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An Introduction to the International Style Waltz

By Brent & Mickey Moore

If you think of the most memorable tunes that you have ever heard, chances are that many will be waltzes. Due to the popularity of the music and the elegance of the dance, the waltz will probably continue to be the world's most popular ballroom rhythm. Styles and tempos of waltz vary from the very fast, spinning Viennese (played at about 50 measures per minute) to the very slow, elongated English waltz (played at about 28-30 mpm).

International style waltz is another name for the English style waltz. The term International is used because 52 countries have now accepted the English waltz standards for internal and international competitions. The main reason for this acceptance, in addition to the beauty of the English style, was that early in the ballroom movement the English established governing organizations and set standards for figures, tempos, and executions. When world-wide competitions began in the late 1910s and early 1920s, an already established set of working standards was easiest to adopt for these meets. Thereby, the English style became dominant not only in the waltz but in all other rhythms as well.

The International Waltz has some characteristics which distinguish it from other styles. As mentioned earlier, this waltz is slow -- the slowest of all waltzes. The slow speed is to enable execution of some very complex figures and to develop a greater degree of body control. A key feature of the International style for all modern rhythms is that once closed position is assumed it is not broken throughout the dance. Another characteristic is the use of diagonal movements. A typical figure pattern would move diagonally to the wall, then diagonally to the center, then down line of dance, and then diagonally to the wall again. The most noticeable feature of the International waltz, also shared with several other styles, is the rhythmic rise and fall with the low point being through count one, beginning to rise at the end of one, continuing to rise through count two, continuing to rise to the highest point on count three, lowering at the end of three to lowest point to begin the cycle anew.

Moving on with more physical techniques, let's consider the areas of poise, hold, position, and movement. Some important things to remember about poise are to stand erect, to relax the upper body from the ribs up, and to have just enough tension in the arms to support them. Tension, thus support, comes from the lower body -- feet, ankles, legs, abdomen. The poise is slightly forward with a softness in the knees that never completely disappears, so that the light body contact and level pelvis can be maintained, and the weight is experienced primarily on the balls of the feet.

In the hold for all the smooth dances, the lady dances to the man's right side -- between the man's shirt buttons and his right elbow. There are five points of contact in the basic hold. First is the man's right wrist under the lady's left armpit, which is applied with a slight upward pressure. Second is the man's left and the lady's right hands, which are used for balance and held lightly and well out to the side. Third is the lady's left hand, which is placed lightly on the man's upper right arm with the thumb in line with the arm. Fourth is the man's right hand, which is lightly placed on the lady's back just about the shoulder blade, fingers together and hand angled downwards. Fifth is the very minimal body contact -- an area on the man's and lady's right sides just below the rib cage downward into the upper legs. The hold is then fine-tuned by ensuring that the lead hands are at the man's eye level (or if there is a large disparity in height, they are held at the eye level of the shorter partner), that the shoulders are parallel, that the elbows are level, and that the elbows are also even with or slightly in front of the hips. One of the real skills to be mastered is maintaining this "hold" once movement begins.

The prime factors to keep in mind when thinking of movement is that the object is to move the body from one place on the floor to another and that the body has to be moved as a single unit. Both the man and the lady dance their own bodies separately, but unity of movement is created by the man's defining the lady's dance space and timing. To accomplish this, the man must be aware of what the lady must do as well as of what he is doing. Most forward-moving steps taken on count one are taken on the heel, and as the body moves over the foot, the weight is progressively transferred to the toe (really the ball of the foot but usually noted as the toe in dance descriptions); second-count steps forward or sideways are usually taken low on the toe with a soft knee and little ankle extension; and third-count steps are usually taken on the toe, the leg and ankle extension is completed, and then lowered to the heel as the body moves into step one of the next figure. Backward steps are taken toe to heel on step one, toe on step two, and toe to heel on step three. Turning is usually done when the weight is on the ball of the foot if swivel action is required; some turns, however, are accomplished by placing the foot and allowing the body to swing into alignment with the foot. This brings us to a set of critical, inter-related concepts in dancing -- contra-body actions, body swing, and sway. Contra, or contrary as sometimes noted, refers to an angle created between the feet and the body. This angle of alignment can be created by rotating the body from the ankles (called contrary body movement or CBM) or by placing the foot or feet at an angle to the body facing position (called contrary body movement position or CBMP). These two actions are used to facilitate turns and to permit movement in one direction while the body faces another. Body swing is a natural result of body turn, which builds off the force generated by the turn to mobilize the whole side of the body including the leg into a smooth, powerful motion. Sway, created as a consequence of body swing, is an angle or inclined line between the floor and a body line from the unweighted foot to the head. This sway is used to facilitate movement in that it enables the partner on the outside of a turn to match the turn of the inside-of-turn partner without losing closed position. [Actually, there are three types of sway -- that described above, broken sway where the angle with the floor is measured from the waist upward, and very transitory hover sway where the angle is measured from the weighted foot. The most important is unquestionably the sway of movement.]

This article is based on clinic notes published for the Roundalab annual convention, 1993; reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, September 2012.


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