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Phase Levels -- Where Do You Start?

by Sandi & Dan Finch

What should a rating system about dancing tell you? As a dancer, should it tell you how difficult a figure is? As a teacher, should it tell you where to start a class, what rhythm is easier to learn? Is it only a method of categorizing dancers by skill level for competition? Can it do all three?

Does Phase I in the world of choreographed ballroom dancing (round dance) mean everyone should start there? Are Waltz and Two Step, the only rhythms at Phase I, really the easiest to learn or the best way to get new dancers enthused?

In ballroom dancing, figures are grouped by categories labeled Bronze, Silver, and Gold (with more levels specifically used in competition). That equates to Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced generally in other forms of dance. The English Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) labeled its categories Student, Associate, Licentiate, and Fellow. All start each rhythm at the first level and progress to the harder divisions.

In choreographed ballroom dancing, Roundalab, the professional organization for teachers, adopted a scale 40 years ago based on “Phases.” It is still in use today. All standardized figures are rated by phase level, from I through VI. A dance is rated by phase based on the number of figures from the highest phase level used in it. Cue sheets list that phase rating.

Why is this important? This is supposed to help a dancer decide whether or not to try the dance. If you are in a Phase III class, a Phase III dance should be just your cup of tea.

The phase system begins with Waltz and Two Step in Phase I, but today, classes can be found beginning with Rumba or Cha Cha, which begin in Phase III. Are Phase I Waltz figures easier than Phase III Cha Cha figures, or not?

Veronica McClure, a round dance teacher and member of the Council of Research on Dance, called the current phase rating system “an irrelevant system of progression,” being based on tradition, not difficulty. The Roundalab phase rating system has Waltz and Two Step in Phase I and II mostly because those were around first, she says. “Just because something is old, does not mean it is easy,” she wrote in the article called “How the Phase Rating System Reflects The History of Modern Round Dancing.”

Waltz was the first rhythm in all of dance that developed as a couple dance. It was considered scandalous that a man would hold a woman in an “embrace” while dancing. Social dances had been group affairs, called quadrilles or reels, generally danced in a square or rectangle. In the early 1800s, when Waltz became an acceptable social dance, it constantly turned to the right, causing the couple to go round and round, giving rise to the name “round dance,” to differentiate it from the “square” dances. When Henry Ford (yes, the car pioneer) led a revival of 19th century dances in the 1920s, the term became the capitalized Round Dancing.

Older cue sheets bear no difficulty rating. As regional associations were formed, they added their own labels for picking Rounds of the Month by difficulty level--easy, intermediate, and high intermediate, at first. When Roundalab came into being in 1978, it created the Fleck point system (named for David Fleck who developed it). It was so complicated, the rating had to be done by a RAL committee, not the choreographer of the dance.

The point system was based mostly on how a dance was put together, but figures (irrespective of rhythm) did fall into “plateaus.” Walk, basic two step, vine, balance step, boxes, scissors and some actions (dip, chug, roll) were in Plateau I. More Two Step and Waltz figures, with Foxtrot and Tango were in Plateau II. More advanced figures in those rhythms were in Plateau III. Cha Cha came in with everything else at Plateau IV.

By 1986, the current phase rated system was adopted and assigned rhythms and figures to phase levels. Dances are given phase ratings to indicate what phase level could do them.

The 19th Century origins of modern dancing survive in Two Step and Waltz in Phase I and II, McClure maintained. Two-Step drops out of the rating system after Phase III, and Waltz beyond that brings in figures developed in the 20th Century. All the other rhythms--starting in Phase III or higher--were developed in the 20th Century.

“I don’t think the material in Phase II is irrelevant,” she added. “I would much rather see the phase rating system treat each rhythm separately, with parallel but separate lists” of figures ranked from Phase I to VI.

Phase I and II give us our most basic actions, the bulk of Two Step and a slew of easier Waltz figures. Phase III adds rhythms that have different characteristics, and Phase IV introduces three rhythms unlike any others in the standards--Paso Doble, Samba and West Coast Swing. Phase V and VI continue all rhythms (except Two Step) but rely heavily on International ballroom technique.

McClure may have been ahead of her time, as Roundalab this year has received suggestions from members to drop some Phase V figures in some rhythms to Phase IV and start some rhythms (West Coast Swing, for example) at a lower level. The idea is to be able to create “easier” dances with more levels. We’ll see if the idea takes hold when the membership can vote on it next summer.

Could this be the beginning of change to see all rhythms begin at a common point, each having its most basic figures at Phase I?

From a club newsletter, October 2022, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, November 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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