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Smoothing Out Those Slows

by Sandi & Dan Finch

One of the biggest flaws we see in dancing is abrupt transitions, usually caused by getting onto a foot too quickly to flow smoothly with the music.

It happens at all levels—developés where the extension is just a fast kick or a contra check that doesn’t take the time to lower first, among the advanced dancers, and a Rumba basic where a newer dancer rushes onto the slow and then has to stand for a full beat of music.

You enjoy music because it has a harmonious flow and some highlights. Dancing should be the same. When you are moving harmoniously with the music, you are showing “musicality,” relating your steps and characteristics of the rhythm to the energy, mood, and melody of the music.

We can be esoteric here and talk about how music is “multi-layered,” from the steady metronomic timing of the bass notes to the variations added by the lighter instruments and even the singer’s phrasing. We can tell you to dance with feeling, picking out the nuances of any of those layers in the music. We can talk about playing with figures using legato or rubato timing [meaning smooth and even or staccato]. At the same time, we say, whatever you do, be “on time.”

Dancing “on time” means you keep up with the basic underlying tempo of the music—not rushing ahead of the measures or failing to keep up. Some music runs at “strict tempo,” meaning the orchestra plays a determined number of measures per minute consistently throughout the dance. Popular music doesn’t always maintain a consistent speed. This makes it easy to play with the music. Within the guideline of being “on time,” you have freedom to slow your steps in places, speed up in others, and use more shaping to fill the music.

But this essay is more basic than that. It is simply a reminder to avoid abrupt transitions between figures and the stop-and-start action seen in rhythms that require one step to occupy two beats of music. You begin learning a new step or rhythm by focusing on what your feet do, but dancing isn’t just about taking steps. Much of the enjoyment is what you do between the steps.

If you look up answers for the crossword puzzle clue “dance smoothly,” you will get such alternatives as move like a canoe, fly without an engine, move gracefully, flow, like a bird flying on thermals. Each definition implies movement without abruptness.

The problem shows up when newer dancers learn Rumba. With Waltz and Cha cha, there is generally a step on every beat. Rumba introduces new timing—quick, quick, slow. No problem with the first two beats of the measure—one step on each beat. You know you have one more step to take and two beats of music left in the measure. The tendency is to step on beat three and stand there for beat four.

Rumba is designed to fill the music with hip action and a sense of drama. Take the third step on beat 3 and allow your hip to “settle” on beat four by straightening your leg as you step, allowing your other knee to flex. Your hip should naturally rotate back, all on that last beat.

Newer dancers may dance the slow, quick, quick timing of a Foxtrot feather [phase IV] like this: Step on count 1, wait as beat 2 goes by, then step again when they hear beat 3 and beat 4. By all accounts, they are correctly dancing the three steps of the feather, SQQ.

A more experienced couple might dance it this way: Swing through from the previous step on the first beat of the slow count (beat 1), not stepping onto 100% of their weight. Their weight is transferred to  that foot well into second beat of the slow count. The movement continues “in flight” through beat 2 with man rolling through the foot from heel to toe and swinging his free foot forward. He steps onto the toe on the first quick (beat 3), and he steals time from the second quick (beat 4) before taking his third step onto the toe and lowering to a flat foot. The movement flows continuously, almost slow, slow, &, avoiding the “step and stop” style of the newer dancer.

Say the cue is “explode apart.” The tendency is to step apart quickly flinging your arm in an arc. It might be more dramatic and in keeping with the music to control the arm so that it fills the measure.

It isn’t just new dancers who have a problem with abruptness. A woman’s developé [phase IV] requires her to step back drawing the free foot up the side of the supporting leg, extending it out from the knee, then bringing the leg down straight to the standing foot, usually in a measure of music. Don’t make it just a kick out that comes down as you are already moving into the next figure. It won’t match the music, and you will mostly likely be out of balance and out of sync with your partner.

We see too many contra checks [phase V] where the man forgets to lower first. The lowering gives partners a chance to connect. Otherwise, he will start without her and she has to guess how far back to reach, or his forward motion will overpower her.

We could talk about a throwaway oversway [phase VI]. Man might rotate abruptly into his part of the figure, not taking her with him. They will end up hip to hip, her right elbow will jab him in the chest and they won’t have the leg connection for him to lead her out of it.

The “books” tell you what to do, but in very few places are you told what happens when it is wrong. It takes doing it until you begin to feel like a part of the music.

From a club newsletter, August 2021, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, September 2021. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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