25. Feet of Class or Feet of Clay

An overseas professional recently congratulated me on The Making Of A Champion series but added that, as an adjudicator, he would mark an artistic’ dancer over a technical dancer. I thank him for the compliment but what he said about preferring one quality over the other is missing the point. There should not have to be a choice if, as I am, talking about a champion in the making. For the embryonic champion it is not a case of this or that! Those couples who are already in – or who are working towards – serious contention for championship titles should have started their competitive career from the basis of, as a first priority, building a platform of sound technical knowledge.

Even if you, reading this, are at the very beginning of your career as a dancer, please take the cultivation of good technique seriously. Technical excellence is measurable as a skill against clearly stated definitions. ‘Artistry’ is much more nebulous and may be said to lie only in the eye of the beholder. A Champion is produced from the combination of technical excellence and the dancer’s concepts of artistic beauty of movement and style. Some of my other articles, which dealt with important elements of Style, Movement and Charac¬terization, give pointers towards the pursuit of such excellence or ‘artistry in dance’.

Every competent qualified professional knows that it is wrong to step onto a heel on the 4th step of a Progressive Chasse or Lock Step; wrong to rise onto the toes in Tango or to point the toe of the unweighted foot, heel raised high, in Tango Promenade Position, wrong to dance a Lock Step with the toes turned out (as in Old Time dancing), wrong for the man to use Lady’s footwork – no foot rise – in the Reverse Waves (orthodox or extended), wrong to have the feet passing wide on turns (as would be used by a sailor aboard a ship in a rough sea). But these are only the more blatant sins against the technical accuracy of foot usage.

Feet, the point of contact with the dance floor, have had hundreds of thousands of words written about them. (I have written a few thousand myself.) Pick up a book on Ballroom dancing and you will see that there is a great focus of attention on the use of the feet. When diagrams are used to illustrate a dance figure they are in the form of footprints. In the analysis of Ballroom Dancing half of the technical terms are referenced from the placement of the feet. (The other headings are Contrary Body Movement, Rise & Fall (none in Tango), Sway and Rhythm.) The following rules are specifics. There is no room for doubt whether a particular foot placement is in accordance with the technique; either it is or it is not. I need hardly remind readers that this teaching Technique is currently accepted by every Teachers’ Association in the world.

1) Positions of Feet: These refer to the position of the moving foot in relation to the supporting foot. It is worthy of note that there are 11 open positions of the feet in addition to the ‘closed’ position.)

2) Alignment: Refers to the direction of the feet in relation to the room. The words FACING and BACKING do not refer to the body but are used to specify that the feet have the same alignment as the body which, on basic turns, is 5 times out of the 6 steps. The word POINTING is used when the moving foot has a different alignment to that of the body. Pointing footwork only occurs on a single step out of the six in a basic turn.

Now read this very carefully. If the feet were supposed to be turned outwards on most steps – as in Latin, Old Time and Ballet – the technique would specify a pointing alignment on the majority of steps! So why do the teachers/ trainers/ coaches of the offenders – and there are many who offend –
allow this frequently recurring error to go uncorrected?

3) Amount of Turn: The degree of turn between steps is measured from the test not the body. It should be carefully noted, especially by those who dance ‘forward, forward…’ on steps 1 and 2 of a turn, that when a turn is sub-divided over three steps (for instance, the first half of a Waltz/Foxtrot/Quickstep Natural or Reverse Turn) the greater amount of turn, is usually between steps 1 and 2, the smaller amount between 2 and 3 (e.g. 1/4th and 1/8th). Does this not clearly indicate that the second step of a turn must be a side step?

4) Footwork:
More obviously, this refers to the part or parts of the foot making contact with the floor and the order in which they do so.
Yet these four technical points only comprise the bare skeleton of foot styling. A ‘champion’ would bring feet to life to the extent of imbuing them almost with a ‘soul'; would have developed them as high-grade, tuned-up, cultivated, expressive fea¬tures.

A low-grade medallist ought to have an adequate knowledge of the basic elements (as the four points above) which comprise correct usage of the feet
In any competitor grade above Intermediate, incorrect footwork is inexcusable. For anyone in the Amateur grades of Pre- Championship or above it should be a matter of pride to be thought of as having ‘polished’ footwork.
For International standard competitors, footwork should not only be technically accurate but ‘artistic’ to the nth degree.

Umpteen times I have been at a championship event which has left me wondering if some of the ranking couples had really listened to their teacher when they were supposed to be acquiring the basic skills of dance. I could have written the following piece about any number of couples at nearly every event in the last few years where l have been adjudicating: “There was this young couple of amateurs; smartly and expensively turned out. She in a very attractive dress and with beautifully coiffeured hair, he in well-fitting tails, looking resplendent with freshly barbered hairstyle. My first impression is of a couple who take their dancing seriously and have spared no expense in enhancing the way they present themselves to the eye of the adjudicator.

A glance at their Top-Line confirms this view. Good general body and shoulder lines. Perhaps the hold could be improved, it looks artificially high. At first sight they seem to move fluidly enough. Well constructed combinations of attractive figures.
It would have been easy on this impression to have marked them very highly in the event.
But footwork of appalling ineptness ruined the whole image!

The top-show I have described above is only a façade, unsupported by a solid foundation. Clearly this couple have been dancing for some years in order to have cultivated their trendy, fashionable appearance. But how is is possible that they (or their teacher) could have neglected the fundamentals of foot technique; so absolutely essential to the complete dancer? I am overwhelmed with disbelief. Heels are clocked down where they should be on the toes and vice versa. Toes are splayed out at almost 45 degrees to each other. The concept of parallel, brushing- past-the-other-foot, footwork seems to have passed them by, completely unnoticed.

Nor does the visual shock effect of these feet of clay“ stop there. If there is no proper understanding of footwork it is a certainty that Ftise & Fall will be seriously flawed.
Looking back, I recall the hours my teacher would spend, during my formative years, polishing each nuance of correct footwork; the ceaseless repetitions of open turns, closed turns, chasses, heel pivots, toe pivots, heel pulls, swivels and other general minutiae of dance.

I was youthfully impatient to move onto the exotic, exciting, eye-cathcing variations that I saw other amateur competitors using. But, in time, I realized how right my teacher was in her painstaking methods as I overtook all these ‘quick-fix’ dancers on my way upwards to the championship titles. Be sensible! Build a solid platform of impeccable technique. In the end it’s a quicker route to the top.