On Grace and Elegance

Ballroom dance has taught me many things. It’s not easy, it can be graceful, but leads must be subtle.  We’ve also met many wonderful people, thus have our dance friends.

Ballroom dance is a niche, thus there is a ballroom community. Although we know only a small portion, we recognize many faces because we attend the same functions. Dancers are at all levels, yet we note differences. Many know numerous steps, but the don’t look good doing them because they’ve primarily (or only) learned from group classes – but they enjoy themselves, which is important. Others look better, but don’t know as many steps – those are the ones who take private lessons.

Their timid and stiff nature identifies the beginners, but hey – all of us were there once. A handful have danced for more than 20 years, and let’s just say that some of them are very good .. the few that stand out. Even on a large floor with two hundred people, those that are trained, experienced, and/or competed at a high level are easy to identify – after all, they probably practiced, too! Reality is that most of us are between those two extremes.

It didn’t take long for us to identify Madam M. As she danced down and around the floor with her competitive partner, her movements defined elegance and grace as her smile beamed joy. Madam M is a relatively tall, attractive woman, and her firmly anchored partner knew how to display her. While watching them dance, I would think – Someday – maybe someday – I will join her for a smooth dance – a foxtrot or a waltz. Keep in mind, this is 4-5 years ago, which was early in our dance experience.

Over time, we’ve had several encounters with Madam M, and most importantly, she’s very pleasant. Maybe a year or so ago we were talking and she suggested we dance. Although it was a west coast swing – not my best dance – of course I accepted, … but that didn’t count as that dream dance. Later, there would be times when I would step toward her direction, but only to be intercepted by another invitation.

Image from Microsoft Office

Image from Microsoft Office

At a recent small ballroom gathering, there was Madam M sitting alone at a table. The DJ played a Foxtrot, so I asked her to dance. We went to the floor where I offered my left hand as a starting position, she took her place then arched back into my right hand after I lightly placed it on her back. I straightened my frame, and in no time, long strides were gracefully gliding us around the floor (at least to me).

I kept the patterns simple because my Foxtrot timing has gone in the toilet the past few months. The dance was wonderful, and afterwards, I told her how I just accomplished one of my goals. Her laugh and words conveyed both, That’s silly and Thank you … but my soul was beaming.

A short time later, it was a waltz, thus I couldn’t resist. Again, we glided and I followed various shaping that she led with subtle precision. We were both casually dressed and in a less-than elegant venue, but it was easy for me to envision my tux with tails and her flowing gown in a grand ballroom. At the end she told me that I dance well, which I found reassuring as I checked the box on my personal bucket list … even better, I checked it twice.

On an Unexpected Connection

Saturday is Dance Day and Down Syndrome Day – thus the perfect opportunity for a post about special people. After all, I imagine many may not see a link between ballroom dance and Down Syndrome.

I volunteer at a weekly dance event that is not only fun, but one with ample opportunities for smiles because it is for adults with Down Syndrome. Some of the attendees are functional enough to have a job, but others aren’t. Some a more coordinated and able to move better freely, but others physically struggle. Toss in a wide range of speaking abilities, it’s quite a gathering of about 30 attendees and numerous volunteers.

My smiles come from an action or something said. From a person running up to me for a dance to receiving a smile given by someone who has difficulty speaking. Simply put, the 45-minute session is a weekly delight in my life.

However, these events are not about the volunteers, but about the attendees. First of all, it’s a social event. They arrive with smiles and race to greet their friends they haven’t seen in a week. That is followed by the power of music and dance as it speaks to them just as it does to the rest of us.

Each week is the same. The 45-minute session starts and ends with the same song – the group’s theme song – a version of Over the Rainbow to which everyone dance a group routine. After a line dance or two, the instructor reviews the dance, and then a song plays for dancing. Another song for the same dance is the sign to change partners. The pattern stays the same through Rumba, Salsa, Waltz, Foxtrot, Cha Cha, Tango, and Merengue – with the latter quickly morphing into a predictable conga line. After another line dance or two, the session ends with the same theme song that started it all.

I want to toast several of the attendees for the joys they give me.

