The Unwritten Rule

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One of the most important rules of movement is not to be found in written form.  Yet all good Teachers and Coaches apply this rule in their teaching, because unless the two principles involved in this rule are fully understood, two people are physically unable to dance together in the normal clasped hold, with body contact.

The rule in two parts is not to be found in any technical book on Ballroom Dancing to my knowledge until now: mine.

  1. When dancing a Forward Walk, the knees must move in the same direction: FORWARD. This will also apply when dancing in Promenade Position.
  2. When dancing a Backward Walk the knees must move in OPPOSITE directions. The supporting knee moves forward through compression, the moving leg will extend backwards before the body moves.

I therefore contend that a general description of a Forward Walk is:

“A forward movement of the body from one closed foot, balanced position on one foot, to another closed foot, balanced position on the other foot.”

And a general description of a Backward Walk is:

“A backward movement of the body from one open foot, balanced position on one foot, to another open foot, balanced position on the other foot”.

Now, you may have to step that out in order for the top two inches to understand what the bottom two inches are really doing.

The Forward and Backward Walks cannot utilize the same technique, as one walk is not the counterpart of the other.

The Forward Walk

The Forward Walk is a perfectly natural action using the two legs and the two feet in the manner that has evolved. However, when dancing a Backward Walk, as you compress the supporting knee, you must extend the moving leg behind you. This extension must coincide with the knee compression and must commence before the body starts to move backwards. When this extension is completed the whole of the sole of the foot should be visible to any person behind you, and should involve a stretch of the ankle.

There is only one condition possible to make the two directional steps the same, and that is to have each leg joined to the foot in the middle of the foot and to have toes front and back!

Additionally, the knee would need to be redesigned to be able to bend backwards as well as forward.  Only then can the Backward Walk have the same action as the Forward Walk.

I realize that what you have just read may be something of an eye-opener to you, as it contradicts the established thinking of many years.  But, I and many other Teachers, most of them better than me, have taught this principle for decades.

The technique of Ballroom Dancing was born in Great Britain, and rightly or wrongly has been developed along the same, original lines, since the Imperial Society laid down the first set of technique rules in the late 1920s.  Any divergence from the established thinking would not be favourably received in England, where it is best to toe the Establishment line, but I live on the other side of the world, and being the black sheep that I always have been, I have no such restrictions placed on my thoughts.  It appears to me that, in the last ten or fifteen years, English Dancers are no longer stamping their mark on the world, and the long-established precedents are being challenged.

I ask you, Dear Reader, to start again at the beginning of this chapter with an open mind and refute the logic of what I have written especially after having actually stepped through the two movements.  If you feel that what you read makes sense from a physical and anatomical viewpoint then please read on.  If however, you do have a pair of legs with ankles that fit into the centre of your foot and you have ten toes on each foot (five at the back and five at the front) then the rest of this chapter is probably irrelevant.

The Backward Walk

Revisiting the Backward Walk; at the half way point of the stride, the weight is evenly divided between the front heel and the back ball of foot. Therefore the moving foot must have extended backwards beyond the line of the body. Care must be taken to lower the back heel gradually as the front foot moves back. The back heel must touch the floor as the feet come together – never earlier, never later.

At this point, the knee of that foot must compress, so I suggest that the leg that just closed continues to move backwards so that the knees are moving in opposite directions and the walk ends in an open foot balanced position, with one leg supporting the weight and the other extended backwards, without weight, showing the whole of the sole of the foot.  End of movement.  You have taken one step backwards.  When the weight is taken onto the back foot, the front leg closure and subsequent backward extension must be sympathetic to the initial walk.

If you support the logic of the above, then we must go a step further; I contend that when a Dancer moves sideways, and lowers before stepping backwards, he or she must think of the following leg extension to be part of the previous step, not the beginning of the next step.

Examples for practice:

  • Step six of the Weave in Waltz
  • Step four of all Chasse’s and Locks
  • Step three of Closed Telemark
  • Step three of Outside Change

This certainly creates the possibility of early shaping into the following movement, which co-incidentally is usually a Half Natural Turn.

I must say, that whenever I introduce this point of technique, the Man is invariably thrilled by the lightness of action that the Lady produces.

The person dancing backwards has the major control of the walk action, so it must follow that the earlier the Lady can commence her backward extension, the more seamless the transition will be from  initially  forward, then sideways, then eventually backwards.

