5-4-3-2 What Are You Waiting For?

Last Saturday I did several dance-related things, with one being more thought-provoking than the others. I’ll probably spend a lot of time talking about that, as I sit here staring at this blank page and mull over what I will end up writing. Hopefully you can handle that. If not, well… I’m probably going to write about it anyway, because I find it fascinating. So nyeah. Take that.

Before that though, the first thing that I did on Saturday was to meet up with Sparkledancer and Lady Tella. The two of them had agreed to get together for a short session on Saturday to look at things, and then another short session on Thursday night for a final review of how practice has been going before Sparkledancer and I run off to the Dance Death Arena to compete next weekend. I also have a final pre-competition review with Lord Dormamu scheduled for Friday night, and then I leave on early Saturday morning to make the drive out to the venue. So many things to do!

Anyway, back to last Saturday… we started off with running through all of our competition routines in full once so that Lady Tella could see everything and pick out what we needed to go back and touch on. The dance floor was busy before our lesson started because there was some kind of children’s ballroom class going on that took up the whole floor, so aside from the stretching out I was able to do on the sidelines I walked onto the floor and performed our routines cold that morning.

Because of that, when Lady Tella came over to talk to us about what she saw, she said that overall our Waltz (which was the first one that we did) looked the weakest, while our Tango looked the strongest. That made sense to me. Tango is what Sparkledancer and I had been spending a lot of our practice time going over during the week prior to this lesson, so I can imagine that it would look more ‘practiced’ than the others.

We talked about specific notes for Waltz, Quickstep and Foxtrot during this lesson, and left out the Tango because of that. Overall for me, the only real note was to continue to try to lean back slightly to avoid looking like I am toppling over my partner at any point. I had been working during practice on pulling my upper body back slightly, especially in rotational figures, based on the note that I got from Lady Tella last time I saw her about how it looked like I was coming forward slightly in rotations. She said that it helped make me look like I was even more upright, even though my lower back muscles feel like I am leaning backward. I guess I can count this as a good thing, and work on keeping it up.

Lady Tella’s notes for Sparkledancer were a bit more in-depth, so I tried to jot down what I could. The overall takeaway was for her to continue focusing on creating more volume while the two of us are moving, which you probably guessed. For the specific dances, we started with Waltz. Lady Tella wanted Sparkledancer to think about keeping her sides long the whole time, and to lean back slightly (like I am doing), especially during rotational figures. She told us to watch our transitions to Promenade Position and to make sure that we are not dipping down on my left/Sparkledancer’s right side. Also, she told Sparkledancer to make sure that her head openings were slower, and to make sure that she takes the long way while doing it… whatever that means.

By the time we finished working through the Waltz, Lady Tella told us that it was looking much better than it had when we danced through it the first time. We promised her that on competition day we wouldn’t be taking to the floor cold, so if the issues we had were caused by that, it would be an easy fix. That just means I have to get up even earlier on competition day… no big deal, right? Who needs to sleep?

Quickstep was brief for us, since there isn’t much to it. There was a question that we had that had for Lady Tella that had come up recently in our practice about the Running Finish at the end of the first short wall. Lady Tella had told Sparkledancer to open her head at a certain point, but I was actually creating the sway in the figure at a later time, so it looked like the head opening was disconnected from the sway. When we showed it to Lady Tella, she agreed, and refined what she had told Sparkledancer so that she was now waiting until I create the sway in the figure to make the head opening action match.

We had some issues going through the Foxtrot because the staff at the Endless Dance Hall were starting to set up for an event, and they were dragging tables out onto the floor that I suddenly had to work around. It was hard to find a line of floor that was long enough to get through all the figures we wanted to look at contiguously! I wonder if they did that on purpose to try to get us to leave? We were the only dancers in the building when they started doing this…

Lady Tella wanted to have us run a portion of the routine at the beginning, so I changed the angles of several of the figures slightly to avoid running into any tables. THe way I had done that though made Lady Tella think we had a problem with our Reverse Turn with Feather Finish. However, when I managed to find a section of floor big enough to run through the figure with the right angles (which required taking smaller steps as well), the problem went away. Assuming that there won’t be a bunch of tables in the middle of the floor at the venue during the competition, we should be alright. Other than that, she wanted to make sure Sparkledancer was leaning back and keeping the volume while we were dancing the routine.

