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Foxtrot — Do we need to / should we always start with phase III?

by Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid 

In teaching a new rhythm, or anything for that matter, we need first to ask ourselves what is it that we really want to teach. What do we want our students to be able to do when they have finished taking this class? In this case, what we want our students to be able to do is to dance foxtrot. 

The question asked in the title from this document probably seems like a strange question, since it would be normal when we teach a new rhythm to start "at the beginning," which in our case would be the lowest phase level. For the most part the RAL phase system is fairly logically built, and since foxtrot figures first appear in phase III, it would seem logical to start there — and this is often the way the rhythm is built up. But let's take a good look at the phase III foxtrot figures. 

If you open your phase manuals, you will see that all the phase III foxtrot figures are really waltz and 2-step figures with a slow, quick, quick rhythm applied. But is this what makes foxtrot "foxtrot"? Is this really the best place to start teaching dancers how to feel this new rhythm? Many teachers will say, "yes." This gives the dancers familiar figures to practice learning the SQQ dancing steps of foxtrot. But what we have found out is that from all the dancers we have taught no one has had trouble learning to do the figures in the rhythm SQQ. What they do have trouble with, if taught phase III figures first, is dancing foxtrot with foxtrot character — making their steps correctly and keeping their body moving so there is no stop-and-go action, which is what gives their foxtrot dances a choppy look and feel. 

The past few times that we have taught foxtrot as a new rhythm, we have started the dancers with phase IV foxtrot figures — "real foxtrot." We don't throw out "relational teaching"; we do compare figures they know in waltz to figures we are having them learn in foxtrot. And one thing we insist on if we are asked to teach this, is that the dancers are comfortable in phase III, and preferably, at least know a number of the common phase IV waltz figures. In fact, we warm the dancers up with the phase III waltz, "Answer Me." Then we start our relational teaching. 

Remember, relational teaching does not mean that you only show how a figure is like another figure, but you can also use the same type of teaching to show the differences between figures that are similar. This is part of what we use in comparing foxtrot to waltz.

We start by showing the rise and fall that they do in waltz. You have to rise up in order to close and lower. The momentum in waltz is expended up and down. But foxtrot is a linear dance. You can only spend the same amount of energy in one way. There is foxtrot rise (it is always early, but you shouldn't go into this at the beginning), but the momentum of the dance is not with a "continue to rise," but with a forward (or backward) movement. The "rise," the energy, is spent over distance going forward instead of up and down — therefore there are (almost) no closing steps. 

With this background, we start "converting" some waltz figures to foxtrot figures. We demonstrate first a simple sequence in waltz: "2 forwards waltzes;;" We spend a minute showing that the 2nd step is slightly side, the 3rd step a close — with rise & fall. Then we "elongate" these steps to become a "3-step; feather-step;" We are showing this — they have not danced it yet. As we are showing the 3-step; feather-step; we also say, "heel, heel, toe;  heel, toe, toe;" 

Now the dancers get to practice. Please remember that practicing foxtrot is strenuous for the dancers. You will need to plan in breaks. It is best if you can teach this rhythm without "previous expectations," without having to finish a dance, so that you and the dancers can both relax and take breaks as needed. Starting the dancers in CP, slightly DLW (and reminding them that CP is not nose to nose but offset to each other's right), with a lead foot free, we have them dance fwd,-, fwd, fwd; fwd,-, fwd, fwd; — the beginnings of a 3-step and a feather step. Again, emphasizing that there are hardly any closing steps in foxtrot. You can even let them do this a little bit, but not too much because we want to correct mistakes before they become a habit. So right away, after their first few minutes of practice we explain that a 3-step is a very special figure in foxtrot. It has special footwork — heel, heel, toe; for the person going forward. It always starts with the left foot for the person going forward. 

Then we go right away to the feather step — showing them as we tell them that the special footwork for this step is heel, toe, toe; and that it always ends in Banjo. And of course restating that Banjo is not the side of hips together but the front of your hips together, that this is a closed position. Then we have them practice again, only concentrating on the footwork, and saying the footwork as they dance: "heel, heel, toe; heel, toe, toe;" with music. By now they are ready for a break, and this is good too because it will give this a chance to sink in, and you will get to let them practice the same thing again without it seeming too repetitious or boring. 

When we start again, we let them practice what they have learned in the 3-step; feather-step. I will cue heel, heel, toe; heel, toe, toe. They may say it with me or not. Still with music; we do most of our practicing with music, since that emphasizes the rhythm. We always tell the dancers that even though most rhythms have 4 beats to a measure, they have different atmospheres/characteristics. We have to learn to dance these characteristics. This is best done with the music. But if we learn it well, someone from outside, who doesn't hear the music will be able to tell what rhythm we are dancing. 

