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The Three Levels of Dancing

by Dr. Warren Lieuallen, Two Left Feet Dance Academy – Chapel Hill, NC

Although there are supposed to be six phases to round dancing (anyone done any phase I dances lately?), there are also three different “levels” or components. And I’m going to tell you about them!

Footwork --

The first level is footwork. This is what everyone learns at their basic round dance classes. For example, a three-step (for the man) is taught as “forward on your lead foot, forward on your trail foot, and forward on your lead foot”. What could be simpler? This is the basic definition of the move, and is what you must learn to do the move. Footwork is not optional! If you can remember and duplicate these steps, you will have done a three-step (If you’re a man. As is nearly always the case, women must do the footwork backwards and in high-heels! Fortunately, women are smarter and more graceful, and therefore are able to do this.)

But, you may not have done it very well.  At its simplest, footwork in round dancing is very similar to the footwork in square dancing. You are essentially walking in a defined pattern. Think back to “circulate” or “pass the ocean”.  From your starting position, you are walking to a new position. You know where you need to go, so you walk and get there. Mission accomplished!

Unfortunately, there are very few round dance moves which can be done well with this kind of “walking” footwork. What’s often overlooked is that many of our figures involve rotation. In addition to stepping, your feet will be required to turn. This may be accomplished while the foot is off the floor (between steps), but it is often necessary to place the ball of the foot on the floor and then swivel it to a new direction. This is also footwork, but is less often emphasized by teachers and mastered by dancers. Too many times, we see couples who are simply walking in a defined pattern. With no insult intended, they are essentially square dancing to ballroom music. To round dance well, you must learn to swivel on the ball of your foot. Men, I’m talking to you!

To illustrate, let’s consider two moves: box finish and spin turn. A box finish is defined as “back, side, close” with a ¼ left turn. In its simplest form, the man will step back, then step to the side as he rotates his body ¼ to his left, and then close his feet. The turn (his left foot) will happen between steps 1 and 2, as his foot is off the floor, making this a simple “walking” figure. A spin turn is defined as “back, forward, back” with a ⅝ right turn. Primarily because the degree of turn is more, a swiveling step will be required. The man steps back on his left and swivels ¼ to his right (leaving his right foot forward), then steps slightly forward and swivels ¼ more to his right, and finally steps back with a final ⅛ right rotation. Because of the swiveling action, the spin turn is a bit more difficult than the box finish. But it is crucial that you master the swiveling action, particularly if you want to do the “real” spin turn (which we call overturned in round dancing) which requires a ⅞ turn, accomplished by swiveling more on the first two steps.

So, learn the footwork of each move, but be aware that it is more than just stepping in the direction indicated. Many moves involve turning (either in between steps, or immediately after a step). For some moves, the turning actually changes the step. You’ll start by stepping in a forward direction, but because you’re turning, by the time you place your foot on the floor, you’ve actually stepped side. Men, you are the leader, so it’s your job to know this stuff. Don’t just walk – dance!

Technique --

To truly round dance, you must master the second level of dancing. The second level is technique. Just like footwork, technique is not optional. While the footwork tells you “where” to step, technique tells you “how” to step (and don’t forget, the music tells you “when” to step). To use the three-step as an example again, the technique for the first step is for the man to lower (by bending his trailing knee) and extend his lead foot forward with a heel lead, and to then push a few inches further forward as he transfers his weight onto the lead foot. While doing this, he should project his hips forward and keep his shoulders back. Oh, and don’t forget to maintain a good frame. Keep your head slightly back and to the left. Don’t move your arms. And would it kill you to smile once in a while?!

And that’s just the first step of the 3-step! But it makes my point, and it is well beyond the scope of this little article to describe technique in detail. Get one of the Worlock’s Boot Camp DVDs for that. Seriously, do yourself and your partner a big favor – get as many Boot Camp DVDs as you can! Watch them (over and over); just do what the nice man says, and no one needs to get hurt! And now, back to our regularly scheduled article . . .

Technique involves things such as rise and fall, swing and sway, and heel and toe leads. Early rise in Foxtrot, flexed knees in Tango, the Samba bounce – all of these techniques slightly modify the basic footwork, and combine to produce smoother, easier and more enjoyable dancing. Trust me, it’s fun (eventually!). It makes each rhythm we dance unique. You don’t want your Tango to look like your Waltz, do you (hint: the answer is “no”)?

Unfortunately, there are not only techniques for each rhythm, or techniques for each move – there are techniques for each step of each move! It takes years to learn and master proper dance technique, and it is not something that can be presented in a few written pages. But, to get you started (and at the risk of repeating myself), I will briefly discuss the most basic and important technique that applies to every rhythm and every dance: FRAME.

