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Fundamentals, Part One: Weight Transfer

No one can dance effectively without balance, and no dancer can maintain good balance with poor weight transfers. Many overlook the importance of properly shifting weight, because it seems mundane and simple. But in the world of dance, the rules are more complicated.

For example, in ballroom dancing you may execute:

  1. A step (a 100% weight transfer)
  2. A rock or check (a partial weight transfer)
  3. A tap (pressure on the floor, but no weight transfer)

Many balance issues, especially during turns, happen because we confuse rocking and checking with stepping. And since most of our movements involve taking steps, this is a very good place to start.

How do we know we’ve taken a step? The quick answer is when the opposite leg is “free” to be used, i.e. picking it up and moving it won’t cause a loss of balance. The real answer is more complex because of momentum, but we’ll talk about that more shortly.

In ballroom, weight transfers are executed by pushing off with the standing, or “weight-bearing” leg, not by tilting the body. This ensures the upper body stays connected to your partner, without unnecessary swaying.

One of the best ways to practice is to simply dance your patterns, starting with the most basic, pausing on each step and lifting up the other foot to confirm you are balanced. Do you start to tip over when you lift? Do you have to engage extra muscles to hold you in place? Be honest with yourself.

As I said earlier, momentum can make this exercise more challenging. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

When most experts are faced with a challenging pattern, their gut reaction is to slow it down and figure out how all the parts work. Yet the novice dancer often speeds up when faced with the same problem. Why is this?

The novice is increasing their momentum to “power through” the pattern, as it’s less obvious they are having balance issues than when they do it slowly. But speed only hides these issues – temporarily. In order to maintain balance and adjust to changing circumstances, the dancer must be balanced on every step.

This doesn’t mean momentum has no place in dance (in fact, it’s one of the fundamental principles!), but it must be controlled so it works with the movement and doesn’t require unnecessary muscle use.

To control for momentum, we must have something working against, or counter-balancing that momentum. Ballroom dancers do this by intentionally swaying their body slightly away from the direction of travel. I’ll explain this with the “+1, 0, -1 Principle”.

Think of your momentum as +1 energy. That energy will continue moving you until it hits opposing energy, or -1 energy (actually slightly less, because of friction). If you step on a flat foot with a perfectly straight spine, what happens? You’ve contributed 0 energy, so your momentum rolls you over your standing foot.

But if your sway your body against the momentum, you create -1 energy, allowing you to settle on the standing leg with control. We can also “sway” through our feet, stepping out with the inside edge and rolling to a flat, as with the second-last step of an American tango basic.

So why is all this important?

As any social dancer knows, conditions change quickly on the floor. Dancers sometimes need to stop, or at least redirect their movement to avoid bumping those around them. But if you are not in control of your momentum, you are committed to a specific course of action, and won’t be able to stop if others get in your way.

It’s like two drivers approaching an intersection at perpendicular angles. If one is roaring along at 140 km/hour, they won’t be able to stop quickly enough to avoid T-boning the other. Of course, they may trust the other driver will spot them and stop in time, but that’s quite the gamble, and one they will eventually lose.

By maintaining your balance through complete weight transfers, can take full responsibility for your movement, and both your partner and your neighbours will feel safer for it.

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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