Balance On the Dance Floor
& Dan Finch
To The Core
We talk about being “in balance” when we move, but just what is
balance? Teachers offer all sorts of images to help visualize
balance—beach balls skewered on a pole, representing the head, torso,
and hips, each able to move freely around the spine without throwing
the entire body out of balance, is one example that comes to mind.
And then there is that static, stiff, “perfect” posture you might have
learned in Cotillion (does anybody remember that?) to go with the
perfect manners stressed for gentlemen and ladies.
To Maria Hansen, Southern California ballroom coach, the balance
achieved by perfect posture is not a position but an awareness of your
body as the bones shift. It is not something you can “hold” static
because to force it will cause tension, which kills movement.
Balance is defined as being an even distribution of weight enabling you
to remain upright and steady. In biomechanical terms, it is the ability
to maintain a vertical line within your base of support with minimal
sway. Your body had to learn how to do that when you struggled to first
walk as a baby.
We take it for granted. We don’t need to know that multiple sensory
systems in the body are working to keep us upright—the vestibular
system of the inner ear; the somatosensory system, those neurons
throughout the body that tell the brain what’s going on; and our eyes,
which measure our spatial location relative to other objects.
It has been said that balance is more important to a dancer than
partnering. The problem is, when we move, especially in dance, we push
those sensory systems to perform at their best, and as we age, the
systems can fail us. One out of three adults over age 65 will fall each
year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fortunately, dancing can help keep those sensory systems tuned up.
The Radio City Rockettes publish a list of eight ways to improve your
balance for dancing. The first is to do exercises to strengthen your
ankles. If your base is wobbly, you won’t have good balance, they say.
Keep your eyes lifted with an outward focus (engaging the visual system
monitoring what is around you), and practice, even trying a move with
your eyes closed or on an uneven surface to challenge all those systems.
Before doing any exercise program, be sure your doctor would approve.
Then, strengthen your core. Hansen says her “core” is the only group of
muscles she activates on purpose. The core consists of more than your
abs—that six-pack of your midsection. It is the layer of deep muscles
that support your spine, pelvis, back, and hips, stabilizing and
connecting your upper and lower body.
As dancers, we need to focus on two types of balance. Static balance is
having our weight lined up over our base. You need this to do spirals
and hip twists, where your center of gravity needs to be over the
standing foot as you turn. We also need dynamic balance, which is
affected by momentum as well as gravity, as in most dance movement
where multiple forces are acting on the body at the same time.
Consider doing a waltz maneuver or hover corte. You purposely are
moving onto a foot, but your core is not over the foot. Dynamic balance
at that point is a little like being “off balance,” except the latter
means your balance isn’t where you want it to be. (The distinction
between dynamic balance and off-balance is something like the Fred
Astaire quote, it’s not a mistake if you did it wrong on purpose.) In
dance, use sway and counter-balance to control those dynamic forces.
The internet is full of exercises to improve balance, your core, your
ankles, and any other body part. Feeling a little wobbly, try balancing
standing on one foot, then do it with your eyes closed. Try to do it
for 30 seconds.
Physical therapists are fond of the “star excursion.” Imagine a
starburst pattern on the floor, with beams pointing to all the compass
directions and spaces in between. Standing in the middle of it, arms
crossed in front, point one foot forward. Work your way around the
pattern, pointing to the side, then the back, and forward again. Do it
with the other foot going the other direction. Do it in increments of
smaller angles around the pattern. Try it again with arms in dance
position. This is supposed to help with flexibility and challenge those
Another Rockettes exercise just for the core, is one called the “side
plank” designed to work the “other” muscles, not just the abs. It is
much like the yoga plank but done starting from lying on your side,
lifting hips up to form a line from head to feet. You can cheat and
bend your knees so that the body line is from head to knee.
The Rockettes also explain “the bicycle” and the “vertical leg crunch.”
If only the bicycle were like riding a bike. You start on all fours on
the ground, hands below shoulders, knees below hips. Contract your abs
rounding your spine up to the ceiling, tuck in your chin, then exhale
and arch your back, chest and head up.
The vertical crunch begins lying flat on your back. Raise your legs to
vertical, extend your arms toward your feet, then tighten your abs and
lift your upper body to try to touch your toes.
Maria Hansen, in a YouTube video last summer, suggested a cure for the
slouch many people develop from sitting too much. When you do that, the
muscles in the chest pull everything down, she said. From a slouchy
seated position, rotate your hips up and back and feel the collarbone
lift the chest naturally and establish a plumb line through the ear,
shoulder, and hip to the floor. Do that and be aware of the sternum.
