Though I was initially skeptical about doing so, I went out this weekend to attend part of a day at a training camp being held for competitive ballroom dancers at the Endless Dance Hall. In some ways I got lucky – originally, the organizers had talked to my coach and convinced him to sign up a bunch of his competitive couples for a day full of classes and private instruction with a number of visiting coaches. Because my competitive partner is still not cleared to dance in competitive form, I obviously wasn’t going to be able to do any private lessons. That saved me a bunch of money, obviously. Even splitting the cost of the lessons I would have been signed up for with Sparkledancer, the cost would have been in the ‘ridiculous’ category.
But there were some group classes being taught throughout the day by the coaches at this camp, and I was told I should still come for those. Unfortunately though, without my regular partner there to dance with, taking part in a bunch of advanced group lessons focused on things to improve as a competitive couple left me as an odd man out at first. A few days beforehand, when I had been told I should still go, I asked if I would be OK as a single male. I was told that I would be fine, because they thought that a number of Pro/Am competitors would also show up, so I would be able to help out in class by dancing with ladies who danced Pro/Am.
Well… the first class of the morning didn’t have any Pro/Am people in it, it was all people who danced Amateur. I wasn’t the only one without a partner, but the numbers didn’t work out evenly for the class. There were three younger adults, college age I’m guessing, who didn’t have their regular partners there with them. Based on how the coach who was to teach the class talked with them, I would guess that they were students of his. He told us the class he was going to give would cover International Foxtrot. The young lady whose normal partner wasn’t with her apparently only danced Latin, so the coach told her she could just watch from the sidelines. The other two guys who were partner-less got paired off to dance together, with the coach telling them that it would be good practice for them. So that just left me all by myself. Sad face.
The coach tried to rotate partners a little bit through the class, but often times when he got done talking about a concept he would tell everyone ‘OK, now go find your regular partner and give it a try!’ and then I would be sad and alone in the line. So that made the first class a little awkward for me. But, I did catch a break after the first class was over. My coach, Lord Dormamu, was also at this training camp teaching lessons and he was also on the schedule to give one of the group classes later in the day. His personal assistant was there with him, a woman whom I have talked with quite a bit over the years that I have been working with Lord Dormamu.
I talked with her a bit between the first and second class. She is also one of the select few ladies that Lord Dormamu dances Pro/Am with. I told her it was too bad that she was working that day and couldn’t just jump into the classes with me, because I could really have used her as a partner in the class I just finished. She looked at me and her eyes got really wide, and she said that if I would be willing to be her partner for the next couple of classes while she was there, she would love to do just that! Running off toward Lord Dormamu, she told him she was going to be in the classes, so if he needed her to do anything he should just flag her down. So that’s how I managed to get a partner for the next two classes, and when she left for the day I headed home as well.
The three classes that I was in were interesting, but not much of the information that I got was really groundbreaking and new. Even though I had heard much of what was covered before, it was still good to spend some time practicing the concepts again.
As I mentioned, the first class covered International Foxtrot. The coach wanted to have us work on dancing the Foxtrot in time with the music. I know that sounds like a simple concept when I say it like that, but since these were classes designed for more advanced competitive students I’m sure you know that the material wasn’t a walk in the park. This is actually a concept that I spent many months focusing on with Lord Dormamu to improve. The example that the coach used was a pair of simple figures from the earliest level of International Foxtrot – the Feather and the Three Step. Each figure is just three steps forward, each one is just one four count bar in the music. But you can easily see the difference between someone who dances through the three steps of the figures in a bar of the song, and someone who is just taking the three steps on the right beat.
A lot of the practice was spent breaking each beat down into much smaller parts. Have you ever studied music before? I have, so I can teach you some fun words. One bar of music in a normal Foxtrot song is broken down into four beats. We call these quarter notes, or crotchets. If you break them down further, you will get eighth notes, or quavers. Break them down again and you get sixteenth notes, or semiquavers. In ballroom dancing that’s normally as far as you will break things down. You may have heard your instructor counting the beat out for you and saying “one-ee-and-aa, two-ee-and-aa…” which would be sounding out the sixteenth notes in the rhythm. If you haven’t heard your instructor doing it, you should try it. It’s fun to count music like that!
Anyway, each part of the figure in the Foxtrot can be broken down and done on one of those semiquavers. If you work on controlling the movements so that you cover each subdivided beat of the music, it will look like you are moving through the whole of the beat (or two beats, if the step is a ‘slow’ versus a ‘quick’). Otherwise you are basically just taking a step on a specific time and then sitting still until it’s time in the music to take the next step. That’s the difference between dancing and just walking in time with the music.
The coach had us do continuous Three Steps and Feathers down the length of the floor by ourselves to practice this for quite a while while he watched, stepping in to correct anyone who didn’t appear to be doing things the way he wanted. Then he had everyone dance with their normal partners to try it out as a couple. For me, since I didn’t have a partner in this lesson, I did most of this part of class on my own. A couple of times he had people rotate and I got to try it out with someone, but that only happened when he suddenly remembered to have people switch.
