Perfect Your Ballroom Floorcraft

Floorcraft: It sounds like some kind of dancer magic, but it's actually a technical term describing the essential ability to avoid collisions with other couples on the ballroom dance floor. Because success in ballroom doesn't just come down to masterful technique, great choreography, stellar musicality, chemistry between partners and magnetic performance quality—it also requires gracefully navigating a packed floor of competitors.

While injury prevention is a clear benefit of mastering floorcraft, it also shows judges how in control you really are. “Sometimes, the way you recover can win you the competition," says Melanie LaPatin, a world-champion ballroom dancer and choreographer known for her appearances on “So You Think You Can Dance" and “Dancing with the Stars." Here, LaPatin, competitive ballroom dancer Colin Williams and his partner, Aya Du, discuss how they evade other dancers on the floor—and share tips on how you can sharpen your skills.

Own the Floor

In addition to directing his partner through the choreography, the lead dancer in a ballroom couple (usually the guy) must always stay aware of other couples and be ready to improvise as needed. But both dancers have some role to play in avoiding collisions.

According to LaPatin, ballroom dancers typically rely on subtle body language cues, such as a slight nod of the head or a small squeeze of the hand, to communicate an unplanned change in the choreography. The goal is always to make everything appear intentional.

“If I'm dancing and there's someone there, I'll change the routine slightly, or I'll curve the figure differently and Aya will follow," says Williams, referring to the ballroom dance tactic of steering your partner away from an impending collision. “As a follower, when he's going backwards, I'll look over his shoulder to make sure there's nobody there," says Du, Williams' partner of nearly four years. “If there is, I'll squeeze my left hand to let him know."

On the rare occasion that a collision does occur, LaPatin says it's best to recover quickly and start dancing again as soon as possible. “Just move along and act as if nothing happened," she says. However, in the interest of good sportsmanship, you should apologize to the other couple once you leave the floor.

Master Your 'Craft

When it comes to floorcraft, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to handle obstacles during competition is to get used to maneuvering around other couples in lower-stakes situations.

In addition to private sessions with their coach Igor Litvinov, Williams and Du attend weekly “rounds," along with 10 to 20 other couples. These formal sessions, run by Litvinov, are designed to mimic a competition and give dancers practice dealing with unpredictable scenarios. “To practice floorcraft, he cuts the room in half and puts us all in a tiny area to force us to figure it out," Du says. Rounds are held at many ballroom studios and are a valuable training opportunity for all aspiring competitive ballroom dancers.

Beyond rounds, Williams and Du also practice their floorcraft during open sessions at their studio, Manhattan Ballroom Dance, which is frequently packed. “When you dance in that kind of environment, you get better at looking at people and predicting what they're going to be doing," Williams says.

Strengthen Your Proprioception

To navigate a crowded dance floor successfully, you need to know where you want to go and how you're going to get there. It requires a finely tuned sense of where your body parts are in relation to each other, which is called proprioception. Here, Emily Junck, MD, a former elite ballroom dancer who does research with the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center, outlines a few ways that you can bolster your proprioception.

• Cross-train. Junck says that activities such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi help you feel your center of gravity, which makes it easier for you to quickly move around people and objects without losing your balance.

• Warm up with your eyes closed. According to Junck, dancers who can move with their eyes closed have greater control over their bodies in space because they're tuned in to internal sensations. This exercise will give you a better idea of how much you depend on visual cues.

• Record yourself as you dance, and then watch the video. “You'll be able to see if you move the way you think you're moving," Junck says. Knowing exactly where you place your body while you dance will make it easier to avoid collisions.

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