Chassé With Me
& Dan Finch
The chassé is one of the most basic steps we do in dance. It is an
action in its own right, but it shows up -- openly or in disguise -- in
many ways. Chassé to banjo or semi-closed is the most common way we see
it, but consider the triple steps in Cha Cha or the exotic figure,
chasse cape, in Paso Doble.
The figure consists of simply stepping forward or back (or side), then
closing the next step to it, and taking another step in the same
direction. It originated from ballet and the French word “to chase.”
Pronounced “sha-SAY,” the figure should feel a bit like one foot is
“chasing” the other.
Line dancers may be more familiar with it called “shuffle.”
In round dance parlance, a chassé is defined at Phase III as three
steps done in two beats of music (count 1&2). Thru chassé to some
position makes it a full-measure figure.
While it seems simple enough to take three steps through the chassé,
several things can go wrong. The most common problem we see is dancing
it flat-footed. Especially in waltz, it needs to be danced rising to
the toes and lowering at the end of the last step. This controls the
speed, keeps it light, and retains the waltz characteristics. Being
flat-footed might be just lazy, but it might also mean you have weak
The English were so troubled by dancers shuffling through the chassé
flat-footed that they devised an exercise to strengthen ankles and
relieve ankle stiffness to achieve that desired lightness. As published
in the September 1976 issue of Sir Alex Moore’s Letter Service, the
exercise goes like this:
“Stand 3 feet from a high table
or fireplace mantle. Take one step toward it; the heel of the back foot
should be off the floor. Lower the back heel to the floor, then slowly
bend the forward knee. This will tend to pull the back heel off the
floor but it MUST be kept down so that both feet are flat. As the
forward knee bends, you will feel a strong pull of the muscles in the
back leg. Bend and straighten the knee several times, then change which
foot steps forward.”
Another problem we see dancers have with thru chassé to banjo is when
Lady makes her turn to banjo. As with most of dance, her last step
should not still be turning. The turn should be complete by the closing
step, so that the last step is merely back. This mostly improves
balance going into the next figure and means the lowering is not being
done while also trying to finish a turn.
Several references are concerned that chassé may be confused with
chase. Chase occurs as a figure in many rhythms meaning one partner
pursues the other--the phase II Two Step chase or the very different
phase VI Tango chase, for example. Different, but both still involve
some form of partner pursuit.
One reference was concerned that failing to use the accent mark over
the “e” would lead to confusion with the word “chasse” (no accent)
which means sipping a liqueur after coffee to remove the coffee taste.
Once you’ve conquered the basic chassés of phase III, you will be
better prepared for how they come at you at higher levels.
Progressive chassé is a basic Quickstep figure, usually coupled with a
quarter turn. You should feel the wind breezing through your hair as
you smoothly dance this ground-covering combination at phase IV, with
Cross chassé occurs in phase IV Quickstep and Tango, adding a slight
left face body turn through the triple steps, from closed position to
end in Banjo.
Chassé roll is a popular turning figure in Cha Cha and Jive at phase V,
using the chassé to turn from semi-closed to back to back with partner,
and back to face on a second measure.
At phase VI, you will find the Paso Doble chassé cape, an embodiment of
the matador furling his cape side to side around him, created by his
partner’s use of chassés to move.
One of the most difficult chassé figures is the tipple chassé, which
shows up in Foxtrot, Quickstep and Waltz at phase V. It is another use
of a turning chassé, usually progressing line of dance, turning to move
from banjo to closed position. Both partners turn 180 degrees, Lady
moving bigger because she is on the outside of the rotation.
The difficulty with that figure is making it work with what comes next.
In Quickstep, it might be followed by forward, lock/forward down line
of dance, which works only if Lady has finished the chasse so that her
last step is just a placement, not still turning.