  • To T, one of the better dancers, and one with an infectious smile and positive attitude
  • To K, whose quiet nature always answers question and giggles
  • To S, who is always smiling and laughing as she thinks I’m a bit crazy
  • To C, who best communicates to me through her eyes and smiles that make me melt on the spot
  • To J, who runs to me with a smile for a salsa or cha cha
  • To R, who insists on being a lady
  • To Teddy, one that I’ve written about here before, whose positive attitude about life is a role model for anyone
  • To the parents and caregivers for being supportive
  • To Mary, our leader (the blonde in the opening video), and the one who has made this happen

I close with a collection of clips for the competition held last October for these wonderful people. (Because you want to know, I’m in Foxtrot, Swing & Tango sections with contestants 35 & 54 – but I think that’s me in the center of the still)

Other Related Past Posts

On Foxtrot

My favorite dance is the Foxtrot. It’s a proper dance with proper music. It has class. (Anton du Beke)

Danced to the music of crooners, Foxtrot is a long, smooth, continuous dance designed to move down the floor and around clockwise (unless a pair has the floor to themselves as above). It’s easy, flowing manner displays face, style, and elegance … just imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

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Origins
Foxtrot’s origins are debatable, some have it beginning in the 1890s. Whoever is right, there is no doubt that the dance became popular.

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There no question that early Foxtrot was faster than today as it was originally danced to ragtime. By the time of this film, the tempo had slowed down.

Style
Danced in 4-4 (4/4) time, Foxtrot is smooth and graceful … not jerky … not bouncy.

Its easy walking style helped make Foxtrot the most popular dance of the 1920s and 1930s.

Overtime, Foxtrot morphed into slow and fast versions, thus today Foxtrot is slower and Quickstep is fast. Each have similar steps, but done at different tempos. Even today, American and International versions differences include tempo. (To me, this is International style, which is slower.)

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Steps
Foxtrot is a combination of slows and quicks …. slow walking steps (each using two beats of music) followed by quick steps (each using one beat).

Because of the footwork, instructors often say “slow, slow, quick, quick” or “slow, quick, quick” in a repeated pattern

In some “slow, quick, quick” styles, the first quick is lengthened into an almost “slow, slow, quick”.

Foxtrot is a combination of walks, chasses, and turns with a rise-and-fall action from heel leads on the slows, but toe leads on the quicks. Partners commonly remain in hold most of the time … and at least in contact.

Although the timing of the music is different, many Foxtrot steps are usable in Waltz, and vice versa.

Arthur Murray started his road to fame and fortune by printing the basic step of the Foxtrot and selling them for 10 cents each through the mail. It was the first time anyone had printed dance steps and sold them mail-order.

Quickstep, Peabody, and Slow Fox are variations – thus in a group of social dancers, styles are (in my opinion) the most wide-ranging of all the ballroom dances

To close, enjoy this collection of Dancing with the Stars clips that have been brilliantly compiled, then placed into the same song.

Ready to dance?

On an Extra-Special Event

BallroomDecor

Decorations in the ballroom’s corner

We arrived at the suburban convention center, then followed the red carpet to the upstairs ballroom where we found soft lighting, decorations, and plenty of tables surrounding a large temporary dance floor. At one end and above the floor, on the platform the DJ was checking his equipment from his seat beside the emcee’s podium. The judges’ area was to the left of the platform with forms ready for their completion. The people arriving were nicely dressed … some to compete and others as members of the audience.

The event was a very special sanctioned dance competition with over 30 dancers competing in foxtrot, waltz, rumba, cha cha, salsa, tango, and swing. On this day, the competitors were adults with disabilities – primarily Down Syndrome.

Several weeks ago my wife and I asked the organizer if she needed more volunteers – and she quickly said, “two males to compete” because two contestants needed partners for several dances. I checked our schedule and then accepted … plus my wife volunteered to be on the makeup and hair-styling team …. and the next day I secured a second male.

I only had two short sessions to practice with my partners, but that was enough because the steps were simple and we were not to exceed outside the listed steps. At the competition, organizers placed in heats of 6-7 dancers that allowed plenty of room for both the dancers and the judges on the floor … just like in typical dance competition.

My partners and I competed in four of the seven dances, making the semifinals and finals on three … and even winning third place in one .. but this day was more than that. Yes, it was a competition … yes, there were medals … but everyone one of the dancers were big winners. They loved dressing up, they loved dancing, they encouraged each other, and they appreciated others who smiled, said hello, or shook their hand with a smile … and we support dancers made sure the day was about our partners.

The day was about the contestants, not the dancing pair. The emcee announced each contestant for every dance, but he never mentioned their partner. We were in the program, but after the contestants name. During the awards, contestants received the medals with great joy as the never-mentioned support partner proudly stood by them … and every support partner loved playing second fiddle on a day meant for others.

