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The Three Forms of Both Rise and Sway

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Forms of Rise

When you learn to waltz, you hopefully are soon exposed to the concepts of rise and fall. That action is what makes waltz look like waltz, and most importantly, the rise at the end of a figure is what brings your feet together to close, before the fall.

Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, and Viennese waltz all use rise. Rise is simply defined in the joint Roundalab (RAL)/ICBDA Glossary as “continuous changing of body elevation through use of the feet, ankles and legs.” Think of rise as a ride up an escalator—usually occurring gradually—and fall as the descent in an elevator.

It might be some time before you learn there are three types of rise, applied at different times and for different reasons. Maybe we don’t think too much about it, but we do rise in different ways: We have leg rise, body rise, and foot rise.

Foot rise is the easiest to learn. This occurs as you shift forward onto the ball of the foot. As this is done, the ankle joint opens up. The basic waltz begins forward commencing to rise at the end of beat one. This assumes you have lowered at the end of the previous figure and now are stepping to normal standing height. The rise continues to step 2 with slight increase in height as the ankle joint opens and you go onto step 3 on the toe with a controlled lowering at the end of that beat. It is important that the knee of the lowering standing leg continues to move forward to initiate the next step. Don’t treat lowering as an end; you want to lower and move.

Body rise is the elongation of your spine, like when taking a deep breath, with a “bracing” of the muscles in the leg. This helps create beautiful shapes in picture figures. Your spine is made up of three parts that can flex: the cervical spine that runs through your neck; the thoracic spine that runs through the back of your rib cage; and the lumbar spine, the lower back between your ribs and pelvis. The sacral spine is at the end; its bones are fused together so it does not stretch but is the anchor for elongating the other sections. A stretch through the cervical spine creates a lightness through the body that makes quickstep movement freer. We call if the center of levitation, as opposed to your center of gravity, which is lower and creates the feeling of being grounded.

Leg rise comes from the flexing and bracing of your hip and knee joints. Remember that knees are not built for rotation. Use them to move forward and back, and coordinate with the hip and ankle, which move more like wrists. When bending your knees, track them over your big toe and the toe next to it. When going forward, release weight through the knee, going backward, release weight through the hips.

Occasionally, you might hear the term “no foot rise” (noted in reference books as NFR). It means that the heel of the supporting foot remains in contact with the floor as weight passes over it while moving to the other foot. There is “no foot rise” between steps 1 and 2 of almost all inside turns. Rise will occur through the body only.

Ladies see this in the waltz maneuver, where she has no foot rise, and in her foxtrot feather and three step. Man has forward poise swinging forward at those times, which would be impeded by a rise by her. Same applies to Man (on the inside of the turn) in an impetus, where his rise occurs later to assist her turn to semi-closed position.

There are 26 bones and 33 joints in each foot and ankle. An exercise to improve flexibility in the foot for rising: Stand with weight on both feet. Lift your right heel as high as possible, bending at the base of the toes. Slowly lower the heel. Repeat with the other foot. Next, with weight on both feet, shift your weight forward, gradually lifting both heels off the floor. Lower, then repeat. Get really good at that, try walking around the room with both heels off the floor, as though tiptoeing. The idea is to become aware of what the foot is doing.

Another exercise for better balance while rising: Put a cup between your ankles to force the outside muscles to work as you rise up on your toes. Ankles won’t roll out. Falling forward? Pick up through your sternum (body rise). Falling backward? You opened your rib cage too much which threw your shoulders too far back.

[An unrelated but interesting note I just recently discovered: To turn out your feet for latin, think of turning your heels in rather than turning your toes out. This rotates your femurs in the hip socket, for true turnout of the whole leg.]

Why is a little practice with rise and fall important? Consider how many times you do it in a dance—in every waltz figure. Something like 72 times in one dance.