Later in the afternoon, I ended up at the fancy West Coast Swing gathering, just like I mentioned last week. A local West Coast Swing club had advertised that they were bringing in some high-level West Coast Swing coach to teach this weekend, and during the afternoon he was going to be giving four group lectures on top of private lessons. I wasn’t able to get there for all of the workshops that they were offering that day unfortunately, but I was lucky enough to make it to two of them.

Originally I had only thought about going to one of the two that afternoon – the one that promised to show me some new, fancy figures that I didn’t know. It’s been a while since I’d learned any new West Coast Swing figures, so I thought that could be fun. But later in the week I read through the description of the second class, and it peaked my interest enough that I decided to stick around for it on Saturday. Boy am I glad that I did, because the lecture that the guy gave during the class was fascinating to me, and gave me a lot to think about for the future of my own competitive dancing.

Let me write out the figures that I learned in the fancy moves class first before I start writing about the other class though, because it is likely I will go off on a tangent talking about that material, and I want to make sure to document these figures so that I won’t forget them…

We started off in closed position, which looks like the basic hold for East Coast Swing. The instructor wanted to show everyone a six-count starter step. Most people who have done West Coast Swing normally only do a four-count version – a triple step to one side, then to the other, then go into like a Sugar Push or something. The instructor had us add on two steps before the two triple steps, making it into a six count.
I know that sounds easy, but we had one gentleman in class who could not for the life of him get this down. He struggled through just the starter step with several partners, unable to overcome his many years of muscle memory that had only done a four-count starter, and then he gave up and sat out in a chair along the side for the rest of class. Talk about a rough start!

For the amalgamation we were given, we did the six-count starter and then went into a Spinning Side Pass. A Spinning Side Pass is just a Left-side Pass with a lady’s Underarm Turn thrown in. Not too tough yet, right? After that we did a more complex variation that began like a normal Whip, but at the end of the first six beats the men over rotated to put the lady into Outside Partner on our left side. On beat seven the guy would step across the lady with his right leg and on beat eight he pivots 90° to the right without changing feet to end up back in closed position just like at the beginning.

From there we went into a Sugar Push. Since the guy is perpendicular to the lady, his first step is to his left side and then he rotates before taking his next step backward, which puts him back into the normal position you’d expect for a Sugar Push. Next we did a slow and fancy Underarm Turn that had sort of a ‘peek-a-boo’ moment in the middle. This figure extends the normal Underarm Turn to an eight-count and doesn’t have the partners changing places. The guy starts with two steps back like normal, then the triple step. As you step forward on your left leg, you hold in place while bringing your left arm slowly over the lady’s head. In the middle of the rotation, her body should be bent to the side slightly with her right hip out and she should be able to face you. On beat six you finally rotate her back in front of you, and you both do your Anchor on seven and eight.

Almost done, just two more figures to go (maybe three, depending on how you look at it)! We started another Sugar Push basic, but this time we ended with something that the instructor called a ‘Rock and Go’ ending. Basically, instead of doing the Anchor portion of the Sugar Push, the guys will do a rock step and tie the next figure into the first. In our pattern, that figure was another Spinning Side Pass. The rock step became both the last two beats of the Sugar Push and the first two beats of the Spinning Side Pass at the same time. When all is said and done, these two six-count figures share two beats, so you end up with what looks like a single ten-count figure.

To wrap things up, we finished with a Same Side Whip. The figure starts out like a basic Whip, but instead of taking a step around the lady on beats three and four, the guys just step off to the left and do our triple step while she comes forward and rotates, but then we send her back the way she came from while stepping back to our starting position before the Anchor. In the process of sending the lady back, you have the option to just let her walk and rotate, or you could give her a Underarm Turn or a Tuck Turn to do, just in case you want to make things challenging for her.

