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Heel Turn -- Not Just Another Turn

by Sandi & Dan Finch

One of the hardest transitions in round dancing is learning the art of the heel turn. Turning left and right was mastered -- hopefully -- in phase II, but a new kind of turn awaits beyond that. Ladies do heel turns most often, but the first one encountered in the round dance syllabus is done by Men.

They sound simple enough. Step back, bring heels together and turn. But just wait.

The technique to do a heel turn takes many words to describe in the syllabus, the Roundalab Manual of Standards. It goes like this: "A turn on the heel of one foot with the free foot directly alongside. The turn continues through the heel of the other foot as the second weight change is taken and then the weight is transferred to the ball of that foot before the end of the figure."

The most common figures with heel turns are Impetus to Semi (Phase III) for Man and Half Natural and Telemark (Phase IV) for Lady in Waltz and Foxtrot. The Telemark is one of the most important figures in round dancing because it -- and its heel turn -- are elements within so many other figures. Can you spot the Telemark in the Reverse Turn, Natural Weave, Double Reverse Spin, Hover Cross, Double Natural, and the “tele” family of Telespin, Mini-Telespin, Double Telespin, Telefeather, Teleswivel, and Teleronde? Good idea to learn the Telemark -- and its heel turn -- correctly from the beginning.

The idea of a heel turn is to make the rotation of some turns easier for the partner on the outside of the turn. They force the partner on the inside of the turn to keep feet together so as not to step in the way, and when done right, that makes you skinnier through the hips so partner can skim past you.


Men often do a sloppy heel turn through the Impetus by not bringing their feet together. This is not a fatal flaw for their partner swinging around them unless they take a big step in her way. Man steps back left, brings his right foot along side the left foot and turns so his hips rotate as partner swings around, then both rise and step out on lead feet in Semi-Closed Position (SCP).

Half Natural [The Foxtrot version of Maneuver]

This is a right turning figure starting backward for Lady with trail foot. Instead of back left, side and forward right turning, then close left, as in Waltz, she steps back left, brings right foot along side the left foot without weight for the heel turn, then forward left in Closed Position (CP). It can start in Closed Position (CP) or Banjo. Because it turns right, Man steps forward right with early turn (see description to follow) and usually there is no issue of messing up her frame because she is already on his right side.


The Telemark is a turn to the left, usually beginning in Closed Position. Lady steps back right, brings her left foot along side the right without weight, turning 3/8ths before shifting weight to the left, rising and stepping out on right foot in SCP.

The usual flaw is Lady not being able to get her feet together for the heel turn or being knocked backward out of the heel turn as Man steps forward. Man has two responsibilities: He should rise early (see description to follow) on his first step to cause her to rise, which draws her feet together, then he crosses her path, “trapping” her into a tight turn.

Early Rise

This is simply a slight change in when rise occurs to ensure Lady can do a heel turn. In most Waltz and Two Step left turns, Man steps forward left for a left turn beginning his rise at the end of the first step. She steps back, then follows his lead with a side and back step. When he wants his partner to do a heel turn, he uses early rise, stepping forward onto a straight leg, accomplishing a full flat-footed rise on one step. This causes Lady to also step back onto a straight leg, which draws in her free foot. This form of rise prevents him from overpowering her, which would force her to take a step back out of the heel turn.

Early and Late Turns

This concept describes when the Man initiates a turn. Man always dances straight forward on the first step of a turn, but going left or right depends on when he applies CBM (contra body movement). This is the signal for the lead.

CBM is an impulse communicated through his body to signal a turn is coming -- called “commence to turn” in the description of many figures.

When turning to the left, the leader takes his first step forward, and using CBM, his torso will shift slightly left after his left foot takes weight. This tells her to turn. Turns in smooth rhythms take place between steps -- as he is moving to step two. This is called late turn. If he just cranked to the left as he took his first step, he would cause his partner to shift her position onto his left side, out of proper frame.

If he is turning to the right, he can apply CBM sooner, as he is taking his first step. Because she is on his right side in proper frame anyway, his first step will not cause her to shift out of position. This is called early turn.

There will be more turns to come -- Man’s heel pull, often done in Quickstep, and any kind of turn in Tango, for example -- but understanding the heel turn goes a long way toward making you a proficient dancer.

From a club newsletter, February 2023, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, March, 2023. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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