In Foxtrot, the tipple chassé is often followed by a pivot, which
requires another 180 degree, but pivoting. It’s enough to make it a
phase VI figure, if it is ever standardized, even though it is
nominally a phase V figure followed by a phase II pivot. (Or, does that
add up to make it the unreal phase VII?)
It Must Be Cha Cha
Cha cha is meant to be flirtatious and spicy, in keeping with the sound
of the music. You recognize it immediately by the syncopated “cha cha
cha” sound in each measure.
That “cha cha cha” sound is part of figures usually counted as
123&4. The 3&4 beats are the three steps called the cha cha
chasse or triple. In the beginning, you learn to do it in place, to
recognize it in the music, then you learn to move it into a basic cha
or side cha.
As you progress, you learn there are three other cha cha chasses. But
whether you are dancing at phase VI or just beginning, it is important
to not forget the basic elements of the basic steps.
When you are dancing to the side, you are moving sideways with a
side/close side. Don’t slop through counts 3&4 as three even steps.
The last step will be bigger than the first two of the chasse, because
you have more time to do it. You will do this form of chasse at the end
of a New Yorker, fence line, spot turn, shoulder to shoulder, as well
as the side basic. Be sure to face partner squarely to do the chasse,
no matter where you faced on counts 1 and 2.
When dancing forward or back, the three steps of the chasse are done as
locking steps. Going forward, a loose locking action is done with the
toe of the back foot being placed near the heel of the front foot.
Going backward, the heel of the front foot is placed near the toe of
the back foot. Don’t lock so tightly that you lock at the ankles. Think
about locking the thighs, not the feet. You will use this form of
chasse for walk 2 and cha, forward and back basic, circle away and
together cha, triple chas.
The cha cha comes to us from Cuba, which had become a tourist mecca for
Americans during Prohibition, with its beaches, tropical weather, and
rum and cigar factories. Up until the U.S. severed relations with Cuba
in 1962, American orchestras were booked to play the casinos of Havana,
and their music mingled with the Latin rhythms being played there. A
fusion of local rhythm with the Caribbean mambo had created a dance of
three quick weight changes followed by two slows, called triple mambo
or chatch. (It was also called mambo with a guiro, named for the dried
gourd rubbed with a serrated stick in Latin bands to make the
characteristic cha cha sound.)
Some people say the rhythm was named for the sound of feet shuffling
through the characteristic triple step. Others say the name came from a
rattle used by Latin bands, called a cha-cha (maracha) and made with
seed pods called tcha-tcha.
The new sounds of Havana were unlike anything heard in North America or
Europe. The music first came to the United States in 1949 with musician
Minon Mondajar. Arthur Murray liked it but slowed the music and called
it cha cha for his franchise studios.
It became a rage with the music of Perez Prado in the 1950s. Europeans,
also attracted to the island get-away, took the music back home to
become the cha cha done in international ballroom competitions today.
Latins were not part of the original round dance repertoire. Cha cha
wasn’t added to the RAL Manual of Standards until 1979, two years after
the organization was formed. Cha cha begins in the Manual at Phase III
but is often one of the first rhythms taught to beginning round dancers.
In round dancing, we begin figures on the first beat of music and end
with the cha cha chasse, counting the timing as 12 3&4. In ballroom
dance, figures begin on the second beat of the measure, with the timing
23 4&1, so that the hip settles on the downbeat occurring musically
on beat 1. Occasionally a round dance choreographer will give us a
taste of ballroom timing in a cha cha such as 4&1 Cha by Koit &
Cha cha is fast, played up to 33 measures a minute, compared to bolero
at 22 to 25 measures per minute, International rumba at 25 measures a
minute, and American style rumba at 28 measures a minute. Because of
the speed, steps must be small, taken under the body. Allow hip action
to occur naturally as knees bend and straighten. Your hips belong to
your legs in Latin dancing, so your anatomy below the ribs moves with
the legs. (In smooth dancing, your hips do what the torso does.)
