Dance floor navigation: games and ideas

Over the past twenty years, I have collected and created exercises to make navigation a fun challenge, rather than a feared part of dancing, especially for beginners. Although I often adapt drills from my teachers, these games all originated as "hey, why don't we . . ." ideas that my University of Oregon students and my Zen Tango students helped me to work through and refine into the following games. Here are the explorations that helped folks to prepare to dance on the crowded tango dance floor at Norse Hall in Portland, for the Valentango Festival.

These games can be played anywhere, to prepare for any kind of dance. However, Norse Hall offers several specific challenges that I addressed in this class:

  • The "wall of death" area of the dance circle that faces the main doors into Norse Hall's main ballroom. As dancers circulate, other dancers all try to enter the dance floor at the same place, creating a navigational disaster area.
  • The "legs of death" area in the center of the dance floor, where the dancers who want to dance open embrace fancy stuff vie for space with the beginners who ended up in the middle of the floor and can't escape.
  • The overcrowding that comes from trying to fit all the festival participants and the local dancers into one ballroom; there are just too many people in one space, but everyone still wants to dance.

Game #1: Solo-couple

When I did my thesis research on lead/follow roles in the Buenos Aires tango community, I was struck by a story about how tango had changed between the 1980s and current tango practice. Several people told me about going to dance in the late 1980s, and watching everyone in a room move as a unit. They said that they didn't see any collisions, and that everyone dancing seemed to flow together in the space.
I think that the older dancers tuned into not only themselves and their partner, but into the energy flow of the room, resulting in a flow of dance that encompassed all dancers. To recreate this feeling, I made a dance game that encourages tuning into the group first and doing tango second.


  1. Play catchy music (often I use alternative milonga music to get the group moving swiftly).
  2. Ask everyone to move through the space in any direction (clockwise, counter-clockwise, through the middle of the group).
  3. Remind dancers to relax arms and hands: no hands in pockets or arms folded in front of bodies, etc.
  4. No one can stop for the entire song. If someone is in the way, turn in place until there is space to move, and then move.
  5. If a collision happens, exhale and relax to reduce the shock of the crash. Do NOT stop or put your hands up to "protect" yourself: although counterintuitive, this helps protect everyone.
  6. When the teacher yells "COUPLE!" the dancers grab the nearest person WITHOUT PAUSING, get into some version of an embrace and dance in normal, counterclockwise direction. If a couple is in the way, the dancers can turn in place until space appears. DO NOT stop to get into the embrace and figure out who is leading; negotiate while moving :-)
  7. When the teacher yells "SOLO!" let go of your partner and return to the first section of the game, moving through space in any direction, getting into the flow of the music.
  8. Repeat.

I usually call "Solo!" when

  • A couple stop and cause a traffic jam behind them.
  • The flow of the room gets stuck in some other way.
  • Dancers begin to work on particular steps instead of focusing on the energy and flow.

Although I would not follow this game to the letter while actually dancing at a milonga, I find that dancers relax more on the dance floor after experiencing Solo-Couple. They have more fun, and they also learn to tune into the couples around them so that the leader can better gauge the available space. Also, many students have noted that this exercise helps them improvise better in the dance because the available space and energy flow suggest movements to them. One last note: I usually have my beginning tango classes do this in the first 1-2 hours of class. I don't think it is ever too early to build navigation tools!

Game #2: Freeway entrance (entering the dance floor after the dance has started)

In many cases in tango, many dancers start to dance after the music begins for a tanda (set of dances). In a space like Norse Hall, most of the dancers are in one quadrant of the room between dances, and therefore, most dancers try to enter the dance floor in the exact same place, creating quite a traffic jam. This game is designed to gain comfort with entering the dance floor while couples whiz by. To me, it feels very much like learning how to yield onto the highway when I was a beginning driver (eek!!!)

In this game, I put the music on, create a circle in the dance space with chairs, and have each couple enter one at a time, gradually adding in couples.


  1. The leader creates the space on the dance floor, and the follower enters the embrace quickly, and they go. Followers: DO NOT wander out on the dance floor and wait for your partner, thus creating a moving target for other couples!
  2. Once a couple is part of the dancing circle, they have right of way. In the GAME (not in reality), each leader is not supposed to adjust for new entrants. S/he may run right over the new couple if they pause too long and get in the way.
  3. After everyone is dancing, any couple who wants more practice may exit and re-enter the space.

