Exotic Rhythms and Figures
& Dan Finch
Let's Forró Together
Our round dance world consists of 15 basic rhythms. Through the years
we have borrowed from folk dance, the competitive worlds of swing and
ballroom, and from social dancing. Every now and then, a daring
choreographer tries to tempt us with an exotic rhythm like bachata. But
those exotic rhythms -- even the salsa, developed in the United States
more than a half century ago -- don't seem to stick.
We love our waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, bolero, rumba, two step, slow
two step, west coast swing, jive, cha cha, and to some extent mambo and
tango, and for a few, merengue, samba, and paso doble.
One night, you might venture out to a place where others are dancing,
and you may be in for a surprise. Ever heard of the Zouk? It's a fast
Carnivál dance from Martinique. Or the Kizomba, which means "party" in
its native Angola? Or Forró (translates variously as "stunner,"
"lining," or "condom"), a Portuguese word for a dance from northern
Brazil? These are dances of today's social dance world.
I was surprised to learn that right before the Covid shutdowns,
Anaheim, California, the home of Disneyland, hosted a BKS festival big
enough to use four ballrooms of a resort hotel and hire 10 DJs to teach
and run the music. (BKS stands for bachata, kizomba, and salsa.)
This is a world of dance existing under our feet, which I only learned
about when I stumbled (?) across a book called Yes to Social Dance. The author
breaks down the entire world of dance into eight categories that
include more than 35 partner dance styles.
Those eight categories include what she calls "the sporty swing --
comical, cheeky, and vigorous yet distinguished," and "the classy
ballroom -- strictly structured and precise." Swing includes the Lindy
hop and its more lively cousin, the jitterbug, and east coast swing,
rock & roll, the shag, and balboa (swing danced in closed
position), as well as our more familiar west coast swing and jive.
The book describes all of ballroom in only four pages, breaking it down
into International and American styles, as we know them. Here, she also
listed hustle as not really belonging to any category -- partner
dancing to disco music. She also included "sequence dancing," the
version of round dancing done primarily in England. Nothing about round
Tango gets its own category and six pages of description -- Argentine
tango and its newer version done to popular music with more leg sweeps,
called neuvo tango. The chapter also includes ballroom tango, as we
know it, and Finnish tango, inspired by Russian waltz mixed with
Argentinian tango music, simpler and slower than the others.
The rest of the 193 pages will remind you how little you know about the
world of dance in the western world.
Myra Kolm, the author, explains that she fell in love with dance after
a salsa class 10 years ago, and she has traveled the western world
looking for all the ways people participate in this group sport. Like
almost everyone who gets involved with dancing, she too extols the
positive influence it has on one's health and happiness.
Wherever she has danced, she said she finds five core values among
dancers -- kindness, humility, non-rivalry, being non-judgmental and
cooperative. She acknowledges that some of the exotic styles are not
for everyone, especially for what she calls conservatives, meaning
those stuck on a specific style. While those may be considered
old-fashioned (who, us?), they play an important role, she said. "They
are the ones who put their hearts and energy out there to ensure their
favorite dance withstands the test of time. They may go to great
lengths to preserve a style, sometimes by codifying and trademarking
it." (Yea, a vote for standards!)
So, when you venture into a place where the band is playing awesome
music but the dancers are not doing what you'd expect, just pull out
Myra's book. She identifies those exotic styles, lists the variations
within them, and compares them based on the amount of energy each
The bachata she calls amorous, romantic, somewhat melancholic. It came
from the Dominican Republic, like the merengue. She calls it a mild
dance found usually in a calm, friendly atmosphere, but not as simple
as the merengue. It comes in several styles, including fusion bachata
that includes a little tango and other rhythms.
Kizomba is also described as a mild dance, more like walking, and it
too comes in a variety of flavors. In basic form it is the easiest to
learn but is very improvisational. One form of it dances on the spot,
Forró, described as "festive, lively, cool, and relaxed," has little of
the sensual moves of the other exotics. One of its forms is called
samba de gafieira, or more casually "the Brazilian tango." Another form
of it is the samba no pé, or "samba on foot," the solo dance seen
performed in Brazil's Carnivál parades.
And then there is salsa, born out of the Cuban mambo, brought to the
United States by musicians fleeing the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s.
