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Rise and Fall -- How, When, and Why

by Brent & Judy Moore

There are several things that add elegance to dancing. The primary four are sway, rotation, syncopation, and rise & fall. We want to look at one of these, rise & fall, for the essentials of how we do it, when we do it, and why we do it. The major rhythms that employ rise & fall as a fundamental characteristic are waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, and bolero. Some other rhythms, jive and east coast swing, use a type of elevation change but we do not group it in the conventional definition of rise & fall (we call that “bounce” instead) and we will not address it here.

First, let’s define what we mean by rise & fall and clarify the three basic types. Obviously rise & fall are changes in elevation from a normal standing position. We can achieve that change in elevation by using the foot/ankle joint (foot rise), by using an elongation of the body’s trunk (body rise), and by using the knee/ankle/hip joints (leg rise). Fall is returning to the lowest position for a standard figure. In most figures, rise includes all three actions; in others, only one or two will be used.

Since we are into the mechanical parts that do the rise/fall action, lets address the how of the process first. Later, we’ll look at how each action applies to specific rhythms. First let’s examine the smooth dances (waltz, foxtrot, quickstep). After the initial setup movement, everything starts not on the first step of a figure but on the last half or quarter beat of the previous figure. It’s the bottom of the action, the lowest point, the lowered position. The forward moving partner usually heel leads from that lowest position and moves upward from there using first the ankle/knee/hip flexors then the foot/ankle flexors. The speed of the rise action is rhythm-dependent, and the feeling of elevation is also a function of the rhythm. The lowering action, as noted earlier, happens at the end of the figure and on a half or quarter beat; however, that action should not be too abrupt. The most common problems, even among advanced dancers, are lowering into or on the first step and heel-leading from an elevated position. Attention to footwork (which part of the foot is in contact with the floor on any beat or half beat) helps address these issues. In some cases, the backward moving partner will have no foot rise but only leg and body rise as long as they are backing. In the rhythm dance (bolero), the action is somewhat different in that the footwork typically is ball flat (no heel leads) and the ankle/foot flexors are not used (no foot rise). This applies whether moving forward or backward.

When we rise varies and is dependent on the particular rhythm. In foxtrot, the rise is early so that you are fully elevated at the end of the first weight change if you are moving forward so the leg and foot rise are completed before the second step is taken (there are some exceptions that we’ll discuss later). The back-moving partner’s foot action is almost always toe/heel, which means that they will use body and leg rise only. This action is what enables heel turns. Since turning commences on the first weight change, the person backing is “trapped on the heel” and turns on their heel. All heel turns in all rhythms (except tango) are danced with foxtrot rise action (early rise). Waltz and quickstep rise commences at the end of the first weight change using leg rise action but is not fully achieved until the second or third step of the figure. This delayed rise allows the partners to “swing” with each other in basic turns. In bolero, like foxtrot, the rise comes at the end of the first weight change using only leg and body rise.

In all three of the smooth rhythms, lowering happens on the last part of the last weight change in a figure. However, there is a fairly sharp contrast in the appearance of rise and fall action in each of these rhythms that we will highlight in the section on elegance in dancing. Bolero is a somewhat different in its lowering action. Unlike waltz, where you lower on the step where you gain maximum elevation, weight is taken high at maximum elevation on the next step and then the lowering occurs and is rather more pronounced.

The primary reason for using rise & fall action is, as noted earlier, to add elegance to our movement. There are also some mechanical advantages for changing elevation. One of them is that it facilitates spin rotation so figures like the spin turn and the double reverse are easier since they are danced from an elevated ball-of-foot position. Another is that rise closes the promenade (semi) unless some body shaping overrides that tendency. Yet another is that rise leads to body swing which leads to sway.

However, it’s the elegance factor that we want to focus on because each rhythm uses a slightly different rise/fall display to impart that “special look” that we think of as characteristic for that rhythm.

In waltz, we want the rise to be gradual, building to a crescendo of elevation, only to lower and begin again. The extra height that we gain is due mostly to the closing action of the feet in most figures on the third beat. There is a strong feeling of being grounded to the floor even though the rise is maximum.

Quickstep has some similarities with waltz in that we do use closing steps, but the elevation is not as high nor the lowering as deep as in waltz due to the tempo of the music. There is always a little more flex in the knees at maximum elevation, and the body flight achieved due to the speed negates some of the swing and sway action. The feeling is of floating above or skimming over the floor.

The foxtrot rise, though more abrupt, is not seen or felt as such and the lowering feels quite shallow because the feet are passing in most figures. There should be a feel of skimming over the floor as in the quickstep. One thing that helps is to constantly think, ”stay up, stay up, stay up.” The rise and fall will happen naturally with good footwork. There are two major exceptions in foxtrot to the usual rise pattern . . . the Three Step and 4,5,6 of the Reverse Wave. These two are danced with delayed rise, which occurs on the second weight change; thus there are two consecutive heel leads for the forward-moving partner.

The important element in a bolero rise is to get on the foot, usually the slow, before the rise begins. A typical problem is to rise too quickly, but that can be addressed by thinking of the timing as “slow-ly” with weight taken on “slow” and the rise happening on the “-ly”. It’s also important to take the next step from the elevated position then lower. It is somewhat like the warning about heel leading from an elevated position.

By applying these principles, we can improve our basic footwork, make many of our figures easier, make each rhythm distinctive, and add that elegance that makes for beautiful dancing.

From clinic notes prepared for the ROUNDALAB Convention, June 2011, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, March 2014.


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