Floorcraft (and its discontents)

December 7, 2015 § 5 Comments

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

I’ve avoided discussing technical matters because the focus of this blog has been on the process of learning rather than the process of teaching or specific elements of the dance. Until now, that is. The time has come to discuss an issue that is related to technique but not uniquely so. We are generally taught the rudiments of floorcraft early in the learning process, hopefully during the first few months. As early as the first class, we learn that tango moves in a counterclockwise direction around the periphery of an imaginary circle (ellipse, what have you) on the dancefloor. If crowded, a second circle of dancers may form within the outer circle, also moving in a counterclockwise direction. Simple.

Some teachers will go further and tell you to stay within the line of dance and maintain a comfortable distance between yourself and the couple in front of you. We assume that the couple behind us will do the same—maintaining a constant distance, moving forward with us at the same pace. And most importantly, we are told to avoid bumping into other couples. Pretty straightforward.

The reality is somewhat different, however. I’ll list, in no particular order, some of the behaviors I’ve witnessed that make floorcraft more than a bit of a challenge: overcrowded floors and traffic congestion; dawdling; tailgating; in-situ spontaneous “teaching;” showboating; nuevo tango moves on a crowded floor; high boleos and back kicks; performance tango moves; lane-changing; passing on the right; passing on the left; random pedestrians walking around and, sometimes across the center, of the dance floor; couples criss-crossing the floor; couples dancing against the line of dance; couples not moving at all; leaders entering the line of dance without looking; backing into the line of dance; failing to acknowledge the leader behind them when entering an already moving line of dance; stopping for a protracted conversation. With a bit of effort, I’m sure I could find a few more, but the above are a good place to start.

There are other factors as well that can affect how we move around the floor:

– the way in which our partner prefers to move
– musicality and the desire to advance at the pace of the music (could be fast, slow, somewhere in between)

These last are not primarily aspects of floorcraft, and they are certainly not negative, but they affect the way we move on the floor and, therefore, our relation to other dancers.

Further illustrating my point that floorcraft and its discontents are common problems, the following video is a humorous, but accurate, take on the subject. It was done (acted, enacted?) by Murat and Michelle Erdemsel as part of a series on tango etiquette.

While Erdemsel doesn’t focus exclusively on floorcraft, he does comment on one important aspect of it, which I alluded to above—signaling to the couple (really, the leader) behind that you’d like to enter the line of dance and waiting for a response. He goes on to say that we can, through this simple expedient, connect not only with our dance partner, but with the couples around us, eventually extending the connection to the entire room. It’s a lovely idea.

Of course, if there weren’t a problem, no one would be writing or talking about it. I doubt it’s unique to New York or North America, but I havent’ traveled enough to know. It is an “issue” here, however, given the number of people who have commented on it. But identifying the elements that contribute to making floorcraft a “problem” is much easier than correcting them.

Identifying the causes that lead to it is equally difficult. Some of it is ego, of course. There are many experienced dancers who either ignore or remain indifferent to proper floorcraft. And some of it is ignorance. Students may learn the basics of movement around the floor, but floorcraft is not a part of any regular “curriculum” and takes time to learn. But there must be some other factors at work here since bad floorcraft is not unique to learning situations or beginners and not everyone is a selfish egotist. And while you may get caught up in the mood of the moment and forget your surroundings temporarily, you don’t get a pass for submitting to the throes of tango oblivion. One of the aspects of good floorcraft is to yield to the music while remaining sufficiently aware of your surroundings to navigate safely around the room. I was recently told by someone who has danced in Buenos Aires for many years that the problem is simply “bad dancing.” That’s a very fluid term, of course, but we know that good floorcraft and good musicality are part of good dancing, so there must be some validity to the claim.

I’ve included two clips of milongas in Buenos Aires, both very well known venues. What I’m interested in is not the quality of the dancing so much as movement on the floor. In both videos, although the floor is crowded, it moves uniformly and consistently to the rhythm of the music. I see just about every couple advancing at the same pace and maintaining a fairly constant distance between themselves and the dancers in front of them.

Club Gricel

Salon Canning

Perhaps this is simply the result of years of practice and a thorough familiarity with the music. Maybe there are cultural differences at play as well. Or a combination of factors. In any event, it’s something we need to work on. And isn’t it at the Cachirulo milonga in Buenos Aires where the host hands out penalty cards for improper behavior on the floor? Yellow or red, take your pick. A bit severe, but I’m sure it has improved floorcraft.

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§ 5 Responses to Floorcraft (and its discontents)

  • jantango says:

    The downtown confiterias bailables of Buenos Aires during the 1950s were the testing ground for the young milongueros. The dance floors were small, so the young milongueros had to dance very close and compactly. They’ve told me that it was a public embarrassment to even touch the arm of another couple on the dance floor. In some venues, one could be asked to leave for doing so. A man protected the woman on the dance floor, otherwise she wouldn’t dance again with him. The confiterias bailables had only the best dancers; the clubes de barrio in the neighborhoods with larger floors didn’t require a high level of dancing skill.

    Most dancers in Buenos Aires are conscious of others on the floor; many are unconscious of what they are doing. They are the problem. My partner was bumped twice within the same tune by the couple behind us, simply because the man was totally unaware of the space as he tried to execute figures to impress the woman, not protecting her.

    Teaching tango as a “performance” dance is doing the most damage on the social floor. Performers prefer to perform and don’t tone down their dancing to fit the space. Social dancers are getting too much performance tango in classes, and not enough of the social tango they pay for.

    And speaking of Cachirulo, a milonguero viejo told me only a few days ago about a fist fight recently in Cachirulo. One man was knocked out, but quickly regained consciousness. Both men are now banned from entering Cachirulo milongas. The reason for the argument is unknown, but it may have been a collision on the floor. Grown men still act like boys.


  • Patricia says:

    Good floorcraft = good manners.

    A milonga is a social event. So teachers, organisers and experienced dancers need to set a good example, and when necessary, have the courage to intervene appropriately, for the benefit of the rest of the tango community. It works.


  • David Owen says:

    In Sydney Australia we have some good teachers who also run milongas but do not enforce line of dance discipline, they turn a blind eye. So like anything, the few corrupt dancers, corrupt the whole milonga.


  • Great topic and so full of controversy.

    Connecting with the whole dancefloor is possible when the group breathes together is “respectful” of one another.

    Argentine tango social dancing is just that … social!


  • […] flow of movement around the floor, where couples moved in harmony with the music (see: floorcraft). There are two related elements here: social behavior and musicality. Dancers’ ability to […]


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