I am very fortunate in my day to day teaching to be working with both Ballroom and Latin styles of dance. It never ceases to amaze me how frequently I find myself teaching a principle in one style that is most commonly associated with the other style. For example, the concept of isolation of body parts is usually associated with the Latin dances but sometimes needs to be applied in the Ballroom dances.
It would, perhaps, surprise some people to discover how much common ground there is between the two styles and this article will highlight some of the common principles/concepts. The purpose of this is not simply as a theoretical exercise or a matter of interest; by understanding and being proficient at certain techniques frequently used in one style, can be of enormous benefit in performing the dances of the counterpart.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the “frame” we make with our arms and with which we connect to and communicate with our partner. Whilst the shape of the closed Latin hold differs from that of the Ballroom hold, the way we create the frame is the same, i.e. the arms are connected firstly to one’s own body and secondly to one’s partner by the use of tone in the arm muscles. Muscle tone is an extremely important ingredient for any kind of controlled movement and varying amounts of tone are required in different parts of the body such as the centre or core and, of course, leg tone is most important.
Many Latin figures have been borrowed (stolen!?) from the Ballroom dances: some that spring to mind are Fallaway Reverse, Telemark/Telespin, Promenade Runs (Samba)/Promenade to Counter Promenade (Paso Doble), which are based on an Open Natural Turn and Running Finish a la Quickstep! Ballroom dancers tend to have a better understanding of the standardised positions (e.g. Promenade, Counter Promenade, Fallaway Position) than Latin dancers but I recommend that Latin dancers also study these basic positions – not only does it clarify the relative position of Man to Lady but makes it easier when transiting from one to another.
On the other hand, Latin dancers tend to be more aware of the changes that need to be made to posture as one changes from one dance to another. E.g., the posture required for a Jive is very different to that of a Paso Doble. Ballroom dancers could benefit by contrasting more clearly the different posture required for a Tango compared to a Foxtrot, for example. I find the character of Tango has become diluted over the years and it now appears more similar to the other Ballroom dances than it should – posture and frame are two of the main reasons for this in my view.
Possibly, the principle I most frequently refer to as being essential for a good understanding of movement in both styles is awareness and use of the body’s centre of gravity (COG). Ballroom teachers and dancers often discuss the swing action of a Waltz/Foxtrot/Quickstep. In order to dance the pendulum swing action of, say, a Natural Turn, it is the dancers’ centres of gravity that represent the weight of the pendulum. If danced correctly, this naturally produces the shape we commonly refer to as sway. It is important that the couple appreciates that the shape is the result of the action and not something that is produced independently. Latin dancers also need to move their body-weights from the COG; this is true whether it is a Forward Walk in Rumba or a complex variation in Paso Doble. To move the body-weight from any point other than the COG has a detrimental effect on posture. By the way, Latin dancers also use pendulum swing sometimes; think of a “Drunken Sailor” in Jive for example.
One area where Ballroom and Latin coaches focus much of their attention is the legs and feet and in this area we find an abundance of common ground. Here I list just some of the techniques that could equally come up in either a Ballroom or Latin lesson: articulation (use and shaping) of the feet, use of the standing leg, tracking of the moving leg, line of the free leg. The Latin technique has specific terminology for such actions as a “Forward Walk Turning”. (This technique is applied to assist good tracking of the moving leg). Although this term is not normally used when discussing Ballroom technique, the technique itself is frequently applied.
There are many more topics that I could include in this article, such as Partnering for example, but these could, perhaps, form the basis of a future article. The point is that it is potentially of great advantage to any dancer to have at least some knowledge of the other style. For this reason I believe young dancers should be encouraged to pursue both styles for as long as possible before deciding to specialise in one or the other. They will at some stage in their careers be very grateful that they did so.