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A Few Notes On American Smooth Waltz

by Dan & Sandi Finch

American Smooth has been described as “a form of ballroom-type dancing with an enhanced repertoire of easy to perform yet exciting steps.” That’s how the British press described it last year when several American dance coaches were invited to cross the Atlantic to teach the British this particularly American form of dance.

American Smooth includes waltz, tango, foxtrot, and Viennese waltz. American Smooth waltz is everything you know the waltz to be in round dancing, with more flourish. We have grown accustomed to advanced waltz figures based on the International style of dance, done in closed hold. In American smooth, the same figures can be done apart from your partner in all of the open positions, such as in side by side, shadow, and open facing. This requires some new thinking about “lead and follow” for the partnership.


The waltz developed from German and Austrian folk dances in the 17th century. By the time it got to English ballrooms in the early 1800s, it had been denounced by the church and state for its vulgarity. After all, it was the first time society had seen that outrageous dance position ~ the man holding the lady so close to his body in public. When Queen Victoria became enamored with the dance, it quickly caught on in English society. The rhythm was known as “walzer” meaning sliding or gliding.

In its original form, the waltz was much like today’s Viennese waltz. When it got to America in the mid-1800s, it was slowed down and called the Boston waltz with long gliding movements, and this evolved into today’s American Smooth. (The English also slowed down the original waltz, with an emphasis on technique that became today’s International style.)

International style proponents say American smooth is all flash and poor technique, to which American Smooth advocates say American Smooth requires as much technique but has more freedom of expression, making it more fun to watch and do.


Waltz is unique in being written in ¾ time. This means there are three beats to each measure of music, usually counted as 1,2,3. This does not mean always three equal steps, due to syncopations and musical expression, especially in American Smooth. Waltz is danced most comfortably at a tempo of 28 to 30 measures per minute, more often at the high end for American Smooth.


American Smooth is known primarily for its open work. Partners may be in closed or semi-closed position but more often are in shadow, side by side, left open facing, or varsouvienne. Because figures blend from closed to open position, one partner may have to dance a four-step syncopation or a canter timing while the other partner dances straight timing (as 1,2,3; in waltz) for the transition from having same feet free to being on opposite feet.


All of the familiar concepts of connection with partner ~ frame, balance, and shape ~ apply in American smooth. Your body moves to initiate movement and is in flight from one supporting foot to the next. Your frame works best if the arms are held up in position with the muscles on the back and underside of the upper arm, not the biceps on top. The man’s frame ~ his wingspan from elbow to elbow ~ remains rounded and constant to give his partner room and a consistent lead, whether in closed or shadow position.

Dancing has been defined as creating shapes to music through space and time. American Smooth, because of its theatrical nature, has a strong emphasis on shapes. We have static shapes that result from stretching one side of the body or another, as in a promenade sway, but in American Smooth, every movement gives rise to the possibility of shaping. We swing forward and backward as the feet move forward and back, with a pendulum action from the head through the hips. We sway to bank into turns, like applying a break to slow down the movement. With so many figures done in open positions, shape also becomes part of the lead between partners. Partners’ shapes match or are purposefully opposite.

Waltz has the most “rise and fall” of any rhythm, to match the tempo of the music and to help you stay on time. It works the same in American Smooth as in International style. In International style, the feet are supposed to close at the end of a figure (with some exceptions such as the open finish in phase 5). In American Smooth, feet may pass on all steps to achieve greater travel. This is called a continuity finish, as in a foxtrot feather. (The new generation of American Smooth waltzes appearing in round dancing now, such as Bill and Carol Gosses’ Pastorale and our Sandi’s Waltz, will use the term feather since round dancing doesn’t recognize continuity finish, and who wants to cue that many extra syllables anyway?!) Remember not to start a waltz figure by lowering into it in any style. The formula presumes that you have lowered at the end of the previous figure, and you do not lower any more to start.


A large part of the theatrics of American Smooth comes from the full involvement of every part of the body, including the arms. In American Smooth, as in the Latin rhythms, the arms are often free and should be a natural continuation of the body’s movement when not in closed position. Some of this is “show” but it also aids in balance. Arms can move around the body, like a hula hoop, on rotating figures to generate speed or to slow down the turn. Arms can swing forward and back to match the swing of the body and help create momentum. Arms can also make clockwise and counter-clockwise circles in front of your face as you sway or stretch. It would feel awkward not to move the arms in some natural way through American Smooth figures. The key word is “natural” ~ whatever you do with the arms should feel like you didn’t have to think about it.


The man still initiates movement, determines direction, and controls speed in American Smooth, but he has more than his torso to use to do that. When apart, he can indicate direction by a visual lead as in Latins, as by turning or shaping his body. He can initiate the direction of the lady’s roll out from shadow by a gentle tug on her waist. Even though they may not be in closed position, the lady’s spine still must follow the man’s spine to be in sync with him. His change of shape may be the only lead she has out of a picture figure or into a rotation.

Dan and Sandi host two weekly Carousel Clubs and teach a weekly figure clinic on advanced basics in Southern California. These notes were originally used in their classes, winter 2011, © 2011. Dan and Sandi have additional dance essays and helps on their site. This article was reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, September 2012. 


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