When dancing the Waltz, the couple will repeatedly end a bar of music in an elevated position, with feet together.  From this position either the Man or Lady will be moving backwards.

The Reverse Turn

Let us take, as an example, the first half of the Reverse Turn, as Man. On step three the left foot closes to right foot, and the right leg is practically straight. Weight is now transferred to the left foot at the top of the rise, and the right leg is still straight. The left knee now compresses (lower at end of three), and the straight right leg commences its’ backward extension.  The left heel will lower, but the right heel will not touch the floor until weight is taken completely onto the right foot.  This description is completely in harmony with the unwritten rule that “on a backward step the knees will move in opposite directions”.

Due to the physical makeup of the human legs and feet, a forward step uses a natural technique that has evolved as in walking or running.

The backward step cannot use the same technique, because the action has to be different. It has to be different because the foot only has toes at the front and the leg is joined via the ankle at the back of the foot (not the centre), and the muscles involved in forward thrust are at the rear of the body. For the Forward and Backward Walk actions to be identical, the human body would need to have calf muscles where the shins are currently located, the leg to join the foot at the middle of the foot, and a whole new range of joint movements in the ankle, and, heaven forbid, another set of buttocks in the front of the pelvic area (complete with the appropriate muscles), which would involve a whole new update on procreation, and a rewrite of the Karma Sutra (my next project)!

It is entirely logical that the two actions are totally dissimilar.

Forward movement = Body first
Backward movement = Foot must move first, then body

There is no doubt that, at the half-way point in the stride, the balance is held between the heel of the front foot and the ball of the back foot, but the action used to get to that position is totally different.

Dance Teachers develop extra skills with experience that are not available to ordinary mortals.

Applying the senses

Sensory, visual and auditory acuity all play a major part in teaching dance. It is not enough to demonstrate a movement and expect our pupils to copy it. That will only give a mental picture of what it should look like – you can get that from a video with far better demonstrations of top International couples – so why bother with a second-rate Teacher.

Primarily, the movement must be transmitted from an experienced body to the pupil(s) many times, with explanations of “How to” to achieve the desired result.

From the initial introduction of the movement, considerable adjustments have to be made to eliminate technical inaccuracies. This is where the visual and auditory senses come into play. The Teacher must learn to use the mirrors that are part of every dance studio. They are not there to check whether your hair is in place at the back or to see if you have a run in your stockings, nor are they there for your own self-admiration!

When dancing with a Lady pupil, the Teacher uses the mirror to gain a critical evaluation of his/her own performance, to ensure that anything that does not feel right is indeed the fault of the pupil.  Of course, the mirrors can be used to identify obvious faults, especially of footwork, but usually the Teacher can tell those by feel.

One of the most useful tools that a good Teacher develops through experience is the ability to hear and identify the sounds made by dance shoes on the floor.

I have found that one can identify the correctness of the action by the sound of the Lady’s heel ‘scrape’ on her backward walk. When the Lady is on balance and the walk has been performed correctly the pitch of the sound is recognizable, as is the duration of the sound, which denotes the length of the heel ‘scrape’.  Now I don’t want all you Ladies to go out on the floor and start dragging your heels around in an attempt to conjure the right special effects.  This sound cannot be pretended, it is not a sound that is made, but rather a sound that results from correct walk action.

Similarly, in the same way that a golfer will examine the direction and length of his divots to determine the efficiency of his shot, so an examination of the scrape marks on the floor will give an extra clue as to the technical accuracy of the backward walk.

So feel, sight and sound are all crucial tools for the successful Teacher in order to analyse movement.

When a Dancer is performing a Forward Walk, I advocate that the foot is placed, with heel touching floor first and immediately lowering to flat of foot, without a sliding action on the floor. So often one sees the leg and foot achieve the necessary distance, and then an extra slide takes place that moves the foot away from the body.  I always envisage a man driving a car, and then looking surprised to find his front wheel out in front of him instead of under his chassis. GULP!

The perceptive Teacher can also evaluate a Forward Walk by sound.  I can vividly remember my first Teacher reading a newspaper, with her back to me, and calling out to me as I practiced.  “You just missed a heel lead!”  I thought she was blessed with magical powers of extra-sensory perception! But, no she had developed the auditory sense that all good Teachers should have.

This whole discussion has been about the importance of the correctness of the two walk actions, forward and back. Without this, swing action and balance are impossible, so Dancers of all levels must continually return to a study of the walk.

From Barry Gasson Book Technically Speaking

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