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One Figure, Three Rhythms

By Sandi & Dan Finch

When we talk about the “smooth” rhythms, we usually mean waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Viennese waltz, and tango. They are considered “smooth” because they are expected to move around the floor, and all employ heel leads in appropriate places. Each rhythm should be danced with its own characteristics, so that someone watching from outside and not hearing the music could identify it from the body shaping and movement.

One look at the Index to the Roundalab Manual of Standards will tell you that many figures show up in most or all of the smooth rhythms. The timing and foot placement may be the same for many of the crossover figures but they still should be danced with the characteristics of the rhythm being used. For some, the technique is radically different even down to a change in timing or footwork.

Characteristics Make The Difference

We want waltz to have rise beginning at the end of the first step and continuing until the feet close at the end of a measure, and then we lower to start the process over again. We want waltz to move down the floor with lots of rotation. Most waltzes have a sad or wistful or dream-like sound, reflecting a theme of love unrealized or lost, as in Romeo & Juliet, so the dance should rise and float, lower for pretty pictures and spin some more, with a feeling of breathing with your eyes closed.

Foxtrot has slight rise and fall but the rise occurs on the first step and continues at that level until the end of the figure. We want it to move more linearly down the floor than waltz and thus we don’t close the feet at the end of a measure. We generally picture Fred & Ginger when we hear foxtrot music, so the figures should move with the gaiety and flirtatiousness of a boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love story.

Quickstep uses waltz and foxtrot figures with technique borrowed from both waltz and foxtrot. There are some purely quickstep figures, and some of the waltz and foxtrot figures will have a different timing in quickstep. (Spin turn, telemark, impetus to semi will usually be S,-S,-; S-, in quickstep). It should be very lively, and to keep up with the speed of the music, many steps will be taken on the balls of the feet, with one side or the other of the body leading.

Tango has a technique totally different from the other smooth rhythms, and even that varies within the rhythm depending on the style (Argentine, American, International) being danced. In general, tango has no rise and fall, no swing through a figure and no sway to bank into turns. It is danced flat.

Some figures are only done in tango, such as the promenades (closed promenade, open promenade, back open promenade), progressive link, five-step, and stalking walks. Learn them once, and you have the technique.

A few figures such as the top spin are done differently in each of the smooth rhythms and have to be learned almost as different figures.

Understanding how one figure can be danced in each of the three basic rhythms, waltz, foxtrot and tango is a start on helping you to enjoy the music more fully and to dance with more musicality.

The Radical Differences


In waltz and foxtrot, we want the Man to start a telemark with early rise, moving forward with heel lead to flat foot and straight leg quickly on count 1 to cause the Lady’s feet to come together as she rises and the mandatory heel turn is accomplished. He then swings past her rising as she lifts her left hip to rotate on her right foot with the left foot piggybacking alongside until the turn is completed. She then takes weight to the left rising to the toe and steps forward lowering in semi-closed position

In tango, the technique has to be different because tango has no rise and fall and no swing. The Lady must pick up her feet to create the heel turn, resulting in a splay-footed position momentarily on count 2. The man has no rise, so his second step is also a heel lead or flat and he comes out on count 3 in semi-closed position also with a heel lead. This creates an “attack” feeling characteristic of tango.

Top spin

Most dancers first encounter the top spin in foxtrot, usually the Moores’ phase V Orient Express, learning that the “spin” occurs at the end of the previous measure, then continues with four quicks somewhat like a feather finish. They will meet it again in Lamberty’s phase VI waltz Boulavogue and find it to be a very different figure, where the spin occurs on step 3. It is not a typical tango figure but when it occurs in a tango, it will generally follow the waltz version.

Open natural

In waltz and foxtrot, we expect rise, and the Man has a right sway starting into step 2 as he banks into the turn in front of his partner. In tango, it is danced flat, no sway, and the Lady is moving forward with all heel leads. Although not named as such, this is the beginning of a tango natural twist turn, which would have shaping in the other smooth dances but not in tango.

Reverse turns

Two bodies dancing together form a three-dimensional space. In a rotation, the three-dimensional space has to turn as a unit, rather than the partners turning independently. Picture the two bodies as filling the inside of a hula hoop. Remember to keep the center axis through the middle of the hula in most turns.

We change the general technique for the reverse turn in Argentine tango. Bodies there need to rotate independently on the second measure so that we can end up in an overturned position for one of the typical following actions: ganchos or a layout.

Viennese turns

The goal in any Viennese turn is to turn but have a sense of dancing linearly. Waltz will have rise; Viennese waltz will not have rise. Dance it like doing a samba volta in the smooth dances, with sway to keep the body moving past the standing foot for continuity of movement. The timing is 123.

In tango, with no rise and no sway, the steps must be danced in a more staccato manner, two forward steps and spin, QQ&. Two of them make up a full measure. Speed and sharpness are the goal, not flight down the floor.

Sandi & Dan have other essays and helps on their site. This article was published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, October 2011. © 2011


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