It is absolutely crucial that you have good frame. You must incorporate frame into your dancing, and you must become so comfortable with it that you no longer even think about it. It must become an automatic “muscle memory” habit in your dancing. If there’s any doubt at all, go back to some easy phase III routines, and focus solely on maintaining good frame throughout the dance. I would suggest that until you are able to maintain a good frame, it is pointless to attempt learning any other techniques. Without good frame, most of them won’t work anyway. It may seem a bit harsh, but in my opinion if you do not have a good frame, you will not be a good dancer. It’s that important. If you don’t believe me and you’re a man, ask your partner. For almost every move, you must direct and place your partner in the correct position, in the correct direction, at the correct time. She can’t dance well if she can’t dance in your frame. And she knows if your frame isn’t good. Because the men are leading, we can get away with poor frame. But the women pay the price – it is crucial to her that you have good frame.

It sounds simple, but is deceptively difficult. Establish a good closed position. Now, without moving from the waist up, dance! While your arms may appear to move, it’s actually the rotation of your torso, or sway (accomplished by stretching one side) that causes your arms to move (along with your shoulders, chest and back). The arms do not move independently (while in closed position). Yes, it’s just that simple! And with a few months of hard work, you’ll be able to do it!

Technique is something of an oxymoron – it is difficult to master, but it will make your dancing much easier (some day). And as you progress through phase IV and into the higher phases, it will make the basic figures effortless and the advanced figures possible. Honestly, without good technique, some of the advanced figures can’t be done! You will be working on your technique for the rest of your dancing life. Get used to the idea. As you master a variety of techniques, dancing will become easier and smoother, but you’ll probably never attain perfection (at least not all the time).

Through exhaustive practice (it apparently takes 65 repetitions of an action for it to transfer to your long-term muscle memory), you will become more comfortable with the techniques used for any particular move. Then you can relax and just enjoy your dancing, right? Not so fast!

Style --

The third level of dancing is style. I suppose I must admit that style is considered optional. But without it, your dancing is just not going to be as good or as enjoyable; it will be wooden and lifeless. Style is all the extras (Kenji Shibata calls it “spice”). Style is arm work, extra head movement, increased extension, graceful hand movements, etc. Style is what makes your dancing unique. Style is extra “flourishes” that you add to certain moves. It often involves armwork, but can really be anything that you add to a move as an embellishment. It should not interfere with the techniques you’ve worked so hard to learn. It should add to them, and allow you some extra artistry or flair to your dance. Style is fun! Style is what makes you look like a truly great dancer, and if you can pull it off, makes your dancing look natural and graceful (only you need to know how hard it really is!). Style is what makes the producers of Dancing with the Stars call you.

Style is sometimes taught. But there often just isn’t enough time during a normal teach. So, you’ll either have to arrange for private lessons, or carefully watch videos of really good instructors (Worlock, Goss [either one!], Hurd, Preskitt – folks like that). When you and your partner sit out a dance, watch the floor and try to find a couple you’d like to look like. It’s usually pretty easy to spot the “good” dancers. Like pornography, it’s difficult to define but you’ll know it when you see it! So, look for it, and then try to identify what makes that “good” couple so good. Then in the very best monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, emulate the “good” couple. That’s what I do!

Style should look effortless, but it is not. You probably have the footwork mastered, so at least your feet can be on auto-pilot. But I’ll bet you’ll need to be thinking about all the techniques involved in whichever figure you are doing. There is only so much brain-power left over to think about style. And you definitely have to think about it! So I hope you’re good at multi-tasking (women usually are; men, not so much). The only way I know to make it easier is to have practiced enough that most of the technique is also on auto-pilot. Only then can you focus on your style, matching your partner’s movements in a smooth and graceful way. If I ever manage to do that, I’ll let you know. But it’s good to have goals!

So, there you have it. It’s as simple as 1-2-3 – footwork, technique and style. That’s all you have to do!

Practice --

I know I said there were three levels of round dancing. But no matter how much you master, there’s always something more. That’s part of the challenge, and the fun, of round dancing!

The fourth level of dancing may be the most important of all – PRACTICE. And of course, it’s important to practice the techniques correctly. Unfortunately, practice does not make perfect – practice makes permanent. So don’t practice bad habits!

You’ll work hard to learn the footwork and technique of a new move. You’ll then have to work even harder to practice that new move, until you both can do it well without really thinking about it. You should be able to react to the cue in plenty of time and execute the move in an easy, unhurried way. The move should flow smoothly, and you should end in the correct position and direction, ready to do the next move. As in any athletic activity, if you work hard enough, you’ll make it look easy. But we know it isn’t!

My simple rule is: if you have to think about it, you haven’t practiced enough.

Reprinted in the DRDC Newsletter, April 2023.


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