Use it to send energy upward to hold up the collar bone and create
It’s All In Your Head
The human head weighs on average 5 to 11 pounds, a small portion of
total body weight but more significant in dance than the number
suggests. Think of it as a bowling ball on your shoulders. Bowling
balls weigh about the same, and if either your head or the bowling ball
rolls side to side or tips forward, it would have about the same
effect—throwing you off balance.
The comparison isn’t so silly. When you are dancing, any head movement
vibrates through your body and arms and thus the connection with your
partner. Carry your head in alignment over your spine and you are in
balance. Anything else you do with your head distorts balance and
clouds the lead.
You are often told to stand up straight, with your blocks of weight
aligned, starting with your head over your shoulders and your shoulders
in line with your hips. When you maintain that proper vertical
alignment, your head is directly over your spine. This creates a
central point of balance all down the body so that your weight is
evenly distributed for minimal stress on the spine.
You are also often told to look up, raise your chin, don’t look at the
floor. When you look down, your “bowling ball” tips the body forward,
throwing weight onto your partner. We know dancers tend to look down
because they don’t trust what their feet are doing. Men tend to look
down to make sure they won’t step on their partners. (Funny how good
alignment, just the opposite, helps prevent that.) Women tend to look
down to see what their partner’s feet are doing, instead of following
any body lead he might be giving.
Some dancers cock their heads in unnatural ways out of habit. If a man
tilts his head toward his right shoulder, he might be thinking, but on
the dance floor the effect is scrunching his frame, putting his head in
his partner’s dance window, and throwing weight toward her.
Some ladies attempt to create what they think is proper dance posture
by arching their backs. This places head weight behind the spine, an
unbalanced position. Others look like they are leaning back but this is
an illusion created by her leftward stretch, keeping her head in line
on top of the spine. It might look like a woman bends back when she
does in a contra check, but look again. She will be stretching up and
leftward, extending her spine diagonally to the left to balance her
weight over the standing foot and extending the other leg as a
counterbalance. No back bends.
Leading comes through a shift in body movement, transmitted through
toned arms. In the latin dances, each partner stands upright, head
squarely over the shoulders.. They are looking at each other so Latins
also use visual leads. In Waltz and other smooth dances, most figures
are comfortably and competently done in “closed position,” which means
in frame with both man and woman looking left.
Some figures specifically go from closed position to semi, meaning both
partners change to face in the same direction. The lady’s head change
is the result of her partner’s action. She shouldn’t do anything that
the body doesn’t feel from him first.
The telemark to semi starts in closed position; Lady should keep her
head closed through her heel turn and not open her head (by turning it
to the right) until she feels his lead to do that as they take the last
step. His lead? In a balanced frame, she will feel a stretch through
his right side and his left side will come in slightly. She should feel
like her head can’t do anything else but roll right.
You can experiment with this in more advanced figures: Hover telemark
begins in closed but his body shift should open her for step 3. Or, try
a traveling contra check, which will have strong body shape through his
left side and as her feet come together, his shape will change as in
the telemark to lead them to semi.
Head weight can be helpful in executing figures. A pivot is better if
not attempted standing straight up and down. If partners expand their
closed position (by stretching through the spine, not just tilting the
head more), they create counter balance and more energy for the turn.
Some figures can be done with the lady’s head to left or right, but
whichever she chooses to do, it should follow what his body leads, or
be done for a specific reason. In the reverse fallaway, on step 2, both
can be facing in semi or she can keep her head in closed position.
Purists say she should stay closed; in semi, she has a tendency to open
up too much, losing contact with partner and making it harder to swing
the right shoulder back into closed position on the slip.
If you aren’t aware of what your head is doing, you set yourself up for
problems. A head tipped forward, as in looking down, means you are out
of balance and projecting weight onto your partner, who has to shift to
maintain his balance. Dancing that way over time can lead to back
strain and more serious ortho problems later on. To become more aware
of how your head affects dancing, try a simple exercise. Stand in
balance, weight on both feet. Shift your weight toward the balls of
your feet, keeping your head over your shoulders and spine straight.
Feel how that changes your balance.
Moving in dance is a continual process of giving up and recovering
stability. The body is constantly making finite shifts to stay in
balance. Thinking of your head as a crown on top of your spine will
eliminate one effort the body has to make.
newsletters, May & August 2021,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, October 2021. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.