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Chassé With Me

by Sandi & Dan Finch

The chassé is one of the most basic steps we do in dance. It is an action in its own right, but it shows up -- openly or in disguise -- in many ways. Chassé to banjo or semi-closed is the most common way we see it, but consider the triple steps in Cha Cha or the exotic figure, chasse cape, in Paso Doble.

The figure consists of simply stepping forward or back (or side), then closing the next step to it, and taking another step in the same direction. It originated from ballet and the French word “to chase.” Pronounced “sha-SAY,” the figure should feel a bit like one foot is “chasing” the other.

Line dancers may be more familiar with it called “shuffle.”

In round dance parlance, a chassé is defined at Phase III as three steps done in two beats of music (count 1&2). Thru chassé to some position makes it a full-measure figure.

While it seems simple enough to take three steps through the chassé, several things can go wrong. The most common problem we see is dancing it flat-footed. Especially in waltz, it needs to be danced rising to the toes and lowering at the end of the last step. This controls the speed, keeps it light, and retains the waltz characteristics. Being flat-footed might be just lazy, but it might also mean you have weak ankles.

The English were so troubled by dancers shuffling through the chassé flat-footed that they devised an exercise to strengthen ankles and relieve ankle stiffness to achieve that desired lightness. As published in the September 1976 issue of Sir Alex Moore’s Letter Service, the exercise goes like this:

“Stand 3 feet from a high table or fireplace mantle. Take one step toward it; the heel of the back foot should be off the floor. Lower the back heel to the floor, then slowly bend the forward knee. This will tend to pull the back heel off the floor but it MUST be kept down so that both feet are flat. As the forward knee bends, you will feel a strong pull of the muscles in the back leg. Bend and straighten the knee several times, then change which foot steps forward.”

Another problem we see dancers have with thru chassé to banjo is when Lady makes her turn to banjo. As with most of dance, her last step should not still be turning. The turn should be complete by the closing step, so that the last step is merely back. This mostly improves balance going into the next figure and means the lowering is not being done while also trying to finish a turn.

Several references are concerned that chassé may be confused with chase. Chase occurs as a figure in many rhythms meaning one partner pursues the other--the phase II Two Step chase or the very different phase VI Tango chase, for example. Different, but both still involve some form of partner pursuit.

One reference was concerned that failing to use the accent mark over the “e” would lead to confusion with the word “chasse” (no accent) which means sipping a liqueur after coffee to remove the coffee taste.

Once you’ve conquered the basic chassés of phase III, you will be better prepared for how they come at you at higher levels.

Progressive chassé is a basic Quickstep figure, usually coupled with a quarter turn. You should feel the wind breezing through your hair as you smoothly dance this ground-covering combination at phase IV, with flexible ankles.

Cross chassé occurs in phase IV Quickstep and Tango, adding a slight left face body turn through the triple steps, from closed position to end in Banjo.

Chassé roll is a popular turning figure in Cha Cha and Jive at phase V, using the chassé to turn from semi-closed to back to back with partner, and back to face on a second measure.

At phase VI, you will find the Paso Doble chassé cape, an embodiment of the matador furling his cape side to side around him, created by his partner’s use of chassés to move.

One of the most difficult chassé figures is the tipple chassé, which shows up in Foxtrot, Quickstep and Waltz at phase V. It is another use of a turning chassé, usually progressing line of dance, turning to move from banjo to closed position. Both partners turn 180 degrees, Lady moving bigger because she is on the outside of the rotation.

The difficulty with that figure is making it work with what comes next. In Quickstep, it might be followed by forward, lock/forward down line of dance, which works only if Lady has finished the chasse so that her last step is just a placement, not still turning.

In Foxtrot, the tipple chassé is often followed by a pivot, which requires another 180 degree, but pivoting. It’s enough to make it a phase VI figure, if it is ever standardized, even though it is nominally a phase V figure followed by a phase II pivot. (Or, does that add up to make it the unreal phase VII?)

It Must Be Cha Cha

Cha cha is meant to be flirtatious and spicy, in keeping with the sound of the music. You recognize it immediately by the syncopated “cha cha cha” sound in each measure.

That “cha cha cha” sound is part of figures usually counted as 123&4. The 3&4 beats are the three steps called the cha cha chasse or triple. In the beginning, you learn to do it in place, to recognize it in the music, then you learn to move it into a basic cha or side cha.

As you progress, you learn there are three other cha cha chasses. But whether you are dancing at phase VI or just beginning, it is important to not forget the basic elements of the basic steps.

When you are dancing to the side, you are moving sideways with a side/close side. Don’t slop through counts 3&4 as three even steps. The last step will be bigger than the first two of the chasse, because you have more time to do it. You will do this form of chasse at the end of a New Yorker, fence line, spot turn, shoulder to shoulder, as well as the side basic. Be sure to face partner squarely to do the chasse, no matter where you faced on counts 1 and 2.

When dancing forward or back, the three steps of the chasse are done as locking steps. Going forward, a loose locking action is done with the toe of the back foot being placed near the heel of the front foot. Going backward, the heel of the front foot is placed near the toe of the back foot. Don’t lock so tightly that you lock at the ankles. Think about locking the thighs, not the feet. You will use this form of chasse for walk 2 and cha, forward and back basic, circle away and together cha, triple chas.

The cha cha comes to us from Cuba, which had become a tourist mecca for Americans during Prohibition, with its beaches, tropical weather, and rum and cigar factories. Up until the U.S. severed relations with Cuba in 1962, American orchestras were booked to play the casinos of Havana, and their music mingled with the Latin rhythms being played there. A fusion of local rhythm with the Caribbean mambo had created a dance of three quick weight changes followed by two slows, called triple mambo or chatch. (It was also called mambo with a guiro, named for the dried gourd rubbed with a serrated stick in Latin bands to make the characteristic cha cha sound.)

