Recently a student told me that she looked for articles on the web covering the lady’s stretch in Ballroom dances and was surprised to find that there wasn’t much available. This article is meant to fill that gap.
We see the beautiful stretch that ladies do in the International Standard dances. Naturally, women want to master that look. So it makes sense to start from the beginning and look at how the stretch has evolved.
Many years ago, the dance frame was a lot less sophisticated than it is today. The amount of movement was quite limited, so it wasn’t as important. Men’s elbows were closed in. Heads were much closer together. Indeed, during the 1930’s the heads were practically touching. Irving Berlin’s famous song “Change Partners” asks, “Must you dance quite so close, with your lips touching his face,” which sums up the typical dance frame of those times. This has changed dramatically! Today, the lady’s frame is stretched diagonally away from the man, flowing with the movement of the couple as she responds to the dynamic elements of each step.
Many years ago, the dance frame was a lot less sophisticated than it is today… Men’s elbows were closed in. Heads were much closer together.
To move effectively together, a couple must obey the laws of physics. If you don’t, bodies start to come apart and the ability to be a team moving together as one becomes challenging or even impossible. As dancing has developed speed and power, couples move more. As they move more, these factors become even more important.
The stretch is necessary to optimize the power of centrifugal and centripetal forces, thus allowing the center part of the partnership to remain joined together. And of course, with the additional movement of today’s dancing, a greater stretch is necessary for the same reason.
The stretch is often compared to the shape of a diamond, or of a martini glass. The widest part of a diamond, known as the “girdle,” is the elbow line of the couple. The heads are equivalent to the diamond’s “crown” and the center of the bodies, where they narrow as they join together, reflect the “pavilion.” Couples want as large a girdle as possible to create what is referred to as “volume” through their bodies, a sense of the presence they occupy on the floor.
How to Stretch
A beautiful stretch is visually attractive. It doesn’t need to be physically uncomfortable, though it takes time to get used to and build into a habit. An incorrect stretch can cause muscle aches and even long-term damage if not corrected over a long period of time, so it is important that the stretch is done correctly. Some ladies try to achieve it by bending their head back. This leads to neck pain and a look that we call a “broken neck” because it is not a stretch at all. Here are some guidelines for creating a more visually beautiful stretch that won’t cause damage to your body.
Let’s start with the posture. Proper dance posture involves pulling in the belly button toward the spine, then lengthening the spine upwards. Because of the natural curvature of the spine, a good upward stretch will actually create a natural curve of the body. You want to keep the Lat muscles (shoulder blade area) pulled downward while imagining that every one of your vertebrae are being gently pulled apart.
Place your weight on your left leg with your right foot slightly to the side. To balance your body over your left foot, the spine will naturally tilt to the left. Straighten your shoulders and arms so they are horizontal. Stretch upward which will now become diagonally left because you are standing on your left foot. Relax your left side and extend your right side. From the top of your head to the right foot should be one straight line. You should not isolate any body parts like in the Latin dances. At the same time, you must not lean over because then you won’t be balanced. A good stretch means that you can extend your head upward and away from your body in a diagonal line while still being perfectly balanced entirely over your own left foot.
Now it’s time to add the curve. You must never bend “backwards” in a true sense because that pulls your weight out of balance, but when you stretch up and away it creates a slight bend in the area of your Thoracic vertebrae. You want to emphasize this curve of the spine. Some coaches refer to this as a flower “blooming” while others like to say it is a “draping” of your upper body over the man’s arms. Either way it achieves the same result. The secret to doing this well is to think of stretching your rib cage upward and forward rather than bending back.
The secret to doing this well is to think of stretching your rib cage upward and forward rather than bending back.
A good example is what high jumpers do when they are going over the bar. They stretch their bodies up and over the bar, trying to create a curve through their spine as they flow over the bar to avoid touching it with their back. Remember that every stretch involves two elements: one side gets pulled away while the other side contracts. In this case your stretch the front and contract the back muscles to create the curve. This ensures that you remain balanced even as you increase your stretch. Your left side is stretched slightly left and forward, with your upper body turned very slightly to the right in relation to your hips which are parallel to the man.
Be aware of a couple of dangers when trying to stretch. Some ladies break their side. It is one continuous line so don’t “bend” to the side in your effort to stretch. Also, some ladies bring their center forward, in effect tucking their butt under. That has the same effect as leaning back and simply pulls the man off his own balance point.
When dancing, your upper body should be strong and firm, yet at the same time very flexible and responsive. A weak frame cannot respond to the man’s lead properly, while an overly strong or stiff frame resists the lead. Both are bad because they make it hard to move together fluidly. As you stretch, don’t push down on the man’s right shoulder with your left hand. Also be careful not to push your right arm away from you.
Above: Three examples of typical lady’s stretch in ballroom dancing. In the left image, the head is forward of the spine. In the middle image, the head is straight, but not stretched up and diagonally over. In the right image we see a beautiful lady’s stretch.
Positioning the head
In one of my other articles, I talk about the importance of the head in ballroom dancing, and the lady’s stretch is no exception! The head weighs between 10 and 12 lbs, so it can easily affect the movement of the couple if it is in the wrong place or moving in the wrong way. Imagine trying to stay balanced while juggling a spinning medicine ball!
If your head is even a bit forward, it will crowd your partner’s space and keep rotational actions from being efficient. If it is back, it pulls the man off his own feet. It must always be lined up with your spine, but not straight up and down; always diagonally away from the man. Don’t bend your head back, just keep it lined up with your spine. Because the upper body is arching back from your Thoracic vertebrae, the head should follow that line to create the beautiful top-line volume you’re trying to achieve.
In normal movements, the lady looks above an imaginary watch on her left wrist. In movements that involve more rotation, look along your left elbow or over the arm. For rapidly rotating left turns, such as a Double Reverse Spin, think of chasing your left elbow with your nose. This will help the rotation by creating centrifugal forces that assist the couple in making the turn efficient.
Finally, don’t move your left shoulder away from the man. It should be forward toward him. Remember to stay left on your side of the partnership, especially during turning figures.
Developing this as a habit, especially during the movement of dance when you are also thinking about the steps and what is being led, can take time. As your dancing develops you’ll find that your stretch comes and goes throughout the dance. Be patient. Over time it will become more consistent. Let photos of your dancing be a guide to how well you are doing in making this a habit. Good luck!
We would love to hear from professional ladies on how they help teach the stretch. Just use the comment field below to add your thoughts.