Now they are ready for the next part of dancing a 3-step; feather-step; — the shoulder lead. The first step of a 3-step is straight (or you become straight if after another step); on the second step you begin to have a right shoulder lead; the last step is a definite right shoulder lead. On the feather step you will straighten on your first step, start into a left shoulder lead, and on the last step have a definite left shoulder lead. We show this together; then Gert-Jan usually shows this dancing by himself with his arms spread so the dancers can see the shoulder lead better. Now the dancers practice again. This time we tell them that we still want them to dance heel, heel, toe; heel, toe, toe; but we want them to concentrate on right shoulder lead, left shoulder lead. They are still only doing 2 figures — so I don't have to cue the figures — now I just cue the shoulder leads. They will probably be ready for another break, and then you can practice again when they come back. You can also watch to make sure they are doing the heel leads correctly. You will be surprised how many dancers will be dancing these figures with the correct leads!! Be sure to compliment them on their hard work — and it is hard work. They will be tired. You can tell them that they really look like they are dancing foxtrot — and they are! 

After this break we practice again to music. We try to give the dancers as much actual dancing time, to music, as we can. This serves two purposes: 1) it helps give them the feeling for the dance (rhythm), and 2) it gives them the feeling that they are dancing. Then we go on to the next figures. Again, we will base these on their previous knowledge of waltz figures, emphasizing that in foxtrot the steps are passing instead of closing steps. The figure we will work on next is "making" a waltz maneuver, side, close; into a foxtrot half natural. This will involve the ladies making their first heel turn. Here we take a moment to explain that in foxtrot turns from closed position the person going backwards makes a closing step (this makes the heel turn) so the other person can go around and then step back. Also, again, while in waltz you (continue to) rise at the end of step 2, then lower & close on 3, in foxtrot you rise at the end of 1 and your last step is not a close, but a passing step. It is also important here to teach the exact ending position — directly facing RLOD. In foxtrot, positioning is very important and the dancers should learn that this is part of the figure. So a half natural starts DLW and ends RLOD. We also start telling the dancers that all natural turns turn right face and all reverse turns turn left face. We tell them the way we used to remember that is that "most people are naturally right handed." 

Continuing on so the dancers can practice the half natural, we teach the closed impetus, and the feather finish. The closed impetus has a heel turn for the man; he is on the inside of the turn that starts from CP. The figure we relate this to is the spin turn that they know from waltz. The feather finish we relate to first of all the box finish from waltz, and remind them that all figures in foxtrot that end in Banjo are a type of feather, and that all feathers will end in Banjo. We then have the dancers dance a diamond turn, which is the same in foxtrot as in waltz and they have danced a bit to the music. 

Now we have them dance an open telemark. Most of the dancers know this figure from waltz, so it is usually no problem. While we might mention the rise (which is usually either different than they have learned, or they have never learned it at all), it is not something we dwell on. You should say and show the figure correctly and let them practice. The next logical step for us is to add the half natural after the open telemark. When you have done this, you have a complete sequence that the dancers can practice: diamond turn;;;; open telemark; half natural; closed impetus; feather finish; 

From here on it is just adding figure by figure, using some figures that they have learned in waltz, and basing other figures on what they have just learned. (Don't forget breaks!) For instance, you could add the open natural (based on the half natural), then an open impetus (figure they know this from waltz), then a feather after the open impetus. So you could cue, for instance: diamond turn;;;; open telemark; open natural; open impetus; feather DC; 

You can now take the figure reverse turn and teach it — they know the last half, which is a feather finish, and the ladies know a heel turn from the open telemark. Once they practice this figure you could cue: diamond turn;;;; open telemark; open natural; open impetus; feather DC; reverse turn;  3-step; half natural; open impetus; feather DC; 

There are many ways to continue from here. You could go on to the weaves. You can tell your dancers a few facts about all weaves: 1) they are always 1 slow and 6 quicks, 2) the last 4 steps are always the same which are a "back, quick feather finish," 3) the first 3 steps "determine" the type of weave that it is. So, a "promenade weave" for instance, will start in "promenade position," and the first 3 steps will be similar to the weaves that they know from waltz. A "natural weave" will start like an open natural, then end "back, quick feather finish." A natural fallaway weave will start with a natural fallaway, then end for the man with a "back, qk feather finish" (the lady has to turn, just like she does in a slip pivot after a waltz natural fallaway). 

You could also go on to the different types of left turns: closed telemark, double reverse spin, reverse wave, for instance, basing this on their knowledge of the open telemark and the reverse turn. When you later teach the top spin, also use their knowledge of left turns and feathers to relate this figure. 

We do hope that some of this will be helpful to you in teaching foxtrot. This all will of course never be taught in one session. We must not forget that our dancers are learning and can only absorb so much at one time. Every workshop, clinic, session and dancer is different. And every teacher is also different. So you should pick and choose from here what you can use. 

Coming back to the question posed in the title of this article we think that by now you know what our answer is. 

© 2003 by Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid


this article was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, September 2008

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