Thursday, May 29, 2014

Protect Follows - from dance floor injuries

I’ve put off writing this post for way too long.  I just didn’t feel that I had learned enough to do justice to such an important subject.  But I have decided to go ahead and write what I knew at present anyway in hopes that my fellow dancers will leave some comments that will fill in the blanks.

Now, admittedly, this feels like kind of a negative subject.  I mean dance is really a fun and fantastic experience.  Why spoil it by reminding us of any attendant unpleasant realities?

It’s simple really.  Any of us who have been dancing for some time have seen injuries occur, or we know someone who has been injured, perhaps permanently.  Also, this blog is mainly written for leads, especially new leads.  And as leads, and gentlemen, we care about follows.  And those whom we care about, we protect.  This is written in the DNA code of every man.
It is also one of the many important reasons to work really hard to learn to dance well.  It is only when the steps and moves become as natural as riding a bicycle that you will be able to free up some mental capacity to apply to the other really important elements of dance.  Like making eye contact with your follow and actually smiling.  Perhaps even carrying on somewhat of a conversation, encouraging her with well deserved compliments on her dancing ability and things of that nature.

Once you arrive at this level of dance proficiency, take a few weeks, at least, to really focus on how you are leading your follow.  Are you leading in such a way as will protect her from injury?  Ask advice of your follows and talk as well with fellow leads to learn their insights on how to lead well and safely.

Let’s start with some theory.  Ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu stressed the importance of knowing yourself and of knowing your counterpart.  Let’s focus first on yourself.  As a man, you naturally enjoy the application of energy.  This is one of the reasons you love to dance.  You exalt in the centrifugal force, the inertia, the compression, the bounce.  This is why the various forms of swing dancing, especially Lindy Hop, are so exhilarating to you.  Now, many follows, especially the advanced follows, enjoy these things also, but honestly, there are few who will ever enjoy them as much as you do.  Admit it, you’re essentially a Star Wars Wookiee minus the laser crossbow.  You’re like a young German Shepard playing with a rag doll.  Yeah, you know you are!  And it’s not just your natural inclinations as an energy application junkie that make you dangerous.  You have the upper body strength and build to match.

Because of these realities, a vital element of the art of dance, for you, as a lead, is restraint.  The better and stronger leads strive to practice this restraint all the time.  If they didn’t there would be many follows without arms and multiple follow-shaped holes in dancehall walls.  

So herein lies the most important reality to grasp.  Your follow is not you.  She is different from you.  If you are really going to advance as a lead you must recognize, respect and appreciate her for how she is and not make the mistake of assuming that she’s just like you.  Keeping this in mind does not come naturally because we tend to see others through our own eyes and thus interact with them as though they are just another one of us.  Trust me, this natural blind spot gets both men and women into no end of trouble with each other all the time.  Success in interactions between people is therefore largely dependent upon recognizing others as they actually are, rather than just assuming that they are as we are.  We are all individuals and few experiences reveal this reality more than dance.

Thus, the quest to protect your follow from dance floor injuries is greatly dependent upon how you view her.  Now, while it is true that a particular follow might especially exhibit that precious quality known as good, solid frame, you must not let that tempt you to view her as: “Strong!!, Like Bear!!”  No, no, that’s you!  Instead, you must recognize her as: “delicate, like pretty flower” and then dance with your follow, or, your flower, accordingly, making sure that none of her delicate petals become detached and float to the dance room floor.

Now, with that shimmering vision so pleasantly inspiring our minds let us examine the practical meaning of that beautiful word: “Delicate”.

Let’s get right to the bottom of things and start with her feet.  Her delicate feet.  The real danger to your follow’s feet is not so much that you will step on them, but rather, that another dancer on a crowded dance floor will.  Though we recognize that it is very difficult for most of us guys to multitask, we really need to pay attention to the other dancers around us to keep our follow safe from being stepped on.

