Meredith & Harold



MAJOR SECTIONS: Figures | Articles | Links | Alph. Index | Search | Home

Figures in the Smooth Rhythms
Viennese Waltz
International Tango
American Tango
Two Step
Five Count
One Step
Figures in the Latin Rhythms
Cha Cha
Single Swing
West Coast Swing
Slow Two Step
Argentine Tango
Paso Doble
Dance Articles
Articles Home

Dance Figures

Dance Rhythms
Lead and Follow
Dance Styling
Fred Astaire Album
Other Sections
Dance Links
Music Clips For Each Rhythm
Search Site/Web
Contact Me

Balance On the Dance Floor

by Sandi & Dan Finch

To The Core

We talk about being “in balance” when we move, but just what is balance? Teachers offer all sorts of images to help visualize balance—beach balls skewered on a pole, representing the head, torso, and hips, each able to move freely around the spine without throwing the entire body out of balance, is one example that comes to mind.

And then there is that static, stiff, “perfect” posture you might have learned in Cotillion (does anybody remember that?) to go with the perfect manners stressed for gentlemen and ladies.

To Maria Hansen, Southern California ballroom coach, the balance achieved by perfect posture is not a position but an awareness of your body as the bones shift. It is not something you can “hold” static because to force it will cause tension, which kills movement.

Balance is defined as being an even distribution of weight enabling you to remain upright and steady. In biomechanical terms, it is the ability to maintain a vertical line within your base of support with minimal sway. Your body had to learn how to do that when you struggled to first walk as a baby.

We take it for granted. We don’t need to know that multiple sensory systems in the body are working to keep us upright—the vestibular system of the inner ear; the somatosensory system, those neurons throughout the body that tell the brain what’s going on; and our eyes, which measure our spatial location relative to other objects.

It has been said that balance is more important to a dancer than partnering. The problem is, when we move, especially in dance, we push those sensory systems to perform at their best, and as we age, the systems can fail us. One out of three adults over age 65 will fall each year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fortunately, dancing can help keep those sensory systems tuned up.

The Radio City Rockettes publish a list of eight ways to improve your balance for dancing. The first is to do exercises to strengthen your ankles. If your base is wobbly, you won’t have good balance, they say. Keep your eyes lifted with an outward focus (engaging the visual system monitoring what is around you), and practice, even trying a move with your eyes closed or on an uneven surface to challenge all those systems.

Before doing any exercise program, be sure your doctor would approve.

Then, strengthen your core. Hansen says her “core” is the only group of muscles she activates on purpose. The core consists of more than your abs—that six-pack of your midsection. It is the layer of deep muscles that support your spine, pelvis, back, and hips, stabilizing and connecting your upper and lower body.

As dancers, we need to focus on two types of balance. Static balance is having our weight lined up over our base. You need this to do spirals and hip twists, where your center of gravity needs to be over the standing foot as you turn. We also need dynamic balance, which is affected by momentum as well as gravity, as in most dance movement where multiple forces are acting on the body at the same time.

Consider doing a waltz maneuver or hover corte. You purposely are moving onto a foot, but your core is not over the foot. Dynamic balance at that point is a little like being “off balance,” except the latter means your balance isn’t where you want it to be. (The distinction between dynamic balance and off-balance is something like the Fred Astaire quote, it’s not a mistake if you did it wrong on purpose.) In dance, use sway and counter-balance to control those dynamic forces.

The internet is full of exercises to improve balance, your core, your ankles, and any other body part. Feeling a little wobbly, try balancing standing on one foot, then do it with your eyes closed. Try to do it for 30 seconds.

Physical therapists are fond of the “star excursion.” Imagine a starburst pattern on the floor, with beams pointing to all the compass directions and spaces in between. Standing in the middle of it, arms crossed in front, point one foot forward. Work your way around the pattern, pointing to the side, then the back, and forward again. Do it with the other foot going the other direction. Do it in increments of smaller angles around the pattern. Try it again with arms in dance position. This is supposed to help with flexibility and challenge those sensory systems.

Another Rockettes exercise just for the core, is one called the “side plank” designed to work the “other” muscles, not just the abs. It is much like the yoga plank but done starting from lying on your side, lifting hips up to form a line from head to feet. You can cheat and bend your knees so that the body line is from head to knee.

The Rockettes also explain “the bicycle” and the “vertical leg crunch.” If only the bicycle were like riding a bike. You start on all fours on the ground, hands below shoulders, knees below hips. Contract your abs rounding your spine up to the ceiling, tuck in your chin, then exhale and arch your back, chest and head up.

The vertical crunch begins lying flat on your back. Raise your legs to vertical, extend your arms toward your feet, then tighten your abs and lift your upper body to try to touch your toes.

