Dance Tips

By Richard Duree

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Richard Duree 2002 This series of nitty-gritty observations is intended to assist dancers to improve their art. Each "tip" deals with a specific topic and hopefully will create a new awareness of the subtle techniques that create the grace and beauty of dance.

Permission is granted to reproduce these "Dance Tips" with the request that authorship be noted with each one.

— Richard Duree


DANCE TIP

THE PELVIC TILT

This is one of the most basic and useful things a dancer can learn, no matter what the dance discipline. People who actively use their bodies in physical labor, such as farmers and longshoremen, instinctively develop this posture to safely generate power, agility and speed. Well-trained dancers use it and, occasionally, even some folk dancers discover it.

The technique is simple and, once learned and practiced, will become an unconscious part of one's posture. In plain English, one lifts the pelvis in front by pulling in with the abdominal muscles and tucks the fanny underneath. Wondrous things happen:

  1. The center of gravity moves back ever so slightly (it's located just in front of the spine about two inches below the waist — a bit lower in women than in men), resulting in greatly enhanced stability.
  2. The internal organs settle back into the support bowl provided by the pelvic girdle, the way they're supposed to be but aren't due to poor posture, sagging abdominal muscles, high heels, extended sitting, and a hundred other effects of modern life.
  3. The legs are now forward of the body's center of gravity, allowing freedom of movement to perform those rapid and complex Romanian stamping figures without undue effort.
  4. The muscles of the lower back are now stretched into a relaxed position, greatly reducing fatigue.

In couple turning dances, the forward leg position, the relocated center of gravity, relaxed back muscles and increased freedom of movement will enable those graceful, effortless turns we admire in the waltz, hambo and polka.

Be not embarrassed by this technique. There is nothing suggestive or obscene about it, even in Orange County. One student, struggling to comprehend the new posture, said, "It feels like my bottom's hanging out." This very proper lady is quickly learning that, not only is the posture not obscene, it provides her with the perfect ecstasy experienced only in a wild, perfectly controlled Viennese Waltz turn.


DANCE TIP

LEADING AND FOLLOWING

One of the most frequently encountered problems in folk and ballroom dance is the inability of men to lead. There are many reasons for this, but it really isn't an insurmountable problem.

First, let's take a look at some reasons why leading is absent:

  1. Choreographed dances: Dependence on pre-set choreographies deprives men of the skill to lead; they learn to memorize, no effort given to partnering.
  2. Impatient Women: Women can help immensely by helping their partners to lead by "playing dumb." Wait for him to lead. Sure, you know what step to take next, but if he doesn't lead it, don't do it.

Next, take a look at the attitudes and principles of leading and following:

  1. The man's responsibility is to "display" his partner. That may sound strange, but think of what you see in pairs skating; did you notice what the man did as his partner soared high overhead. Not likely; you see the woman, not the man.
  2. The man's responsibility is to safely direct and support her movements.
  3. The woman's responsibility is to "agree" and "execute" the man's lead. Remember, ladies, you are there to be displayed. You are to be treated like a queen, so behave yourself and do as you're told. You're on stage.
  4. Gentlemen, this is perhaps the only time in life when you're in total control. DON'T WASTE IT!

Some techniques to keep in mind:

  1. The man supports and leads with his right hand placed thumb up along the inside of the woman's left shoulder blade, fingers spread to give pressure cues. Do not hold her at the waist or along her left side; there is no support there.
  2. Men keep the right elbow rounded to support the women's left arm and permit her right wrist to remain straight.
  3. Man leads turns, stops, and starts with pressure with the fingers and heel of his right hand against her back.
  4. Lead as though she does not know the dance, lead in time for her to respond on the beat, and lead every step!
  5. Ladies keep pressure backward with the small of the back (pelvic tilt) so that the man has something to lead.

The topic of Leading and Following is discussed at length in The Folk Dance Teacher's Guide. Copies available from Dance Traditions. —>


DANCE TIP

THE WALTZ

Let the waltz "breathe," gentlemen. Learn to expand and contract the space between you and your partner. As you step back, bring her slightly to you, then as she steps backward, relax your right arm and retard your forward step to open the space.

She will experience a new "feel" to the dance — that's to your advantage — and your right arm will last longer. Experiment with the amount of open space you create and find out how much feels best. The move does very nice things with her gown, sweeping her skirts away in a lovely picture of Victorian grace.

Remember, guys, to keep your right elbow rounded to the side so you can keep your right wrist straight. It's much more comfortable for both of you. The man then uses the large muscles in the chest and the lady is then supported at the upper part of her back, where she needs it.

