One of the methods by which artistry in movement is achieved is by using contrast. Contrast – ‘light and shade’ – can be achieved in many ways. I hear and read a lot of talk about speed in dancing. Vague comments such as “They have good speed” or “they lack speed” might be typical. But what does this mean as a useful aid to the couple? Even with all the experience gained from my 60 years of competing, demonstrating and performing cabaret, adjudicating, examining, and lecturing at the highest levels, I could not even ! begin to conjecture! Now if I heard that a couple had (or had not) a contrasting range of speeds in their dancing, this would make more sense. Contrast in speeds of action is one of the essentials in the ‘Making Of A Champion’.
That brilliant Latin Champion, David Sycamore, lecturing with his partner, Denise Weavers at the 1996 World Dance Congress – an outstandingly brilliant presentation, as I remember – commented on the application of speed in dancing. (He was giving examples of contrasting foot speeds in various figures in Samba.). David said – a state¬ment with which I totally agree – that “Fast speed on its own is of no value unless contrasted against other speeds”. This is absolutely right! In fact, though it is only common sense, quite a number of dancers in both Latin and Standard seem to be ignorant of this important principle.
In my Making Of A Champion’ series, I have dealt, stage by stage, with the development of seamless fluidity of movement under the heading ‘The Four Flows’.
The fifth article focussed on the task of co-ordinating these Four Flows into one harmonious whole. Contrary Body Movement was the second of the Four Flows which should be added to the primary flow of progression over the floor.
On this same point, during the adjudicators’ lunch break at Bill Phillips and Kathy Oldland’s 1997 Stars of The Future promotion at the Brentwood International Centre, Bill reminded me of the reason why the Feather in the Foxtrot was originally so-named. To feather oars or to feather propeller blades (when aircraft were driven by propellers) was to pivot the oar or propeller on its axis to reduce air resistance. Similarly, the expert dancer used Contrary Body Movement in the Feather Step to enhance the flow of movement (and to present a more artistic partnership silhouette, cutting through the air with the man’s left shoulder (lady’s right shoulder) as the leading edge of the body). Thank you Bill for this graphic illustration. With my experience of 7 years in the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, all of it on propeller aircraft, I take this very valid point.
The ‘key’ figure of the Foxtrot – its very essence – is the Feather Step. Every top champion from the 1920’s never stopped practicing the Feather Step, even when they were already winners of championships. Certainly, Doreen and I kept ceaselessly polishing this and our other basics. Among others, I remember Bill Irvine MBE, when giving a World Congress lecture some years ago, pointing out the great deal of practice time he and Bobbie had dedicated to the mastery of the Feathers.
But fluidity is only part of the total picture of movement in the Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep and Viennese Waltz.
To advance the aesthetic interpretation of dance movement a stage further by picking up David Sycamore’s point about contrast in speed, this is how you and I can add more variety, interest, sparkle, surprise, and artistry to fluidity. Although the music to which we dance in competitions and championships is strict tempo, there are many ways in which a variety of speeds of movement can be introduced into all these dances.
For an example, let us take the Promenade Standing Spin in Waltz, where the axis of the spin is on the toes of the Man’s left foot. (‘Paddling’ of the feet should be avoided or kept to the absolute minimum.) We liked to use Arcing Sway with both our heads poised in the direction of rotation. The girl, right side leading, body angled in a narrow V position with the man, takes running steps around him, while remaining with her (left-of-centre) middle line in contact with his (right-of-centre) middle. Most dance couples, when performing this figure, rotate at a constant, unvarying, speed. Of course, this may well give a quite satisfactory visual picture.
Much more artistic, however, is for the Man, the leader, to start the Promenade Standing Spin slowly, smoothly and gradually accelerating the pace of the spin, building up to a peak of rotational speed, then allowing the rotation to smoothly die away, until there is a moment of almost breathless stillness…hovering for a fraction of a second, still on the toes…before swinging off into the following figure.
This accelerating-decel¬erating treatment of the Standing Spin might occupy three or four or even five bars of music, depending on the musical arrangement. Why not always the same fixed number of bars? Because the dancer should try to end the figure at the right point in the music; e.g. a phrase ending. If you really, really listen to the melody, it will tell you when this breath-pause moment occurs. If you only focus your hearing on the beat of the music, what I have just written will have no meaning to you. Also if you are locked into a fixed routine, where you have no allowance for shading/ highlighting your dancing to differences in melodic structure (no two waltzes, foxtrots or quickstep numbers are exactly alike) then you will be unable to respond artistically to the ‘invitations’ inherent in a particular melody.
Unless your choreography has been created especially for the specific musical arrangements being played, as for a Showdance performance or a professional demonstration, the competitor should be trained in the ability to ad lib not just the order of figuration but the holding or accenting of specific steps. The would-be champion must have a flexible approach to be able to interpret whatever tunes, with their different arrangements, accents and highlights are played during the championship.
I remember being told by a very knowledgeable fellow- professional dancer, after seeing us demonstrate at the Hammersmith Palais, that we must have totally changed our work since last appearing there 13 weeks earlier. In fact, we had not changed any of our groups. But we had changed our music! Therefore, the visual effect of the work was different.
The whole idea of championship dancing is to create the most apt, the most convincing, the most artistic, stylish, inter¬pretation of the melodies being played.
source: Dance News newspaper Edition No.1513
Harry Smith-Hampshire, Making of a Champion series