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What Makes Figures Work

by Pat & Joe Hilton

When dancers begin moving into Phases III and IV, it is time to help them develop dancing skills that will allow them to make figures work more easily. Here, we will explore several concepts including lead and follow techniques, dancing with and through your partner, and spatial orientation.


A woman without good posture, correct body/foot positions, and body tone cannot be led. A man without these qualities cannot be followed because the woman cannot distinguish the signal from the noise (and may be physically prevented from doing the intended figure). Therefore, both partners must work on maintaining their own frame. A frame allows us to maintain our positional relationship to our partner. Therefore, we must have toned muscles so that we are not like cooked spaghetti. However, we do not want to be as stiff as a board. We should try for the minimum tone required to achieve and maintain our position. This will allow flexibility in movement while allowing the leader to pass messages to the follower. Leading is not pushing or pulling. It is communicating an intention. A good lead/follow is like a good conversation -- you don't have to yell, you only need to talk. The leader is not supposed to "haul" the follower around the floor every second, and the follower is not supposed to just hang on like a sack of potatoes and be dragged around. Leading and following is a dynamic process that requires a great deal of effort on the part of both members of a partnership. It is an understanding of the entire body and how to make two people move as one around a common center. Beginning leaders need a lot of help. The best way their partners can help is to follow their lead, even if it's wrong, rather than "compensating" for a bad lead. This gives the leaders proper feedback. This feedback should not be verbal criticism, instead it should be direct feedback in the sense of "I wonder what happens if I move this way?" When the follower follows, the leader can clearly see which cause has which effect. If the follower compensates, she deprives the leader of this cause-effect feedback.


The concept of dancing with and through your partner focuses on the idea that two individuals act as a single entity (couple) when dancing together. As a single entity, they occupy the same space. As long as they do not move, each member of the couple has a defined space, and there is no competition for space. However, as soon as the couple begins to move, one partner must yield space to the other, if they are going to move in unison. In closed position (CP), the partner going forward moves into the space vacated by the partner moving backward. This is a relatively simple matter as long as they travel in a straight line. However, when a turn occurs, the couple needs to realize they are working around a fixed point, as a couple. For example, in a left-face turn, body rotation commences on the first step. That step fixes a point that the couple must move through while retaining their relationship to each other. To move successfully, the partner going forward must dance through the spot just vacated by the partner going back, while continuing the rotation, so the second step can be completed. This moving into the vacated spot is what we describe as dancing through your partner. This concept is important because many dancers think they must go around their partner to be able to face in another direction. When someone dances around their partner, successfully executing figures becomes much more difficult. Dancing with and through your partner should be practiced in all dance positions. This concept allows a couple to move in unison without blocking each other’s movements.


By spatial orientation, we are referring to the placement of body parts during movement to allow the couple to move from one spot on the floor to another spot on the floor. This includes the transitions required to achieve different positions with our partner. Another way to think of this concept is to ask yourself the question, “What do I need to do with my body for my partner and myself to move from here to there in unison?” This concept is especially useful in helping kinesthetic learners to learn figures. When the leader, who has the responsibility to ensure the couple gets to a figure’s correct ending position, understands and uses this concept, execution of the figures become much easier. To use this concept, one must analyze each figure:

Try to determine the following things:

  • What are the figure’s beginning and ending positions?

  • How much body rotation will be required?

  • What foot placements are required?

  • What are the relative positions of each partner during the figure execution?

Let's use the waltz Hover to demonstrate this concept.

  • Figure Beginning and Ending Position -- may start in closed or banjo position (CP or BJO) and usually ends in semi-closed position (SCP). The Hover is frequently used to move the couple from CP facing DLW to SCP facing DLC.

  • Amount of Body Rotation -- generally results in a body rotation of 1/8th of a turn for the couple.

  • Foot Placements Required -- forward left, forward and slightly side right, recover left. In the Hover, the recovering left foot will land very near where the first forward step with the left foot ended.

  • Relative Positions -- if the figure starts in BJO, the first step forward goes into CP, the second step is in CP, the third step transitions into SCP.

Now that we know the building blocks of the Hover, we can apply the concept of spatial orientation. The first step is forward. If we are starting in CP, no position adjustment is required. Since we know the recover step should land very near where the first step landed, we should think of that as an anchor point. The second step requires the body rotation that moves the right side of the leader’s body through the space previously occupied by their partner while maintaining a CP hold. The second step becomes more of a side step that lands in a position that is forward and slightly to the right of the first step. During the rise that follows the second foot placement, the leader completes the body rotation that allows the leader to recover onto the left foot in SCP facing DLC. Using the spatial orientation approach is very beneficial to making complex figures work. It allows one to think through all the actions required to move one’s body through space to end at a desired location in unison with one’s partner.

From clinic notes for the ROUNDALAB Convention, 2008, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, October 2013.


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