Ladies, PELVIC TILT! Give the man something to steer by pressing backward into his right hand with the small of your back.


DANCE TIP

WALTZ TECHNIQUE

The Viennese Waltz is one of the great dances of Western Civilization and to dance it gracefully and effortlessly is just about the ultimate dance experience.

To dance the waltz effortlessly and well requires two partners working as a team to create the wonderful forces that make it so satisfying.

Here's a little hint for the ladies: when stepping forward on your right foot at the beginning of the turn, reach! Step well forward, the inside of your right knee close to his.

The ladies often take a tentative step there, creating strong resistance to the man as he steps backward into the turn.

Don't be timid, ladies. You must make as much of a contribution to the turn as the man and that step is the one which launches your body weight forward into the turn past the man. It's a strong, aggressive movement for you, so don't waste it — take it and enjoy the ride.


DANCE TIP

MOVING FROM THE "CENTER"

The basics of movement are the same, no matter the purpose. As one studies different movement disciplines — dance, athletics, martial arts, acting, mime, gymnastics, anything — the truth becomes more and more obvious.

The "truth" is that movement must come from the "center." Old country martial arts masters, modern dance teachers, gymnastic coaches, athletes and dancers, farmers and laborers all discovered that truth, whether by design or by accident, because that truth enabled them to achieve their maximum performance, whatever that performance may be.

The Japanese martial art of aikido may have achieved the ultimate development of the skill. Who has not seen demonstrations of skilled aikido practitioners tossing multiple opponents about as if by magic?

Every time we witness a 300-pound power lifter or a seven-foot-plus high jumper or an 80-pound mite of a gymnast perform their art-sport, we witness "moving from the center." When Baryshnakov performed his 14-revolution spin in White Nights, we saw "moving from the center." When Greg Luganis performed his almost unbelievable aerial feats from three stories high into the diving pool, we saw "moving from the center."

When we see a folk dancer trying to punch a hole in the floor with every stamp of a Romanian "alunelul," we do not witness "moving from the center." When a lady dressed in an elegant antebellum ball gown is unmercifully jerked into turns with square corners on them, neither she nor her partner are "moving from the center."

As many, if not most, Victorian dances require some sort of turning movement, the skill of "moving from the center" is a very good thing to develop. Gentlemen must realize that, in most turning dances which progress along the floor, partners take turns moving ahead of each other. That's true in the waltz, the polka, two-step, schottische — all of them. Each time one moves ahead of the other, a turn is created. That turn must be centered on the partner being passed.

The gentlemen are usually heavier and stronger than their partners, thus it falls to them to create the energy source for the starts, turns, spins, stops, and reverses of which the dance is composed. It behooves the gentlemen, therefore, to master the many techniques of accomplishing this necessary skill, lest he be considered something less than an ideal dance partner.

Gentlemen, consider that your center is the center of the turn when she passes you, and so is hers when you pass her.

The outer edge of the turn is, for practical purposes, the lady's back where your right arm is positioned to lead and support her in the turns.

So, in a clockwise turn, as in a waltz or polka, as the man moves the lady ahead of him, he pivots around his own center, providing a turning point, or anchor, for her turn, as he sweeps her ahead of him. Then, he uses her body weight as the center for his own turn as he passes her.

Both dancers always keep their body weight centered, not allowing a lean into the turn or away from the partner. The "pelvic tilt" is of utmost importance: lift the pelvis in front and tuck under in back to relax the lower back, drop the center of gravity, and place your feet forward under your partner.

Couples can practice by standing in closed dance position, the man's feet apart and woman's together; the man flexes both knees and straightens them as he swings the lady to one side and rotates his upper body to support her. Then swing her back to the other side, dipping and rising. Her back should describe an arc around the man's center.

Stay centered, stay calm, and share the dance. It is the stuff of which life is made.


DANCE TIP

INTRODUCING YOURSELF TO YOUR LADY

Gentlemen, when you approach your lady on the dance floor and take her in your arms, be courteous. Too often men grasp the lady with the same sensitivity expended on a car door, a jolting introduction of yourself to her.

She deserves better than that. She awaits your support and lead and hopes, perhaps a bit wistfully, for a bit of chivalrous gallantry. Instead, she gets a jolting grasp that rudely destroys that hope and replaces it with trepidation and anxiety.

Use the back of your right wrist and forearm to contact the inside of her left forearm (assuming you're going to dance in closed position with her) and with grace and a reassuring firmness, assume the proper hand placement with the right thumb along the inside of her left shoulder blade. You will be rewarded with a grateful smile and a serene, responsive dance partner. Trust me.


