most helpful if you wait at the side of the floor to catch the eye of a dancer on the floor, to ask for space before entering the floor. Then the person most affected by your entry on the floor knows where you are, and since you are asking nicely, they shouldn’t resent your presence, or block your entry to the floor. If they don’t give you the space wait for the next opportunity. The dance floor isn’t a place to fight.
It is important to control your partner as you enter the floor. I regularly hold my partner’s hand so I can keep her from blindly backing onto the floor to dance. It is ridiculously common for followers to just step onto the floor without paying any noticeable attention to the dancers already dancing. Still it is a leader’s thing to manage, so you just start leading a little earlier than you start dancing.
When you get on the floor, dance and get moving. It is very irritating to have someone ask for space to get on the floor, give them the space, and then have them take a lot of time getting ready to dance. If you are entering the floor in the middle of the song, enter the floor dancing.
How much room is enough when you have to change lanes, or enter in the middle of a song? This is a little more complicated than it might seem. When you move into a new lane, are you moving into a space that another dancer is in the process of moving into? If so there isn’t really room for the lane change. The other dancer will have to make room for you at the last minute, and you will be coming from an unexpected direction. You will be relying on the other dancer to make room for you. That dancer will have to stop briefly, or maybe even step a little backward, and that will affect all other dancers in that lane. Even if this doesn’t result in a bump, it still affects the flow of the floor. Skilled dancers can avoid bumping because they can change what they are doing at the very last instant. Because of this less experienced dancers may not be aware of disrupting the other dancers around them. If you watch the dance floor you can see this happening all night.
If we aren’t going to pass, then each of us has another responsibility. If there is space in front of us to move into, we need to move into that space and give the dancers behind us room to move as well. This is the secret to the continuing motion of a crowded floor. If everyone does this the dance flows around the floor like a river, stopping briefly to circulate in an eddy but always moving on. When a dance floor circulates like this it is beautiful to watch. It is an amazing feeling to be a part of this movement.
Moving forward as space becomes available seems to be the last thing people learn to do as they learn to navigate. They know how to stay in their lane when they walk, and they know how to make their turns small enough that they don’t enter the neighboring lanes, but they get focused on their turns, and don’t move forward when there is space. The floor behind them stalls, and in desperation, other dancers begin passing to get room to dance, and the floor becomes chaotic.
It takes time to develop the skills required to navigate the dance floor well. You have to want to do this and you have to practice. Step combinations are taught in class one way. It is up to you the dancer to figure out how to navigate the movement. You should always know where the line of dance is, and you should be able to control your turns so that you can always arrive back on the line of dance. You should make sure you don’t drift backward against the line of dance unknowingly. You should be aware of what the other dancers around you are doing, and where they may be moving next. It would be nice if all teachers addressed these skills in their classes, but in the end it still is the responsibility of the individual dancer to learn to navigate well.
These are not a set of firm rules, they are guidelines. I think the most important thing is to be aware of the other dancers around you, and to work with them so everybody has enough space to dance in and everybody has fun.