Maria Hansen, in a YouTube video last summer, suggested a cure for the slouch many people develop from sitting too much. When you do that, the muscles in the chest pull everything down, she said. From a slouchy seated position, rotate your hips up and back and feel the collarbone lift the chest naturally and establish a plumb line through the ear, shoulder, and hip to the floor. Do that and be aware of the sternum. Use it to send energy upward to hold up the collar bone and create lightness.

It’s All In Your Head

The human head weighs on average 5 to 11 pounds, a small portion of total body weight but more significant in dance than the number suggests. Think of it as a bowling ball on your shoulders. Bowling balls weigh about the same, and if either your head or the bowling ball rolls side to side or tips forward, it would have about the same effect—throwing you off balance.

The comparison isn’t so silly. When you are dancing, any head movement vibrates through your body and arms and thus the connection with your partner. Carry your head in alignment over your spine and you are in balance. Anything else you do with your head distorts balance and clouds the lead.

You are often told to stand up straight, with your blocks of weight aligned, starting with your head over your shoulders and your shoulders in line with your hips. When you maintain that proper vertical alignment, your head is directly over your spine. This creates a central point of balance all down the body so that your weight is evenly distributed for minimal stress on the spine.

You are also often told to look up, raise your chin, don’t look at the floor. When you look down, your “bowling ball” tips the body forward, throwing weight onto your partner. We know dancers tend to look down because they don’t trust what their feet are doing. Men tend to look down to make sure they won’t step on their partners. (Funny how good alignment, just the opposite, helps prevent that.) Women tend to look down to see what their partner’s feet are doing, instead of following any body lead he might be giving.

Some dancers cock their heads in unnatural ways out of habit. If a man tilts his head toward his right shoulder, he might be thinking, but on the dance floor the effect is scrunching his frame, putting his head in his partner’s dance window, and throwing weight toward her.

Some ladies attempt to create what they think is proper dance posture by arching their backs. This places head weight behind the spine, an unbalanced position. Others look like they are leaning back but this is an illusion created by her leftward stretch, keeping her head in line on top of the spine. It might look like a woman bends back when she does in a contra check, but look again. She will be stretching up and leftward, extending her spine diagonally to the left to balance her weight over the standing foot and extending the other leg as a counterbalance. No back bends.

Leading comes through a shift in body movement, transmitted through toned arms. In the latin dances, each partner stands upright, head squarely over the shoulders.. They are looking at each other so Latins also use visual leads. In Waltz and other smooth dances, most figures are comfortably and competently done in “closed position,” which means in frame with both man and woman looking left.

Some figures specifically go from closed position to semi, meaning both partners change to face in the same direction. The lady’s head change is the result of her partner’s action. She shouldn’t do anything that the body doesn’t feel from him first.

The telemark to semi starts in closed position; Lady should keep her head closed through her heel turn and not open her head (by turning it to the right) until she feels his lead to do that as they take the last step. His lead? In a balanced frame, she will feel a stretch through his right side and his left side will come in slightly. She should feel like her head can’t do anything else but roll right.

You can experiment with this in more advanced figures: Hover telemark begins in closed but his body shift should open her for step 3. Or, try a traveling contra check, which will have strong body shape through his left side and as her feet come together, his shape will change as in the telemark to lead them to semi.

Head weight can be helpful in executing figures. A pivot is better if not attempted standing straight up and down. If partners expand their closed position (by stretching through the spine, not just tilting the head more), they create counter balance and more energy for the turn.

Some figures can be done with the lady’s head to left or right, but whichever she chooses to do, it should follow what his body leads, or be done for a specific reason. In the reverse fallaway, on step 2, both can be facing in semi or she can keep her head in closed position. Purists say she should stay closed; in semi, she has a tendency to open up too much, losing contact with partner and making it harder to swing the right shoulder back into closed position on the slip.

If you aren’t aware of what your head is doing, you set yourself up for problems. A head tipped forward, as in looking down, means you are out of balance and projecting weight onto your partner, who has to shift to maintain his balance. Dancing that way over time can lead to back strain and more serious ortho problems later on. To become more aware of how your head affects dancing, try a simple exercise. Stand in balance, weight on both feet. Shift your weight toward the balls of your feet, keeping your head over your shoulders and spine straight. Feel how that changes your balance.

Moving in dance is a continual process of giving up and recovering stability. The body is constantly making finite shifts to stay in balance. Thinking of your head as a crown on top of your spine will eliminate one effort the body has to make.

From club newsletters, May & August 2021, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, October 2021. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


Alphabetical Index to
and Technique
Online since 2001 İHarold and Meredith Sears, Boulder, CO, All rights reserved.