TURNING WALKING INTO DANCING -- FLOAT
by Harold & Meredith Sears
If we want our dancing to be more than walking through the figures, then we need to think about floating down the dance hall. The opposite of floating is maybe bouncing, plodding along—just walking. How can we convert a trudging walk into a floating dance? We will make use of our heels, but we will spend more time on the balls of our feet. We will bend and straighten our knees as we progress, but we won't lock our knees. These two features alone will keep us light on our feet and responsive to changes in direction. Our movements become airy and floating, rather than heavy and clumping.A pedometer is a little instrument that you can clip to your belt, and it will measure the steps that you take as you walk and so the miles that you travel. It can do this because with each step, you accelerate as you push with one foot and you decelerate as you land on the next foot. It's not quite as bad as: go, stop, go, stop…but there is enough of that kind of action to swing a pendulum that ticks off the steps and so the miles. Walking has a regular up-and-down motion to it, too, as we push off (and up a little), swing a leg forward to catch ourselves, and then land on that foot: up, down, up, down…with each step. When we dance, we don't want to land heavily on any step. We don't want the "go, stop" or the "up, down." We want our bodies to move down the hall at a smooth rate, as if we were gliding on ice skates. Our feet may be scooting about beneath us, but our bodies should be floating in a dignified and stately way above it all. To do this, instead of throwing the body forward and then taking the step and catching our weight as it falls, we want to reach out with the foot first, begin to transfer weight, contact the floor, and only then fully transfer weight. The transfer of weight from one foot to the other then becomes smooth and flowing, rather than abrupt and jerky.
One teacher has told us to "reach out and test the water before you take the plunge." I think we might have been talking about a Same-Foot Lunge. You don’t want to launch yourself into space and then land on your right foot: bang! A lunge like that will give you a sort of up and then down rocket trajectory with a crash at the end. Instead, sneak that foot out there, let your body follow, and only when the foot is in place, shift your weight fully onto it; this will give you a flatter, more floating kind of movement.
We could think of this feature of dancing as delayed commitment. We execute a large proportion of each step before we commit our weight to that step, and the woman needs to delay her commitment even longer than the man. Again, reach out beyond your body, let your body follow, but delay final commitment. When you feel the man shift his weight, only then do you shift weight onto the moving foot. If the woman steps before the man does, he will be brought up short with a bit of a jerk (or he may even step on her toe).
One of our teachers suggested that we "lead with our stomachs." Push your stomach out there, as you take your steps. Of course, don't do it unattractively, and as you get the feel of the action, you will be still more subtle, but the idea is to get or to keep your body moving over your feet in a smooth and floating sort of way. Try to focus on the pushing leg, rather than the reaching leg. It is the pushing leg that moves the body down the floor; the reaching foot doesn't go out there, grab, and pull. So, push, and push, and push; the free foot will naturally be there to support the body and to convey it on its way, smoothly and gently.
Another teacher urged us to avoid seeing the end of a figure as a goal but to look beyond that step and maintain the smooth flow. Think of the Open Telemark. If you only think: forward left, side and forward right turning, side and forward turning to diagonal line and wall, you will likely take that third step with a little jerk of arrival. The Open Telemark is a discrete figure, but it is only a small part of the dance, so don't feel that you have arrived or accomplished anything. Get that right foot moving right away, push off and keep your body moving, and as your foot is stretching out there, transfer weight smoothly, and move into the Natural Turn or whatever comes next. Rarely do we arrive at a destination where we want to stop the flow of the body. Always think beyond the next step and keep your body moving smoothly.
Two more metaphors: Think about climbing a rope. How different are our muscular movements if we are climbing smoothly, hand over hand, than if we only want to reach, pull, and then hang there. In dancing, we don't want to hang; we want to keep going. Or imagine a smooth, perfectly shaped skipping stone. Throw it out over a pond, and especially picture the end of its run, as it skips fast and light: bip, bip, bip, bip… If that stone were to skip and then land, it would sink. In dancing, we don't want to sink. Again, keep the body moving smoothly and steadily over feet that get there just a little ahead of time.
Finally, if you turn your foot out a little as you step, you will gain a little better balance. Most of the time, English or International style ballroom has us stepping forward with the toes straight ahead. The heel hits the floor first, then the ball of the foot. A back step is taken ball, then heel. But where balance might be a problem, turning the toes out gives you a broader and more stable base. During the third step of an open telemark, both of you might step forward on the lead foot with the toes turned outward. Especially during a picture figure that you want to hold for a beat or two, such as a contra check, step with the foot on a diagonal. Keeping your toes literally straight forward feels like you are walking on a rail and liable to tip off. Turning the foot out gives you the opportunity for lateral control and therefore stability and smoothness.
A floating dance is one in which the body never stops but is always moving in smooth, graceful arcs centered and on balance over both feet.
A version of this article appeared as “Icing On the Cake” in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, March, 2005.
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