We carved out a little space in the roaring crowd. She was an above average dancer with some jazz background but was relatively new to salsa. I had never seen her before but we had a great time.
Right after the dance she said, "I had so much fun dancing with you. You were the first guy who made me feel protected. Hope we get to dance again."
I was almost embarrassed by the way she said it. She wasn't "into me" or anything, as she introduced me to her boyfriend a minute later and I haven't seen her since.
I realized I had not done anything special, but because the place was crowded, I went into my "small dancing, defensive driving, protect my partner" mode. In a few cases I gave up my patterns or my footwork to make sure she was safe from the vultures circling around us.
A couple hours later the club closed at 3am and I went outside. She was there with her boyfriend and the three of us talked outside. She said really liked the club, but wished the guys would pay more attention.
She continued, "I had to ask one guy to quit throwing me into others. I kept getting hit, but he was dancing big and ignoring the people around us. He kept spinning me into another couple. With you I felt like I could 'dance' since you were taking care of me and watching for others."
Now frankly, I didn't do anything real special with her other than stop moves that might put her in harm's way, and clearing space for her during our cross-body leads. I was driving defensively, trying to be sure she didn't need to worry about being hit. I changed my slot several times based on the people around us, and I was dancing smaller than I would otherwise. I realized the other guys she danced with had simply made me look MUCH better because they didn't protect her or even make an effort to keep her safe.
I used to hate to dance in a small space, as I've matured I've learned to deal with it and make the most of it. The one thing I hate is when my partner gets hit. Even if it's not my fault, I still hate it, so I've developed a defensive mindset toward my partners. I'll take the hit if required, as long as she doesn't have to. Our job as a lead is to get her feeling comfortable and feeling like she can dance without worrying about the others around us.
If I have a very rude guy around me, and he keeps throwing himself or his partner into our space, I turn my back toward him and slowly back into his space until he gets the idea that he needs to respect my space. I've been hit a few times, but I'll take that if if protects my partner.
I used to always back off, but some guys only respect strength, so on a few occasions I'm quietly aggressive about moving into their space until he gets the idea. I don't know if I recommend that for younger guys. Being older and gray I'm subtle enough about it I suspect they simply think they don't want to get in a fight with an old guy, so they get out of my way.
From my experience, leads can prevent about 90% of our partners getting hit, stepped on or otherwise abused by the dancers around us. It all starts with you thinking about protecting your partner from harm, doing shoulder checks (looking over your shoulder before some moves) and developing a sense for the dancers around you. Stop moves if you have to, and don't be afraid to change your moves or put your arm out to prevent someone from running into your partner.
It isn't something I could do the first couple years I danced. As your dancing matures, you should think about defending your partner, even if that means simplifying and/or stopping your moves at points.
It's not always easy and nothing works 100% of the time, but every guy can do this if they think about it when in the middle of a crowd. It isn't about great moves, or complex patterns, it's about a protective mindset and being flexible to alter your game plan if it looks like your partner is in harm's way.
You do have to think about it at first, but it simply becomes another aspect of your dancing after a while.
Leads: Let us know what you are doing to protect your partners.
Follows: Let us know your stories about both good and bad experiences in this area. What could the leads do to make you more comfortable when it's crowded?
There is no such thing as "fun for the whole family."
-- Jerry Seinfeld