Dance Jam Etiquette

Although dance jams can be run by appointed individuals, I think they are the most fun and exciting when the jammers spontaneously run the jam on their own.  When participants lose the ability to non-verbally negotiate dance jams, DJs and emcees step in and orchestrate the jams.  When the dancers organize themselves, the non-verbal communication between the dancers can be almost as entertaining to watch as the dancing itself.  To that end here are a few tips for both dance jam observers and participants.

Observers’ Responsibilities

Observers form a circle to regulate the circle size so that everyone who wishes to observe can have a reasonable view.  The circle should be formed with people standing shoulder to shoulder without any gapes, and it should be big enough to encircle a dancing couple with room for movement, without being so big as to make the couple feel disconnected from the observers.

Height determines where observers stand.  So that the maximum number of people have a view of the circle, tall observers position themselves behind shorter observers.  Sometimes avid observers will sit on the floor at the inside of the circle so as not to miss seeing the jammers’ footwork.

Educated observers verbally encourage dancers as they enter, perform, and exit the center, but take care not to distract or embarrass performers into making mistakes.

Observers are obliged to politely make way for people who wish to perform.

Observers usually clap on the even (upbeats) in time to the music.  This adds energy and helps the dancers stay on beat during all the commotion.

Knowledgeable observers at the inside perimeter try to accommodate exiting dancers without complaining that those dancers are now blocking their view.  A few minutes earlier that same couple was entertaining the crowd, so the crowd in turn shows their appreciation by helping them find space when they are done performing.

Observers often encourage, but never harass, individuals they would like to see perform.  Some dancers may need a little nudging but the crowd respects the wishes of those indicating a sincere desire to simply observe.

Observers take care to avoid blocking the view of the camera.  Many jams (especially those at national conventions) are videotaped, and most people wouldn’t want 400 copies in circulation of the back of their head blocking the view of the hottest dancers at an event.

Since many jams are videotaped, observers in the inner perimeter monitor their language and behavior; it could be humiliating to know that people are re-winding and playing in slow motion footage of oneself clapping off time, adjusting clothing, or making disparaging comments about the dancers.

Observers need not be shy about expressing their appreciation to the dancers performing in the jam.  Everyone loves a compliment, especially all the dance hams who jam.

Participants’ Responsibilities

It is a good idea for people wanting to join a jam to watch at least one entire dance jam before attempting to participate.  Understanding how the dancers queue up in line to dance is an essential part of the equation, as well as knowing how long to stay, and how to make a graceful entrance and exit.

If an emcee is calling couples out, jammers wait to be invited into the jam.

It the jam is regulated by the dancers, jammers catch the eyes of the other dancers who have indicated a wish to dance in order to determine the order of couples wishing to dance.

Couples who wish to enter a jam from the outside perimeter of the circle need to be especially considerate of the people they are trying to get around.  A gentle tap on someone’s shoulder and a polite “Please excuse us” indicates a couple wishes to go to the inner perimeter to prepare to dance.

Would be participants signal their readiness to participate by standing in closed dance position.  This is a signal to others in the circle that a couple wants to enter the jam.  When in doubt about which couple has the right of way, considerate jammers give way to the other couple.  Ideally, the right of way goes to the couple who has been waiting the longest, is in a position slightly inside the circle, and has clearly indicated they believe they are next in queue.  Sometimes such a couple will give way to a couple who is clearly more talented and a crowd favorite.  Sometimes a couple uneducated in the etiquette of jams jumps in ahead of everyone in the queue.  When that happens, the knowledgeable couples give up their place in line consoling themselves by giving each other knowing looks that indicate they are in control of the jam and are politely accommodating those that don’t yet know the rules.  These dancers know that the crowd won’t disperse until all the good dancers have had a turn, so they can afford to be polite.  In a similar vein, if an uneducated couple stays in a jam too long, the crowd begins to chant for another couple to enter, hinting that the first couple has outstayed their welcome.

When entering or exiting a jam, couples need to be especially aware so as not to interfere with one another’s entrance or exit.  Usually the couple exiting has already made eye contact with the couple entering so the exiting couple will leave opposite the circle to where the newest couple is coming in.  That way the circle is never empty, and couples never collide.

Once a couple is in the jam, it is helpful to keep the dancing centered. This is especially important if the couple plans to execute aerials so that they don’t inadvertently hit observers!

Jammers perform for a short period of time.  Staying in for longer than 20 seconds is considered very rude unless the dancer is a featured dancer (it’s their birthday jam, or they are a visiting mucky muck).  Usually such dancers know exactly when to exit-leaving the crowd wanting to see more of them.  If a couple is being replaced before they have had a chance to get their best moves in, they exit anyway and learn from the experience that they need to perform their best tricks sooner the next time they participate in a jam.  If a couple is truly entertaining, the crowd will encourage the couple entering to wait and insist that the couple in the center stay a little longer.

Although obviously leaders may lead out of the jam whenever they feel their time is up, sometimes a leader may overstay the couples’ welcome to the dismay of their partner.  Followers who feel they have extended their time in the spotlight may tell their leaders they want to leave.  If the leader does not exit, followers may initiate an exit by dancing out of the circle on their own at the next available opportunity (free spinning to the edge, skipping away through an underarm turn, etc.).  At that point, the follower-less leader will be obliged to make room for another couple.

Considerate jammers usually enter the jam only once if there are many dancers who wish to participate.  If there are relatively few dancers who are performing, it may be appropriate to go out more than once.  In that case, the dancer re-entering should enter the jam with a new partner so the audience can see a variety of people.  If a dancer goes out a third time they usually use that opportunity to demonstrate a different dance.

Savvy parents don’t allow their children to go out more than once.  This is especially true for major conventions where there are plenty of good adult dancers to entertain the crowd.  A child dancing once is cute, two or three times is annoying and other adult performers get resentful.  If there are a lot of juniors, they should be careful not to monopolize the jam unless they’ve been invited to be showcased.  As in general social dancing, any adult showcasing a junior should be especially cognitive of the age different and adjust all choreography to be age appropriate.

Once a couple is finished performing, they should attempt to insert themselves into the perimeter of the circle in a manner that is least likely to block the view of those who were already positioned to observe.  Observers who moments before were cheering and clapping can turn nasty when their view becomes blocked!

If a dancer wants to dance with someone at the opposite side of the circle, they have several options.  They can attempt to communicate that they will hook up as part of an entrance to the others in queue, or one of them (usually the leader) can go around the back of the circle and find their partner so they can start from the same location.  It is impolite to cross the circle while a couple is performing.

If the music stops at any time during a couples’ performance, even if they have just begun to dance, experienced jammers immediately stop dancing and back out of the circle.  It’s better to have the emcee/crowd invite dancers to stay and dance to a new song then to find out that the crowd is disintegrating into general dancing during the middle of their “performance”.

Hope these explanations help clarify a few things regarding dance jams, and make your social dance jam experience a little more fun and interesting!

Dance Jam Etiquette – Copyrighted 1997 Kelly (Buckwalter) Casanova; Revised 2009