Staying Safe On The Vintage Dance Floor

Friday evening, April 22, 2011, at The Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada is a date that this writer will personally remember. Joe Bennett and The Sparkletones took the stage that night. My then-dance partner and I were looking forward to our second “Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend” together, and I was looking forward to dancing to a live rendition of "Black Slacks", the song made famous by that rockabilly (then-quartet) back in 1957. However, that night was memorable to me for an entirely different reason. That was the first time I ever saw my then-dance partner give a tongue lashing to a total stranger! We had been dancing together for over two hours and there was a couple who came next to us. The leader, a young gentleman that I would guess to be approximately to be in his early twenties, was really into it, dancing wildly, turning his partner abruptly, and most memorable of all, kicking out with his feet...high. (Yikes!) The floor was crowded and just as I was about to tell my partner that we should stop and leave the floor to find another, safer, space, that leader switched his position so that he was now on my partner's side. Before I could move her out of the way, I saw her head jerk back and I knew that he clipped her with his left kicking foot on her right calf (ouch!) I was able to catch her and prevent her from falling, though (to my shame), I wasn't able to shield her from his (ahem!) mule-like dance "technique." He knew it too and he immediately stopped and frantically apologized to her, but it was too late. I could see her face turn red with anger. He just stood there, head down, as my partner verbally went to town on him. (His partner, wisely in my opinion, just stood back and let mine vent her possibly well-founded rage at his carelessness.) Then, I was able to walk her to our table while I massaged her leg while learning some new German curse words. (She's German by the way, and fortunately for me, on that night at least, those choice Teutonic adjectives and nouns were not aimed at my massage technique.) Friday evening, November 22, 2013 at The Uptown in Oakland, California was also memorable for me personally. I had a new (much more local than far-off Vegas) dance partner and since both of us are fans of Big Sandy And His Fly-Rite Boys, we prepared ourselves for a night of hours of non-stop dancing. As for me, the night two years prior at “Viva Las Vegas” stuck in my mind and I went in with the mindset that I'm going to actively protect my dance partner while we're dancing. I can honestly say, with pride and pain, that I was "successful" in that endeavor. Again, the dance floor was crowded. Again, there was a wild guy twirling his partner abruptly while kicking out. (Maybe he went to the same dance school as that twenty-something kid at “Viva Las Vegas.”) This time however, I was prepared and it helped that the dance style that she and I were doing together (Collegiate Shag) to "Yamma Yamma Pretty Mama" was a closed-in style, meaning I had more control, and could maneuver both of us with much more accuracy and immediacy. In other words, when I saw this new mule-kicking guy, I shielded my partner, put my back to him, and took his (hopefully unintentional?) kicks and elbows. She later said that it was "cute" that I protected her, and those sentiments were worth the slight bruises on my back and calves.

If you're going to engage in partner dancing on a crowded dance floor, accidents are bound to happen. It doesn't matter if you're the one at fault or if you are the one who's on the receiving end, either way, it's not a good feeling. But it does happen and let me reassure you, if an accident hasn't happened to you or your dance partner yet, it will! I've been involved in boxing, gymnastics, and Asian martial arts all my life and I can honestly say that I have had worse contact in partnered dance, then I ever had during sparring or competition in contact sports. That was due to the fact that in those other activities, I expected the person in front of me to hit or attempt to hit me. But I never expected an elbow that cut the right side of my face and loosened a tooth during one swing dance accident in Oakland's Lake Merritt in 2002, a head butt on the nose at the old Metronome in SF in 2000, or a stiletto heel that cut into my right instep in 2013 in San Francisco's Chinatown. I have also been guilty of my own carelessness. Remember the girl who I was able to successfully protect at the Big Sandy show? She has a twin sister and recently, I was able to dance with this former partner again, at one of Hawk Valentine's Hops in San Francisco. We were both excited to be able to dance a few songs together but, we got a little too close to both her sister and her brother in-law. During a turn, we accidentally grazed the top left side of her twin sister's head with the edge of my left hand and the edge of her right! I apologized to her, though interestingly, my former partner laughed it off and said, “Oh she’s okay.” (Hmmm....) Anyway, I am relating all of this so anyone who is reading this blog will both learn from my mistakes and will be able to keep themselves, their dance partners, and hopefully the other people around them, safe on the dance floor.

Suggestion #1. Save The Big Moves For The Stage and Screen

Many of us in the vintage lifestyle communities, whether that's the rockabilly scene or the swing dance scene (or in my case, both), were not around in the 1940s, 1950s, or early 1960s, so a lot of our information, particularly the aesthetic, is influenced by the movies. Well, partnered dancing in the movies is performance dancing, with big movements! Big movements look great on film and on stage, but they are impractical and even potentially injurious on the social dance floor. This is especially true in the rockabilly scene, where alcohol is a big part of the mix. Big, long “swing outs" (from swing/lindy dancers), fully extended arm turns (from jive/rockabilly dancers), and especially (from personal experience) big kicking movements (from both types of dancers!), should probably be kept to a minimum (or even not at all!) on a crowded, social dance floor.

I don't need to mention that lifts and aerials of any sort, which are spectacular on film and great for a performance exhibition, competition, or “jam circle”, should definitely not even be attempted on a social dance floor, do I?

Suggestion #2: Elbows In!

When dancing with your partner, fully locking out and extending your elbows in open position is just plain bad (in my opinion.) Not only do you lose “connection” with each other, making it difficult to stay on beat and lead and/or react and follow each other's moves, it's a “great” way to shove each other into the surrounding couples or step into another person's personal space, as well as on to their feet. It doesn't matter what vintage dance style you do, whether you are a Jiver or a swing dancer, keeping a bend in your elbows while dancing together keeps you and the people around you safe.

Suggestion #3: Leads, Look Around!

I readily admit that I like looking at my dance partner while dancing with her. It communicates interest in her as a person and I can gauge whether or not she's actually having a good time. However, if my eyes are on her the whole time, I might miss the drunk guy who just passed behind us while he's in his own little world. I do a much greater service to my dance partner by looking around before I lead a move. Because we tend to switch places when I lead turns, it's especially helpful to her if I look behind me before I turn her. This ensures that I don’t lead her into someone, that she doesn't eat an elbow from another couple, and it's just considerate to everyone involved. Having the habit of looking around, to protect my dance partner, has helped me and my current dance partner. I have found that just doing moves competently, is not enough.

Last Suggestion: Mindset On Safety

I have actually had some “dancers” tell me, “I am cutting loose out on the dance floor and everybody else better just get out of the way.” (What?!) So dancers with this mindset basically think that whatever and however they do, whatever it is that they do, on the dance floor is okay and that they bear no responsibility for any accidents that result from their self-centered way of thinking. When you are partner dancing, whether you are a leader or a follow, you are both responsible for each other (though, the leader probably carries more of the burden, since he, or she, initiates the movements.)

Yes, you are responsible for making sure the other person has a good time, but you are also responsible for each other’s safety, and you are also responsible for the safety of those who are dancing around you (as those people, ideally, though sadly in reality, not always, should also be responsible in making sure that they don't injure you and others, as well.)

This last suggestion is probably the most important point. If you go in with an attitude of safety and consideration while dancing, rather than the selfish “this is my floor" type of thinking, you will be able to adapt to most situations in a way that is considerate, thoughtful, and safe for both you and those around you, out on the dance floor. (You and your partner's back of the heels, back of the knees, back of the heads, and upper backs, will thank you for it!)

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