Only You Have That Magic Technique

Let’s start with this past Saturday, because that’s when the interesting stuff started. I had two lessons scheduled for that afternoon – first one with Sir Steven, and then one with Lord Dormamu. This seems to be becoming a habit for me, because I’ve met with both instructors over the last couple of weeks, and I’ll be meeting with them both again next Saturday as well. At this rate my wallet is probably going to start cursing my name soon because of how empty its stomach is all of the time. Poor guy…

 With Sir Steven we worked on Waltz and Quickstep. There were only a few points I wrote down to remember from each of those. First off, the Waltz: Sir Steven thought that we were rising too much when he watched our starter step. He wanted us to stay at the same level the whole time, only rotating the body as we move side-to-side before lowering as normal to travel forward. There would be no rising until we get into the Natural Turn that follows. The next note I wrote down for Sparkledancer (because she’s the only person who actually knows me that reads and cares about my dance notes): Sir Steven wanted her to keep an eye on what she was doing in the Double Reverse Spins, to make sure that she takes a big step when she is traveling across my body before crossing her feet, and to make sure to take it slower on her last two steps.

We spent more time on Quickstep than Waltz that day. The big thing that Sir Steven pointed out to us was that we needed to watch our timing. It’s not that we were dancing the steps off beat, but we were dancing them very smoothly, like a Waltz. He wanted us to really emphasize the quick steps in each figure, more like a Tango than a Waltz or Foxtrot. We looked at our Natural Spin Turn again, and he was glad that we were coming out in the right direction this week, but now he wants us to travel more during the figure. Finally he briefly talked with us about our sway. He wanted us to only put sway into rotating figures like our Natural Spin Turn or Double Reverse Spin. During the chasses that would travel in a straight line, he wanted us to make sure to stay level the whole time, although he wanted us to be level and also stay even lower than we were.

After finishing up with Sir Steven, Sparkledancer and I didn’t actually have to wait long for our lesson with Lord Dormamu. His student who was scheduled to meet with him before my lesson ended up canceling at the last minute. I had just managed to walk over to a place, hoping to grab a bite to eat when I got the call from Lord Dormamu letting me know that we had the option to move our lesson up. Having some extra time that afternoon sounded awesome to me, so I ignored the grumbling in my stomach and rushed back to the Fancy Dance Hall as fast as my legs would carry me.

Sparkledancer was already there talking with Lord Dormamu when I got back. I quickly changed into my dance shoes and headed over to join them. As soon as I was within range, Lord Dormamu said that he wanted to start that day by looking at something in our Waltz routine briefly, something he had noticed while we were working with Sir Steven. He had us back up away from the edge of the floor and do the Progressive Chasse to the Right, Outside Change, Chasse from Promenade Position and finally the Natural Turn that would be in the corner. After going through that whole progression, it turns out that it was really the Natural Turn that he wanted to comment on.

What Lord Dormamu had noticed were two things that were both caused by the same issue: first of all, the Natural Turn was rotating too much for his liking. When he saw us dancing with Sir Steven, and then again when he had us try the shorter combination of figures for him, we tended to end the Natural Turn with me facing backing line of dance. He wanted to make sure that we ended the Natural Turn rotating 45° less, or with me facing diagonal wall against line of dance. Secondly, he told me that a wise teacher he had in his youth had told him that there should be a brief pause at the height of the rise on a Natural Turn, where absolutely all movement stops for a “beautiful moment” before you begin to lower and go into the next step. Because we were rotating too much in our Natural Turn, we didn’t have that pause at all, so he wanted to make sure that we added that in.

The cause for this issue was pretty simple for him to point out – I am a very solid piece of meat, so I am much, much heavier than Sparkledancer. When we build up momentum through the Progressive Chasse to the Right, Outside Change and Chasse from Promenade Position and then I take the outside of the rotation in the Natural Turn, the weight of my body just keeps me going, and Sparkledancer’s weight is on my right side which just adds on to what I’m doing. This means that it’s all on me to really keep my own body mass under control so that the Natural Turn stops when I hit the right amount of turn and pauses momentarily before moving on.

Now, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was at that moment: what about the Reverse Turn? Should I have the same pause? Am I unintentionally over-rotating there as well? I asked Lord Dormamu that very thing. He said that yes, I should have the same brief pause in a Reverse Turn, but I am already managing to put that in where he wants so we didn’t need to go back and look at that figure. Because I am rotating the other direction in a Reverse Turn and essentially trying to turn through Sparkledancer’s body, the momentum is unable to continue turning me unchecked like it does in a Natural Turn, so it isn’t an issue for me. Yay! I managed to dodge one bullet.