At a really crowded milonga, couples do not have the luxury of thirty seconds of creating the embrace, connecting to the partner, etc. Use the first dance to adjust to each other. You will have several other dances in the tanda to enjoy after you settle in.

In "real life" in tango, leaders already on the dance floor DO adjust to folks who have just entered the dance space. As a leader, however, I do not enjoy dealing with an oblivious leader who has just taken my pocket of space and who has not noticed the other couples in the immediate vicinity. I catch the eye of the lead behind and in front of me as soon as possible so that they know I am aware of them and their space.

Game #3: The doughnut (learning to dance in your "lane")

At a crowded milonga, there are established lanes of motion. Traditionally, passing other dancers and weaving in and out of lanes was inappropriate. Today, with so many new dancers, I see a lot of lane-jumping, but I try to teach traditional rules. After all, I am an anthropologist and a dancer, so the cultural rules that go with dance are important to me.


  1. Make a "doughnut hole" in the center of the space with several chairs (put the backs together to cut down on pain when running into them!).
  2. If you like, put removable tape (painter's) in circular paths around this (note: it is a *&%*#@* to take off the floor, so I no longer do it, but it is a useful visual aid).
  3. Have 2/3 of the class dance in an outer lane, and 1/3 dance in the inner lane. If you have enough people, do three lanes (in my UO classes, I had 30-40 students, which provided enough for three lanes)
  4. Partway through, switch who is in the inner lane. Make sure everyone gets a chance to dance in each lane.

This is not a difficult game. Again, I start to use this with beginners, although I originally thought it would only be useful for more experienced dancers. My theory: if beginners know all the rules, they have a better time at dances and come back more often!

Game #4: Traffic jam: learning defensive leading

No matter how good you get at leading tango, there will always be "problem drivers" out on the dance floor. Learning how to avoid crashing into careless leaders, is an important skill, even for new dancers. This game usually leads to some hilarious situations, but also give tentative leaders more confidence about actually getting out on the dance floor.


  1. Count off couples into two or three groups, depending on the size of the group (for a class with fifteen people, I make it two groups; for more than twenty, I make three groups).
  2. Group #1 dances.
  3. Group #2 makes it as difficult as possible for Group #1 to dance. As individuals (or couples, although individuals work better), Group #2 can either:
  • stand in the way as a stationery object
  • channel one of the most annoying dancers in the area (no names, please!) by either repeatedly backing up into other folks, passing them, doing big adornos to trip folks, you name it ;-)
  • aim for the better dancers, narrowing the space around them in order to challenge them to figure out how to to continue to dance in the space.

Groups change jobs: Group #2 dances and Group #1 obstructs. After each round, talk about what worked to avoid the obstructions, what didn't. This is a good time to talk about energy and intention: just as you find space when you walk on a crowded city sidewalk, you find space by dancing with intention, headed in the direction you want.

Other good advice for navigating crowded dance spaces (and if you have ideas for games to work on these, let me know!):

  • In one of my first tango workshops, thirteen years ago, Daniel Trenner taught us that the leader "takes the hit" for the follower. I still find this to be true. If there is going to be a crash, I use my body, not my follower's body, to cushion the blow.
  • Apologize! There will be some crashes during a crowded dance. If you can meet eyes with the other party involved and mouth "Sorry!" that works.  If not, make sure you apologize after the dance if it could have been your fault. Be nice about it: the only time I think it's perhaps OK to be angry at the other couple is if they did something like off-the-ground boleos into you/your partner or something that shows they were not paying attention to the needs of the other dancers. For the most part, they are trying as hard as you are to avoid crashes.
  • Elbows, butts & backs: If necessary, use the available surfaces of your body to make room. Don't be pushy, but don't be afraid to ease your way out of a dangerous situation. As a woman who sometimes led, I was a target in Buenos Aires (and sometimes in the USA) for certain men who felt they should "show me a lesson" and "encourage" me not to lead. They cut off my space, tried to squeeze me off the floor, etc. I learned to squeeze by clearing space with my butt (gently) to get my follower away from such situations. I also learned to read the dance floor space and energy ahead of time to avoid such confrontations. Guys: you don't have to do that, but use my experience to boost your own navigational skills!