top of page
Debonaires Dance Club
Leading and following By Keith Morris
Initially my intense interest in this subject was brought about by a comment made during a lesson I was having from the great Doreen Freeman. “You young pros (I was 40 something at the time but flattered any way) just don’t know how to lead.”
Now to be able to understand the context in which this comment was made we need to take a little look at one aspect of the history of dance, certainly here in the U.K. anyway.
One of the ways professional dancers earned a living in years gone by was waiting in the “Pen”. This is not the writing type, but areas of the Ballroom were pros gathered and were paid per dance. Consequently, the more adapt you became at leading and following the more dances you were asked for and therefore the more money you earned.
Sadly with the demise in the U.K. of the Ballrooms in the 1960’s this part of the profession to began disappear and now no longer exists. Doreen, incidentally, after a moment’s consideration agreed wholeheartedly with this observation.
Nowadays people learn routines or programmes with one regular partner whether they be a social dancer, medallist or competitor of a certain level. This is also a reason for the lack of floor craft which we as judges / adjudicators regularly bemoan. But that’s another story. The consequence of “programme dancing” is there is no reason to lead or follow. And how many times have we all over heard dancers say “I’ve done it wrong I forgot my routine.”
Now the question arises, how do we as male dancers persuade our partners to follow us round the ballroom floor? Some folk would say “with great difficulty” others would say “take your partner around the neck and squeeze tightly until she acquiesces”.
Over the years I have developed a pattern when preparing to dance with a lady regardless of her standard. One must first understand that a grip of iron is not essential for the man to lead, indeed a feather light almost gossamer touch is far more acceptable. The lady however needs to be aware of the man’s presence.
As leaders we have to enter a mind set and routine before we take hold of our partners to dance.
First comes the invitation: the man offers his left hand to his partner’s right hand with his weight over his left foot. Simple.
Secondly, and most interestingly, contact: from about the third rib down to the hips, slightly off centre, a well known coach once said “Boob to button or titty to tie, as this will align your bodies in a position so that the lady isn’t continually putting her feet under the man’s.
Thirdly, and for me most importantly: the upper side of the man’s lower right arm has light but firm contact with the underside of the lady’s left arm. I often use the phrase “the man gives the lady the elbow”. This is the all important confidence builder from the lady’s point of view. She is secure (rightly or wrongly) in the knowledge that her partner is in control of their joint destinies on the dance floor.
Fourthly: the closing of the man’s right hand on the ladies back with very light pressure, as after all the poor girls have to breath!
Now that everything is in place we can replace the weight on to the right foot ensuring the shoulder, hip, and ankle are in line and the knee relaxed. We can now attempt to move.
You will notice I have not mentioned the man’s left arm in all of this. If you look back in time the development of the “wide top” has only come about over the last 30 years or so, getting even wider over recent times. For me this part of the hold is purely decorative and serves no purpose other than an evening of the picture and it looks better than just dangling there.
There is of course the matter of which side of the body is the dominant one in all of this. Once again it’s the connection between the man’s left side and his right arm. I say arm and not hand as we do not need to squash the lady to enable us to guide her into the space which we require both of us move to into.
We now have the basis for the ability to lead our partner and in return our partner to follow us, as the lady now has the support and framework to be able to extend upwards and outwards with confidence.
I fully understand that there is a lot more in attaining perfect posture and balance in this, our chosen passion of dance. And as such it is but a short resume of my observations which I have put together which have worked for me over many years of dancing, adjudicating and now examining.
She a’int heavy she’s my partner
Is there turn on a turn or a change of direction?
The lady is of course travelling backwards. In a previous article (to spin or not to spin that is the question.) I broached the subject of there being no such thing as a backwards step, rather the foot being placed behind, extending the leg from the hip and the weight taken to the standing foot. This prevents the shoulders from carrying the body weight past the standing foot. As we all know the ladies head is extended to the left in a closed Ballroom hold. Many ladies when dancing an open turn leave their head to the left until the last minute.
Is there a head turn for the ladies?
I don’t believe that there is. Then how do the ladies change from a closed to an open position. Whilst taking the first step the ladies as I have said extend their right foot from the hip the left foot scribing an arc on the floor to the point that the feet close. At this point they pick a point out on the wall and never taking their noses off that point. I say nose as many times ladies will follow the “spot” with their eyes, the eyes turn inside the head causing the heads to turn early. This I know is very hard to achieve as the brain tells the head it is not turning as the eyes are fixed and not the nose as I have stated earlier in this article, when the body has rotated under the head as far as it comfortably can and the lady is now looking over the back of her right hand. Thus the lady has changed her body position without dropping her weight back but not altering her body position in relation to her partner. This also gives the lady a more serene and relaxed look. This can be seen well in a video on YouTube of Benny Tolmyer and Sylvia Sylve from 1963 when demonstrating in Holland.
It can be caused by the man!
Now the problem of the lady feeling ”heavy” in the man’s arms isn’t necessarily the ladies fault. It can be caused by the man. I hear the men saying no never it’s always the ladies they lean on me. However if the man fails to rise at the end of step one and anticipates the turn he will pull the lady off her feet giving the impression that she is behind him.How do we remedy this?
As I have already said I don’t believe that there is a turn, rather a change of direction. Many times the man will swivel or twist on his right foot in the endeavour to make a turn. With the use of CBM on the first step the man can take his second step on the same line as his first step (diagonal centre) and taking the third step diagonal wall in promenade position. Thus we have transferred from a closed position to an open without a twist or a turn thus enabling both partners to keep a strong positive top line without distortion and keeping their bodies together.
What both partners should remember at this point is not to collapse at the beginning of the third step but holding the lowering to the end of the third step which is when the feet are parallel.
Feather Your Nest
An easy question to answer one would think. The technique books tell us
• 1. right foot forward in CBM
• 2. left foot forward left shoulder leading preparing to step outside partner
• 3. right foot forward in CBMP OP
Pretty straight forward really, until you start to analyse the mechanics of each individual step and what a forward step means.
When does a forward step become a diagonal step?
When is a forward step not a forward step and becomes a diagonal step? And what is the result of a shoulder lead?
First we must understand that a feather step originally curved gently to the right, forming the shape of a feather, hence its name. This was clearly explained in these pages recently. These days we start and finish diagonal to the centre and we have done for many years now.
Most advanced practitioners will start with a walk on the left foot in CBM, before taking the first step proper. Why? To enable an easier lowering action, swing and rotation of the upper body on the first step proper. Thus, also making the CBM action on the first two beat beats of the bar easier to produce. I have stressed the first two beats because how often these days do we see quick quick slow danced in place of slow quick quick? A point which has been bemoaned frequently on these pages and other notable publications.
You can’t do that!!!
The action of pushing from our left foot in CBM onto the right foot enables us to then “flight” our body through by releasing the heel as the feet are parallel (end beat two) before taking the left foot diagonally forward. Already I can the screams “you can’t do that.”
Let me explain. As step two has a strong shoulder lead, by the rotation of the upper body and hip the moving of the left foot in a straight line from the starting position to the finishing position, this gives the feeling of the left leg / foot moving in a diagonal line from it’s starting position to its finishing position. This should eradicate the need to step sideways on the second step and stop the man’s left hip kicking out which is an evident fault in many grades both medallist and competitor!
Sway on the second and third step
Is there sway on the second and third step? Yes of course there is. How is this created? How often do we see the man’s right and ladies left side collapse in an attempt to create a shape? Over the years I have come to believe that it is the stretching of the opposite side of the body and the swing from the compressing of the right leg to the straightening of the left leg that helps create the rise and sway. To do this the dancer must use the standing foot to its full effect.