The story about the organizer and how this group of people came to be is a post in itself, but on this day, my wife and I were very happy that we asked that question several weeks ago about the need for extra help. We smiled a lot on this day and left with a warmer heart, plus I know some tears leaked out of my eyes when the organizer took the time to dance with each contestant.

The next step for me seems logical … that I continue participating as a partner at their weekly gatherings … after all, it’s about them. Through the magic of dance, they see themselves on an elegant ballroom floor … but they probably don’t know or realize what they give to the volunteers.

(Note: It isn’t my place to post a video on the dances, but if the organizer releases them for public viewing, I will share.)

Flashbacks: On Ballroom

Watching Dancing with the Stars got us into ballroom dancing. It’s been fun and challenging. Below are some past posts that you may not know about ballroom. Enjoy, visit as many as you want, and I hope you comment on the post you visited.

On Waltz

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Did you hear the 1-2-3 pattern in the beat?

The waltz is a fun, elegant dance, but the truth be known, it is not easy

Waltz music is in 3/4 time (three beats per measure), whereas most dances are in 4/4 time

Waltz music should provide an easy to hear 1-2-3, 1-2-3 pattern, with the first beat heavier (more pronounced than the others)

In many steps, dancers elongate the second beat

Today, waltz is associated with flowing gowns, tails, and sophistication, but its roots are as a dance of 16th century peasants in eastern Europe

Here’s a chance to learn the basic step

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The word waltz is from the old German word walzen, meaning to roll, to turn, or to glide

Waltz became fashionable in Vienna in the 1780s

As the dance spread across Europe, religious leaders vehemently opposed the dance, thus proclaimed it as vulgar and sinful

Acceptance in England was even slower, but opposition waned because Queen Victoria was a good dancer and enjoyed waltz

Waltz received a big boost when Austrian composer Johann Strauss wrote numerous waltzes

Waltz first came to America in the early 1800s, yet it also received religious opposition – but to no avail as society accepted waltz by the 1850s

Here’s one of our favorite waltz songs, Come Away With Me by Norah Jones with Jonathan and Anna on DWTS (listen for the 1-2-3 beat)

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In dancehall settings, waltz moves counter-clockwise around the floor with a rise on the second beat

Waltz looks best with long, controlled strides to move the floor

Social dancing is not choreographed – it’s lead and follow … yep, the male leads and the female follows …. Ladies, would any of you have a problem with that?

Today there are two prominent styles: International Standard Waltz and American Style Waltz

Major difference is that in international style, the dancers always stay in closed position (in hold), while American style breaks hold for spins, turns, and other steps (This was very evident to me on my trip to Italy early this year)

Viennese waltz (shown later) is also in 3/4 time, but at a much faster tempo with a lot of turning (thus I don’t do Viennese because of motion sickness)

Other styles include Scandinavian, Peruvian, Mexican, Cajun, Tango vals, Venezuelan, Contra/Freeform, Valse Musette, and Cross-Step

The next set of videos are to some of my favorite waltz music – Enjoy!

Still Me (American style)

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Theme from Cider House Rules (International style)

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She Dances by Josh Grobin with Tony and Julianne on DWTS

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Nocturne by Secret Garden

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Here’s a beautiful Viennese Waltz, which is much faster, but the 1-2-3 beat is still prevalent

On Cha Cha (Cha)


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Known as cha-cha-cha, or simply cha-cha

Dance of Cuban origin

Derived from Mambo

Energetic, fast, sharp dance with a steady beat

Music is in 4/4 time, thus providing a rhythm to split the fourth beat

Some count one, two, three, cha-cha-cha, two, three, cha-cha-cha

Others count one, two, three, cha-cha, one, two, three, cha-cha

In the basic pattern, the cha-cha-cha steps are side-together side, while the one to three are forward, back, together (or back, forward, together)

Here’s a chance to learn the basic step

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Styles of differ from place to place

In competitive ballroom, there are American style and International style (which have more similarities than differences)

Introduced to the US in 1954, and it was the dance craze by 1959

Hip action called Cuban motion

Cuban motion is a result of bending and straightening the legs, plus shifting the weight

Enjoy this slow competitive Cha-Cha

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One of the most dominant pop rhythms in the past 50 years

Listen to the music the basic pattern of the feet

Enjoy the group routine to Ola Chica (one of my favorites)