DANCE TIP

POSTURE IN TURNING DANCES

Ladies! I'm sure that you are totally unaware of the severe strain you place on the man's right arm in turning ballroom dances. I have experienced paralysis from having the dear ladies clamp down with their left arms to ensure a safe ride in a Viennese waltz.

The man should have his right arm rounded with the elbow high, supporting his partner with the inside of his right wrist and using the larger muscles in the chest and shoulder. He cannot do that if his partner uses a clamp to hold on.

Rather, ladies, keep your left hand behind the man's right shoulder with your left arm "melded" to his right arm. The task of holding the two of you together falls to both of you. Centrifugal force adds a great deal to your perceived weight in a spin and ladies must take the responsibility to contribute to the support of the turn.


DANCE TIP

BACKING THE LADY

Two videos are available with excellent examples of Victorian dress for both men and women.

"Hello, Dolly" is set in turn-of-the-century New York. Besides the great costumes, there are nice performances by Barbara Streisand and Walter Matthau, plus lots of not "turn-of-the-century" dancing.

"The Age of Innocense" is a release of the movie set in the upper class society of 1870's New York. Besides its award-winning costumes, there's a pretty good story and great acting by Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis.

One more time, gentlemen: Please don't back the ladies in the dance if they're wearing floor length dresses. You'll force her to step on her skirt or petticoat and you can both come crashing down — an embarrassment any Victorian gentleman would not bring upon himself and his partner.

It's considered rude to start moving her backward just for that reason. The waltz and most other dances start with the lady moving forward or turning to get the skirt out of her way. Take care of your ladies, gentlemen!

Though not historically accurate, dance rubber will help adjust the traction on most floors, making it easier to turn on sticky floors and increasing friction on slick ones. Any good shoe repair shop will have it and it's a good investment. If you haven't seen it, it's a hard, flexible sole with a checkered surface. Trust me, it works!


DANCE TIP

THE UNDERARM TURN

Many couple dances employ an "underarm turn" as a variation. To many, it remains an unhappy prospect as one or both partners is about to get a finger, wrist, or arm twisted.

Entirely unnecessary. The technique is simple, safe, and comfortable. Assume the man's right hand lead and the woman's left hand hold (inside hands joined):

DO NOT GRASP! That's what destroys an otherwise beautiful movement.

Gentlemen, raise your right forearm so that it is parallel to the floor, above the woman's head height with the right wrist flexed and the fingers hanging toward the floor. You should have turned her left forearm parallel to the floor with her thumb pointing to the floor and her fingers wrapped horizontally around yours. Give her the middle and ring fingers to hold.

Ladies, your task is to hold your fingers around the man's fingers without grasping. Your left arm should be rounded and the left shoulder held strongly in place, with your left hand in front of your forehead.

The lead should be a "circular push" forward with the back of the man's fingers to initiate her turn and a gentle "pull" to follow through to complete the turn (think of it as polishing her halo).

Ladies need to give resistance (don't grasp), follow the support from the lead, and move into the turn from the center of the body.

Men need to maintain a distance that is comfortable, yet avoids entanglement in her swirling skirts.


DANCE TIP

DANCE STRUCTURE

When learning or teaching a dance, look for its "internal structure." It's a rare dance, especially in the world of logically-created folk dance (village folk were very logical), that does not have a recognizable structure.

The structure may be based on an 8-count musical phrase, a 10-count dance phrase, a slow-slow-quick-quick-slow figure, a 6-count "side-close-side-touch-side-touch" figure, or any of the countless others. It's interesting to notice how many times the same choreographic structure reappears in so many different cultures.

To get into the idea, see how many dances you can find with the step sequence: "slow-slow-quick-quick-slow." (HINT: start with "šetnja," then look at "baztan dantza").

If you're not utilizing this approach to the dance, you're teaching (or learning) by rote and you'll never be a leader. You'll burn out and lose it and drop out before your time and we'll miss you just like we miss all those others who dropped out.

Become an observant, thinking dancer by understanding the dance, you gain far more than those whose approach is to add them up one by one, certain that the one who dies with the most dances, wins.


DANCE TIP

HELP STAMP OUT ROMANIAN DANCES

Help Stamp Out Romanian Dances: It was a clever phrase on a T-shirt. For over three decades I've been watching folk dancers stamp out dances with reckless abandon and now see more and more often the results of that abandon.

Folk dancers are almost always guilty of neglecting technique and of being totally unaware of what they're doing to their bodies.

