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The Lefts and the Rights: Improving Your Rotational Figures

by Dan & Sandi Finch


In the early days of ballroom, the waltz was danced turning only to the right.* It was done this way for maybe 100 years. It was considered the natural thing to do.

In the 1890s, basic steps began to start from line of dance instead of wall, meaning dancers could more easily turn te opposite direction, called reversing the turn. At first not everyone did it, so it was considered polite for a gentleman to ask his partner "do you reverse?"

From that, left turns in general became "reverse" turns and right turns were called "natural" turns. Foxtrot hadn't been born yet, but when it came onto the ballroom floor, this naming philosophy was carried over to it.

In the development of Round Dancing, Roundalab (RAL) wanted to make a distinction between types of turns. The lefts and rights were named thusly: Turns to the right that end with passing feet are natural turns and those that turn to the left ending with passing feet are reverse turns. Where the feet close at the end of a turning figure, it is to be called either a left turn or right turn, as appropriate. Thus, a left turn in foxtrot is called a reverse turn, while its counterpart in waltz is called a left turn. The right-turning figure open natural is called that in waltz as well as foxtrot because the figure ends with passing feet.

Now that you know what to call them, you need to understand a few general principles to help you do turns better:
  • Rotation includes turns, spins, and pivots, each of which has a different technique.
  • Almost every figure in dancing has some form of rotation.
  • A standard turn rotates 3/8ths. The largest portion of any turn occurs first -- 1/4th of the turn first, then the remaining 1/8th in a standard turn. The same principle applies if the figure is overturned or underturned. We tell our dancers: Turn early, turn a lot.
  • You need to develop an awareness of who is on the inside and outside of a turn and what each has to do. Some figures start with one partner on the outside but wind up on the inside of a turn. A radical example is heel pull curved feather.
  • The amount of turn you get depends on how far one partner moves his (her) spine past the spine of the partner. Turns go bad when one partner lets the side of the body on the outside of the turn lag and not continue moving far enough. You will see this in the man's second step of a reverse turn from a feather.

Some Basic Points About Turns**

A "turn" is a form of rotation that occurs between steps in foxtrot and the other smooth rhythms -- in flight as you go from one foot to the next. If a rotation occurs on a foot, it is a pivot, spin, or swivel. (Or you are dancing a Latin rhythm, where turns do occur over a foot.) Consider the spin turn, which has a spin on one foot and also a turn between feet.

In taking turns, you will be concerned with the direction you are going, the amount of turn being made, when the turn actually occurs, whether the body turns less or more than the feet on any of the steps, and who is on the inside or outside of the movement.

Shape is an all-inclusive term for a variety of actions occurring through the body to assist in turns or to create beautiful movement. It includes sway for banking into a turn; swing, the windup to create impulsion; stretch of one side of the body to create shapes; side leading. All are important in rotation.

You also need to find your vertical axis. Think of the body as divided into two halves, down the middle from head to foot. You spine is the center axis and your torso should be able to rotate around that axis. When both sides of the body move forward at the same speed, you have pure progression, or a forward step. When both sides move forward but one side moves more than the other, swing is created, and you have the start of a turn. If one side moves forward and the other backward, you have a twist turn or a spiral.

You will hear the beginning of a turn described as forward commencing to turn. This means the foot will travel forward but the torso will begin to turn around the spine in the intended direction of the turn. This is CBM (contra body movement), that little tic or impulse the leader gives to signal a turn is coming. It is a slight movement of the opposite side of the torso toward the moving leg.

(Don't confuse CBM with CBMP, contra body movement position. While they sound the same, and the end result may look the same, CBMP occurs because one foot moved onto the track of the other foot. CBM a movement of the torso.)

The person on the outside of the turn is usually moving forward and will travel more. The partner going backward will usually be on the inside of the turn, will travel less, and his or her feet will complete the turn sooner, but this partner must keep his/her torso to partner (hence the term "body turns less"). The maneuver in waltz as well as phase III foxtrot is the simplest example of this.

Our Lefts & Rights

The most common turn to the right that we do in foxtrot at all advanced levels is the Half Natural (SQQ). This requires the lady to step back into a heel turn, then step forward in closed position.

Open Natural -- Beginning usually in semi-closed position, this is essentially three forward steps for the partner as the leader swings across her path turning right. If she keeps her eyes focused on the same spot in the room, she will find that her head changed from right to left (to go into banjo position) but she did little or no turn. The body turned under her head.

Want to go left? We have the basic figures Reverse Turn and Promenade Weave. Think about the inside/outside of turn.

Reverse Fallaway & Slip and Three Fallaways increase the difficulty but follow the same rules.

If a figure goes in one direction, can it be done in the opposite direction? In foxtrot, we have Curving Three Step, which turns to the left and Curved Feather, a similar action that turns to the right. The lady will be on the inside of the turn in both.

If you can dance the Double Reverse Spin, how about the Double Natural Spin? The leader puts the partner into a heel turn for both of them, but the follower will need some practice rotating on her left foot in the natural spin.

Pivots are a form of rotation that occur over a foot. Think inside/outside of turn so that one partner can coast as the partner going forward on the outside "works."

The impetus to semi-closed position is usually a problem figure because the lady does not move far enough past her partner (think spine going past her partner's) or the man turns too soon knocking her off her feet (instead of delaying on the inside of the turn).

The rules about turns work when you remember to be consistent. One turn may seem different each time you do it, but that will typically be because of the amount of impulsion coming from the figure preceding the turn. Turn early, turn a lot; move your spine; identify inside and outside of turn -- those rules will not fail you.

*Thomas Wilson, London, 1816
**A Technique of Advanced Standard Ballroom Figures, Geoffrey Hearn, 2007, and RAL Manual of Standards, as updated through 2017


From clinic notes for the ICBDA convention, 2018, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, June 2019.


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If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.



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