We know the foot work is heel toe, when is the heel released? As the feet are level, this should be the end of the second beat thus rolling through the right foot from heel to toe. At the same time the man’s left and ladies right side starts to move from CBM to a shoulder lead. It is at this point the lady turns the right toe and thigh out extending backwards from the hip. Again taking a straight line from the starting position to the finishing position, giving the feeling of having stepped diagonally. This turning out of the toe and hip opens the “door” for the man to step outside the lady in CBMP.
When in this CBMP position the illusion of the man’s head following the line of the lady is often observed. From the starting position the man’s head shouldn’t move, rather the body rotates under the man’s head. To enable him to do this he should pick a spot on the opposite side of the room and not take his eyes of it. This gives the impression of a stronger head line and a “thinner” line across the man’s back as the dancer is now moving from shoulder to shoulder and not square to the direction of movement. This head action also applies to the lady. This technique is also helpful in open turns which will be the subject of my next article.
At what point do we lower?
The answer is at the end of the fourth beat, at which point the feet should be parallel. The heel however only touches the floor and the standing leg is bent at the knee and the ankle is flexed. This gives the power to drive off the last quick into the slow and to start the process of CBM on the next step. And then the swing into the next group continues.
What’s in a slow
Much has been said on these pages and others regarding the timing or the lack of it these days, in Slow fox and Quickstep a slow relates to two beats and a quick one beat (4/4).
But what does slow and quick mean in terms of relative time? When we say slow, quick, quick they are but mere words. Tea and milk, fish and chips or ham and eggs would do equally as well, as they are words which mean little as far as timing in dance is concerned.
The Cassell’s English dictionary definition of slow is: “not quick, of a small velocity, moving at a slow speed.”
The definition of quick is equally as ambiguous as far as dance is concerned: “Lively, Alive living, Pregnant with child, when movement is perceptible.” Personally I don’t feel this gives an adequate description of what is required to give each action it’s full value. Particularly the last one in quick!! So how on earth can we relate these words to our chosen sport/art? In my humble opinion we cannot.
Now I realise that we, as coaches and teachers of every level have to use some kind of verbal communication in which to put over to our pupils what is required to dance each dance “in time” with the music so what can we do?
At a high level of coaching/teaching we can count in beats and bars to explain to our students the value and quirks of each and every dance. However if we have pupils other than competitors this can prove a little difficult to say the least!
With this in mind I follow the advice given to me many years ago by my first dance teachers Stan and Irene Peverall. This was to think of a two syllable word which will spread over two beats of music, enabling the dancer to give proper value to each step.
There are many words in all languages which will fit the bill. Personally I use the phrase which I was given by Stan & Irene… easy. When pronounced ee-zee it spreads over the two beats quite ee-zily!! In other languages we have langzaam, lento, lente etc etc. This system works well in Slow Foxtrot and Quick Step, Tango we will discuss at a later date.
I have used this method with great success for many years from social dancers to competitors and it works well in the 4/4 timing of the moving dances. Tango as we are all aware has rules of its own; this is a discussion for another day!
Being aware of the amount of time required to dance the slow, how do we create the movement and swing that is expected in the archetypical Slow Foxtrot?
It’s the pressure of the standing foot into floor that creates the required impetus for movement. However it’s not sufficient to use the foot alone.
Flexing of the ankle and bending of the knee are also required. To quote Major Eric Hancock “Any fool can rise, however it takes a dancer to lower, you can only rise as far as you lower.” The Major instilled this in all of his students. The importance of this lowering to enable the dancer to give the correct value of slow on the first two beats of the bar in Foxtrot and Quick Step cannot be understated.
Any fool can rise, however it takes a dancer to lower, you can only rise as far as you lower.” —Eric Hancock
Many couples start a feather step on the man’s left foot as a preparation step, however they do not understand that this should be danced on the last two beats of the preceding bar of music. Utilising the 3-4 of the previous bar puts the dancer on the correct phrase of music. It is not unusual to see couples dancing in time as much as dancing the correct rhythm but across the music i.e. 3, 4, 1, 2, in place of 1, 2, 3, 4.
