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What Is Ballroom Dancing

Feb. 2012 – “Just Direct Your Feet” by John Pattillo

(orig. published in Topline, The Journal of the U.S.I.S.T.D.)

As the song has it, “Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street!” In our line of work, we are always telling people how to direct their feet, but many of them seem to struggle at it, for a very long time. Can it be done better, more quickly? I think so. The fault lies in our not getting our pupils to understand the basis of these modern dances.

Modern??? Well, yes, they were called modern at one time. Now they are called “Standard”. They were called “modern” because they introduced a new method of social dance – based on walking, a so-called “natural” way of moving, in contrast to the older, ballet-based method. Now, walking is in fact natural and easy until you put another body in close proximity in front of you, facing you, and ask you to walk in such a way as to co-ordinate four (yes, four) foot actions – yours and your partner’s – so as not to maim each other.

In this position, it is no longer easy, or natural. It now requires you to exercise great care in the way you place your feet, the way you direct your leg swing, and the timing of the action. It is this care that is most lacking in so many dancers. They just plop their feet down in the general direction they have been taught, but with no awareness of the mutual placement of four feet.

This is where it is enormously helpful to insist that you learn how to walk with another person – even if you are an advanced dancer. You can make a lot of fun out of this drill if you do it as the “Castle Walk”. (It’s really a kick if you can locate a copy of the original music for this dance, a piece called “Too Much Mustard”). This one-time “fad” dance, with all its silly gaiety, in addition to making you very aware of the placement of your feet, will require you to learn about Contrary Body Movement, which will in turn require you to relax your hold, to permit mutual flexibility which will lay the groundwork for another big improvement – elimination of a rigid top.

If you take a step further, by walking with C. B. M. on each step, while keeping your spines each juxtaposed leftwards, you will lay another great foundation stone – the fundamental position of your body in relation to your partner – for all time.

It will further require you to really direct your feet, and your legs. You will find that there is only one way to do this, and the discovery will suddenly produce something very rarely seen today – “stylish feet.” This is virtually impossible to describe briefly, but it involves suppleness of ankle and knee while trying to walk, in effect, “on a tightrope.”

There is not a single modern dance which will not benefit from learning to walk properly. The inimitable Ms. Josephine Bradley even commented that, in the early days, everyone kept right on walking even when a Waltz was played. This should give us a clue how important this walking business was in the revolutionizing of the dance; the older Waltz had no element of walking in line with one’s partner.

In any event, even if you try a little bit of this walking, you will find that you “leave your troubles on the doorstep.”

Feb. 2009 — “Syncopation rules the nation” – by John Pattillo

(orig. published in Dance Beat)

“Syncopation rules the nation, you can’t get away from it.” So went the refrain of a popular song in the early days of the twentieth century’s love affair with syncopated music.
Syncopation – the unexpected, unpredictable shifting of accents within and across the bars of music – is really the whole ball game for the kind of pop music we dance to, and have for two centuries. “Unexpected” and “unpredictable” are the key features.

Here we are in the beginning of the twenty-first century. We are inheritors of ragtime, jazz, swing, rumba, mambo, salsa, all of which use extensive and sophisticated syncopation. So it may seem strange to think that that staid old chestnut of the ballroom – the waltz – was also considered to be syncopated. But it was. The two great creators of the ballroom waltz were Josef Lanner and Johann Strauss, Sr. Of Strauss, it was said that “his strong points were his racy, irresistible rhythms, and the great élan which he imparted to his waltzes by piquant syncopations, dotted figures and an abundance of trills and ‘wrong’ accents” (Mosco Cramer, The Waltz). In a good ballroom waltz of today (of which there are few), you can still hear some of these rhythmic features, though not the raciness.

“Wrong” accents – that really says it all. To work its magic, a syncopated rhythm must fall unpredictably on the ear. It must sound fresh and not according to a formula. A syncopation that repeats itself endlessly becomes stale and boring. The marvelous thing is that a good foxtrot, or cha cha, for example sounds fresh in this rhythmic way, even if you have heard it before, because of the inventiveness and variety of the syncopation.
Since dancing is inspired by music, unpredictable accents led to unpredictable dancing – that is, an improvisational, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, change-the-expected-sequence type of dancing. In other words, social or ballroom dancing of the twentieth – and now the twenty-first — century.

Just as a listener does not know where the accent will fall next, so the viewer – or the partner – or the dancer himself does not know what dance accent, or what figure, or what movement will occur next. The music and the dance go hand in glove.

Try listening for these “wrong” accents; you can incorporate their rhythmic feel into your dancing, as if you were a member of the dance band — but instead of playing an instrument you syncopate with your feet and your body!
“Syncopation rules the nation, you can’t get away from it.”

Jan., 2009 — What We Teach

Ballroom dancing.
There are not so many “ballrooms” today, but no matter. What it means is this: any type of dancing with couples all on the floor at the same time, men leading women in an improvised flow of movements, each couple respecting the others’ space by means of their mastery of the art of leading and following. It can be done in an old-fashioned ballroom, a latin club, or a floor the size of a cocktail napkin.

Ballroom dancing includes dances that travel all around the space available – foxtrot, waltz, tango, quickstep, Viennese waltz, Peabody, paso doble, samba. And dances that stay, or may stay, in one fairly small area – salsa, rumba, cha cha, swing (in all its variations), merengue, samba, tango, foxtrot, bachata, mambo, bolero. Notice that some dances may do both.

Do you have to learn to lead or follow to do ballroom dancing? No…you can learn a fixed sequence…but you will find it hard to cope on the dance floor if there is another couple besides yourself, and harder still if there are many. This is the amazing thing about ballroom dancing — scores of dancers can coexist peaceably if they have learned what they should; if not, they are, to put it kindly, a menace. And if they only know sequences, they will miss out on the tremendous fun of improvising with their partner the flow of movement to the delicious syncopated music we dance to.

Dancing memorized groupings of figures, sequence dancing, round dancing, formation dancing may all be developed from ballroom dancing, but are best done in a special environment where everyone on the floor accepts the same rules of the game. And memorizing a routine may sometimes be the best way to survive your first wedding dance.

But, in the meantime, don’t repeat the same tired formulas over and again. As Roxanne said to Christian in Cyrano de Bergerac: “You have your theme — improvise! Rhapsodize!”