Jeff Allen is the author of four books on social and ballroom dancing. His latest book, The Complete Idiot's Guide To Ballroom Dancing is Amazon.com's best selling ballroom dance book.
In addition, he has written about ballroom dance for USA Dance and is the dance consultant for USA Today and the LA Times.
Jeff is a regional examiner for DVIDA
and holds membership credentials with the North American Dance Teachers Association, Inc., and the Pan American Teachers Association.
He has won more than 30 Top Teacher awards and is considered one of the country's top 25 dance instructors.
Jeff lives in Rhode Island with his wife Robin and teaches at his studio in Providence.
Momentum in Dance Friend or Foe?
It is my hope, that this will be the start of a series where frank discussions and ideas about the various issues of technique in partner dancing can be brought to light to help improve the reader's quality of dancing.
As a teacher, I am a firm advocate that students should be shown proper technique from the beginning of their dance experience. Fundamentals apply to dancers at every level: pros, teachers, students, and beginners.
There are literally thousands of dance figures. However, the ability to dance with grace and clarity requires that you first learn and then be able to use proper technique. Choreography is only 10% of the social dance experience, it is the fundamentals of timing and balance with and without a partner that lead to smooth dancing. In fact, technique is the shortcut to choreography!
This column is concerned with momentum. Technically, we can describe momentum as the impetus, or force with which a dancer or dance couple tends to maintain their velocity overcoming the resistance of the floor, gravity, their partners and themselves.
What a mouthful! We sit passively in an automobile not aware that we are moving until that vehicle breaks sharply. Then the passengers of the vehicle immediately discover they are indeed moving.
So too, many times dancers are not aware that their momentum results in an inability to lead/follow, express the music, control their bodies and, in fact, enjoy the dancing.
Let's proceed to explore some of the impact that momentum has on your dancing in three dances and the devices we possess to offset its negative effects.
The Problem: Keeping up with the music
The dancer cannot keep-up with the music or has difficulty changing directions, particularly on the back rock.
Because humans are prone to exaggeration when learning physical skills, the inclination is to move our feet too far from our center (essentially the spinal column) when learning to dance Swing.
Our bodies become trapped for a moment between our feet and the student resorts to the inclining their shoulders and upper-body to propel them to the direction of their moving foot.
Unfortunately, this produces excessive momentum away from their center and frequently the necessary foot pressure we as dancers must glean from the dance floor. Without good floor pressure and contact the student neither keeps, good timing nor can they remain dependable during leads and follows.
The excesses of momentum in the upper body will cause moment-to-moment losses of balance and the natural instincts of self-preservation will create the need to hang or pull on your partner. Does any of this sound familiar?
First, the instinctive relationship between the brain and the dancer's foot is very simple and very important for any dancer to understand, but for a beginner student dancer trying to dance the concept is not so clear especially when they are only trying to have 'fun'.
Whenever the center of the ball of the moving foot strikes the dance floor the body weight of the dancer stops its flight or progression. This common error haunts beginners because it leaves the dancers with their weight distribution between their feet (useful for freestyle or hip-hop dancing but not Swing). The result of this erroneous foot placement is twofold.
The dancer often does not feel which foot is next and then must take a moment to think about it or steal a peek at their partner and their dancing becomes static, slow, and off time.
The first leads to the second problem, which is much more difficult to correct.
When the dancer ends a movement between the feet, the moving foot will be ineffective and void of the compression to continue to move the body.
Instinctively, the dancer will revert to swaying their shoulders to generate the momentum and change of direction necessary for the body to get to the next foot.
This bad habit lends itself to creating a top-heavy dancer who will frequently find that they are pulling and yanking their partner, and often without even realizing it.
The Solution - Less is more!
So how do you prevent or cure this annoying bad habit in Swing dancing? Actually, it is simple; "Less is more!"
The maximum distance a Swing dancer should separate the moving foot from the supporting foot should approximate the width of their hips. As a rule of thumb, this width is certainly less than the width of the shoulders and would be more inline with the width of their pelvis.
This distance becomes your innate benchmark, which will allow for maximum stability, good rotational skills, and a fluid approach to the art of partner dancing.
An idea that I often convey when conducting a seminar in Swing is a drift action to the side rather than a forced side action.
Drifting is creating progressive movement by empowering the ribcage (using the pectoral muscles, the Latissimus Dorsi, and the upper abdominal wall). Drift produces proportionate movement of the legs and feet in line with the body.
Once you employ drifting, you can expend more energy in the areas of knee flexing and compression and also add lower abdominal swing (which empowers the pelvis) which of itself helps to eliminate momentum and improves balance by using the direction of down as both a rhythmic and leveling device.
Learn to take you feet off and on the dance floor properly!
The removal of any foot from the dance floor during a Swing dance should be accomplished by lifting the upper thigh with a light and swift movement of the hip and leg's ball socket joint. This would be quite similar to the harmony of leg movement created by pedaling a bicycle or ascending a staircase.
When the upper leg is used to take the foot off the floor the body remains level and balanced. Undesirable sway accumulating in the shoulders or ribcage that will always require problematic compensations seems to disappear.
Many people dance their Swing either too FLAT-FOOTED or by SHUFFLING!