Forms of Sway

Once you read the definition of sway, you may wish you hadn’t been so curious. The technically correct definition probably doesn’t help your understanding of sway much. As generally described in almost all textbooks:

Sway: the inclination of the body away from the moving foot and towards the inside of the turn.

The definition tells you much and at the same time not enough. Examples help. If you are riding a bicycle or motorcycle around a corner, you will lean in to avoid falling over. The faster you go, the more of a lean you will have. Inclining occurs naturally when traveling fast and turning. It’s called banking the turn to maintain control. It works the same in dancing.

This is termed technical sway, used primarily for control and resulting from movement. We also have broken sway, which is sway done badly or the shaping done in line figures to create big shapes or the exception to the rule in very few figures, which it is -- depends on the situation. And there is an evolved form of sway, called cosmetic sway—an exaggeration of technical sway to create bigger shapes while moving. Italian Mirko Gozzoli, world professional ballroom competitor and coach, uses the term in lectures to describe the big shapes that have been the key to his success.

Bill and Carol Goss have given us another term—“palm tree sway”—to describe the look they want for the cue “rock 2 slows with sway” in their new slow two step, A Thousand Miles Away. It is sway not used to control movement but to create a shape. Begin with small rock step to the side with upper body stretch, such that the same side of the body as the moving foot lifts and relaxes. They didn’t want hip rocks.

Technical sway is what slows you down or helps you change direction and maintain balance as you are moving through figures in waltz, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, and quick step. It is simply a lean in the direction away from the way you are moving. It is called technical sway because it comes naturally from correct technique. In a waltz maneuver, as you are moving onto step 2, your body should make a line from man’s moving left foot [Lady’s right foot] to the top of your head. Your spine should not be straight up and down in relation to the ground. If it is, you have no momentum, have not used swing action through the figure and have no need for sway to “control” the turn.

Sway is usually not taught to beginning dancers for that reason. They haven’t yet learned how to improve their figures with swing, which is defined as a way of moving from foot to foot in which one part of the body initiates movement and travels further than the rest of the body. Once dancers are using swing, sway usually occurs naturally. Their problem is deciding which way to sway when told “left sway” or “right sway.”

In left sway, the spine inclines to the left, away from the right foot. In right sway, the spine inclines to the right, away from the left foot. In other words, sway describes the angle of the body, that “C-shape”, which is created.

There are a few basic rules for sway. Dancing forward and back, there is no sway. Sway occurs on almost all turns, except spins where the turn is too quick for sway to be used with comfort. Allow it to happen where appropriate, don’t force it. Keep the head in line with the spine during sway, not tilted toward one shoulder. The feeling of sway is one of stretch rather than inclining. Both sides of the rib cage will feel stretched, one just more than the other. Neither side is collapsed. Sway begins at the ankles.

There is no technical sway in tango because swing is not used for moving through tango figures. Body inclination, though, without swing, may be found in line figures in tango.

Sir Alex Moore, ballroom guru and author of Ballroom Dancing, first published in 1936, says sway does all those technical things but as importantly makes your dancing beautiful. But, he warned, over-doing it is a worse fault that not swaying at all.

Broken sway describes sway resulting from tilting the upper body without much happening at the base, in other words, breaking at the waist while standing still. It should never be used as a substitute for technical sway, but will create a beautiful oversway line when standing on lead feet, flexing in the knee and tilting from the hips. Be sure to use stretch through the lead side of the torso and not collapse the trail side.

You might also use broken sway in exceptions to the standard rules, as in dancing into a tipple chasse or right turning lock—leaning from the hips upwards into the direction of movement, for a form of acceleration.

Enjoy your sways. Don’t think too much about rules. Let them occur where they feel natural. As Fred Astaire once said, “if you break a rule, you made a mistake. If I do it, it is artistically correct because I did it on purpose.”

We have a sign in our dance room. It says—If you stumble, just make it part of your choreography. Same idea.


From club newsletters, August 2018 and May 2019, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2019.


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