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Why We Keep Left

by Warwick & Paula Armstrong

Dancing is a series of continual motions that requires a point of balance and/or compromise between two people. As a couple, we are trying to occupy the space on the floor of only one and a half people. This is the confronting part that many people shy away from in wanting to assume a good dance position. As one of our Ballroom instructors keeps telling us, though – “You’re adults, get over it.”

Keeping left is more than just the head, although this is a good place to start and is the easiest for dancers to start comprehending. The average head weighs around 4.5 – 5 kg’s, represents around 5 – 8% of the body mass, and is the heaviest bone in the body. This is a lot of weight to compensate for if it is in the wrong place. If dancing was in straight lines with no turns, then this would not be an issue.

By keeping left we mean that there is an arc in the body starting at the hips and finishing at the head as a continual line. The head needs to be directly over the spine, and frequently we interpret “keeping the head left” as something that means it is on some sort of tilt. We are looking to keep our torso or our core all to the left while still maintaining contact with our bodies. We are trying to replicate a spinning top with our legs close together and our top line wider apart to create a mass that will act as a continual counterbalance. Have you ever tried to stand a pencil on its point and spin it so that it stands up, or tried to spin a chair with four legs wide apart? Not a good chance of success.

With our body or core left, we stand a good chance of being in the right place to initiate good body mechanics. The men should always be half a body width in front of the lady, which is most noticeable in closed position. The easiest way to check our position is to complete a movement and freeze. Then stand to a closed position without moving the position of our feet on the floor. In our rotations and spins it is common to see dancers raise the shoulders, go to a more upright position, and lose connection. This is the opposite of what we are looking for. The knees to the naval should be as joined as possible – then from there up should bloom like an opening flower.

So now we are together looking like an opening rose – how does this help us dance? By keeping our core left we are creating the space we need to execute the movements. This position also helps to maintain a resistance that exists in the arms and upper body that we need to sense what our partner is about to do. We like to explain the frame as: the man is like an arm chair, and it is up to the woman to relax in that arm chair. There needs to be a connection between partners that we have seen referred to as tension connection. The tension is developed through equal and opposite force in pulling away from each other. The tension is not developed through the arms alone but also requires assistance through the torso. Without this tension, leading and following are nearly impossible, and it is through this tension that our primary line of communication is drawn. This also maintains our feet on their own tracks. It is for this reason alone that we introduce the concept of tension to our new dancers, although like so many other facets of dance, this concept can be introduced in different layers.

The danger with this tension though is the potential to develop a monster, in that there is a balance between creating the right tension and creating what we see as “pulling down” or “pulling together”. The pulling down is often associated with the lady and the pulling together often initiated by the man who has misinterpreted what we are trying to convey. We are looking for balance between partners and we are looking for just enough tension to promote good dancing.

Turns and rotation are developed from the “centre” of our frame. The last piece of the puzzle to improve this centre is what is called “pelvic tilt”. By drawing in the abdominal muscle and pushing forward what’s underneath, we move our centre of gravity ever so slightly back. This is also known as posterior pelvic tilt, and it will help in shifting balance and maintaining contact.

We can then demonstrate some simple exercises in showing how this benefits the leading and following mechanisms. Good dancing involves the use of CBM & CBMP. These are of little benefit if we are not in the right position to start off with, and even though the dancers may not need to remember the terms or definitions of contra action, we can guide the dancers through this to feel how it works. For the sake of the exercise we will consider dancing Waltz. In a good closed position as discussed the man has the option without cues of dancing three forward steps or left turning three steps. His lead will come from his core or torso through the contact and tension we have created. In both cases his first step is going to be straight forward, in fact his first two steps are going to be on the same alignment. But he is going to initiate turn as he is about to complete his first step. The lesson here is establishing the feel of initiating this turn with the torso and not with the arms.

Although keeping left will help nearly all of our figures, we have listed some to demonstrate how it helps.

Phase II
Box / Reverse Box – with the legs close and contact with the knee, the man can have a better go of dictating how far to step in any of the directions.

Maneuver – If the man is left he automatically has a head start to be in front of the lady and to initiate turn.

Left / Right Turns – Just an extension to the box. By keeping left, the man is in a better position to initiate CBM in the turns.

Phase III
Box Finish – By keeping left the man is in good position to become the centre of the movement. The lady will feel like she has traveled a long way with little effort.

Forward & Back Locks. – In good CBMP, keeping left, the locks can be completed without turning very far. If we were to be toe to toe, we would need to turn a long way to make the locks feel easy.

Phase IV
Back Passing Change – The secret to making dancing look smooth is to restrict how much we really need to do. In a back passing change the man does not have to move very far across the lady if he is conscious of staying left.

Phase V
Any spin – try spinning as two people. You won’t move very far.


From clinic notes prepared for the RAL Convention, 2015, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, April 2019.


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