OK, maybe that note about the pattern wasn’t as short as I would have hoped. I apologize.

Let’s talk about the other class now. The description of the class that intrigued me talked about learning how to dance properly with the music. I thought it sounded like a fun thing to do that was worth some of the money from my wallet, which is why I decided to attend, but what the class ended up talking about has gotten me to thinking, as I mentioned. Anyway, to set things up, during the first section of the class we were given a bit of choreography to work with – a basic pattern, and then some variations to those figures to try to throw in while we were dancing.

The basic pattern went like this: a Sugar Push, then a Left-side Tuck Turn, then a lady’s Underarm Pass, then a double-spin for the ladies of some kind (the Lead could choose to do two inside or outside turns), and finally a Whip to finish off. Pretty basic, right? We were then shown specific accents to do during each of the figures, and they were as follows:

  • Sugar Push: replace the first step with a kick-ball change
  • Left-side Tuck Turn: syncopate the timing on the first triple step while the man is out of the slot
  • Underarm Pass: both partners do a side break to the man’s right on beat five before the Anchor
  • Double spin: no changes
  • Whip: replace the first step with a kick-ball change

Again, pretty easy variations to remember, right? You could use these whenever you are dancing a West Coast Swing if you do one of these figures, and people might think that you are cool. But there is a reason that they are in there. Did you try dancing the pattern? Did you feel the reasoning? I admit that I did not see it until it was pointed out to me in the last section of the class, so if you didn’t feel it either, I’m right there with you.

The basic pattern itself is built the way it is built for a specific reason. There are four six-count figures followed by one eight-count figure. Thirty-two beats of music total, or four eight-beat measures. In most songs that you would dance West Coast Swing to, that is one musical phrase. Are you starting to see it now? If you don’t, look at the timing where each of the variations we were given were thrown in: the first beat of the Sugar Push, the third beat of the Left-side Tuck Turn, the fifth beat of the Underarm Pass, nowhere in the double spin, and the first beat of the Whip.

Musically, those line up with beat one of each of the eight beat measures in the phrase. Essentially, you are dancing and putting the more complicated variations in while you are dancing to show that you can hear each bar of the music. The double-spin, being the most complicated turn for the ladies, is specifically slotted into the pattern during a period in the phrase where there is no beat one – it starts on beat three of its eight beat measure, and finishes on beat eight. That is why it is the only figure to have no variation.

Once this was explained to all of us, we were told to go back and try dancing the pattern again, but this time to try counting along with the music in counts of eight. This threw off a lot of people, because many of us have been taught by our instructors over the years to count out the parts of the figure, not count with the music. This isn’t a bad thing when the figures line up with the measures in the music (like basic Natural and Reverse Turns in Waltz), but with a dance like West Coast Swing where we are doing six beat figures to music that is not built on six beat measures, you tend to lose something.

I had a different problem, which the instructor also mentioned to others in class. He said that some people tend to count the music they are dancing to more like how the measures are written rather than how it sounds. You may have spent time around a conductor if you were in a band or choir class in your youth, and have heard them count the music as “1,2,3,4; 2,2,3,4; 3,2,3,4” etc. That is basically how I hear music if I’m not counting it out loud. I had a lot of musical training in my youth, so that’s what I’m used to doing internally.

This presents a problem though, because it essentially gives you a beat one every count of four, rather than in counts of eight. Think about the average song that you would dance a West Coast Swing to. I like to think of slow rock songs for West Coast Swing – that’s just what I feel is the most appropriate music for the dance style. If you think about the vocalist singing above the music, generally you can hear that the first four beats are strong, while the second four are slightly softer, so the song feels like it is built in counts of eight. Examples off the top of my head from songs most of you probably know…

Give me one reason to stay here / and I’ll turn right back around.”