So what are those other three ways to do the cha cha chasse? The slip
chasse, hip twist chasse and ronde chasse are currently unphased in
round dancing but will be added to the Manual, hopefully next year. Men
can substitute one of them for his basic chasse in many figures without
affecting his partner. They are also written into choreography for
partners dancing side by side with matching footwork.
Hip Twist Chasse
The hip twist chasse is done on counts 3&4 as cross right in front
of left, close left to the side of right, side right. Man can do this
when Lady goes out to fan or in place of a chasse starting with right
The ronde chasse is done on counts 3&4 as a cross in back of the
standing foot, close to the side of the new standing foot, then side.
Man do this in hockey stick, forward basic or when starting a chasse
with the left foot.
From forward on count 1 and recover on count 2, dance back left (3),
slip right back toward left (&), close left to right (4).
It’s called variety, the spice of life and cha cha.
Syncopations: 12&3? 1&23? 123&? &123?
We think of musical timing in terms of even count—1,2,3,4—indicating
four beats in a measure of 4/4 music. But musical notes can be broken
down into smaller segments, allowing for syncopations.
Syncopation, as we use the term in dancing, means splitting one beat of
music so that we can dance an extra step in a measure of music. In
waltz, when we say 12&3, we mean that we split beat 2 in half to
allow two steps to be danced where only one would have occurred.
Musicians say our definition is wrong, and so does the dictionary. To a
musician, a syncopation means accenting a note, like a downbeat,
somewhere other than the usual beat 1. (Webster’s New World Dictionary
defines syncopate as to begin on an unaccented note and continue to the
In our world, we syncopate by dividing beats within measures. We can
divide them lots of ways—a four-beat measure can be divided into a
count of 1&2&3&4&. This would give us a very fast
eight-step measure. A Latin instructor might use that count to help you
learn when to step and when to create hip motion. (Some really sadistic
teachers might make you use all of this following count to take one
step in rumba: 1 ee & uh, dividing one beat into 4 different
moments and actions.)
More typically, if you want to take four steps in a three-beat measure,
you put in an “&” count. It could go anywhere, as in 12&3,
1&23, 123&, &123. The difference is where you want to
accelerate. You might hear it in the music, or it may feel better to
you to put it one place as opposed to the other options.
Choreographers may hear syncopations in the music and give us timing
that fits that pattern. The late Gordon Moss gave us step-cued dances,
to keep us on the timing he heard in the music. More modernly,
choreographers work with named figures. You learn the figures and the
timing that goes with them. Cha cha basic timing is always 123&4,
meaning five steps in four beats of music. The west coast swing anchor
step is standardized as 1&2.
Syncopations come into intermediate waltz with two figures—”thru chasse
to BJO”, often followed by “fwd, fwd/lk, fwd”—both danced 12&3.
While there are no specific rules about when to syncopate, you
eventually learn that in waltz, chasses and locks are danced 12&3,
while other syncopations (running open natural, quick open reverse)
might be danced 1&23. The difference is how much time you get to
stand on beat 2.
We have to learn the difference between an “&” count and an “a”
count. The “&” indicates an even splitting of a beat, such that the
two steps are done equally. The “a” indicates an irregular split: in
jive, the standard 123a4 means that beat 3 is split—the first part of
it gets 3/4 of a full count and the “a” gets 1/4 of a full count. This
makes the “a” occur faster and encourages the bounce characteristic of
the jive chasse.
We don’t often say “syncopate” in cueing, as in “syncopate the side
walk.” That does not tell you how the standard rumba side walk was
changed. Better to cue “side walk 5,” so the dancer can understand it
as Q&Q&S and not guess if you want Q&Q&Q&Q.
We were asked how the teacher or dancer knows what to do with a
syncopation. The best rule of thumb is to dance it as it was
standardized or look at the cue sheet to see how the choreographer
heard the music.
newsletters, September 2016, September 2019, & March 2022,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, May 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.