To avoid having us just work on the Three Step and Feather going one way, he changed up the pattern a little about halfway through class. Now when we danced with a partner we did a Three Step, a Feather, a Reverse Wave (which is really just a Reverse Turn followed by a Back Three Step instead of a Feather Finish) and then a Back Feather. That allowed both partners to do both the Feather and Three Step gong forward and backward for practice.
The second lesson I managed to start class off with a partner, so the number of students was even throughout the class. Even in the exercises where the new coach had us rotate partners, I had someone to work with the whole time, so it felt like it was going to be less awkward. And it was… up until we did an exercise to help reinforce one of the concepts this coach was covering, and the width of my shoulders made it weird for me.
This coach was actually someone that I have taken a private coaching session from in the past, back at roughly the end of March. In the class she was teaching that morning, she spent roughly half of the class talking about a concept that she worked on with Sparkledancer and I during the private coaching I took with her, which seems (based on what she was saying in class) like a concept that she really focuses on in both her teaching and when she is judging competitions. That concept was to work on helping partners dance around their shared axis.
It’s a pretty straightforward idea once you start thinking about it. When you are moving around by yourself, you have your own axis where all your movement is centered around (which should be your spine). This is easiest to see when you are spinning by yourself, because the wind-up and rotation needed to spin comes from your core, which is built around the spine, but you also can think about it as you walk around and the central line of your movement going forward comes from where your spine is.
When you are dancing with a partner, you can’t use either person’s spine as the central point of the movement, because of how the partners are positioned in relation to each other, so the shared axis comes into play. This is an imaginary central point that is between the partners where the movements will center around. When dancing International Standard or American Smooth while in closed frame, the shared axis is in between the partners on their right side. In International Latin or American Rhythm (and American Smooth when the partners separate), the location of the shared axis is a bit more fluid depending on the figure, but it is still there. This coach said that when she judges competitions she can easily pick out couples that are really dancing together by how well they move around the shared axis between them, no matter what style of dance they are doing.
The first exercise she had us do to work on this concept was the one that was awkward for me. She had us pair up with our partners. The Leads were supposed to put their right arm straight out in front of them. The Follower would come up to the Lead with her right arm out in front of her as well. Both partners would rest their right arm on the other person’s right shoulder, putting their left hand on the back of the right shoulder to complete the ‘frame’ and then we would just in line with each other forward and backward.
Now why was this weird for me? As I’ve mentioned many times, I am not built like your average competitive dancer. Standing in line with all those other guys in class made that really obvious – they were all tiny compared to me. Because the rest of the guys had tiny shoulders and arms, they could hold their right arm out pretty straight in front of them and rest it on their partner’s shoulder and still walk in line with them. For me, I couldn’t do that. If I held my arm out straight in front of me and gently rested it on my partner (note: I didn’t completely rest it on them because my arm weighs a lot, as my first partner told me that morning), I would end up in outside partner. And not just a little bit outside of the girl in front of me… there was a lot of space between where my right foot was tracking and where their foot was. A. Lot.
So, in order to fix the problem, I had to pull my right arm across my chest as much as possible. A couple of those younger college-age ladies in class were rail thin, so when they rotated through to dance with me, in order to walk in-line with them I had to pull my right arm across my chest so much as we were walking, it was almost painful.
When my partner, Lord Dormamu’s assistant, rotated all the way through the line and came back to try the exercise with me again, she told me that I was the only one of the guys she danced with who had to contort awkwardly like that. Also that I was the only one who had any weight in my arm as it rested on her shoulder. In some ways that served to stroke my ego a bit, because it’s nice to be told that all the weightlifting I have done for years has amounted to something. But obviously there are a few downsides that I have to deal with.
To practice moving around the shared axis in a more relevant way, she had us try a fairly basic International Rumba sequence, which was an Open Basic into a Natural Top, finishing with an Opening Out action. Now I’ve done something close to this in the Latin Technique class I often go to on Monday nights lots of times. Because I was dancing with a bunch of strange partners whom I had never danced with before, I went with some advice that Lord Junior gave me a long time ago which was to hold onto my partner with my palm over their wrist joint any time we are in open frame. This takes all the finger and hand joints out of the equation, enabling me to connect my lead to their back muscles easier until we get a chance to dance with each other enough to learn about how each of us move.
Most everyone in class was fine with me doing this, but there was one blonde girl who really didn’t like it. She didn’t say anything to me any of the times I danced with her, but the first time I took her hand like that when we danced together she made a point of wresting her hand from mine and repositioning it so that she could grab onto my fingers. Yikes. I tried to remember not to do it again with her, but inevitably I messed up near the end of class, and she once again not-so-subtly grabbed my hand with her left hand so that she could reposition her right hand and grab onto my fingers instead. Apparently it was a big deal to her to hold on correctly, even in a practice class like this.