As well as this cardinal sin many times we see couples dancing quick, quick, slow in place of slow, quick, quick. This I seem to remember Steve Powell picking up on after the British Championships in May last year on this very site, along with the lack of slows in Quickstep.
This I believe is because couples, for one reason or another are misinterpreting the values given to each part of the bar of music.
If we can try to persuade couples to give a thought to counting eezy, quick, quick or some other similar means of applying this method it may help practitioners of every grade to understand the importance of using the first two beats for a slow instead of rushing through them like an express train.
This is only the tip of the ice berg and I am sure it will raise comments from far and wide and other professionals will have views on this matter.
Dance lesson for the Tango.
It takes two
When I was competing what now feels like 100 years ago, Tango was at one stage my worst marked dance. So I spent quite some time with the great and powerful of the dance world studying this dance. One of the main things that helped me understand this dance was the timing and placing of the feet.
First of all my mind goes back to my first encounter of this fantastic dance at the tender age of 14 when the following advice was given to me by my first dance teachers Stan and Irene Peverall. “If the man dances tango correctly the lady should not be able to tell whether she has been run over or made passionate love to.” In 1967 thinking was a lot more liberal in many ways than it is today!!!!.
Now I realise that some things change with time due to development of movement etc. However some fundamentals just cannot change. In all the technique books I have ever read tango is always portrayed as 2/4. During my research for this article I decided to ask Mr Ashley Frohlick the leader of the Empress Orchestra for his opinion on the time signature of this dance.
Ashley informed me that when he composes a new tune for the Empress Orchestra that he always writes Tango in 4/4 time as this easier for the musician to read. On the occasions that he plays in 2/4 time he directs in half tempo. Stating that the basic rhythmical pattern musically is such that it lends itself more in 4/4 than 2/4. i.e. 4 bass notes par bar , 4 drum and chorded beats per bar and if there is an accent anywhere within the confines of this rhythm is on the end of 4.
When I was competing I was fortunate to be trained by the likes of, Eric Lashbrook, Eric Hancox, Bill and Bobby Irvine, Michael and Vicky Barr George Coad, Benny Tolmyer, Richard Gleave and Anthony Hurly to name just a few. They all agreed that tango should always be counted in 2/4 time. This highlights the difference between the dancer and musician.
To quote from one of the all time greats Len Scrivener in “The Complete Ballroom Dancer” :-“ Each walk takes one beat music. (Tango music is written in 2/4 time, there being two beats to each bar.”)…”That is, he should feel that he retains his weight on the standing foot until the moving foot has almost reached the extent of the stride. Then of course, the weight will be moved forward slowly to the moving foot.” And further Len goes on to say “The reason for the “and” count is dual. First, it will suggest the delay in the weight transference and secondly, as most Tango music has four ½ beats well marked, it enables the dancer to fully use the one beat of music. …Sometimes two of the half beats are tacit, but as the accents are played on the commencement of the 1st and 3rd half beats of the bar, the pause for a ½ beat can easily be felt.” Sadly I never had the chance to study with Len but did have the opportunity to work with former pupils who passed his invaluable advice on.
One thing that has always stuck with me is counting Tango as follows & 1 & 2 & 1 & 2 etc not 1 2 3 4 or in slows and quick’s. The & equating to ½ beat or a quick therefore & 1 equates to a slow or 1 beat of music as stated by Len Scrivener above. This enables the dancer to build up power to move from the standing foot to the moving foot almost like a coiled spring.
The pressure down into the floor through the standing leg on the & count enables the dancer to place the moving foot forward on 1 thus arriving with the feet parallel on the second &. Counting in this manner helps to separate the placing of the moving foot thus eradicating a flowing movement which is often seen in Tango these days on the competition floor. Whilst I realise that there will be a certain amount of body flight there is nowhere near as much as in the other 4 standard “moving” dances.