Finishing that, we moved on to Foxtrot. We first looked at our movement, since that has been the focus for Foxtrot over the last few weeks. Apparently that day our movement was rising too much for his liking, so to fix that he wanted us to stay down lower and keep ourselves traveling fairly evenly the whole time. He gave us a demonstration using his belt buckle as the focal point, to show us how he could travel all over the place in Foxtrot and his belt buckle stayed pretty much the same distance from the floor the entire time. Does that mean that I am going to have to start wearing belts with obnoxious buckles when I practice? I’m going to try doing it without first, and we’ll have to go from there.

Next we looked at a completely different topic, which was the sway that he wanted us to start adding into the Foxtrot while we danced. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I ended up discussing sway in two different dances in one day…

 Before we started dancing, Lord Dormamu gave us a brief lecture on the idea of sway so that we would understand the big picture of what he wanted us to work on. What he said was that first off, our sway basically makes our shoulder line work like a teeter-totter around the central focal point under our head. If we raise the right side, then like a teeter-totter the left side should go down by an equal amount, and vice-versa. Obviously this over-simplifies the idea because there’s a whole thing about not ‘breaking’ your side while doing this, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

The next idea he wanted to stress was that the sway that we do needs to be “harmonic” throughout the course of the routine. What that means is basically if we were to dance two figures in a row, like a simple Feather and a Three Step for instance, we would sway with the left side forward and up on the Feather, and the right side forward and up on the Three Step. To achieve the harmonic balance that is needed, the amount that your left side goes up when you would sway during a Feather needs to be the same amount that the right side goes up during the sway of the Three Step.

Sounds easy enough to do, right? Well, here’s the last (and arguable the most difficult) idea that Lord Dormamu told us – the sway should always be initiated naturally based on the footwork of the figure. If you are just swaying because someone told you to, then the movement looks unnatural and forced. Sway should happen in a figure whenever you go up on your toes, and it should level out when you lower down to your whole foot. For a Feather, this means that you are neutral for the first step, but as you take the second step with your left foot and roll up onto the ball of your foot, that movement should naturally make the left side of your body rise up. As you take the third step with your right foot and roll down from the ball of your foot to using your whole foot your left side should come down and level out once more. You can follow through with the movement to accentuate the sway, but you should always make it look natural, never forced.

As I digested the information, I asked if our routine had been specifically choreographed so that each figure changes from left side sway to right side sway. Initially Lord Dormamu said yes, but then he paused and started slowly looking along the edge of the room. I could see his eyes twitching as if he were watching an invisible couple dancing through the routine. Finally he looked back at me and said the answer was yes, but there was an exception he had to tell us about for the two Weaves that we had in the routine. A Weave, because it is a series of steps where you are up on the ball of your feet for more than one step, should have no sway at all. He used the Natural Weave to demonstrate this, showing how there was a left-side sway as you go through the Natural Turn at the beginning, but then the sway levels out until you get to the Feather Finish at the end of the figure and have to add in the left-side sway once more.

Whew… so that was my crazy ‘Theory of Dance’ discussion from this weekend. We spent the last few minutes of our session practicing this idea. Now that I’m putting a lot of thought into how I’m swaying, it seems way more difficult than it used to be, so it’s definitely going to require some practice on my part. I have to say that these discussions with Lord Dormamu are the most fascinating part of taking lessons from him. I feel that one thing for an instructor to just tell you to do all these things while dancing, but I personally like that Lord Dormamu actually takes the time to explain to me the theory behind how and why these techniques are the way that they are. I find it really helpful.

And now something completely different:

Saturday night I headed out to the City Dance Hall because I was asked to go to an open dance party being held there. I was told that there was going to be an American Viennese Waltz lesson before the party. These sorts of pre-party lessons involving the more complex dance styles like Viennese Waltz, Quickstep, West Coast Swing, etc. usually go one of two ways, either A) the material they cover is super simple, to encourage all people who might not know the dance style to dance, or B) the instructor is looking to have fun, and covers something completely out-of-the-ordinary to entertain both themselves and the crowd. I’m easily excited about the potential to learn something new in Viennese Waltz, so I got to the City Dance Hall early enough to join in.

This lesson ended up being option A, unfortunately. The instructor only covered three different figures, but probably not the three you are thinking of. The first thing that he showed everyone was the Reverse Turn, allowing people to travel down the line of dance. To turn corners, he showed the people basically how to do a Throw Out to get the lady into Open Fan, two Sliding Door-like movements in Cantor timing (though he didn’t talk about Cantor timing, he just told people to pass each other over three beats), and then when you got back to your original Open Fan position he had them do a Underarm Turn in Cantor Time which would rotate you the 90° needed to go down the next wall. He gave this combination some fancy French name, but I’m not going to try to spell what that was.

Before starting down the new wall, he had people do four Hesitation steps (forward, backward, left, right) to allow everyone to get back in frame before moving on. Then it was back to the Reverse Turns to begin traveling again. He didn’t have them look at the Natural Turn or Change Steps at all, so this was really meant to give everyone a way to do simple circuits around the room. The class started out pretty full of people, but by the end of the class a number of the older folks and a few beginner students had dropped out to take chairs along the side and just watch. That tends to happen a lot in Viennese Waltz classes like these, so I wasn’t too surprised by that.

