A Few Notes On American Smooth Waltz
by Dan & Sandi Finch
American Smooth has been described as
“a form of ballroom-type dancing with an enhanced repertoire of
easy to perform yet exciting steps.” That’s how the British press
described it last year when several American dance coaches were
invited to cross the Atlantic to teach the British this particularly
American form of dance.
American Smooth includes waltz, tango,
foxtrot, and Viennese waltz. American Smooth waltz is everything you
know the waltz to be in round dancing, with more flourish. We have
grown accustomed to advanced waltz figures based on the International
style of dance, done in closed hold. In American smooth, the same
figures can be done apart from your partner in all of the open
positions, such as in side by side, shadow, and open facing. This
requires some new thinking about “lead and follow” for the
The waltz developed from German and
Austrian folk dances in the 17th century. By the time it
got to English ballrooms in the early 1800s, it had been denounced by
the church and state for its vulgarity. After all, it was the first
time society had seen that outrageous dance position ~ the man
holding the lady so close to his body in public. When Queen Victoria
became enamored with the dance, it quickly caught on in English
society. The rhythm was known as “walzer” meaning sliding or
In its original form, the waltz was
much like today’s Viennese waltz. When it got to America in the
mid-1800s, it was slowed down and called the Boston waltz with long
gliding movements, and this evolved into today’s American Smooth.
(The English also slowed down the original waltz, with an emphasis on
technique that became today’s International style.)
International style proponents say
American smooth is all flash and poor technique, to which American
Smooth advocates say American Smooth requires as much technique but
has more freedom of expression, making it more fun to watch and do.
TEMPO & TIMING
Waltz is unique in being written in ¾
time. This means there are three beats to each measure of music,
usually counted as 1,2,3. This does not mean always three equal
steps, due to syncopations and musical expression, especially in
American Smooth. Waltz is danced most comfortably at a tempo of 28 to
30 measures per minute, more often at the high end for American
American Smooth is known primarily for
its open work. Partners may be in closed or semi-closed position but
more often are in shadow, side by side, left open facing, or
varsouvienne. Because figures blend from closed to open position,
one partner may have to dance a four-step syncopation or a canter
timing while the other partner dances straight timing (as 1,2,3; in
waltz) for the transition from having same feet free to being on
All of the familiar concepts of
connection with partner ~ frame, balance, and shape ~ apply in
American smooth. Your body moves to initiate movement and is
in flight from one supporting foot to the next. Your frame works
best if the arms are held up in position with the muscles on the back
and underside of the upper arm, not the biceps on top. The man’s
frame ~ his wingspan from elbow to elbow ~ remains rounded and
constant to give his partner room and a consistent lead, whether in
closed or shadow position.
Dancing has been defined as creating
shapes to music through space and time. American Smooth, because of
its theatrical nature, has a strong emphasis on shapes. We have
static shapes that result from stretching one side of the body or
another, as in a promenade sway, but in American Smooth, every
movement gives rise to the possibility of shaping. We swing
forward and backward as the feet move forward and back, with a
pendulum action from the head through the hips. We sway to
bank into turns, like applying a break to slow down the movement.
With so many figures done in open positions, shape also becomes part
of the lead between partners. Partners’ shapes match or are
Waltz has the most “rise and fall”
of any rhythm, to match the tempo of the music and to help you stay
on time. It works the same in American Smooth as in International
style. In International style, the feet are supposed to close at the
end of a figure (with some exceptions such as the open finish in
phase 5). In American Smooth, feet may pass on all steps to achieve
greater travel. This is called a continuity finish, as in a
foxtrot feather. (The new generation of American Smooth waltzes
appearing in round dancing now, such as Bill and Carol Gosses’
Pastorale and our Sandi’s Waltz, will use the term
feather since round dancing doesn’t recognize continuity
finish, and who wants to cue that many extra syllables anyway?!)
Remember not to start a waltz figure by lowering into it in any
style. The formula presumes that you have lowered at the end of the
previous figure, and you do not lower any more to start.
A large part of the theatrics of
American Smooth comes from the full involvement of every part of the
body, including the arms. In American Smooth, as in the Latin
rhythms, the arms are often free and should be a natural continuation
of the body’s movement when not in closed position. Some of this is
“show” but it also aids in balance. Arms can move around the
body, like a hula hoop, on rotating figures to generate speed or to
slow down the turn. Arms can swing forward and back to match the
swing of the body and help create momentum. Arms can also make
clockwise and counter-clockwise circles in front of your face as you
sway or stretch. It would feel awkward not to move the arms in some
natural way through American Smooth figures. The key word is
“natural” ~ whatever you do with the arms should feel like you
didn’t have to think about it.
LEAD & FOLLOW
The man still initiates movement, determines direction, and controls speed in American Smooth, but he has more than his torso to use to do that. When apart, he can indicate direction by a visual lead as in Latins, as by turning or shaping his body. He can initiate the direction of the lady’s roll out from shadow by a gentle tug on her waist. Even though they may not be in closed position, the lady’s spine still must follow the man’s spine to be in sync with him. His change of shape may be the only lead she has out of a picture figure or into a rotation.
Dan and Sandi host two weekly Carousel Clubs and teach a weekly figure clinic on advanced basics in Southern California. These notes were originally used in their classes, winter 2011, © 2011. Dan and Sandi have additional dance essays and helps on their site. This article was reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, September 2012.
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