Let us look at how we would normally create movement.
When we commence walking we neither throw our bodies ahead of our feet or push our feet and legs out in front of our bodies. However when we start to learn to dance, natural movement tends to fly out of the window because of the strange experience of trying to move with someone in front of us and having to fit this movement into a pattern. The latter tends to happen at the beginning of our dancing careers and the former takes over when we are encouraged to move at greater speed. The latter can usually be ironed out quite quickly in the early stages, however the former tends to take over when movement at any cost seems to be the requirement and become an ingrained habit that is hard to eradicate. Unfortunately although this method can carry you a lair way along your career, it will produce poor footwork and lack of control and you will hit a plateau from which you cannot progress. Let us go back to basics therefore and examine the production of normal movement.
Try starting to walk and see how you initiated that movement. What seems to happen is that we shift our centre of gravity in the direction we want to move but at exactly the same time the foot moves into a position under the body at a distance equal to the shift in the centre of gravity. The two aspects therefore happen at the same time: we would look very silly walking or running down the street if they didn’t happen at the same time.
I have a firm belief that dancing movement should be created in the same way. Movement that is forced is neither elegant nor energy efficient. The initiation, direction and speed of the movement can be created by allowing the centre of gravity to ‘topple’ in the required direction. One does of course not ‘topple’ because the standing foot will control the movement of the body and the distance travelled as well as the degree or elevation, while the moving foot will be ready to take up the weight of the body when it passes from the standing foot. The distance travelled will therefore be dictated by the strength of the standing foot and it’s ability to keep control of the flight of the body before the moving foot takes up the weight. To push the body weight forward so that it gets ahead of the moving foot will shorten not lengthen the stride, as the moving foot will be placed sooner because the standing foot will not be able to retain control of the body’s flight.
If you are hooked into the ‘movement at all costs syndrome’ then take a metaphorical step back for a moment and concentrate on the proper use and strengthening of the feet to give them a better chance of carrying a well toned body through to a larger step. The whole foot and ankle is of course important but what is often ignored is the strength of the toes. If the weight is carried only by the ball of the foot then the step will not be very large. If the weight is carried by the strength in the toes, then this is what will achieve the control needed for a greater degree of travel. Therefore I am an advocate for the idea of more careful and accurate use of the feet to create greater distance rather then pushing the body forcefully. Slowing down the steps will force the feet to be used more which will automatically develop the strength need for greater travel. I am not for one moment suggesting that the body is not used in movement, but if the body is to be moved elegantly and with control then this must come from proper use of the feet.
The height or depth is controlled by the feet and legs and the correct footwork is a direct result of this aspect of the movement. In other words it you cannot achieve the correct footwork then the degree of the body flight and amount of elevation must be wrong. If you cannot achieve a toe step then you have lowered too soon. If you cannot achieve a heel lead then not enough depth has been achieved on the previous step. Amount of travel is also assisted by the fact that two people are dancing together i.e. two people can achieve more than one on their own. This can happen because the presence of the partner in front of the one moving forward gives them better control of body flight, therefore the chance of greater movement. However because the man is not usually as good as the lady at keeping his body weight forward on backward steps, then she does not receive his help in controlling her forward movement. It is often the case that a couple can achieve a greater distance when the man is moving forward than when he is moving back.
Let us now look at body positions in relation to the feet. When moving (onward, for both men and lady, the weight must be carried forward over (not past) the balls of the feet and must never be allowed to fall back over the heels. That is not to say that the heels will not touch or be close to the floor but the body weight will never rest in the heels. The forward carriage of the body is easily achieved by maintaining the body position described previously and reaching your ‘centre’ towards your partner. At no time should your body be carried so far forward that it becomes a weight that your partner needs to support. When moving backwards the body weight must again be carried forwards over the balls of the feet and is achieved in exactly the same way.
Obviously greater distance of movement can be achieved from a lowered position than from an elevated position. Depth is therefore a function of the required distance not a separate item. The desired effect is therefore a smooth movement that flows in a controlled manner from one step to the next with a continuous and never static action. Ah but! you say, movement stops whan you close your feet in a waltz. Oh no it doesn’t: it just translates itself from a lateral movement into a vertical movement which then smoothly translates itself back into a lateral movement as you move off again. As you must have realised the above describes the achievement of movement in the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep.