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How to Mess Up a Turning Figure

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Gordon Moss, holder of almost every award presented in round dancing during his day, was as prolific at writing about dancing as he was at writing dances. In 1972, he wrote a scathing article for Round Dancer Magazine after studying errors he found in the 215 cue sheets published in 1971. His study revealed, in his words, “a statistical horror picture of the ump-teen ways a dance can be fouled up by not using consistent rules for basic turns.” Only 44% of the cue sheets accurately described how to turn, he said, and more than a third “seemed determined to be impartial, blithely mixing good and bad with cheerful nonchalance.”

He thought it inexcusable for a choreographer to write a cue sheet ignoring basic rules. In his time, like today, many people in outlying areas relied on cue sheets to learn round dancing. “Even in big cities many poorly qualified teachers accept every word and punctuation mark as divine revelation.”

Most of the problems he saw were violations of what he called the “Waltz Turn Rule,” which applies in all smooth rhythms. The cue sheets failed, in most instances, to recognize that the initiating step for all standard turns is forward or back. Some cue sheets showed a failure to understand that when Man’s left foot is free, the forward turn will be left face, and when the right foot is free, the turn will be right face. Interesting that 40 years later, we still find issues with how turns are described and taught. To help dancers understand that the first step in a turn is a forward step but with CBM (contra body movement), RAL adopted a policy of using the word “commence,” “continue,” and “complete” to describe what happens on the three steps of a standard turn. Moss knew those words but said most dancers “wouldn’t stand still for a lot of fine points about contra body leads and stuff like that,” so his rules were simple. Years before there would be a RAL manual, he explained it as — start with a forward (or backward) step, making a quarter turn, then follow it with “side, close” to complete a 3/8 or 1/2 turn. “It is plain silly to accept this excellent technique as good for turns in waltz, then ignore it in other rhythms — or because only one partner is turning,” he said.

Where do you measure a turn from? Not where you are looking, since the head can rotate 1/4 either way without affecting anything, he wrote, and the shoulders/chest can turn 1/8 either way without moving the hips. But, the hips are the only part of the body that maintain a fixed, unvarying relation to our legs. From the hips, you can measure if a step is forward, backward, or side. During the very small time interval before the foot touches the floor, the upper body may rotate, but it is still a forward step if the advancing foot hits the floor in front of the belt buckle, not to the side. This was his Belt Buckle Rule.

While dancers generally think they need more detail about the mechanics of turning these days, his simple rules are still trustworthy. Start a turn with a forward step, let the body rotate and check the belt buckle to make sure you have turned enough.


From a club newsletter prepared by Dan and Sandi Finch , August 2013, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2014/January 2015.



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