Some follows who are very new to dance will ask for help with the basic steps.  This is a great opportunity to encourage them to take shorter and much safer back steps.  When we first learn to dance we naturally take longer back steps as a normal effort to establish muscle memory.

Dance instructors try to correct this by discouraging it during class but it is a very hard trait to overcome.  It is most obviously identified in the dancer sending their foot way back, sometimes 36 inches or more, during the back step.  On a crowded dance floor this is a very dangerous thing to do.  It can result in them getting their heal and Achilles Tendon stepped on.  you can show them how to take more shallow and much safer back steps by placing their toe where their heal previously was and making a full weight transfer.  As you practice this together while counting out the steps you can sell them on the three great benefits to this shallow back step: it will enable them to dance to much faster music without falling out of sync with the rhythm; it will enable them to dance for hours almost every evening with out getting excessively tired; and it will protect them from one of the most common dance floor injuries: that of getting the back of their heal stepped on.

Some follows communicate a real interest in learning the finer points of dance and it's a joy to see their excitement as they master new things.  New follows tend to have a wealth of humility and they often appreciate the help.  Their success in mastering these new skills gives you the opportunity to praise and compliment them which has the beautiful effect of enhancing their confidence on the dance floor and their general overall state of happiness, which then inspires other leads to ask them to dance. 

Protecting our follow’s delicate feet can be more important than we normally realize.  A good friend of mine was stepped on three times in one dance evening.  The third time the side of her foot was stepped on and she suffered permanent damage from that injury.  She loves to dance, and she is one of the sweetest kids you will ever meet, but now her dancing is limited by her pain.  Yes, dance floor injuries are still going to occur regardless, but that does not absolve us as leads from doing what we can do to protect our follows from them.

Next let’s consider our follow’s delicate hands.  Always bear in mind that your follow is not some inanimate object that you need to crank around and throw like a rope with a grappling hook at the end.  The real point of hand connection is to provide only direction and the safety provided by reversing, stopping or catching or supporting that direction once it has reached its intended end. 

The really important thing that you need to do is to ensure that your follow’s hand is not trapped or restricted within your hand.  As she turns and pivots, her hand needs to be able to move with complete freedom within your hand.  This freedom of movement will protect her fingers, wrist , elbow, shoulder and back from strain.  Think of her hand as a pivot pin and your hand as a shallow cup.  Sometimes the opening of the cup will face down as it does when her hand is over her head as she is turning.  Sometimes the cup will face upwards as it often does when it is behind her back during a Texas Tommy move.  The point is to always provide her hand with as much freedom to move as possible.  Also, avoid pinching her hand with your thumb.  Actually, avoid using your thumb at all.  Always adjust your lead to your follow’s ability and personality.  Don’t rush her through a turn.  Let her go at her own pace.  Always check for other dancers before you swing her out so that you can avoid collisions.  Be gentle with your follow.  Invite her to follow your lead, don’t compel her.  Remember that key word: “delicate”. 


Now we must talk about what is probably the most important thing: our follow’s delicate shoulders.  Keep in mind that her shoulder bones, muscles and ligaments are considerably smaller than yours and are very vulnerable.  They must be protected.  The really important rule is that you must never allow her upraised hand to be sent behind her back.  Always keep her hand in front of her or at least well within the range of her peripheral vision.  Also, keep her hand low to avoid the effects of excess leverage.  As she pivots, her and your hands should just clear her fancy hair.  Envision a halo of about 15” in diameter above and around her head and trace her hand on the rim of that halo, again allowing it to pivot with total freedom within the down turned cup of your hand.  When initiating a turn, use the flat of your hand in a high five position and quickly reform it into a downward facing cup to ensure full freedom of movement for her hand.

Especially in Lindy Hop, and in other forms of swing dancing as well, avoid allowing either yours or your follow’s arms to be fully extended.  You need to be able to absorb the inertia at the end of a swing out with your somewhat bent elbow in order to protect your follow’s shoulder from any physical shock.

