SOME THEORY OF BALLROOM DANCING

Don Herbison-Evans ,   donherbisonevans@yahoo.com
Byrnes Dance Image

DANCING IS A LANGUAGE

Ballroom Dancing may be viewed as a conversation between the bodies of the partners. To learn Ballroom Dancing, the partners must each learn two new languages: their own and their partner's patterns of movements. This is why learning Ballroom Dancing is non-trivial.

If we take as the unit of spoken language to be the sentence, and the unit of Ballroom Dancing to be a dance figure, then Ballroom Dancing is actually more complicated than verbal language, because in any Ballroom Dancing figure, the lady's and man's steps are different. In spoken language, everyone can say the same sentence, and although gender is an important element of most European languages. Unlike the body languages of Ballroom dancing, no spoken language has totally different nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives when used by the different sexes.

But when the bodies of two partners really understand each other, when they dance together: their bodies do not merely talk to each other, their bodies sing in a counterpoint. Then there is bliss for the dancers and viewers alike. This result is the mystical union of the movement.

LEADING

In a sense: Ballroom Dancing is sexist. The man and the lady have differing roles. Traditionally the man leads: he is responsible for the choice of choreography and the alignments, and arranging to avoid obstacles, corners and other dancers. Meanwhile the lady follows the man, typically taking each step a fraction of a second after that of the man because she has to determine what the man is doing and then match it with her corresponding step. Meanwhile the man is monitoring his partner's speed and shape, and using this to help choose which figure can most easily be performed next that also matches the space available on the floor where they can move, and then arranging his speed and shape to lead the lady into that figure.

We have seen that starting a 'step' with feet apart allows the easy creation of turns. A second reason for starting a 'step' with feet apart is allow the man to lead the lady at the start of a dance. The lady must discern which foot the man is going to move first in order to follow him. She cannot tell this if he has equal weight on both feet. So the start of any ballroom dance begins with the man putting his weight clearly onto one foot. That way, the lady may match this by settling onto her corresponding (opposite) foot, and then follow the movement of the man's other foot as they start to move.

GRACE STEPS

In music, a Grace Note is a note that precedes the next real note. It is a Clayton's note. It itself is not part of the melody. It prepares the ear of the listener for the next note of the melody. Similarly in dance a Grace Step is a step that precedes and prepares for the next real step. This is most useful at the beginning of a dance, when the men must communicate to the lady which foot he is going to start with. In the simplest case, the man will just take a small step to the side or back on the last beat of the bar before that in which the dance starts, settling onto that foot, and releasing the other foot for the first real step of the dance. In many cases the man might take two grace steps, such as a side step onto one foot at the beginning of the bar preceding the dance, and then a small step forward on the last beat of that bar, so already building some forward momentum of the body into the first step of the dance.

DEGA'S PRINCIPLE

A third reason for starting and ending a step with the feet apart is that it looks nicer. Anyone studying the famous paintings and scuptures of dancers by the artist Degas will notice that none of his dancers have their feet together (Layrette, 1993)(Denvir, 1991). People standing with their feet together look like soldiers. All the picture steps in ballroom dancing have the feet apart. But many figures in Ballroom dances have steps where the feet are closed, such as the third step in the Viennese Waltz. The lesson from Degas is that when dancers do close their feet together in these figures, then they should arrange to have them in that position as briefly as possible.

One may consider the closing of the feet to be the preparation for the next step. This is most obvious in the Paso Doble, where the closing step is called an Appel, which is often done with a noisy stamp. This is a mistake. Bullfights, for which the Paso Doble is an allegory, are performed on sand, so stamping a foot there creates no noise. The Appel movement, rather than a stamp, is really a rapid compression of the standing leg preparing the other leg to move.

Beginner dancers are often inclined to close their feet with a snap action, but then have to remain with closed feet for the rest of the beat. One way to avoid standing with the feet closed, is to close them slowly using the whole beat of music to do so, and when they are actually closed then immediately start the foot movement of the next step. This is the technique advocated in most of the Standard Ballroom and Latin dances. It is often described as using foot pressure, or stroking the floor, to slow the closing foot. In some dances, such as the Tango and the Cha Cha, the character of the dance requires the closing foot to snap rapidly to the other. So applying the Dega's Principle here means that the closing is delayed to the end of the musical beat.

COMMAS

A comma in writing separates one phrase from the next. It helps to convey the meaning. If it is put in the wrong place in a sentence, it can make the sentence into nonsense or convey a totally different meaning. Similarly we should put commas in our dancing. The commas should separate phrases of contiguous movements. For example: commas are useful after picture steps, like the same-foot-lunge or the throwaway-oversway, to allow the resulting picture to be appreciated. So in the Latin dances, one may place a comma after the "1" beat in the Cha Cha, after the "4" beat in the Rumba, and the "2" beat in the Samba, which are all used incidentally to stop the feet moving, but to allow the hips to continue moving, giving the hip movements a different timing to that of the feet. This counterpoint between the different movements of the feet and of the hips is a fundamental character of these dances.

