Every step pattern in the International-style Standard genre ballroom dances can be broken down into specific step elements. When you understand each element and how it contributes to the whole, you’ll begin to accelerate your ability as a dancer.
Three Key Elements
There are essentially three key elements that make up each step pattern. In the “Swing” dances of Waltz, Foxtrot and Quickstep you have swing actions, rotational actions and picture lines. In the Tango you have body flight actions, rotational actions and picture lines. To keep this article from getting too complex, I’ll stick to the swing dances and primarily the Slow Waltz, but the same principle applies to the Tango.
Swing actions are those governed by the “pendulum swing” that characterizes these dances. Like the swing of a pendulum in a grandfather clock, energy is created by lowering and swinging through the center point, then dissipates as the body reaches the high point on the other side of the action. A Natural Turn, for example, is a swing action. The body lowers to create energy, begins to rise just after the center point of the movement, then rises on the other side of the turn. For that reason, we apply technical details such as the No Foot Rise at the end of step 1 for the person moving backwards, because if the foot rose the pendulum swing would be distorted and lose both its beauty and power.
Rotational actions are those where there is no body flight through the action. In these steps, one partner is in the center of the rotation and the other goes around that center point. A pivot is an obvious example, as would be steps involving a Heel Turn.
Picture Lines are those steps designed specifically to create a moment in time where the couple presents a beautiful picture. Examples of these are the Contra Check, Oversway and even the Reverse Corte.
Putting the elements together
Each step pattern or group you dance involves one or more of those elements. When you analyze these elements and how they fit into each step group you do, you’ll begin to optimize your ability to perform those steps. Here are a couple of examples to get you started:
Let’s take a typical Bronze-level step in Slow Waltz, the Natural Spin Turn. The step begins with a Natural Turn which is entirely a Swing-type action. Then we have one step, the Pivot, that is a Rotational action. The step continues with another Swing-type action as we drive through the leg into the rise, then another Swing-type action for the final lowering which, of course, swings through into an ending such as the 456 of a Reverse Turn. When we look at the step with this kind of radar-view, it becomes easy to recognize that it’s not a rotational step but a swing step that has only one small component that is truly rotational. Many people think of the step as a rotational step and thus dance it incorrectly. This approach can help avoid those kind of mistakes.
The Double Reverse Spin involves two Rotational actions in a row, but it begins with a single step that is a body flight movement. It’s not exactly a Pendulum Swing action because of the type of rise needed to lead a Heel Turn, but it is not a rotational action. The rotation begins after that initial step. After the two rotations are complete, the couple will typically move on into a Pendulum Swing type movement such as a Progressive Chasse. Because so many dancers think of the Double Reverse Spin as a purely rotational step group, they don’t address that critical first step properly, limiting their ability to dance it well.
Looking at a Gold-level step, let’s examine the Turning Lock to the Right, another step often danced incorrectly because it is misunderstood. Again, the step typically begins with a Natural Turn which is a Swing-type action. The Spin Turn, although it is an overturned Spin Turn, has the same characteristics as the regular Spin Turn, a single rotational action (the Pivot), followed by a Swing-type action through steps 2 and 3 of the Spin Turn itself. The Turning Lock is also a Swing-type action. Many dancers are so caught up in the rotation of the step that they fail to see how little rotation there actually is in this group. At the end of the Turning Lock, the bodies make a very slight change to Promenade Position and exit through another Swing action.
Take time to examine your routines and break each step group into these elements. Evaluate step elements throughout every dance so that you can better understand how each part should be characterized. Your dancing will improve through the process.