When placing the moving leg I was always told that it should move in the same manner as a cat stalking it’s pray, thus creating a creeping action across the floor rather than a free flowing action that is out of character with this fascinating and atmospheric dance.
I realise that I may be looking at the dance world through rose tinted glasses but when I judge, examine and train couples I look for those same basic principles that were instilled into me all those years ago.
Of course the Standard Tango as we know it today holds no resemblance to its great granddaddy the Argentine Tango which is a totally different animal.
To spin or not to spin!
By Keith Morris.
I have found over the years one of the most difficult steps to dance and teach is the humble spin turn. Or to be more accurate a pivot turn or pivoting action. For ease of musicality, I have chosen the 3/4 timing of the English Waltz to help describe my observations of this step.
The fourth step of this commonly used figure is for me, greatly misunderstood. Every dancer from bronze medallist to seasoned competitor performs this figure to a greater or lesser degree of competence.
We have several actions to consider when performing this popular step. Body flight, weight distribution, foot work, rotation and direction.
First of all we have to decide how we start to move. Is there any such thing as a backwards step? I firmly believe that in Standard dancing there is never a backwards step! I realise this may raise an eyebrow or two, so let’s look at the mechanics and consequences of (stepping backwards) that have brought me to this momentous decision.
If we get into the mindset of stepping backwards whatever the step or dance then the body, or shoulder weight takes over and the movement becomes uncontrollable resulting in the heel lowering to the floor too early, and we end up unable to rotate efficiently. Therefore, I only ever consider placing my foot behind me by extending the left leg backwards from the hip, leg and foot, at the same time bending the supporting (right) knee. This leaves the weight in a forward’s position as described in most technique books.
As we place the foot behind us the toe is turned in slightly. At the same time the right shoulder is rotated slightly towards the left foot (CBMP). Now in this position we can quite happily change the direction of our movement. It’s the action of CBMP which starts the transition from backing line of dance to facing line of dance. A change of alignment or directional movement.
You will no doubt notice at no point have I referred to turn. This because I prefer to think of changing the direction in which we move rather than turning, the reason being I feel that when we try to turn we usually twist the body off centre. This will inevitably result in loss of contact with our partner and broken body lines.
It’s the placing of the moving leg / foot behind and joined with the action of the opposite shoulder / side of body moving in the same direction that starts the rotation of the upper body to enable us to change the direction of movement. In essence by placing the foot behind us and not stepping back we should retain the weight in a forward position.
Most authors of the written word of dance agree that the foot work of the left foot is :-toe, heel, toe on this the fourth beat. The first three beats being 1–3 of a natural turn.
Now the question needs to be asked at what point is the heel lowered and subsequently released ?
If the weight is dropped back the heel lowers at the start of the 4th beat of music. The consequence of this is that the foot is flat on the floor thus affecting balance and movement. Also it will reduce any efficient rotation on the standing foot.
If the weight is maintained in a forward position, then the heel will only touch the floor at the end of the 4th beat of music as the dancer is moving off, thus acting as a springboard to help the forward progression of the body. On the 5th step we have a strong forward action on the heel continuing through to the toe creating a soft but strong rising action through the foot and leg. The more advanced exponents will, at this point have a slight right shoulder lead created by the transition from CBMP. This will result in a hovering action allowing his partner to extend upwards and outwards (not backwards) but that’s another story. The “extra” time being taken from the 6th step, is merely a collection of the weight onto the left foot / leg being placed behind and slightly to the side, then a softening through the knee and ankle occurs to produce a controlled lowering. From the beginning of the 4th step to the start of the 6th the distance between the feet is set like a compass or calliper and should not change throughout the execution of all three steps. Keith Morris, October 15 2011
bottom of page