Smoothing Out Those Slows
& Dan Finch
One of the biggest flaws we see in dancing is abrupt transitions,
usually caused by getting onto a foot too quickly to flow smoothly with
It happens at all levels—developés where the extension is just a fast
kick or a contra check that doesn’t take the time to lower first, among
the advanced dancers, and a Rumba basic where a newer dancer rushes
onto the slow and then has to stand for a full beat of music.
You enjoy music because it has a harmonious flow and some highlights.
Dancing should be the same. When you are moving harmoniously with the
music, you are showing “musicality,” relating your steps and
characteristics of the rhythm to the energy, mood, and melody of the
We can be esoteric here and talk about how music is “multi-layered,”
from the steady metronomic timing of the bass notes to the variations
added by the lighter instruments and even the singer’s phrasing. We can
tell you to dance with feeling, picking out the nuances of any of those
layers in the music. We can talk about playing with figures using
legato or rubato timing [meaning smooth and even or staccato]. At the
same time, we say, whatever you do, be “on time.”
Dancing “on time” means you keep up with the basic underlying tempo of
the music—not rushing ahead of the measures or failing to keep up. Some
music runs at “strict tempo,” meaning the orchestra plays a determined
number of measures per minute consistently throughout the dance.
Popular music doesn’t always maintain a consistent speed. This makes it
easy to play with the music. Within the guideline of being “on time,”
you have freedom to slow your steps in places, speed up in others, and
use more shaping to fill the music.
But this essay is more basic than that. It is simply a reminder to
avoid abrupt transitions between figures and the stop-and-start action
seen in rhythms that require one step to occupy two beats of music. You
begin learning a new step or rhythm by focusing on what your feet do,
but dancing isn’t just about taking steps. Much of the enjoyment is
what you do between the steps.
If you look up answers for the crossword puzzle clue “dance smoothly,”
you will get such alternatives as move like a canoe, fly without an
engine, move gracefully, flow, like a bird flying on thermals. Each
definition implies movement without abruptness.
The problem shows up when newer dancers learn Rumba. With Waltz and Cha
cha, there is generally a step on every beat. Rumba introduces new
timing—quick, quick, slow. No problem with the first two beats of the
measure—one step on each beat. You know you have one more step to take
and two beats of music left in the measure. The tendency is to step on
beat three and stand there for beat four.
Rumba is designed to fill the music with hip action and a sense of
drama. Take the third step on beat 3 and allow your hip to “settle” on
beat four by straightening your leg as you step, allowing your other
knee to flex. Your hip should naturally rotate back, all on that last
Newer dancers may dance the slow, quick, quick timing of a Foxtrot
feather [phase IV] like this: Step on count 1, wait as beat 2 goes by,
then step again when they hear beat 3 and beat 4. By all accounts, they
are correctly dancing the three steps of the feather, SQQ.
A more experienced couple might dance it this way: Swing through from
the previous step on the first beat of the slow count (beat 1), not
stepping onto 100% of their weight. Their weight is transferred
to that foot well into second beat of the slow count. The
movement continues “in flight” through beat 2 with man rolling through
the foot from heel to toe and swinging his free foot forward. He steps
onto the toe on the first quick (beat 3), and he steals time from the
second quick (beat 4) before taking his third step onto the toe and
lowering to a flat foot. The movement flows continuously, almost slow,
slow, &, avoiding the “step and stop” style of the newer dancer.
Say the cue is “explode apart.” The tendency is to step apart quickly
flinging your arm in an arc. It might be more dramatic and in keeping
with the music to control the arm so that it fills the measure.
It isn’t just new dancers who have a problem with abruptness. A woman’s
developé [phase IV] requires her to step back drawing the free foot up
the side of the supporting leg, extending it out from the knee, then
bringing the leg down straight to the standing foot, usually in a
measure of music. Don’t make it just a kick out that comes down as you
are already moving into the next figure. It won’t match the music, and
you will mostly likely be out of balance and out of sync with your
We see too many contra checks [phase V] where the man forgets to lower
first. The lowering gives partners a chance to connect. Otherwise, he
will start without her and she has to guess how far back to reach, or
his forward motion will overpower her.
We could talk about a throwaway oversway [phase VI]. Man might rotate
abruptly into his part of the figure, not taking her with him. They
will end up hip to hip, her right elbow will jab him in the chest and
they won’t have the leg connection for him to lead her out of it.
The “books” tell you what to do, but in very few places are you told
what happens when it is wrong. It takes doing it until you begin to
feel like a part of the music.
From a club
newsletter, August 2021,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, September 2021. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.