After the class finished, I felt like most of what I did the rest of the night was talk rather than dance. Ms. Possible came to the party that night, and she brought her drama-filled life along with her, and was not really enjoying herself no matter how many jokes I tried to tell her. You see, Ms. Possible recently decided to try switching from dancing Pro/Am to Amateur with a gentleman that she met at a dance party. He was interested in her as more than a dance partner though. She mostly rebuffed his amorous advances, but didn’t turn him down completely. Well, things came to a head a few days ago when Ms. Possible found out that he had finally moved on and found a girlfriend. Both this guy and his new girlfriend were also at the party that night.

I guess the phrase ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ applies here. Ms. Possible and this gentleman still danced together at the party, and they still plan to compete together from what I could ascertain, but she does not seem to be happy that he has found someone. Especially considering that the new girl also dances. Is she afraid that the girlfriend will eventually take her place as his amateur competitive partner? Does she now realize that she secretly harbors romantic feelings for this gentleman? Is Ms. Possible just a bit crazy? No one can really say for sure. The gentleman in question apparently told her that she was breaking his heart whenever they danced together by leading him on, and he finally decided not to wait around for her anymore. I don’t blame him.

So that night rather than dancing I spent a lot of time listening to the discussions that people were having about this situation, and I also tried to make sure Ms. Possible was doing OK. She ended up coming to tell everyone I was standing near that she was leaving about half-an-hour into the party. I don’t know if there is anything more I could have done. Sigh… dance drama. Remember when I mentioned that expecting to have a romantic relationship with your dance partner was often a bad idea? This is a perfect example of that.

Skipping ahead a bit in the pursuit of brevity… Wednesday night I co-opted Standard Technique class because I wanted to use the class to work on sway in Foxtrot. Lord Junior had been thinking of having everyone work on some Viennese Waltz that night, but because he and I were talking about the things that I had gone over at the end of my lesson with Lord Dormamu on Saturday and it was on my mind, I asked if we could spend the time working on that concept. I’m going to count that as practice time too, since technically I was practicing things that Lord Dormamu had asked me to work on. It totally counts, right?

Lord Junior picked out three simple figures for us to use for practicing our sway, and we did them ‘by the book’ using the documented steps and sway as written in that fancy book that Lord Junior has lying on the front desk. One of these days I’m going to find out the name of that book, since I’ve looked things up in it a few times when I had questions about a step, and Lord Junior refers to how steps are done using that book all the time. Maybe I’ll even buy a copy of this book for myself someday! Then I could constantly quote passages from the book on this site! Wouldn’t that be fun?

OK, probably not fun. Informative? Educational? Annoying? Maybe one of those would be a better description.

 The first two figures that we used were the same two figures that Lord Dormamu used when demonstrating this concept to me on Saturday – a Feather and a Three Step. The sway is fairly easy for people to see and grasp in these two steps because you are essentially just walking forward in a straight line, so there is no rotation to think about at the same time. We did use a prep step at the beginning before going into the Feather, and that extra step seemed to really throw off the older gentleman who had joined us in class that night. I caught what he was doing out of the corner of my eye a few times. He was having a hard time just getting through the steps for those two figures, so he had abandoned trying to do the sway altogether.

The final step that we added was a Natural Turn, but we did this one exactly as written in the book. I have to specifically state that, because in the book the Natural Turn essentially has two sections: the first half covers the Heel Turn that the ladies do. This turn is actually a 180°, starting with the guys facing the line of dance, and ending with them backing line of dance. The second half, which Lord Junior says that no one does in the real world, involves the gentlemen taking three slow steps. The first one goes straight back down the line of dance, the second is a Heel Pull, which is essentially a fancy way for a guy to rotate, and the third step is forward heading in the new direction you turned. In our case we were using the Heel Pull to rotate around a corner, so we were turning about 135° to end facing diagonal wall on the new wall.

For the most part, the class was a good practice for me on this whole ‘harmonic balance’ sway concept. Lord Junior said after class that while he was watching I appeared to sway evenly from my left side to my right side as I changed through the figures (or in the case of the Natural Turn, halfway through the figure). Some of the ladies in class were a lot easier to practice sway with than others. For example, Bony was in class that night, and she probably almost a foot shorter than me, so I was limited in how much I could sway while dancing with her due to height difference. Sparkledancer and I are closer in height and we practice together all the time, so I was able to sway much better with her.

It was nice to have a directed practice session like that and get feedback on what I was doing. Maybe I’ll have to start asking about covering other concepts Lord Dormamu asks me to practice during Standard Technique class. It could be super helpful!

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