Black velvet / and that little boy smile.”

She could tell right away / that I was bad to the bone.”

If you can’t hear the song in your head after reading those lyrics, you can use them to look up the song and listen to it online. <Brief pause so you can listen> See what I mean? So based on that, emphasizing the first beat out of eight strongly is something you want to consider to really make it look like you are dancing with the music, not just dancing a memorized pattern. If your pattern repeats (as most patterns dancers learn do), but the pattern is not built to repeat on musical phrase (or floorcraft requirements took you off pattern briefly) and you start over at a point that is in the middle of one of those eight-beat measures, it is entirely possible that your variations will have to be on different points of the figures the second time through.

That, this instructor said, is what musicality means. And that’s the point that got me thinking. I’ve had brief discussions with several instructors that I’ve worked with about musicality in the past, but when they talk about dancing musically, they usually give examples of changing the timing of the steps in your figures. The example that comes up most is in the Waltz, where they want you to hold the step on beat two of three slightly longer than the other two beats to give it more emphasis. If you’ve done competitions in Waltz before, you may have been told this as well.

This particular example from class shown through West Coast Swing immediately brings to mind Foxtrot, for me at least. The music that is chosen for Foxtrot, while having different qualities than what I think of as a ‘West Coast Swing song’ is built the same structurally. When I am practicing Foxtrot without music playing, normally I count it in four. But is that right, or should I start thinking about them more in eight-count increments? Will I have to add in different emphasis in parts of certain figures to show that I know where the first beat of each measure is in relation to what I am doing? How would I even begin to do something like that? International Foxtrot doesn’t usually have ‘flair’ in it, you know…

The opening of my Bronze Foxtrot routine was built as follows: a simple starter step that is a count of eight, a Feather that is a count of four, a Reverse Turn with Feather Finish that is a count of eight, a Three Step that is a count of four, and a Natural Weave that is a count of eight. That is the first four eight-beat measures, much like the instructor in the West Coast Swing class put together. If you walk through the counts, you’ll see that not all of the figures start on beat one. The starter step obviously does, as does the Feather, but the Reverse Turn does not. The Feather Finish of the Reverse Turn does, however. So, do you really want to do something to show emphasis on beat one of each measure if it the emphasis subdivides a figure like that?
Another possibility: In contrast to thinking about the Foxtrot being built in eight-beat measures, I could see it to be better to think about dancing the Foxtrot by phrase instead. That would definitely provide the continuity between the figures that International Foxtrot is known for, at least during each phrase. In a competition setting though, to do that properly you would have to be sure to start the routine at the beginning of the musical phrase – if those are thirty-two beat increments, that means that I would have to be sure to start exactly on beat one of the song, or else I am waiting until beat thirty-three. Starting anywhere else means that my routine does not line up with the phrase in the song. Would the judges think that it is appropriate if I hung out at the beginning unmoving for thirty-two beats? Something about that strikes me as wrong, so I probably wouldn’t.

I’m not sure if any of this line of thinking really interests anyone else, but I find it fascinating, and could probably ramble on about it for much longer. I took a lot of music theory classes in my youth, and I hadn’t really thought about that material in a long time until after I went to this class, so now I have all these interesting connections going on in my brain that are a lot of fun for me. I’ll spare you the full force of those connections though… for now. Maybe I’ll touch on it again in the future for other dances as new revelations about musicality come to me.

Well, a weekend devoted to competition is upon me again. Even though I go through all my rounds in the time span of a few hours on one day, it always seems like the competition sucks up my whole weekend somehow. What’s up with that? This time around, I didn’t schedule anything else for this weekend, just in case. No lessons, no work stuff, no parties – the plan is just to focus on what I’ve got to do, and not worry about anything else until Monday.

Will having a clear schedule this weekend make a difference in how the competition goes? Not from the standpoint of my results, but rather from the mental and emotional drain that running around to these competition events causes? We’ll have to see! I’ll tell you all about it next week!

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