Lastly, we come to the importance of protecting your follow’s delicate head.  I will never forget the night at a dance venue way down south when one of my good follow friends tripped while dancing, (new shoes I think), and her head hit the dance room floor.  It was loud.  I think almost everyone on the dance floor heard it.  She suffered a mild concussion.  Though she recovered, we were all very concerned at the time.  A really sad fact is that the lead she was dancing with at the time was one of the best leads I have ever met.  She had tripped suddenly and without warning.  He tried valiantly to catch her, but she slipped from his grasp.  It was not his fault.  These sorts of accidents can happen to even the best of us.

One of the serious but rarely realized dangers to your follow's head (or ears actually) comes from the dance club's sound system.  Try to avoid the area within twenty feet or so directly in front of the speakers as, depending of the volume, your follow's hearing could be easily damaged.
In regular dancing the greatest danger to your follow’s head occurs, as you would expect, when she is being dipped.  The main danger, however, is not that you will drop her but rather that another lead will dip his follow at the same time and the two follow’s heads will bonk together.  Many of us are chuckling right now because this has happened to us.  Thankfully these bonks are usually very minor.  But again, this is why, as a lead, you always want to be checking for other dancers before you initiate a dip.  Also, in preparation for a dip you must prepare to set up with your left leg extended with knee bent to support the weight of the reclining follow.  Her safety depends on this vital step.

Lastly, a word about Lindy Aerials, or air steps,  I personally love them as does my eleven year old daughter who’s always pestering me to practice them with her.  That's the two of us in the photo below.  We were in costume for Suburban Swing's Star Wars Theam Night.  Tiffany was a young Princess Leia and I was Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The main point about aerials is that you only should do them if you are sufficiently proficient in them and only with a follow is also proficient in the same particular moves you plan to perform.  Very ideally, the two of you should have practiced them together in training with a spotter to protect your follow until the both of you have come to fully trust each other and you are able to successfully communicate to your follow exactly what move you intend next to do and she indicates that she is ready to follow through with the move.  You also want to be absolutely sure that the surrounding area is, and will remain, free of other dancers.  Remember that your follow has to come down eventually on her feet so you will need to temper your move to reduce that impact.  Also, always inquire of the dance hall hosts as to whether aerials are even allowed.  Most often they are not due to the significant liability risks involved.  Bottom line: never initiate an aerial move with an untrained, unprepared follow who does not fully know and trust you.  It’s almost a sure way for someone to get seriously hurt.  And believe me, that would not look cool. 

Another minor point I should mention.  You also need to be aware of how you are deploying your right hand.  You know, the one on your follow’s back.  In regular East Coast closed position hold this is not an issue as your hand is essentially placed on the middle upper area of her back.  But in a close hold position like is often employed in blues and fusion dancing you need to be aware of the importance of protecting her kidneys from being bruised by your hand.

Which brings us to a very important point.  Talk with your follow.  Encourage her to give you feedback on how you are dancing with her.  Does she feel safe?  Does she feel comfortable?  Is there anything you could do that would make the dance better for her?  Understand that if a follow says that she feels "safe" while dancing with you she is paying you one of the greatest compliments you could ever receive.

For us leads, this is really a major reason for us to learn to dance really well.  It frees up our mental capacity so that we can apply it in ways whereby we can protect our follows and make the dance for them the best, happiest and most fulfilling experience that it can possibly be.

For us as leads and as gentlemen a great deal of our success is measured by our follow's joy.  And that’s the real goal, the real pinnacle of dance attainment.

All the best to you fellow dance enthusiasts,

Wylin Tjoelker      Dance Club Review

PS.  I just know that I have missed some very important points about protecting follows from injuries.  If you noticed any glaring omissions, could you please bring them to our attention by clicking the “Comments” link below and sharing with us?  A few seconds of your time could save a follow from a serious, and possibly even permanent, injury.

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No doubt there is something important that I failed to mention in this article, and I greatly appreciate any comment you would like to share that will benefit our dance community, so by all means bless us with your insights by commenting below :)