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To Turn Or Not To Turn--That Is the Question!

by Tom Hicks

There are two common types of turns used in the Smooth dances, and two common types of turns used in the Latin dances. The focus of this article will be to discuss the similarities and differences of each of these turns and how to apply them to figures in hopes of making the figures easier to teach and perform.

Smooth Dance: The two most common types of turns are natural (right-turning) and reverse (left-turning) figures. Both types of turns are done in all phases and involve any rotary movement such as an easy Left Box Turn or Maneuver to the more advanced Fallaway Reverse or Natural Hover Cross. Both turns—actually all forward and backward movements which commence a turn—will involve Contra Body Movement (CBM). By definition “it’s the rotary movement of the opposite side of the body towards the moving leg.”

Natural Turning Figures: Generally, right turns have a stronger CBM because the lady’s dance position & frame are positioned into the man’s right elbow; therefore, the man travels around the lady on forward right-turning figures. She is considered the center of the rotation. When moving forward, the man is considered on the outside of the turn while the lady is on the inside of turn. The opposite occurs when the man is moving backwards into a right turn.

Another important body mechanic on right turns is the early rotation (with the exception of forward turns in Banjo). At the beginning of a right turn, a dropping of weight into the standing leg commences a turn in the hips towards the direction of rotation. As the weight shifts and transfers forward through the spine onto the moving leg, the opposite side of the body moves early because of the distance the body has to travel around the center of the turn. The result is an easier swing of the leg and sway of the body continuing into the turn.

Reverse Turning Figures: The opposite occurs, the CBM is weaker because of the lady’s dance position being used as a centrifugal force on the outside of the turn. The man and lady still have the same responsibility in moving forward and backwards—forward is the outside of turn and backwards is the inside of turn. It’s important to note the main difference in defining what the inside and outside of turn means. Inside turns complete the turn early with the feet (pointing actions) but delay the upper bodies, while the outside turn uses all the steps to complete the turn. The result allows the dance frame to remain constant, which creates easier dancing (makes the men better leaders and women better followers).

The body mechanic for left turns is more of a delayed rotation (with the exception of slips). At the beginning of a left turn, a dropping of the weight still occurs like in right turns but the direction of the moving leg stays directionally the same as the hip rotation. As a result, the body is delayed until after the weight has shifted through the spine over the moving leg and creates a later turn and a less powerful CBM. The result is very simple; it allows the dance position to remain constant and keeps the partners from pulling away from one another.

Latin Dance: The two most common types of turns are Spiral (a turn to left while standing on the right or the opposite with the other foot—outside turn) and Swivel (a turn to the left while standing on the left or the opposite with the other foot—inside turn). Both types of turns are done in all phases and involve any rotary movement, from a Fan or Hockey Stick to the more advanced figures like Advanced Hip Twist or Sliding Door. A specific difference that is important to understand is that spiral turns are motivated through the upper body whereas swivel turns are motivated through the hips. Generally speaking, Latin turns have a much sharper and more direct look as opposed to the gracefulness of the Smooth turns.

Spiral Turn: The Spiral turn uses an idea similar to CBM to wind up before the turn but then uses the technique of spotting to create a sharp turn. Spotting is when you allow the upper body to commence the rotation first and then the head and hips follow, giving the turn speed and sharpness. The placement of the feet is of utmost importance to dance any Spiral comfortably. The forward step must be placed on or across the track of the supporting leg to allow for easy landing at the end of the Spiral. Also the loose crossing of the leg (like an abstract figure 4) varies depending upon the amount of rotation.

The body mechanic for a Spiral turn allows for a CBM wind up, into a early rotation of the upper body, finishing with a sharp rotation of the hips to allow the lining up of the blocks of weight (head, shoulder, ribs, and hips). The result of dancing the Spiral in this order allows anyone to be better balanced and have proper body alignment at the end of any Spiral turn.

Swivel Turn: The Swivel turn doesn’t use a CBM action, but more of what we call shoulder lead. A shoulder lead is when the same shoulder as moving leg moves together at the same time (similar to the delayed action of Reverse turns in Smooth). The full transfer of weight onto the moving leg is vitally important for any Swivel to work. Once the blocks of weight are lined up then just like a spinning top, the body can spin over the ball of the standing leg and create a fast rotation.

The body mechanics for the swivel are created by fully transferring weight, then isolating the hips to rotate before the upper body. Once the hips are fully rotated, the upper body quickly turns to catch up with the early hip rotation. An important side note -- because of the speed of the turn, the hips must be prepared to settle as a type of braking mechanism to allow for the balance to be constant while turning and stopping.

With the application of these four very common types of turns, all your Round Dancing should be improved and feel more balanced.

From RAL Education Syllabus, 2019, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, February 2021.


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