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The 4 Tiers of Ballroom Dance Technique: Footwork

I don’t care what dance style you’re learning, what level you’re dancing at, or the teaching style of your instructor – if you want to improve, there’s 4 tiers of ballroom dance technique that everyone needs to know:

  • Footwork – How we place our feet and stay balanced
  • Timing – Maintaining the tempo and expressing physically what we hear in the music
  • Leading/Following – Connecting and communicating each movement to our partner
  • Styling – The positions of our head, arms, legs and body, which improve the look and feel of our dancing

As a dancer moves down the list of dance techniques, they transition from learning a vague framework to very specific adjustments that reflect the character of each dance. And this month, we’re covering each one of them, starting with tier one: Footwork.

First, balance.

I like to say “If you can walk, you can dance, but if you can BALANCE, you can walk.” Think of how you walk: Your chest leans into the direction of movement, then your leg shoots out ahead of your body, and finally you push off the back foot to move your chest over top of the stepping foot.

Ballroom dance technique is very similar, except the movement begins around the navel, not the chest. This keeps us from leaning and becoming “heavy” for our partner. It also gives us better control over our momentum – leaning forward might work for walking, but it’s dangerous in a dance where a step in any direction is possible.

Next, alternate.

The vast majority of our movements in ballroom involve complete weight changes; that means we alternate which foot steps next. This might seem simple, but I can’t tell you how many students tap when they should have stepped, causing them to run into their partner.

If this sounds familiar, my personal favourite remedy is to “march” each step like you’re in the army: Make a point of lifting and stamping with each foot throughout the pattern. This will emphasize the weight changes to your brain, helping you build the right muscle memory, so you can smooth it out again afterwards.

Next, footwork.

In Latin/rhythm dances, we slide the balls of our feet along the floor, with our toes turned outwards. In smooth/standard dances, we roll from heel to toe or vice versa with parallel feet. This kind of movement is referred to in most syllabus’ as footwork.

For Latin/rhythm dance technique, place a tissue paper under the front half of both feet, and try moving through your patterns without losing them. Then, start focusing on sliding the inside edges of your foot, before rolling to flat on your weight change. This makes it easier to keep the toes facing outwards.

For smooth/standard dance technique, the moving foot transitions from ball to heel as it travels from behind you to the front or side, and vice versa when it travels backwards. Try walking naturally through the step to get the idea.

Finally, floor connection.

Dance technique for ballroom uses the floor as a springboard to push ourselves into movements with greater control, speed, and power. Even for beginners, a minimal amount of pressure on the floor is important to keep our foot from sliding out from under us like an inadvertent step on wet ice.

The best way to think of floor connection is to imagine you’re dancing on sand, and every movement of the foot is meant to carve furrows into the ground. It’s important to realize that this only applies to the moving or free leg – your standing leg is carrying your weight already, and isn’t going anywhere.

Who knew there was so much to moving your feet? Next, we tackle the second tier of ballroom dance technique, timing and musicality!

About the Author

Ian Crewe has been dancing ballroom for over 18 years, and has a Licentiate in American smooth and rhythm. His passion for dance eventually led him to blogging and the World Wide Web. Ian currently teaches at the Joy of Dance Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada.

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