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by Sandi & Dan Finch

I Can’t Tell A Waltz From A Tango --

That was Patti Page’s lament in the 1954 hit song of that name, but it echoes the concerns of many new dancers. What makes that music a Two Step? Why not a Cha Cha? Couldn’t it be a Foxtrot? The funny thing is, you might be able to do Cha Cha, Foxtrot, and Two Step to much of the same music. All those rhythms work with music counted four beats to a measure.

Some music is better suited for some rhythms than others. Lots of popular music and many of our dance rhythms are in 4/4 timing, but Cha Cha, for example, goes better to music played with the latin instruments that make you feel the “3&4” of the chasse in each measure. Waltz and its faster version Viennese Waltz are easily recognizable as they are the only rhythms we dance that have three beats to the measure.

Knowing what rhythm to dance is never a mystery in round dancing—the cuer will tell you to do a Foxtrot or a Two Step or a Cha Cha. Social dancers usually don’t get a clue from the DJ, but in either case, your job as a dancer is to faithfully dance the basics and characteristics of the chosen rhythm, whatever it is.

What you dance and how you dance is determined by the music tempo (how fast it is playing) and the pace of the dance (timing or how many beats per measure). Music also creates a mood—happy, sad, forlorn, romantic. The speed and the mood of the music gives each rhythm its specific characteristics.

Jive is fast and fast paced (five steps in four beats of music) and its mood is generally happy. You learn its characteristic is a bouncy action of steps taken under the body with not much progression. Quickstep is also fast and fast-paced, but you learn its music designed to propel you around the floor. Foxtrot too moves around the floor, but at a slightly slower speed that is designed to make you feel like gliding.

West Coast Swing is related to Jive, but the mood of the music and its speed should determine which you do. West Coast goes well with blues music, a bit slower than Jive and a bit earthy, slinky, sometimes called sophisticated, with no bounce. Jive should make you feel like a kid again.

The Bolero and the Rumba, in both its American and International forms, have the same pace (three steps in the basic) but they have varying lengths of stride and amount of rise and fall. Rise and fall adds  vertical movement in a dance. Bolero has swooping rise and fall and a long stride, such that it moves at a slower pace. Both forms of Rumba are danced to faster music (American being a bit faster)—with little vertical movement and more compact steps. All three are called dances of love, and figures are designed to be seductive or loving.

Two Step is danced to music on the medium-fast end of the scale. The forward “slow” steps are taken with heel leads over two beats of music. It has none of the hip settling of the latin dances but the music may encourage a little rowdiness in the steps. Slow Two Step, on the other hand, is more like Foxtrot and its music should make you feel like skating across the floor.

Tango comes in three forms, each danced with a different attitude and style. International (generally phase V and up) and American style tango (phase III) move boldly, more like walking, with heel leads but no purposeful rise and fall. Argentine Tango, the mother of all tango, is slower, more passionate, and is identified by the sound of the South American bandoneon among the instruments.

The three types have been characterized as the stages of a romance. American tango music, playful and cheeky, is the courtship; Argentine tango, fiery and passionate, is the honeymoon; and International tango, with its head tics and sharpness, is like the mood when you are staying together for the kids.

Less frequently done dances like salsa, samba, merengue, paso doble, and mambo similarly have their own characteristics to learn. As the late Eddie Palmquist (who holds more Hall of Fame titles than anyone) has said: If I looked in a window and saw you dancing, I should know the rhythm without having to hear the music. Can you do it?

Does Standardization Always Make Sense?

Anyone who has ever worked on Argentine Tango with a professional knows the look. That quizzical expression of a professional coach who doesn’t understand why you need to know exactly how to do a figure in that rhythm.

Argentine Tango figures are not by nature standardized, at least not in Argentina. Our coach at one time, Claudio Rubio, who taught half the year in Argentina and the other half here, said trying to describe a figure is like looking at the river by his house. “It’s never the same river twice,” he said.

What he meant was that Argentine Tango is a spontaneous dance, what we call a street dance. He might dance a figure one way today and differently tomorrow. Certainly, when he danced with me, I had to let go of whatever I thought was coming next. After several weeks, we were able to pull enough basic description from him to write our Por Una Cabeza, a phase V Argentine Tango originally taught at ICBDA.

Curt Worlock has said that he had the same experience with a professional coach, who told him, “If anyone tells you this is THE way to do it, run for the hills.”

Barbara Blackford said she got the same response from one of her coaches, who asked why would you want to standardize figures that are meant to be danced as a street dance. The simple answer is—because we do choreographed dancing, to cues.

Roundalab (RAL) maintains the Manual of Standards for all of round dancing, which defines figures used with some frequency in round dances. The idea is to have a definition and name for each figure that can be ranked by phase and used universally, so when you hear it cued, you will know if you can do it. It is the unique element of round dancing necessitated by cued choreography.

So how do you define a figure that was not meant to be set in stone? This has become an issue for round dance leaders currently trying to write a standard for the Argentine Tango figure called the Sentada. Their answer may be a hybrid standard that most will agree on, and perhaps give some enlightened alternatives.

A few of the most common Argentine Tango figures have long been sprinkled among the “Tango” figures in the RAL Manual. The rhythm was spun off as a separate rhythm in 2018 on the recommendation of a committee of round dance leaders. Several new figures were added the following year. Proposed but not acted on were several more, among them the Sentada. It was proposed as an eight-count figure, based on five dances that had used it, including our Por Una Cabeza, the Garzas’ Burlesque, and the Worlocks’ Dance The Night Away. The figure is under review again, since several other Tangos have included it as an unphased figure. Among those are the Gosses’ Chalita and the Moores’ Tango Clarice, both at phase VI.

The figure can be very dramatic, ending with Lady almost sitting on Man’s knee.

In exhibition videos, you might see the lady “hop” or be lifted her sitting position. In some of the round dance choreography, there is no “sitting,” but Lady turns as though she will sit and instead does a standing flick with the free foot.

Among the many variations is a “double” Sentada where Lady sits on one knee then twists to Man’s opposite side to sit on his other knee.

Dancing is an art. RAL describes precise timing and step patterns so there is a road map through a dance, but every dancer can put that choreography together in a way he or she feels the music.

For most of our rhythms, the music is strict tempo. Argentine Tango music is seldom strict tempo. Couple that with a multitude of ways to do a figure and you have the definition of a street dance—one that defies standardization.

All dance rhythms might have been street dances but for the English deciding to standardize most of those in general use, starting in the 1920s. Rhythms that evolved in other countries did not have uniform standards until the English adopted them—for example, Rumba and Cha Cha of the Caribbean countries, and Jive, which evolved from our Lindy. West Coast Swing is another true “street dance” because of its multitude of variations, but “tamed” for round dancing.

Why work to standardize a figure meant to be a spontaneous reaction to the music? For all the reasons that we now enjoy Rumba, Cha Cha, Samba, Jive, and West Coast Swing in round dance choreography.

From club newsletters, January 2020 & December 2022, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, August, 2023. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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