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Round Dance Tips by Tim Eum —


Swaying gently in the breeze -- palm trees on a beach, waves of grain on the plain, our flag rippling upon a hilltop -- all of these images express the feeling that we can capture by adding sway to our dancing. This article is not meant simply to discuss the round dance figures of sway, oversway, and change of sway, but to consider the body mechanics involved in adding sway into any figure and to discuss when sway is most appropriate and when it is not. Along the way, we will also offer teaching techniques to help you convey sway to others.

Official Definitions of Sway --

In ROUNDALAB's Glossary (Sept., 1998), sway is defined as "a sideward movement with the hips leading and upper body following." ROUNDALAB (RAL) further defines sway as a phase IV action where it is "the inclination of the body from the ankle upward away from the unweighted foot." If you incline the body from the ankle upward away from the weighted foot, RAL calls it a "Hover Sway." If you incline the body to either side from the waist rather than from the ankle, RAL defines it as a "Broken Sway." RAL defines "Change of Sway" in the phase V actions as "from any sway position without weight change, change stretch of body and head position to opposite direction (there may be body rotation). Timing will vary." RAL also defines "Oversway" in phase IV as "side left (ladies opposite) relaxing left knee leaving right leg extended and stretching left side of body with slight left face turn."

"Promenade Sway" is defined in phase IV as "side and forward left (ladies opposite) turning to semi-closed position (SCP) and stretching body upward to look over joined lead hands, then relax left knee."

Please Explain --

There are common elements to all the definitions above and from them we can get a good feel for sway. (NOTE: Feeling is important; you'll enjoy dancing better if it is more than just a series of foot movements. It's great when body sensations blend with music and a special partner.)

Sway goes sideways with a hip lead: Sways flow. To get the feeling of flow, you move the middle part of your body first and follow with the rest in a sideways wavelike motion. Sway inclines to the side: Technically, sway is simply leaning to one side or the other without a side stretch, body rotation, or rise or fall. But sways are usually combined with all of these actions. Sway naturally combines with side stretch: Sway is a blending action that can extend a movement which goes from one side to the other. Stretching goes especially well with any action like sway that makes movements look larger.

How to Teach "Side Stretch" --

Have your dancers raise both arms straight up. (Assure them that you are not going to rob them but underarm jokes are distracting.) Then have them reach as far up as they can with one hand. They should now be able to feel the stretch. Now have them lower their hands into dance position while keeping their side stretched. Repeat this for the other side. It doesn't matter which foot they are standing on. Note how the stretch does not require a great tilt or bend in the body, nor does it require independent lifting of the shoulder. It may help them to get the stretch by telling them to expand one side of the chest by inhaling and filling it with air (this technique helps to stretch without using the shoulder muscles).

Sway uses the whole side: A full sway uses more than just the side inclination of the torso -- it curves from the ankle, through the lifted hip, then the torso, and all the way through the tilt of the neck and head. (To stretch the head -- smile!)

Sway Positions --

There are four sway positions and swaying is the action of moving into and out of these positions.

  1. On left foot leaning right (Hover Sway) [Right Sway]

  2. On left foot leaning left (Sway) [Left Sway]

  3. On right foot leaning left (Hover Sway) [Left Sway]

  4. On right foot leaning right (Sway) [Right Sway]

RAL has not explicitly defined Left and Right Sway. In the rest of this article, we will refer to positions one and four as Right Sway, and positions two and three as Left Sway.

Applying Sway to Figures --

You can teach sway even to basic phase II dancers. Although sway figures begin at phase IV, the sway action can be added to figures such as the following:

  • Side Two Step -- Use right sway when moving left and left sway when moving right. (Applies equally to man and lady.)

  • Canter -- Same sway action as for Side Two Step.

  • Face to Face; Back to Back -- Use right sway (lady left) during the Face to Face and left sway (lady right) during the Back to Back.

  • Dip Back Recover -- Instead of simply having the lady step straight into the man, have her step in and turn to a reverse semi-closed position with right sway (lady left).

  • Waltz Balance Left & Right -- Use right sway (lady left) during the Balance Left and left sway during the Balance Right.

  • Waltz Two Left Turns -- During the side closes, use left sway when moving right and right sway when moving left.

  • Waltz Left Turning Box -- Same sway as during Two Left Turns.

When to Use Sway --

Use sway to smooth a switch in direction from one side to the other. Use sway to create a bigger look on display figures such as Dip Back, X-Line, Oversway, Promenade Sway, and Change of Sway. Use sway to prepare a "whipping action": Face to Face, Back to Back, Right Lunge, Ripple Chasse, Preparation to Same Foot Lunge. Use sway to accentuate the rise and fall of waltz figures that have a side step: Hover, Box, Change of Direction, Forward Waltz.

When Not to Use Sway --

During figures with no side steps: Two Forward Two Steps, Hitch 6, Cross Walk, Kiki Walk, Patticake Tap, Running Back Locks. In movements requiring rolls, spins, or spirals when partner cannot counterbalance: Twirl 2, Roll 4, Rope Spin, Triple Traveler. In figures requiring other use of hips and body: most Latin figures). In figures having complex arm movements: Tamara, Dishrag, Spanish Arms, Rolling Off the Arms, Miami Special. In figures characterized by sharp, as opposed to blended movements: most tango figures. When you or your partner are tired :-)

Sway Together --

Good sways, no matter how big or how small, happen when both partners sway the same amount, in the same direction, and at the same time. The best way to achieve this is to maintain a good top frame with your partner.

How to Teach "Top Frame" --

Have partners stand facing each other and join lead hands at lady's eye level. Then have the ladies come close enough so that the man can place his right hand on the lady's left shoulder blade (man's wrist/lower forearm should be in contact with lady's left armpit/arm). Man's elbows should both be at the same height off the floor. Lady's left hand should be on top of and slightly behind the man's right upper arm. Men look high over lady's right shoulder and ladies "tilt," not twist, their heads left and look high to their left. This is all familiar to most dancers -- but, if you look around the floor, you will notice that you can see space between the man and lady on most couples.

Tell them to do one more thing -- "BUMP" -- Have each dancer push their waists at each other until they bump and then hold together. Note that the ladies will not have to crane their backs into an uncomfortable position; most of the pressure comes from the lower body, not from the shoulders. Each dancer will now have three contact points with their partner. Tell them not to move anything above the waist and to do the following figures:

Side Touch Side Touch; Side Two Step; Side Touch Side Touch ; Side Two Step; (good sway figures.) Then try other figures that keep them in closed position. Sideways figures are easiest. Box figures are next easiest. Most dancers can also handle turning figures. You might be ambitious and try maintaining this Top Frame while going to banjo position (i.e., Diamond Turn). Look to see that the three points of contact remain still during all figures. Look for lead hands that may wrongly bob up and down. Look for the lady's head correctly remaining closed in left poise. Look for the man's right hand wrongly slipping down. As a last resort to train dancers to keep the "Bump," you could use a small balloon and have the dancers hold it at the waist. We've also seen teachers use something as thin as a piece of paper instead of a balloon.


None of this advice will be of any value if one partner or the other doesn't want to use it. It is easy to reach frustration point (and even the breaking point) if one partner believes something should be done one way and the other doesn't. Before practicing any of this, talk to your partner and agree to what you want to achieve. Give your partner a kiss -- draw your partner close -- very close -- put your arms around each other -- tightly -- and sway. Try to remember this feeling every time you sway.

Enjoy Dancing!

From clinic notes prepared by Tim & Nana for the ROUNDALAB Convention, June 1999, published in the Journal, winter 1999-2000, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2014/January 2015.


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