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Making and Adapting Ballroom Lines

by Brent & Judy Moore

Most dance syllabi describe the moving figures of a rhythm but do not include ballroom lines. Display Figures (which we also call picture figures or ballroom lines) and have traditionally been a weak area for most dancers and for a good reason.

Usually, the creation of line figures comes rather late in standard dance training; however, round dancers begin encountering them at the phase III level without the benefit of having been exposed to or having mastered the skills needed to execute them well. The techniques for basic moving figures provide most of the fundamentals needed to create effective and beautiful ballroom lines. Unfortunately, the mental connection between the fundamentals of movement and display figures is sometimes not made, and lines are treated as a totally separate category of actions which leads to difficulties in execution and appearance.

We'd like to concentrate on the fundamental dance actions as they apply to creating beautiful display figures. We also want to share some techniques that are useful in adapting the "ideal pictures" to our various physical limitations and mis-matches. Eight fundamental ideas will be discussed:
  • have a mental picture of the sway line created with the unweighted leg and torso (or partner's torso);
  • dance the hips;
  • lower before you start;
  • respect the partner's space;
  • keep the center-lines of the bodies connected;
  • keep the body weight (hips) over the ball of the standing foot;
  • retain tone in the unweighted leg and ankle;
  • have the feet (when weighted) in a standard position (closed, semi, etc.) relative to the partner.
First, there is the mental picture. Before one creates a line figure, a mental picture of how the line should look is a must. To form this picture, we must use the basic elements of the leg/ankle (usually the unweighted one) and the torso/head in conjunction with those of the partner. Two concepts are important in creating this image -- the lady's and man's lines can be congruent (the same) or contrasting (opposite). Many figures can be done with both approaches and many employ both concepts as the figure is developed. However, having a clear idea of the desired line is a must.

A simple example is the right lunge. The figure can be danced by creating a sway line (an inclined angle to the floor with the lady's right leg forming a line extended through her torso and head) with the man matching her line by having his torso aligned with his left leg to create the same line and angle as the lady. This would be a matching or congruent line. The man may also create opposition in his line by keeping his torso more erect and in line with his supporting leg with the unweighted leg still in line with the lady's (a "broken" sway line) as the lady creates the first line. Similar examples can be developed for the same foot lunge, the chair, and many other picture figures.

An essential concept in moving figures is applied to picture figures as well -- DANCE THE HIPS. This idea cannot be stressed too much. Any turns in creating the figure or changing the line (opposing or matching) must be created in the hips. The biggest trap in dancing both moving and line figures is to think of body turn as being what happens to the shoulders and torso. As noted above, sway (the angle between the floor and unweighted leg/torso line) is a major element of ballroom lines, and the use of the torso is part of this element. The torso should respond to hip turns, not be the driver of turn action. Think instead of pulling the torso or one side of the torso up out of the hip to create a desired shape or line.

The critical action of maintaining body weight over the supporting foot must also be focused in the hips. This results in keeping the hips properly positioned and not allowing them to drop or pull away from their basic relationship to the partner -- a critical component of good lines.

Another fundamental taken from the moving figures is to lower before you start. This lowering occurs at the conclusion of the previous figure. One of the common faults in line figures is lowering after the initiating step is taken -- this fault happens frequently in moving figures as well. Line figures are entered flat from the preceding step and the preferred lead is a little extra lowering at the end of the preceding step to alert the partner that something other than another moving figure is going to be danced. But -- don't over-do it!

In all dancing, there has to be an understanding of the relative positions of the partners' bodies. The partner is always to the right! Many times in line figures this very basic principle is forgotten and we encroach on the partner's space. Ladies tend to do this on semi-closed lines, and men tend to infringe on the lady's space in lunges and the oversway family of figures. One of the tools that helps keep us on "our own sides" is concentration on maintaining the basic axial relationship of the body's center line to the partner. Think sternum or breast bone as the body center line. Keep in mind that the two center lines are offset to the right in one plane but are connected in another.

Many times, as we concentrate on the other elements of creating a ballroom line, we forget to pay attention to the unweighted leg and ankle. Since they are not holding us up, our minds tend not to command them to be in a particular place, hold a definite angle, or have a specified tone. In our basic definition of a ballroom line, the unweighted leg forms one of the three key elements. We, therefore, must devote the required attention to leg/ankle alignment and tone to generate the desired picture. This is primarily a man's problem because the majority of line figures places the man's unweighted leg in a position where relaxation or inattention causes the leg to bend excessively. In most lines, ladies will find that relaxation of the unweighted leg will tend to straighten the leg (giving the appearance of tone), but the lack of tone will appear for them in a poor ankle alignment. So, everybody needs to learn to keep a little strength in the unweighted leg and ankle to make and maintain the extended line with the torso.

A final, but no less important, technique borrowed from the moving figures is that we must maintain the feet in a standard position relative to the partner. A standard position is closed, semi-closed, banjo, sidecar, or reverse semi. As a note, the majority of line figures are in closed or semi-closed. One of the primary rules of moving figures is that when the turn is complete and weight is on the foot you must be in one of these positions or else you will be pulling away from or pushing over the partner. The same is true of line figures. If the feet are not properly positioned, there will be a struggle for balance/position or a loss of connection in the partnership. Attention to the entry and exit foot placement is a necessary element to all figures including the picture figures.

When we refer to dance manuals seeking guidance for figure execution, a central idea must be kept in mind. The descriptions were written for the ideal, well matched, lithe-bodied couple. Most of us do not fit the profile and we need to have some skills to compensate for a significant differential in height, or for the bad knee or hip that one or both of us have, or for the few extra inches around the middle. The basic elements described above still apply but we do not have to lower very deeply at all to make a nice line. We can create more space for the partner without breaking our back lines if we relax the arm from the elbow. We do not have to rotate the hips very much to create a pleasing shape. We may not win the local ballroom championship but, then, that is not the goal. Our basic goal should be to look as good as we can, to dance comfortably, and to enjoy the music and physical mastery that we have achieved.

From clinic notes  for an annual ICBDA convention, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, January 2018.


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