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Making Your Figures Flow

By Brent & Judy Moore

Developing flow in your dancing, connecting one figure to the next with a seamless action, is not an easy thing to accomplish and takes a great deal of attention to some fine details. The better we understand those details and, more important, the better we incorporate them into our dancing, the smoother we dance together. Here, we deal with those details as they apply to the standard (smooth) dances -- waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Viennese waltz, and, to a lesser degree, tango.

The first item is always how we relate to our partner -- our poise and frame. Basically, the man and lady have the same basic poise. That is, the head weight is carried over the left hip with the partner offset to the right side with a feel of shaping the left side to the partner. The shoulders should be rolled down and back instead of being elevated. One tip that helps is to think of being very flat and wide across the back. The elbows should be at the same level and parallel with the floor. Lead hands should be at the shortest partner’s eye level, which basically establishes the elbow height. Keep both sides strong -- you may think of side stretching or side strengthening, but never allow a side to compress or collapse. In closed position, think of a gentle spiral to the right from the ankles up -- that gives the couple a dynamic counter balance that should carry through all figures.

There are five points of contact in the smooth dances. They are, in order of importance, the man’s right wrist to just behind the lady’s left armpit, lead hands, the lady’s left hand on the man’s right arm, the man’s right hand on the lady’s back, and body contact -- think from slightly above the right rib cage depending on the match in the couple's height. Two critical goals in smooth dancing are to maintain the offset (the centerline relationship or having the feeling of the partner being on your right front) and the counter balance established in the initial assumption of closed position.

The critical action comes next -- moving while maintaining all of the above details. One central idea is that movement comes from the use of gravity -- lowering (except tango). Relax the standing knee to allow gravity to move the body. We can amplify gravity’s action by pushing off from the standing foot rather than reaching with the moving foot. The moving foot only receives weight and is not used to pull weight onto it. So much of our early training is about stepping direction, a concept which we must abandon as we move to the idea of body movement placing the foot.

We in round dancing have exacerbated the problem by traditionally confusing stepping direction with footwork; they are not the same. Direction addresses the direction that the moving foot is traveling or its ending position relative to its starting position. Footwork is that portion of the foot that is in contact with the floor at any moment in time. This is a subject we rarely teach but we need to stress more to achieve smoothness in our dancing -- improper footwork inhibits the smooth transition from one figure to the next. Examples of direction: forward, back, side, side and forward, etc. Examples of footwork: heel, heel to toe, toe, toe to heel, inside edge, whole foot, ball, etc. There is a big difference, and it makes a big difference in how figures flow.

Good footwork creates the characteristic rise & fall of the smooth dances (except tango). For instance, in foxtrot, the heel to toe step action of the first weight change indicates early rise; you are up on the second weight change (toe) and up on the third, with a lowering to the heel (toe heel). In waltz, the heel lead on step one indicates a normal walking step with a commence to rise; on step two, you continue to rise and are up on step three, lowering to the heel at the end of step three. Getting the heel down earlier on the final step in most figures helps in control and leads to better movement into the next figure.

The next complication to smooth flow from one figure to the next is how we turn. Turns are challenging because whoever is on the outside of the turn always has farther to go. The biggest idea to master is that all turns occur between beats, on the “and” counts. Basic turns follow the rule of turning the body on the standing foot then taking weight on the moving foot. There is another basic guide that says that turns to the left are always late, and turns to the right are always early. At this point, clarification is needed on what is meant by turning using these ideas. Turn is the angle created by a change of facing (pointing) position of the moving foot as it takes weight. If the foot changes alignment, there is turn; if it stays in the same direction, there is no turn. This applies even if there is body turn before the step. This is where it gets tricky and where swing comes into play (except tango). We prepare a turn by creating the shape for the turn between the last step of the previous figure and the receiving of weight on the first step of the figure being executed. The shape leads to swing, which places the second weight change, and shape helps complete the action into the third weight change.

Some examples are needed to clarify this. To turn left, the forward moving person creates a slight turning action in the body to the left and then steps forward to the partner’s right elbow (the back mover steps back to his/her right elbow) without foot turn. As weight comes onto the ball of the foot (heel of the back mover), a strong shape is generated that leads to a swing of the right side forward, which in turn creates a foot and body turn resulting in the moving foot landing to the side. The shape is then held and the turn is completed (including foot turn) on the third weight change by stepping back (reverse turn in foxtrot) or closed (left turn in waltz, quickstep) or forward in semi or banjo (telemarks). The shape of the turn is lost as weight comes onto the foot and the heel is lowered to the floor. For turns to the right, all the above applies, but with a critical exception. Before the first step there is the “commencement of turn” on the standing foot; then the moving foot steps in the direction indicated by the turn of the body -- thus early turn.

Movements in semi-closed position are a difficult proposition, and for most for a very good reason -- semi is mainly for display and does not lend itself easily to moving. It is challenging to display the tightness of the promenade (semi) position (still dancing partner off your front, keeping the left side to the partner) but opening the hips to allow movement and maintaining the shape on the thru step. The great tendency is to allow the left side to turn away from the partner. A good tip here is to keep your nose over your left shoulder (really -- you are keeping the left side to the partner) and your toes pointed where you are going -- nose and toes go the same direction in most figures, especially in semi! And don’t try to win a race in semi. Stay under control and get the expression of the movement in the rise and fall actions.

The next big thought in getting figures to work smoothly is that the lady dances on time and the man varies his timing slightly, on occasion, by waiting fractions of a beat. The main occasions where the man has to wait for the lady is when she is making a transition from forward to back or back to forward movement. Three big examples of this are in any heel turn for the lady, in the chasse to banjo from semi, and in the feather from semi in foxtrot. When the lady does a heel turn figure, the figure goes much more smoothly if the man waits for a fraction of a beat before taking his second weight change, to allow the lady time to get fully onto her heel. If he doesn’t, the lady is frequently pulled off her heel turn, and the couple’s balance is compromised. In the chasse to banjo, the man should allow the lady a little time to make the turn from semi to banjo (again the second weight change). The same slight hesitation occurs on a feather action from semi. In both cases, if the man doesn’t wait, the lady’s foot does not complete the needed swivel action to be in good alignment for her next step. There are many other figures where the man’s delay is helpful in allowing the lady to do what she needs to do to make the figures work cleanly (and it is not always on the second weight change).

In summary, making dancing flow is based on sound technique. Attention to the details is what paves the road to smooth dancing. A capsule of these ideas are:

  • maintain good poise and position,

  • understand that the moving body places the moving foot,

  • use correct footwork and know the difference between footwork and stepping direction,

  • develop an understanding of shape and swing and how it facilitates turning action,

  • understand the subtle difference in turns to the left (late) and to the right (early),

  • incorporate the idea that you turn and then step or step and then turn but not both at the same time,

  • gain a body awareness that allows both partners to maintain connection in semi-closed, banjo, and sidecar positions, and

  • develop a feel for where the man can appropriately wait for the lady (dance a little late).

Good luck and smooth dancing!

This article is based on clinic notes published for the Roundalab annual convention, 2006; published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, March 2011.

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