Folk dance was the dance of working folk whose bodies were accustomed to hard labor and whose movements were fashioned by the need for day-long stamina. Movements were made efficient by use of only as much energy as necessary and relaxation was an instant reaction to a lack of need for exertion.

The typical folk dancer moves nothing heavier than a paper weight, lifts nothing heavier than a pencil most of the time. Little time is spent learning how to toss a 75-pound hay bale onto a five-foot high trailer bed.

Nor does the average dancer have any idea how or why or where the thigh bone is connected to the knee bone, where the knee bone is connected to the leg bone, or the leg bone to the foot bone. Don't be too surprised, but most professional dancers don't know those things either — the schools certainly don't teach their dance students about them.

So, when it comes time to stamp out those rhythms, our folk dancers pound the floor with everything they've got and wonder why they've developed bone spurs and arthritis and other ailments after a few years.

Stamps are made with the body. The movement is made by flexing the supporting knee and lowering the body into the stamp so that the stamping leg is flexed to take the shock. The body sits back in the "pelvic tilt" so necessary for good dance technique and the shock is dissipated easily through the flexed knee and ankle joints. Far less energy is expended to gain far more power; much more speed is possible because the weight is not over the legs, freeing them to move.

Next time you stamp the floor and feel it in your eyeballs, stop and think what you're doing to your body. There are a few people around who used to be good dancers until they stamped themselves into oblivion. With a little care and a little common sense, maybe you won't be another one. Take care of yourself. We need all the dancers we can get.


DANCE TIP

MEN'S PLACE IN DANCE

Someone asked if I would discuss "Men's Place in Dance?" — a rather innocent and naive question by its very nature. Dance is far too complex to satisfy such a simple question. There are questions of time, place, and purpose. Most dance communities have little awareness of any other community and all values and views are limited to those defined by the narrow confines of ones own.

Because the questioner was a fledgling social/ballroom dancer, perhaps that discipline should be studied first, the one in which couples dance face-to-face, supporting each other with various hand and arm holds.

Over two centuries of tradition, surviving almost unchanged from a time far different from our own, and evolving with some difficulty from an even earlier time, indicates that the most reasonable, pleasurable, and useable form of the dance has been achieved. Otherwise the evolution would have continued. It is near perfection.

In our culture, social dance generally means fox trot, waltz, swing, cha cha, salsa, perhaps even cowboy line dance. An objective look at "social dance" indicates that other cultures have their own social dances — the csárdás in Hungary, tango in Argentina, ländler in Austria, and pols in Norway, for instance — that are ethnocentrically defined as "folk dances." Meaning, of course, that they are curious, interesting, even admirable dances created and performed by "someone else." To them, however, the dance is "social dance" and we shall view it as such.

The men's role in all this? As in most species on earth, the male is usually larger and stronger than his female partner. She is usually smaller, more graceful — and prettier. Victorian standards (among others) being what they were (and are), it was natural for the male to provide the strength and support for his partner, displaying her to her best advantage. Since fashion dictated dark black for men and brilliant color for women, the man became almost invisible in the dance with all eyes on his well-displayed partner and her swirling skirts.

So the man became the "provider" of the dance. He is the source of energy and support to his partner with a dexterous combination of strength, leverage, and grace. He is also the "creator," the painter of movement, his partner the object of his creativity. The twin responsibilities of creating and providing can only be realized if the man is also the "leader." It is not a matter of male superiority or dominance; one cannot sculpt without controlling the medium. A violinist cannot play with someone else wielding the bow.

Our modern social dance tends to relegate the man to the role of the unseen creator/provider and most women love it. To be safe in the arms of a considerate, imaginative, and supporting partner is near rapture to those who will let the dance envelope them.

Other cultures allow — even encourage — the man to move from obscurity, releasing his hold or changing it to allow freedom to display his own prowess. That act caused apoplexy in the movie "Ballroom" a few years ago, when a young man took the liberty of separating from his partner in a ballroom dance competition to display his own acrobatic abilities — a great spoof on the hide-bound restrictions of organized dance.

Other dance forms define the man's role differently. Historical ballet decrees that the male shall support and display his partner when they are together, but provides him solo opportunities to display amazing feats of skill when he is alone. Some dance forms are closed to men, while others exclude women and place men in women's roles. Folk cultures are enriched by dances that provide dance for men and women separately to display their talents and their role in the community.

The idea of men's place in the dance is far more complex than can be studied here. It is interesting to note that most of the historical and controversial innovations in dance have been the changes in the roles of men.


Used with permission of the author.