The name originated in New York, but how it is danced depends on where
you learn it: New York salsa starts on the second beat of a measure,
Los Angeles and Cuban salsa start on the first beat. Cuban salsa dances
in closed position in a circular pattern; the LA and NY versions are
slot dances, where the dancers separate to perform "shines," fancy solo
footwork. Columbian or Cali salsa is fast and fiery.
It's fun to experiment, but it's nice we have our familiar,
standardized rhythms. Just call me old-fashioned.
Trials & Tribulations of Cue
Ask anyone who has ever tried to write a dance what the hardest part
is, and the answer uniformly will be “writing the cue sheet.” Doing the
actual choreography is the easy part.
Cue sheets are tough. Lots of information has to be conveyed, some of
it in small print. No matter how many times you edit yourself, there
will be errors. Someone invariably will be told to take a step on the
left, then step left again. Most choreographers have eagle-eyed editors
to check their work for that kind of thing.
Other errors will be less obvious—like misnaming a figure, mis-phasing
the level of a dance, or making one change and forgetting how that
might impact the rest of the dance.
Choreographers are on their own these days to get it right, or not. In
the old days, record companies controlled access to music, and cue
sheets were published in monthly magazines, meaning there were more
eyes on the product. But sometimes that wasn’t a good thing.
The magazines felt empowered to make “corrections” to cue sheets. Not
sure if those corrections were ever run by the choreographers, but I
think not, based on two almost-personal examples. At least two cue
sheets of Eddie and Audrey Palmquist choreography that we are aware of
were made worse by such editing.
The Palmquists were in the forefront of promoting the new English (now
called International) style of ballroom dance for round dance use. New
rhythms and figures were being introduced, and the concept of
step-cueing was giving way to a new way of cueing using standardized
figures. Before 1978, there was no national standardization of figures
but the move was underway.
That move was not universally accepted, and in fact, there was great
resistance. When Eddie & Audrey (they were not yet married)
released I Wanta Quickstep in 1967, they clearly wrote it and taught it
as a quickstep using quickstep figures borrowed from the English. Eddie
had taken certifications in that style and worked with coaches who had
relocated here from London. The cue sheet that showed up in one of the
magazines had been edited to call it an “easy-intermediate
One irate Canadian who had taken a Palmquist clinic felt compelled to
take to the magazine editors to task for their “tremendous disservice
to the round dance community in general and the Palmquists in
particular.” The editing of the cue sheet “undermines their integrity,
their expertise and their loving care of the round dance activity,”
For starters there were no foxtrot figures in Eddie’s dance. But the
editing changed the Quickstep chasse reverse turn in Part B to “two
left turning foxtrots,” the spin turn had been reduced to step
cues, and in Part A, the quickstep quarter turn progressive
chasse had been replaced by step cues and the man’s heel pivot
(We are aware of this because we have the Canadian’s letter and the
magazine’s “edited” cue sheet, as well as the original, from Audrey
Even as late as 1980, when the first Roundalab (RAL) system of rating
the difficulty of dances was adopted, waltz, tango, foxtrot, two step,
and cha were the only rhythms considered (based on the Fleck rating
system printed in 1980). Quickstep appeared in the revised (and
current) system adopted four years later.
Fortunately, no one now thinks of I Wanta Quickstep—a RAL Golden
Classic and an ICBDA Hall of Fame dance—as anything other than a
quickstep, a wonderful introductory dance that is fun for all dancers.
The same can’t be said for the Palmquists’ Autumn Nocturne, phase VI
waltz written in 1981. Even today, an incorrect magazine-edited cue
sheet is on-line. In some places, a note “possible error” has been
appended. Fortunately, the original version of the cue sheet is posted
with notes on why it is the better version.
The dance came to be when the Palmquists were hired to replace the
regular instructor (Sam Shawver) of a high-level weekend who had died.
They were told their dance had to be HARD enough that their advanced
dancers would not be able to do on cues. The Palmquists went to their
coaches and asked for the newest amalgamations being done in
competition at that time, and that became Part A of the dance.
Unfortunately, when the cue sheet got to the magazines, someone decided
there was an error and “corrected” the direction that Eddie had written
to rumba cross to go. Even into this decade, some dancers can be seen
doing the rumba cross to line of dance—180 degrees off how Eddie had
Fortunately, now choreographers are encouraged too upload their cue
sheets directly to the RAL Index of Rounds. There are still mistakes.
Sometimes a cue sheet is posted so that dancers will help the
choreographer locate the errant parts. If in doubt, ask.
newsletters, September and November, 2021,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, January, 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.