In the Standard Ballroom dances, the comma plays an important role in the Waltz and the Slow Foxtrot. In the Waltz, despite Degas's Principle, the comma is at the end of "3", allowing time for a compression before starting to rise during the step of beat "1". In the Slow Foxtrot, again the comma can be used to allow time for compression. This is important when a Slow step taken with the heel follows a Quick step taken on a toe. Beginners are inclined to phrase bars of Slow Foxtrot as "quick quick slow, quick quick slow,". But phrasing the dance as "slow quick quick, slow quick quick,", putting the comma after the second "quick" instead of after the "slow" allows more time for this compression, and results in a smoother action. One simplistic way of achieving this when the the "slow" is at the beginning of a bar, is by pretending that the dance is a Rumba, and taking the slow on the second beat of the bar rather than the first beat.

BACKWARD STEPS

We have seen that backward steps are difficult because we cannot see what is behind us, and we are not used to doing them. The third problem with going backwards is that most people can flex their thigh at the hip forward by 90 degrees or more, but few people can bend the thigh back more than about 20 degrees. This raises two problems in ballroom dancing.

Firstly, if the partner who going forward compresses their standing leg, their knee will project forward of their body. How can the partner going backward compress their standing leg with their knee also projecting forward of their body, without their knee clashing with that of their partner? The answer is provided by dancing on four tracks. Each foot of each partner steps on its own separate track along the floor. The track for the right foot of each partner is between the tracks of the feet of the other partner. The partners do not dance exactly facing each other, but are offset to the right of each other by the width of one shoe. This allows one's right foot to be placed between the feet of one's partner. This does mean that one's feet can never exactly close, because one must always leave space between the feet for one's partner's right toe. It also means that when dancing, the thighs of each dancer will continuously be brushing the thighs of their partner. This is an intimacy seldom afforded to strangers, but it is necessary to be comfortable with this when dancing with one's dance partner. We already have five points of contact with one's partner in taking the ballroom closed hold, so what is wrong with one more?

The second problem caused by the difference in flexions of the thigh forward and back, is one of perception rather than reality. It might be thought that the partner travelling forward will be able to reach their leg much further forward than the partner going backward can reach their leg backward. But we have already determined that by stepping forward as described above, at no time is the foot of the partner stepping forward ahead of their body. The stride length of the partner going forward is limited by how far they can push their body ahead of their standing foot, which as they step forward will become the back foot. So in fact both partners are limited in their stride length by how far they can extend their leg backward.

Curiously, the most interesting thing about stepping backwards has nothing to do with either of these problems. It is that, despite having eyes at the front and being able to extend the leg further to the front, the human body develops more power when travelling backwards than when travelling forwards. Tug of war teams pull backwards. Rowers row backwards. If your car breaks down, you can push it more easily by putting your back against it and pushing backwards. So in ballroom dancing, the partner who is travelling backwards has the power. This is particularly important in turns. The partner going backward controls the speed and amount of turn. The partner going forward can determine the nature of the turn: for example whether it is a pivot, or an open turn, or a heel turn. But the power of any turn is controlled by the partner who is going into it backwards. If the partner going backward does not apply that power, the partner going forward will not succeed in getting around them. This is most obvious in the Viennese Waltz. Each partner, as they take their backward half of the turn, must take their partner from behind them to in front of them. Otherwise the progression of their dance will not be along the line of dance, but will curve into the side of the room or into other dancers. The partner going forward cannot control this. Only the partner going backward can do this.

HILLS AND VALLEYS

Some of the Standard Ballroom dances are often described as having rise and fall, or rising and lowering. The character of this vertical movement is different in the different dances.

In the Waltz, the three steps in each bar are all taken rising continuously, so that they come to a peak at "3". The time available for compression at the end of the "3" of one bar and the "1" of the next bar is very brief. That rapid compression might well be likened to a fall. And like a fall, it is accompanied with an acceleration of the body through the first step of the next bar, like a car coasting down a hill into a valley. Then as the body rises through the three beats of the bar, like a car coasting up the next hill, the body slows. The result is that the rise and fall of the feet and legs corresponds also to a slow and fast modulation of the flight of the body. This modulation of body speed with rising and lowering of the legs and feet is also part of the character of the Slow Foxtrot and Quickstep, but in these the period used for rising is about equal to that used for lowering, so the rising and lowering are symmetrical in time. In all these three dances, the Waltz, the Slow Foxtrot, and the Quickstep, the body can be made to look as though it is powered through the lowering actions, and then floats over the rises. The result is curious optical illusion, particularly for the Slow Foxtrot. Although the lowered steps are typically slows, each taking two beats of the music, and the risen steps are quicks, each taking only one beat of the music, because the slows are used for acceleration, and the body decelerates through the quicks, it appears that the slows are quick, and the quicks are slow. Even more curious is that the length of stride used by a ballroom dancer needs to be the same for both a slow step and a quick step if the movement is to look smooth and easy. Learning the coordination to achieve this is non-trivial, and takes time and patience. I didn't say it was easy.

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