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What, Oh What, To Do With My Head?

by Sandi & Dan Finch

How many times have you wondered just that? Your head holds the brains of the operation, yet most dance technique doesn’t say much about it. When you are learning to dance, you are most concerned about the other end, your feet. At best, you would have heard the admonishment to “look up,” not at the floor.

Your head -- with its 10 to 12 pounds of weight -- significantly affects your balance and is an integral part of expressing the characteristics of the dance you are doing.

Most of the time, what you do with your head is dictated by where and how you are moving. Otherwise using your head is your personal expression. This is like using your arms -- there are suggestions on how to move them but doing it is up to you.

When learning about “frame” for the smooth dances, men are told to keep their head to the left, looking out over joined lead hands. Ladies are told that, in closed position (CP), their heads are also turned to the left, looking out over the man’s right shoulder. In semi-closed position (SCP), ladies look to the right, over joined lead hands. Sounds simple enough.

Simple when you are standing still. Add movement and rotation, and maybe a shape change, and it’s a different story. One that fills a whole book, in fact. You can buy Highlighting Headweight by a former ballroom champion for £50 on the DSI-London web site.

“Where is my head?” Ladies often ask in class. The simple answer is where the man puts it. His shape should dictate if her head is open or closed (to the right or to the left). If he hasn't developed how to use his body while dancing, she may not feel a shape change to tell where her head should be. That means, in class we have to talk about the best places for her head changes to occur.

An example of how good head position may defy the rules occurs in figures like reverse fallway and slip. Moving into the fallaway, lady’s head would normally be open as in SCP, but the dynamics can throw her right shoulder too open. We suggest she keep her head to the left through the figure. That keeps her shoulder in and makes the slip easier.

In Latin rhythms, especially Rumba, flirtation between the partners is an element of the characteristics of the rhythm. Her head usually should be in a position to look at the man, or purposefully look away from him.

Where does the lady look when doing the basic phase V open hip twist in Rumba? Our Standards for round dancing say nothing about her head. She steps back right, recovers left, then forward right swiveling 1/4 right face, per the Standard. This puts her feet at right angles to her partner, but where is her head?

Normally, she should look where she is going. But the characteristics of Rumba say to maintain eye contact with partner as much as possible. Some leads are conveyed through eye contact; lots of emotion is expressed that way. But how do you do that if you are at right angles to him?

In the ballroom world, the Imperial Society of Teachers of  Dancing (ISTD) says lady’s hips turn more than her upper body when she does the twist on the last step. This allows her to continue to look at her partner.

The World Dance Sport Federation (WDSF) has the most technical of the technique books -- having been started as technique for Olympic competition when ballroom dancing was almost included on the Olympic schedule. Its Rumba manual describes the usual foot positions and actions and adds “quantity of turn,” which measures the amount of turn that the upper body makes, separate from the hips. The figure descriptions detail where her torso is facing when her hips are perpendicular to her partner and her right shoulder is away from him (overturned) or toward him for eye contact.

Dance is an evolving art, which makes writing standards a bit difficult. For example, the original Rumba books called for a staccato way of moving, with no hip action. In fact, the original technique books in England said hip action should only be used in a few places. Geoffrey Hearn in his 2010 book A Technique of Advanced Latin-American Figures said he understood this was because “European dancers would consider it wrong to use the hips in such a way in public.”

Walter Laird, a world champion, brought hip action into Rumba on every walking movement. A bit later, the English saw American competitors dancing, allowing their rib cages to move separately from their hips, and they added that to the international technique, according to Hearn. His book charts figures by the usual foot position, footwork, and timing, and adds a column for body turn and alignment.

Because his book deals with advanced Latin American figures, Hearn calls his open hip twist a “developed” open hip twist. Lady steps forward to swivel and her hips turn to a 90-degree angle to her partner but her upper body turns less to keep shoulders “toward” man.

No book specifies what to do with her head. That is a personal interpretation. But, to comport with the characteristics, we teach it to look at partner in that swiveled position, then away from him going out to the fan. This creates the sense of flirtation in Rumba.

Technique will change but the bottom line will always be the ability to stay in balance. Anyone who works at a desk or spends time on a cellphone has a tendency to develop a forward head position. If you take that to the dance floor, you make it harder to stay in balance. And, every inch your head extends forward exerts 10 pounds of pressure on your partner, according to experts.

Your dance teacher tells you to stand up straight for a reason.

From a club newsletter, March 2023, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, May, 2023. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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