Flat-footed dancing creates unwarranted friction. The result of this flat-footed dancing is that the couples have to travel too far and as a result builds too much momentum in their upper-bodies. Please remember that to complete any single dance step you must release the vast majority of weight from the former foot - this is NOT accomplished by those who shuffle!
Both flat footing and shuffling cause an inability to control space on the dance floor and makes dancers too slow to be effective for even mid-tempo Swing music.
The Problem: Pulling & Jerking Your Partner
Pulling your partner's arm out of joint on the rock step is a problem that can be quickly fixed once you have taken some Swing lessons. This is strictly part of an old style of dancing that I call, "Slingshot Swing!" You would never know that we are a civilized culture by observing the way some people launch each other from place to place on the dance floor until someone does or nearly gets hurt.
For too many dancers, transitional and partnering abilities are lost during the rock step owing to much too much backwards momentum!
The rock step's 1st beat signals the end of the present figure and creates the transition to begin the next Swing figure or variation of figures on the 2nd beat. This idea is as much a mental attitude as anything else. To insure that this happens, the momentum of the present figure should cease by the rock step's beginning.
Clarify how you do your rock step. When dancers are converging rather than separating on the 2nd beat of the Rock action they gain much better control in transition to the next figure as well as control of their space on the dance floor.
Here are a few ideas that I would like to share with you to improve the control of your rock step:
Begin movement to the non-supporting or moving foot as a flex on the way down into the knee and ankle and never on the way upwards.
Before beginning the movement backwards to the leader’s left (follower’s right) do or become aware of the following:
A flexing or bracing into the knee and ankle of the supporting foot which would be the leader's right (follower's left) thus stabilizing the body's mass and eliminating the undesirable momentum that would be left in the shoulders. The undesired response occurs when the dancers move upwards from the aforementioned supporting foot and leg and falls or drops into the moving one.
Travel between the feet while compressing or flexing into the knees
Feel that the backward movement begins at your waistline and moves below and not at your shoulder line. Similarly to the way you would prepare for a punch in the tummy.
The first point to feel contact is at "The Magic Part of the Foot" for the back step of the rock step. In my book, Quickstart to Swing, I define the "The Magic Part of the Foot" as a theoretical point located equidistant between the ball of the foot and the big toe. Contact is made with both at the same time creating the stoppage of backward momentum allowing for smooth transition through the knees and pelvis.
Foxtrot & Waltz:
The Problem: Losing balance at the top of the rise
Losing balance at the top of the rise creates spatial problems with the next progressive step.
I often apologize to new students of these two dances for having to introduce them to one of the most difficult physical concepts in ballroom dancing so early in their experience.
Nevertheless they must learn to close their feet at the top of the rise, change weight, and release their free foot to the next position while lowering through the new supporting leg.
Since this article deals with the negative impact of uncontrolled momentum let us, deal with this issue. Here the momentum is vertical and its control or lack of it is contingent upon the rhythmic usage of the dancer's legs!
It is ironic that many people sign up at a dance studio because they feel they have NO rhythm and therefore cannot dance. Students then proceed to learn choreographic content while remaining in the dark with respect to rhythm. I hope I can help here by teaching that RISE is a rhythmic skill and not just an issue of straightening your legs.
Without an understanding of two basic fundamental techniques in dance, namely plie and releve, rhythm is literally lost as the vertical energy is sent up into the shoulders. This generally creates a struggle for balance in the new dancer.
In its simplest form, a plie is a compressive action while the knee bends. In other words, the bending knee stores energy in the quadriceps and feels very powerful - similar to the tension that exists at the end of the pulling of a bow or an elastic. This happens to a certain degree on every step of Foxtrot or Waltz where lowering is involved.
As a side note, the connotation that the word 'fall' gives really irks many teachers. When you sit in a chair, you 'let go,' of knee flex - this is NOT a plie. The lowering into the plie, stores the energy for the following rise (body direction that is upward) so that no power needs to be added.
A releve or a straightening of the knees can only be achieved by virtue of a plie. The releve is the smooth and controlled release of the energy from the knees to the hips (if the hips rise obviously the whole torso rises). The speed of this release is your rhythmic rise. This action is effortless as long as the abdominal muscles keep the ribcage over the hips.
This rise is never forced out of the ankles! Beginning rise from the ankles is the symptomatic action by who feel that they have no rhythm.
Next time you practice rise feel your hamstrings (the back of the upper leg) pushing you upwards through your hips. Your new rhythmic rise is not felt in an area of your torso any higher than the sternum. Additionally, the end of the rise retains a portion of that stored energy. Rhythm exists in the operational parameters of the leg muscles and not in the hyperextensions of the knees or ankles. This is unclear to most dancers
In conclusion, here is some food for thought. A dancer needs to seriously consider the movements of up and down as directions that will defeat the negative influences of momentum, particularly at the conclusion of any progressive or lateral dance steps.
Retaining the flex or compression in the upper thighs as you travel will increase the mobility of your knees and ankles. Mentally focusing on the operation of the center of your leg muscles rather than the joints will certainly improve your rhythmic skills, balance, and movement - remember muscles dance, bones don't!
Until the next time, happy dancing.
A version of this article was originally published in Dancing USA, now USA Dance.
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