The dances that are seen in ballrooms today are the result of interesting historical changes and ideas brought to the dance floor by different people. Most modern dances began as folk dances performed by ordinary people, in rural and urban communities. They came from different parts of the world and were taken up by and developed – often by royal courts and elegant social classes. Dancing never stops changing and growing, whether it is ballet or hip hop.
Today there are five main ballroom dances and five main Latin dances in the ‘Standard’ (or ‘International Standard’) repertoire. There are other dances seen on the ballroom floor, particularly in the United States, and variations can be found in the way these dances are performed in different countries. We have many accounts of the spread of these dances but broadly speaking, they all date from the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Latin dances are more recent arrivals and were adapted mostly from new dances in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
In addition to the Modern Ballroom and Latin dances, many dancers will be familiar with Old Time dancing and steps, which were very popular earlier years. Today it is much more likely you will see a variety of ‘Sequences’ danced. These are set steps are followed by all the dancers at one time. Sequence dancing patterns are based on ballroom and Latin steps but are danced as a fixed sequence by all couples at one time. The timing of these sequence steps may vary from freestyle dancing, so ‘Rumba 1′ is danced on the first rather than the usual second beat of the music, for example.
A brief explanation may be helpful of the dances you will find danced at Avon Dancers and other venues where keen dancers are to be found. There is, of course, no substitute to watching and performing the dances yourself, though you may want to know a little about the origins of what you are doing!
Waltz: The Waltz is the most established and easily-recognised ballroom dances, moving slowly and gracefully around the floor following the distinctive waltz music of three-beats (3/4 time). The Waltz is often the first dance taught to novice dancers, and though its three-step progression appears deceptively simple, it remains a sophisticated and elegant dance which brings out the skill of the dancer and the grace of the movement achieved by dancers. Among the distinctive features of the dance is the steady rise and fall of the steps and the sway accomplished by dancers as they move in rotating movements around the floor.
Viennese Waltz: The Viennese is an ancestor of the modern Waltz, danced in the most beautiful ballrooms of the Habsburg Empire when the Strauss’s and other composers wrote some of the greatest Waltz tunes (such as Blue Danube), for them. The Viennese is danced at a faster pace than the modern Waltz and so has simpler steps and variations, though it is a beautiful dance to perform and to watch. In competitions it is usually reserved for more advanced dancers as it demands skill and good timing.
Slow Foxtrot: The Foxtrot developed from a stage-dance performed by the American Harry Fox, when the ‘trots’ were danced at a reasonably quick pace, more like the modern quickstep. The later Slow Foxtrot is, as the name implies, a smooth and slow, gliding dance which is a strong favourite among ballroom dancers. One reason for its appeal is the wide range of beautiful ‘lounge’ music and modern tunes that can be adapted for the dance, including songs by Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Michael Buble and many others. The dance has a distinct ‘slow-quick-quick’ rhythm with constant motion, though less rise and sway than the waltz. In contrast to most ballroom dances, the dancers usually begin their dance facing the centre of the room rather than placing themselves in a diagonal to the wall, though the Foxtrot progresses in the same anti-clockwise direction around the ballroom.
Quickstep: The roots of the Quickstep are to be found, like the Slow Foxtrot, in the United States at the beginning of the century when the Charleston and other dances were very popular. Its name again suggests that the dance has a more lively pace than the Waltz and Foxtrot, moving quickly around the floor with simple standard steps but also turns, skips and variations that give the dance the light and happy feeling that the competent dancers show off in their movements. Some of the most famous Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers routines were choreographed to this kind of music and they remain classic examples of how to look great while keeping everything moving.
Tango: The Tango originated in Argentina at the beginning of the twentieth century and though it has a distinct ‘Latin’ feeling, the standard (as distinct from the Argentine) Tango is classed among the ballroom dances. When the ballroom dances were being arranged in their Standard format in the 1920s-30s, ballroom Tango developed its sharper ‘staccato’ or flexing style. This distinguishes it from the slower Argentine Tango that is widely (and often exclusively) danced in milongas today. The ballroom Tango retains a recognisable posture and moving action (usually slow-slow-quick-quick) and turn that mark it out from the other ballroom dances. It is danced to the familiar tango music that may be heard in musicals such as ‘Evita’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’, though all in strict tempo to enable dancers to place their steps precisely.
The Latin Dances
Cha Cha: The “Cha” is the most familiar of the Latin dances, with its distinctive rhythm and the tempo of its lively music. Adapted from the folk dances of Latin America, the cha-cha has a pronounced sideways movement and hip action that features the “Latin motion” common to many of these dances. Modern Latin cha-cha is performed in strict time with turns and flourishes that make it a happy, expressive dance. It is often the first Latin dance taught to novices as it gives some early flavour of the light stepping action that is common to many of these dances. One of the Latins that does not progress around the floor, cha-cha has the more open hold and relaxed style that enables partners to match their steps without close body contact.
Rumba: Rumba has some similarities to cha-cha in basic shape, though without the syncopated stepping in the side hip-movements of the dance. It is a slower and more measured dance with flowing leg and arm movements in time with the lush Latin music that makes it one of the most romantic of the Latin dances. As with most Latin dancing, the forward and back steps are taken on the second beat of the bar, hence the common expression “dancing on 2”, and the slower pace of the dance allows the Lady in particular to show off her footwork and body motion to great advantage.
Samba: Imported from the famous Brazilian carnivals, where Samba dancing is practised all year in preparation for the great processions around Rio and other cities, the Samba has an atmosphere of party enjoyment. The dance also has more complex ‘Latin motion’ hip and leg actions, though with many interesting turns and rolls as it progresses around the room (rather like Ballroom dances) rather than remaining in one place. The fast tempo of the dance makes it one of the most energetic and flamboyant of all the Latin dances and one which shows off the skills of experienced dancers to great effect.
Jive: Once again the name says it all: Jive was imported to Europe at the same time as Swing and developed into Rock and Roll before being adapted to the Ballroom and Latin floor. It is one of the quickest and most energetic of the dances, though again with the emphasis on enjoyment and fun rather than sober posture. Jive is danced to a great variety of familiar hits, ranging from Swing of the 1940s to more modern Rock music with a distinctive rhythm and tempo.
Paso Doble: The fame of the Paso Doble (or Spanish “Two Step”) was helped by the hilarious film “Strictly Ballroom”, but its origins lie in the Flamenco dancing tradition of Spain. The story of the dance is that of the Spanish bullring, where the Matador uses his cape to entice and tease the bull around him. The Lady performs the role of the cape and her steps mirror those of the male in open spectacular moves. The dance is the most specialised of the repertoire and is usually reserved for specialised dances and for demonstrations, though it is played on Practice Nights.
These dances are used in competitions and one established feature of Avon Dancers’ practice nights is a brief exercise of all five ballroom and Latin dances played briefly in sequence (for 1.5 minutes each in succession), to enable dances to test their competition stamina, if they so wish.