Improving Rhythmic Definition -- Techniques for Developing the Distinct Characteristics of Each Smooth Rhythm
by Brent & Mickey Moore
Each rhythm has a distinct set of characteristics that should set it apart from all other rhythms. All too often, the lack of understanding or execution of rhythmic fundamentals causes the unique qualities of a rhythm to disappear. The net result is that we impart to the observer (and to ourselves) that all the dances are about the same -- waltzes, foxtrots, and quicksteps look alike, and even the tango has a foxtrot flavor. The only observable difference is the music and the speed of the steps! This definitely should not be.
All smooth/modern rhythms employ essentially the same technical elements -- rise and fall, body flight, body turn, body swing, and sway. It's how, when, and to what degree these building blocks are applied that imparts the special defining characteristics of each rhythm.
Foxtrot is one of the most elusive of rhythms to dance well, mainly because of its subtlety. The word most frequently used when describing foxtrot is "elegance." Unfortunately, we need a little more guidance than to "be elegant in your movement" to begin to do the dance justice. There are several characteristics that contribute to the "elegance" of foxtrot.
The prime and foremost element that gives elegance to the rhythm is the use of controlled body flight. Most fundamental figures in this rhythm use passing steps that soften the appearance of rise and provide the continuous motion of the body that drives the mechanics of execution. In foxtrot, when the body stops, elegance fades away.
Another element is rise and fall. Rise occurs early -- at the end of the first step, a strong rising action happens so that the second step is "up." To think of rise, however, is a major impediment; in fact, there is very little rise of the body itself. Since the feet pass in most foxtrot figures, the concentration should be on the use of the feet, knees, and especially the ankles to translate "rise" into "elongation" and thus into body flight.
Coupled with the use of body flight is the use of body turn that leads to the body swing that creates many of the steps. Body turn (contra-body movement -- CBM) always generates the body swing actions, but a more specific concept is the idea of swing being isolated or focused in one side of the body at a time. Normally, body swing is utilized on the movement from the "slow" or initiating step to create the next step. In most cases, this body swing also creates some body momentum and sway that is used to enable closed position turns.
A final key feature of the foxtrot (sometimes shared by all rhythms) is that you are seldom facing the direction of flight for most figures. This places great demands on technical excellence in maintaining position with the partner. The best idea that we've found to accomplish this contrary movement is to dance from the hips rather than from the shoulders.
Waltz is undoubtedly the most popular ballroom dance in the world and the round-dance world as well. It is usually one of the first rhythms we encounter in our dance experience (especially a formal dance experience), and we unquestionably dance it better than most of the other smooth dances. Yet, in many instances, we fall short of really showing its true beauty.
Without doubt, the rise is the most noticeable element in the waltz. It is very conspicuous because of the closing action of the feet in many figures , which leads to a momentary suspension of progressive body travel. The rise is later than in the other smooth dances, with maximum elevation not being achieved until the third beat. Unfortunately, a common fault develops in many dancers, as they learn the rhythm, and that is to rise too soon. In essence, we tend to "foxtrot" the waltz.
The use of sway and body swing are utilized the same way as in the foxtrot and provide a good bit of the technique used in waltzing. To our mind, sway has three distinct functions: to facilitate movement (especially in turns), to help in maintaining body position with the partner, and to create elegant lines.
As dancers advance, they become aware of another almost unwritten characteristic of the waltz -- the elongation of the second weight change. On most figures, accomplished dancers dance the waltz as six half-beats instead of three whole beats. Using a system of 1&, 2&, 3&; or 12, 34, 56; weight is taken on half-beats 1, 3, and 6, in three-weight-change figures. Many of us sometimes use the counting cadence of one, "twoooo," three to indicate this elongation.
The most often missed action in waltz relates to the rise action and the elongation of the second weight change, and that is the leg action on the second step. Weight is taken on step two with a very soft knee! The foot action is described as toe; however, there is little extension of the foot/ankle to move upward -- in fact, as weight is taken, the heel is barely off the floor. Even though the technique books describe rise in waltz as beginning at the end of step one, the actual upward movement between counts one and two is minuscule. A better thought would be to only begin to think about rising at the end of one. The real rise in waltz then is the straightening of the soft knee across the second weight change, adding the foot/ankle extension toward the end of the fifth half-beat. This action makes waltz the most physically demanding of all dances since it requires us to lift all our body weight upward on one leg in a soft, flowing motion.
"Nothing changes things like speed" is an old sports adage that really says it all when we talk about Quickstep. At first glance, one would think of the rhythm as simply a foxtrot, only a little quicker. That concept will surely lead us down a primrose path into a dead-end dark alley. Even though quickstep is in the "family of foxtrots," the difference between a thirty-measures-per-minute (MPM) and fifty-MPM execution rate is significant in its effect on technique.
Shared with foxtrot is the basic rise for the forward-moving partner. Thus the same foot and leg actions are used; however, the backing partner no longer stays down with a toe/heel action but rises with the forward-moving partner. This change eliminates the heel turns in the fundamental figures. The idea of sustained body flight is retained in the moving figures, as well (with some exceptions).
Because of the speed, passing steps are replaced with closing actions to shorten the step length. Quickstep then is primarily a dance of chasses and locks. Also, as a result of the increase in speed, body swing virtually disappears and sway is greatly reduced, and in their place the movement is concentrated in smaller body parts that can be moved quickly -- the feet, ankles, and legs. And, body flight with speed is the engine for making quickstep figures work. The trick is to apply the speed and use the foot actions to make the dance look energetic yet light and breezy.
Tango is a unique rhythm. Technically the least complicated of the smooth dances, it seems to be the most difficult for dancers to do competently. This is probably due to some of the unique qualities of the dance and the fact that it is one of the last rhythms attempted, and we try to apply the techniques learned in the other dances -- they just don't work.
The most notable feature of tango is its sharp, crisp, staccato movement. It is basically a walking dance with a very big difference -- there is no body flight. All steps are danced as quicks and if the step is a "slow," the second beat is a hold. This is in total opposition to the action in the other smooth dances and the major obstacle in making the tango look like tango.
Another peculiarity and a stumbling block for many is the total absence of rise. Without rise, all steps forward are taken as heel leads, all steps back are toe-ball-flat, and turning steps are on the inside edges of the feet. Closing actions and turns are where problems tend to be most observable.
The stance is also a little lower, in that the knees are softer than in the other dances, even though the feel should be very "up" because the upper body is very erect and held with a little more tone. The softer knees also lead to a more compressed hold and positions the partner a little more to the right (or the hold leads to softer knees! -- a chicken and egg proposition). Another aspect of the soft knee/compressed hold is the placement of the feet in closed position. To allow room for the bent knee, the right foot is always slightly back with the ball of the right at about the instep of the left.
Most dancers, especially those dancing at the Phase IV, V, and VI levels, can do a much better job of projecting these rhythmic variations, and the improved look and feel will be well worth the effort required.
From clinic notes prepared for Teachers Seminars, URDC, 1989 & 1991. Reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, March 2013.