Season 17 of ABC Prime Time television success "Dancing with the Stars" premiered Monday, September 16. Excitement and speculation is brewing as viewers vote for their favorite dance performances and as couples with the lowest combined scores of the judges and the public get eliminated each week.
Entranced by the glamor and the ability of a cast of non-dancers (actors, comedians, football players, singers and the like) exhibiting some difficult dance moves with their professional dance partner/teachers, the public is seeking to enjoy a piece of that world as well. Dance studios are the beneficiaries as people young and old flock in to learn the art and enter the competition arena.
To beginners, however, deciding on what dances to start with and how to go about finding the right teachers and learn about competitions can be confusing, particularly since the world of ballroom dancing is forever evolving and there are multitude of options out there. As a start, therefore, it is helpful to gather some basic information with regard to dance styles. In the US, for example, competitive ballroom dances are classified under two main groups: International Style and American Style.
The International Style of ballroom, commonly learned throughout the world, includes five dances that fall within the "Standard" category: waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow fox trot, and quick step. The "Latin" category of International Style of ballroom also includes five dances: rumba, cha cha cha, samba, pasadoble, and the jive. Both groups of dances are standardized for teaching purposes with a set, internationally recognized vocabulary, technique, rhythm, and tempo.
A little background on the evolution of these dances is warranted. The world's leading board for ballroom dance examination, Imperial Society of Dance Teachers (later called the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing or ISTD) was established in 1904. This body, comprised of world class champions and other notables in the dance world, formed the Ballroom Branch which was instrumental in developing standard dancing styles that later formed the basis for the International dance standards. Their techniques were further modified and finessed over time by a generation of English and American dancers and dance societies in the 1920s and thereafter.
Today dance competitions, referred to as dancesport, are mainly regulated by the World Dance Council (WDC) and the International Dancesport Federation (IDSF) for world championships. Countries also have their own national and regional organizations that regulate their own way. The National Dance Council of America, Inc. (NDCA), for example is the official governing council of dance and dancesport in the USA and the leading authority of dance for professionals, amateurs and professional/amateur competitors. Similarly in Britain, the British Dance Council grants national and regional championship titles. Some of the dance forums across the world are not recognized internationally and so also their dance variations.
Internationally, the Blackpool Dance Festival, hosted annually at Blackpool, England, is considered the most prestigious event a dancesport competitor can attend. International Style dances ("Standard" and "Latin") are judged at this competition and not the national and regional variations found throughout the world.
Since the focus of this article is on the International "Standard" dances, it is useful to first examine the general features of this category.
All of the five International Standard dances are partner dances, performed by a couple, usually a male and a female. All are performed in the "closed hold" position. This means that the couple should maintain five specific points of contact for most of the dance. Also, all require a high level of precision and concentration, as they rely upon technique. The posture, the hold, and the varied tempo and rhythm of the dances all provide a very elegant look as the couple float across the dance floor.
To get an even clearer picture, here are the most significant features of each of the five dances, also demonstrated on YouTube video by the many time World and Open British Standard Champions Luca and Lorain Baricchi at the 2008 Dessert Classic Festival.
Once called the "slow waltz" or the English Waltz, this dance is danced to about 30 bars or 90 beats per minute. Usually, one step is taken for every beat, or three steps for every measure. Although it is much slower in tempo, the waltz can have advanced figures that may require six steps per measure, which may be complemented with various turns and poses to make the dance more dynamic. This is often the first dance performed at Dancesport competitions. Its technique calls for a 'pendulum swing' of the body, parallelism of the feet, sway, contra body motion, and rise and fall.
Tango, which originated in Argentina, is a dramatic and romantic dance in which dancers remain closely interlocked and move with passion and precision. The international style of modern day ballroom tango is generally danced at about 120 beats per minute and in 4/4 time. Although Ballroom Tango is a simplified version of the original Argentine Tango, there are some key differences. The Ballroom Tango, unlike its Argentine counterpart, requires that steps stay close to the ground ( click to see Blackpool finalists Giampiero Giannico and partner Anastasia Murayeva perform the Tango in 2007). Also Argentine Tango moves such as the boleo (swinging a leg into the air) or the gancho (wrapping a leg around the partner's body) are not used in ballroom. Also staccato movements such as the head snap are specific to ballroom Tango.
3. Viennese Waltz
The Viennese Waltz, so called to distinguish it from the Waltz and the French Waltz, is the oldest of the modern ballroom dances. It emerged in the second half of the 18th century from the German dance and the Landler in Austria and spread to England in the early 19th century. The course of its development to its current form is also a story about cultural changes throughout Europe. Originally, the couples did not dance in the closed position as they do today. The hold was at times semi-closed, and at times side by side. By the 1930s, however, it evolved into the first dance to be danced in the closed position.
Danced at about 180 beats per minute, the Viennese Waltz is a rotary dance in which dancers are turning in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions, gliding across the floor in 3/4 time. A true Viennese Waltz consists only of turns and change steps. However, additional steps such as fleckerls, pivots, and underarm turns became incorporated later and are now allowed when the dance is done competitively.
The slow foxtrot is a variation on the quicker One Step or Two Step which was popular in the Victorian era and carried over to the night clubs of New York in the early 1900s. The basic Foxtrot rhythm is slow-slow-quick-quick. It's a graceful and fluid dance with a pace of around 120 beats per minute in 4/4 time. Weight changes and sway is particularly important in the dance since it relies upon a good deal of back and forth movement.
5. Quick Step
Originating in England in the 1920s, the Quick Step is an energetic dance with a great deal of momentum. This dance shows influences from dances like the One Step, the Charleston, and the Shag. It is done in 2/4 or 4/4 time. While it appears smooth and graceful, the dance often consists of a series of hops, runs and rotations. The Quick Step sequences can last for several bars of music, and couples must be prepared to dance with speed and fluidity across the floor.
In closing, it should be noted that mastering all five dances in light of their differences can be quite a challenge as each require a unique, dynamic, and fresh set of skills.