Some people say the rhythm was named for the sound of feet shuffling through the characteristic triple step. Others say the name came from a rattle used by Latin bands, called a cha-cha (maracha) and made with seed pods called tcha-tcha.

The new sounds of Havana were unlike anything heard in North America or Europe. The music first came to the United States in 1949 with musician Minon Mondajar. Arthur Murray liked it but slowed the music and called it cha cha for his franchise studios.

It became a rage with the music of Perez Prado in the 1950s. Europeans, also attracted to the island get-away, took the music back home to become the cha cha done in international ballroom competitions today.

Latins were not part of the original round dance repertoire. Cha cha wasn’t added to the RAL Manual of Standards until 1979, two years after the organization was formed. Cha cha begins in the Manual at Phase III but is often one of the first rhythms taught to beginning round dancers.

In round dancing, we begin figures on the first beat of music and end with the cha cha chasse, counting the timing as 12 3&4. In ballroom dance, figures begin on the second beat of the measure, with the timing 23 4&1, so that the hip settles on the downbeat occurring musically on beat 1. Occasionally a round dance choreographer will give us a taste of ballroom timing in a cha cha such as 4&1 Cha by Koit & Helen Tullus.

Cha cha is fast, played up to 33 measures a minute, compared to bolero at 22 to 25 measures per minute, International rumba at 25 measures a minute, and American style rumba at 28 measures a minute. Because of the speed, steps must be small, taken under the body. Allow hip action to occur naturally as knees bend and straighten. Your hips belong to your legs in Latin dancing, so your anatomy below the ribs moves with the legs. (In smooth dancing, your hips do what the torso does.)

So what are those other three ways to do the cha cha chasse? The slip chasse, hip twist chasse and ronde chasse are currently unphased in round dancing but will be added to the Manual, hopefully next year. Men can substitute one of them for his basic chasse in many figures without affecting his partner. They are also written into choreography for partners dancing side by side with matching footwork.

    Hip Twist Chasse

The hip twist chasse is done on counts 3&4 as cross right in front of left, close left to the side of right, side right. Man can do this when Lady goes out to fan or in place of a chasse starting with right foot.

    Ronde chasse

The ronde chasse is done on counts 3&4 as a cross in back of the standing foot, close to the side of the new standing foot, then side. Man do this in hockey stick, forward basic or when starting a chasse with the left foot.

    Slip chasse

From forward on count 1 and recover on count 2, dance back left (3), slip right back toward left (&), close left to right (4).

It’s called variety, the spice of life and cha cha.

Syncopations: 12&3? 1&23? 123&? &123?

We think of musical timing in terms of even count—1,2,3,4—indicating four beats in a measure of 4/4 music. But musical notes can be broken down into smaller segments, allowing for syncopations.

Syncopation, as we use the term in dancing, means splitting one beat of music so that we can dance an extra step in a measure of music. In waltz, when we say 12&3, we mean that we split beat 2 in half to allow two steps to be danced where only one would have occurred.

Musicians say our definition is wrong, and so does the dictionary. To a musician, a syncopation means accenting a note, like a downbeat, somewhere other than the usual beat 1. (Webster’s New World Dictionary defines syncopate as to begin on an unaccented note and continue to the next accent.)

In our world, we syncopate by dividing beats within measures. We can divide them lots of ways—a four-beat measure can be divided into a count of 1&2&3&4&. This would give us a very fast eight-step measure. A Latin instructor might use that count to help you learn when to step and when to create hip motion. (Some really sadistic teachers might make you use all of this following count to take one step in rumba: 1 ee & uh, dividing one beat into 4 different moments and actions.)

More typically, if you want to take four steps in a three-beat measure, you put in an “&” count. It could go anywhere, as in 12&3, 1&23, 123&, &123. The difference is where you want to accelerate. You might hear it in the music, or it may feel better to you to put it one place as opposed to the other options.

Choreographers may hear syncopations in the music and give us timing that fits that pattern. The late Gordon Moss gave us step-cued dances, to keep us on the timing he heard in the music. More modernly, choreographers work with named figures. You learn the figures and the timing that goes with them. Cha cha basic timing is always 123&4, meaning five steps in four beats of music. The west coast swing anchor step is standardized as 1&2.

Syncopations come into intermediate waltz with two figures—”thru chasse to BJO”, often followed by “fwd, fwd/lk, fwd”—both danced 12&3. While there are no specific rules about when to syncopate, you eventually learn that in waltz, chasses and locks are danced 12&3, while other syncopations (running open natural, quick open reverse) might be danced 1&23. The difference is how much time you get to stand on beat 2.

We have to learn the difference between an “&” count and an “a” count. The “&” indicates an even splitting of a beat, such that the two steps are done equally. The “a” indicates an irregular split: in jive, the standard 123a4 means that beat 3 is split—the first part of it gets 3/4 of a full count and the “a” gets 1/4 of a full count. This makes the “a” occur faster and encourages the bounce characteristic of the jive chasse.

We don’t often say “syncopate” in cueing, as in “syncopate the side walk.” That does not tell you how the standard rumba side walk was changed. Better to cue “side walk 5,” so the dancer can understand it as Q&Q&S and not guess if you want Q&Q&Q&Q.

We were asked how the teacher or dancer knows what to do with a syncopation. The best rule of thumb is to dance it as it was standardized or look at the cue sheet to see how the choreographer heard the music.

From club newsletters, September 2016, September 2019, & March 2022, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, May 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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