Don Herbison-Evans ,
Byrnes Dance Image

written 23 October 2013


Usually the first figures taught to beginners are the Change Steps in the Waltz. These introduce straight away the concepts of left-right symmetry, as the even bars are the left-right mirror reversal of the odd bars. Then typically we learn forwards-backwards reversal so that we can do them in either direction. Then we learn of man-lady role reversal, which is the same as simultaneous left-right and forwards-backwards reversals. These three (left-right, forwards-backwards, and role-reversal) are the basic symmetry reversals that pervade ballroom dancing.

More advanced dancers encounter two other symmetry reversals: namely up-down and time reversal. A study of all five of these symmetries can give an insight and understanding into how we dance that can assist in achieving the ease and style we want, and even provide us with new figures to include in our routines.

Left-Right Reversal

Very few people can write easily with both hands. People on the outside usually look left-right symmetrical, but our organs inside, and especially our brains, are very asymmetrical. It is hard doing a figure on the opposite side to that on which we learned it. It involves great concentration and intellectual effort and practice before our muscle memory can take over.

Beginner syllabuses often start with the four Change Steps in the Waltz (forward left, forward right, back left, back right), and then natural and reverse turns. These all involve left-right, forward-back, and role-reversal symmetry. But after that, they typically learn the Whisk, Chassé and Natural Spin Turn, and the symmetry considerations seem to get forgotten. Further on in the syllabus, we do learn the Left Whisk, and Chassé to the Right, but curiously never the Reverse Spin Turn. So you might like to stop for a moment and work out how you would do a Reverse Spin Turn. It does not seem to appear in any syllabus.

We do learn the Double Reverse Spin, but Double Natural Spin was recently removed from the syllabus. This seems rather odd as it is rather easier to do then the Double Reverse because the partners are already on each other's right side.

One unusual figure in the Slow Foxtrot is the Three Feathers, in which the second feather is a mirror image of the first and third, with the man stepping to his right outside his partner. This is step is harder than a normal feather because the partners obstruct each other being already on the right of each other, so it requires rather stronger CBM/CBMP to be smooth.

Which brings perhaps the ultimate left-right challenge. Can you and your partner dance your normal roles and normal figures, but in a mirror image hold:

1. the man's right hand holding the lady's left hand,
2. the lady's right hand resting on the top of the man's left upper arm,
3. the man's left hand placed on the right shoulder blade on the back of the lady.
4. the lady's right elbow rests on the man's left elbow,
5. the left area of the chest of each partner touches that of the other?

Forwards-Backwards Reversal

The ability to dance figures to the left and to the right is somewhat disturbed by the partners being offset to each other's right, but the ability to dance both forwards and backwards is affected by several more severe factors.

Firstly we have eyes at the front and cannot see where we are going when travelling backwards. Rabbits can. Their eyes bulge out of the sides of their heads, and the visual fields of the eyes overlap at the back, so they actually have stereoscopic vison behind them. But we do not.

So our second factor is that of familiarity. Because we cannot see where we are going when going backwards, we have had far less practice at going backwards than going forwards. Even given a clear space in which to do it, few people can run as fast backwards as forwards. But they can learn to do so with practice.

The third factor is that we can bend our thighs much further forwards than backwards so our reach for a stride back is much diminished. But in Ballroom dancing, this is actually an advantage when going backwards because ballroom steps are all push with no pull. To go backward we push with the front foot, so the extra flexion of the front thigh makes it easier to take longer stronger steps than pushing forward with the back foot.

There is a fourth factor which again is an advantage when going backwards: we are stronger at pushing backwards than we are pushing forwards. Think of pushing a car up hill. It is easier to to put you back to it and push backwards than to push forwards.

These all mean that is a big difference between going backwards and going forwards. For advanced dancers, the power is in the partner going backwards but the guidance is with the partner going forwards. For example, in the Viennese Waltz, the forward partner initiates the turn but the movement of the backwards partner determines how much and how rapidly they turn.

Role Reversal

We learn early on in ballroom lessons that the steps of one partner are the left-right forwards-backwards opposites of the steps of the other partner (except in promenade or fallway movements of course). We are familiar with the idea that 456 of a waltz turn is the role reversal of 123 of the turn.

Many figures are obvious role reversals of other figures, such as the Forward and Back Locks in the Quickstep, and the Extended Reverse Wave and the combined Three Step and Feather Step in the Slow Foxtrot. Less obvious pairs are the Turning Lock and Rumba Cross, and the Impetus Turn and Natural Telemark.

My favourite figure in the Slow Foxtrot is the Three Fallaways, in which the second fallaway is the reverse role of the first and third, with the partners doing half open reverse turns to switch sides in between. The couple seems to flow backwards down the room while gently rolling around each other as they go.

So we can add new figures to our routines by trying some role reversals of standard figures. How about a reverse-role Natural Spin Turn or Continuous Hover Cross?

Up-Down Reversal

There is specified rise and fall particularly in the footwork in figures throughout ballroom dancing, but one of the few figures in the syllabus where there are allowable options is the Chassés With Elevations in the Paso Doble. In these, typically one dances a pair with one chassé up followed by one chassé down, but other combinations are encouraged.

But body rise and fall, in the knees rather than the feet of course, can also be used to create drama through the corresponding acceleration and deceleration in many figures. Consider a Telemark into a Throwaway Oversway combination. One can dance the whole combination down and continuous and fast so that the lady spins and uses the momentum to throw herself into the throwaway picture shape. Alternatively the couple could rise at the end of the Telemark, and for a moment dwell high, before sinking and oozing into the picture line.

Time Reversal

There are some figures in some dances that are the same both forwards and backwards in time. The Basic figures in Samba, Rumba, Cha Cha and Jive are the same if reversed in time, as are New Yorkers and Open Rocks. Some figures are obvious pairs that are mirror images of each other in time, such as Forward Boto Fogos and Backward Boto Fogos in the Samba, and Change of Place Right to Left and Left to Right in the Jive.

But consider a basic Waltz Change Step done backwards:
3: instead of closing and rising and lowering, rise and step to the side and start lowering
2: instead of stepping to the side from an open forward position and continue to rise, step back into an open position, continuing to lower,
1: instead of stepping forward from a closed position to an open position and beginning to rise, close from the open position and continue to lower, and change weight.
It looks and feels awful. It is the rise and fall that makes it hard to find figures in the Waltz that look good when reversed in time. But in the other dances this less of a problem.

Of course one problem is progression around the floor. Maybe the couple should first to turn 180 degrees to ensure counter-clockwise progression before reversing time. Then, for instance, the Tango with no rise and fall looks good but unusual in reversed time. Of course the Promenades look like Fallaways and vice versa, but they are still good.

Rotating half a turn to dance a Quickstep around the floor anti-clockwise backwards in time puts the man on the outside. This can be remedied by doing a role reversal as well, but then this is getting pretty tricky.


It is a wonderful challenge of one's control and understanding to try reversing some of these symmetries in figures that you know. There are some interesting discoveries to be made even in quite simple figures. Happy Experimenting.