The final class that I hung around for that day was taught by my own coach, Lord Dormamu. He told us that since all of us there were fairly advanced dancers, he was going to spend his time talking about musicality, which is a topic that I find interesting. To help him in this discussion, he said that we would look at the Waltz, using a simple configuration of Bronze figures that would allow us to practice all the concepts. The amalgamation used was a prep step into a Half Natural Turn, an Underturned Natural Spin Turn, a Half Reverse Turn, a Progressive Chasse to Right, an Outside Change, a Chasse from Promenade Position and we finished with another Half Natural Turn.
To start with, once he had rattled off the figures that we were going to do in order, he put on a song and had everyone dance through the series on our own twice. Then he had us pair up with our normal partners and dance through again twice. Once we had finished that, he made us all find a new partner and dance with them once before switching again, and then doing the same and switching again. By the time we had finished this first section, we had each danced the same pattern by ourselves and then with four different partners.
He had us stop here and explained to us that we had already experienced the first type of musicality he wanted to talk about. He called it “individual musicality.” As he had us dance through the pattern by ourselves, even though all of us were doing the same figures and the same song was playing in the background, no two people will move exactly the same in time with the music. Some of the differences can be explained by differences in a person’s height or weight or hearing ability, but if you could watch a group class like ours dancing the same pattern alone from the outside you would be able to pick out slight variations in how everyone moves.
Then, as you pair them up with a partner, the Follower will affect the way the Leader moves, and the way the Leader leads will determine how the Follower moves. Because of that, each couple will have their own individual musicality. The musicality of the couple isn’t just the combination of the musicality of the two individuals sense of the music. If we had paid attention as we rotated through partners, we would be able to pick out things that we did differently based on the person we were dancing with that would change the timing of when we took our steps in subtle ways.
Now he wanted to have us all work on purposefully changing the timing of how we danced through the pattern, which is what more advanced competitive couples practice. The first change that he wanted to have us try out was extending the timing of certain parts of a figure beyond the normal count, which places more emphasis on the piece of the figure you are extending. In our pattern he had us add in an extra bar of music to the count of three different figures: the Natural Spin Turn, the Progressive Chasse to Right and the Chasse from Promenade Position.
The most important skill that a dancer needs to change the musicality in this way, Lord Dormamu told us, was balance. If we wanted to add in an extra three-count hold at the height of the rise in the Natural Spin Turn, you have to be able to first of all hold yourself and your partner up on your toes without wobbling around for those extra beats. But just staying up on your toes without falling over is not really the point of this technique. Ideally you will also be moving slowly as you hold – there would be rotation happening in the upper body, and the lady would be extending her topline away from the man further to create more volume between the partner’s heads while she has time to do so. That is the key to making this change in musicality worthwhile.
Now the issue with using this kind of musicality change is that you have to have the routine built around doing this extension. If you have a routine built by someone who knows what they are doing, the routine is usually crafted so that certain combinations of figures will take you through a phrase in the music. If you stop in the middle of a figure and hold it for an extra few beats or bars before moving again, that will put you off phrase. This isn’t so much of an issue when you first start competing, but if you work your way up to the higher levels of proficiency the judges will be taking your phrasing as you dance into account as we were told.
That limitation is what leads to the last musicality skill that Lord Dormamu talked with us about that day, which is the ability to extend your hold on certain parts of a figure by ‘stealing’ time from the other steps. This allows you to keep the same overall time value for the figure as written so that everything stays on phrase without having to change the routine, while also allowing you to make the way you dance look more interesting than other couples you are competing against. Going back to the Natural Spin Turn I mentioned before, this would be akin to holding the rise on the second step for half a beat longer and then speeding through the third step quickly before moving into the Half Reverse Turn. The Natural Spin Turn is still only a three-count figure, but varying the dynamics like this make it look completely different.
Balance is still up there as far as important things to have in order to use this kind of musicality as you dance, but this also requires agility. Whereas before we were just balancing for a long period but all the other steps were done using their normal timing, now since we are taking away time from one step we have to be able to move our bodies quickly enough to still do the other steps in the reduced amount of time we have left. In a slow Waltz or a Rumba this isn’t too bad, but if you try to do this in a Viennese Waltz or a Mambo the ability to move parts of your body quickly becomes imperative.
Wow. That was a lot of stuff from just one day. I can’t believe that I remembered that much from those classes! I’ll just stop here for today.
…OK, so I’m not stopping. One final note: based on the response from last week, I decided to change my own Ballroom Village page. I got rid of most of the links since they haven’t been updated in ages, so the village got to be pretty small. I downgraded my page to a Ballroom Hamlet because of that. Also, it made me laugh.
And that’s really all now. Until next week!