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Ballroom Dancing Is Not For Sissies

by Dan & Sandi Finch

That is the title of a new book described as an “R-rated guide to partnership” for adults who want to dance with a partner. If you are dancing solo, you can have fun with the music and no fear of making a mistake that will matter. Dancing otherwise is a team sport for two, which means some expectations for a shared experience.

What is called “lead and follow” in the dance world, we call “partnering.” Partner is defined as a cohort, an equal, a co-worker, someone who is connected, the other half. All of that implies a shared responsibility. But when two people begin to learn to dance, one will usually “get it” faster. As they progress, they will plateau at different times. I hate to admit how many times the car ride home after a dance workshop was too quiet.

And that is natural, according to the book, which is all about what the authors call the Three Rs of Dancing: Respect, Responsibility, and Responsiveness. They call that a formula for dealing with the conflicts that arise in this team sport of dancing.

Lead & follow have been discussed in round dancing from the early days. We don’t have lead in the ballroom sense that the man decides what figure to do, but there is a sense that someone should be driving the partnership. Frank Hamilton, who wrote a book called The Round Dance Manual in 1970, included an article titled “The Art of Leading—and Following.” Women tend to learn dance routines more quickly than their partners, he recognized, so partners have to work together to help each other. The teamwork phase of dancing is “second only to correct and adequate basic step training in the development of good round dancers,” he wrote. “It is far more important than ‘teaching another new dance’.”

If partners dance in correct position—standing upright and in balance—the leading problem is half solved, he wrote. So when do you begin to learn this? Partnering, correct body position, and how to be in balance are concepts that will evolve as dancers become more advanced, but all should be introduced at the beginning. Ladies need to learn to “wait.” Both partners hear the cues in round dancing, but she has to allow the partnership to move, otherwise both are leading, like having four hands on the steering wheel, as it has been called.

Being in correct position means don’t look down. Don’t look at your partner’s feet. Yes, if you are not sure, and you see the partner is stepping into a New Yorker, you might remember what to do. But, looking down shifts your center of gravity, tips you off center, and may pull your partner off balance. You will also be “late” starting the figure and that will put you “off time.” Ah, so much to think about.

Eddie & Audrey Palmquist, who did clinics around the country in the 1970s and 80s, started every workshop with a talk about frame and being in good position with the partner. Every position needs a feeling of being connected that comes from having tone in the arms, even Butterfly and Open. Even beginners can benefit from understanding how tone and frame work.

In closed position, his frame needs to be “solid” to transmit what his body is doing. She needs to hold up her left arm and not droop it on his right arm. This creates a weight on his arm that can be intolerable after one dance. Holding her own arm also puts tone in her upper body so she can respond to his body movement. His right wrist under her left arm is a major guide for her, and if his arms don’t go limp like spaghetti, she will feel his movement. Her goal is to move and dance into his right hand, which is on her shoulder blade. As Hamilton wrote, “if the man relaxes his right hand and position or if she moves inside this hand to lose contact at her back, it is very difficult to dance in unison.”

So, putting the modern Three Rs into practice: Respect begins with self-respect. Have good posture and smile, be kind to yourself and your partner. In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you’re right.”

The Sissies book suggests a “Rule of 3” to apply when there are disagreements. Try it once his way, once her way and if it still doesn’t work, take it to a teacher.

The second R: Responsibility. Each partner can dance only his or her own part. Practice together and separately. Cultivate good posture, move yourself, stay in balance, don’t criticize.

And the third R: Responsiveness. Recognize that dancing is a conversation between two people. Men were once taught to lead by brute force. No more. The man moves his own body and she moves in response. The lead is communicated through his frame but not by pushing. If she doesn’t follow? He needs to respond to what she does. Lead what you want, choreographer Brent Moore used to say, but dance what you get.

From a club newsletter, January 2020, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, February 2020.


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