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Where Did They Get THAT Name?

by Sandi & Dan Finch

The names of most of the figures we dance have some relationship to their performance. Foxtrot three step, for example, or rumba open hip twist. But whisk? Wing? 

Josephine Bradley and Frank FordThe standardizing—and naming—of our modern figures began in the 1920s (Latins much later), long enough ago that the hows and whys of where figures came from and how they were named are part of a generation now gone. Were it not for the diaries of Josephine Bradley (see photo), we might have lost a great deal of our dancing history. Bradley, a British ballroom instructor, was one of five people asked in 1924 to form the ballroom branch of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD). That group developed the first manual for waltz, foxtrot, tango, and quickstep. Her diaries were passed to her students and friends Bill & Bobbie Irvine, MBE, 13 times world professional champions winning in Latin as well as standard, both of whom are now deceased. Fortunately for the dance world, the diaries went to Oliver Wessel-Therhorn, a German amateur world champion trained by the Irvines, who has written a book picking up many of the entries from the diaries. 

The waltz, having evolved over centuries, first appeared as a ballroom dance in 1917, nicknamed “the lame duck,” he said in the book The Irvine Legacy. It was also called the“round waltz” because it rotated in only one direction. A competitor named Maxwell Stewart decided to jazz up his routine in 1924 and added the “double reverse spin,” so named because it was always danced twice in a row, according to the book. [Weren’t you always puzzled where the double spin was in that figure?] 

In the next two years, Ms. Bradley decided the round waltz was too boring and trained students to turn right as well as left. That waltz danced on diagonals and required one partner to alternately pass the other or allow the other to pass. This set up lateral swing with soft rise, and the waltz was revolutionized. A London newspaper organized a competition in1927 to see which waltz form was most popular, and the ISTD declared that the waltz form of the couple winning that class would be the version to be adopted as the official technique. Bradley’s students won with the diagonal waltz, and the round waltz was never seen again. 

Naming of new figures as they developed was generally left to the dancers or their coaches. The Big Top was originally called the reverse rumba cross because it was first danced as the reverse of the rumba cross. The wing? It was so named because it resembles a bird stretching out its wings over its young. 

Bill & Bobbie Irvine are credited with giving us the stalking walks in tango in 1962, the developé, which they culled from ballet in 1961, and the throwaway oversway in 1960. They had competed for South Africa in their early years but moved back to England in 1960, and the throwaway oversway appeared at that point when they found that competitors were dancing a figure called the hinge, developed from the left whisk. In it, the lady is up on both toes while the man was on flat feet before they both lower. According to the book, Bill Irvine found it “unbearable to appear smaller than his wife,” who was about the same size as he. So, he told her to stay down, not rise and not cross her left foot behind before lowering. Instead she was to move her left foot back in a line. Ms. Bradley provided the name for the birth of the new figure—so called because it appeared that Lady’s left leg was “thrown away” while her partner danced an oversway. 

The original foxtrot feather was a lock step, according to the book. It evolved from an accident, a man’s patent leather shoes getting stuck together going into the lock. This caused him to take an outside step. Open turns were added to foxtrot in 1919 but only to the right. Ms. Bradley won the first professional championship in foxtrot in 1924, with her American partner, the year the official technique was published. A turn to the left had been added with a heel pull ending for Man, as the equivalent of the half natural to the right. Ms. Bradley’s second partner, Frank Ford, is credited with the accidental creation of the feather finish, when his patent leather shoes stuck on a left turn in 1927 and he had to step out. 

Our standards today continue to evolve as technique improves. Bill Irvine is quoted as referring to the ISTD manual often but adding “this is my bible of dance but it is not WHAT is written here that is important. You have to know WHY it is written that way.” Understanding the concepts behind a move is half the battle of learning how to do it (my quote, not his).

 From club newsletters prepared by Dan and Sandi Finch , October 2014, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, May 2016.


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