Ballroom Dancing Is Not For Sissies
& Sandi Finch
That is the title of a new book described as an “R-rated guide to
partnership” for adults who want to dance with a partner. If you are
dancing solo, you can have fun with the music and no fear of making a
mistake that will matter. Dancing otherwise is a team sport for two,
which means some expectations for a shared experience.
What is called “lead and follow” in the dance world, we call
“partnering.” Partner is defined as a cohort, an equal, a co-worker,
someone who is connected, the other half. All of that implies a shared
responsibility. But when two people begin to learn to dance, one will
usually “get it” faster. As they progress, they will plateau at
different times. I hate to admit how many times the car ride home after
a dance workshop was too quiet.
And that is natural, according to the book, which is all about what the
authors call the Three Rs of Dancing: Respect, Responsibility, and
Responsiveness. They call that a formula for dealing with the conflicts
that arise in this team sport of dancing.
Lead & follow have been discussed in round dancing from the early
days. We don’t have lead in the ballroom sense that the man decides
what figure to do, but there is a sense that someone should be driving
the partnership. Frank Hamilton, who wrote a book called The Round
Dance Manual in 1970, included an article titled “The Art of
Leading—and Following.” Women tend to learn dance routines more quickly
than their partners, he recognized, so partners have to work together
to help each other. The teamwork phase of dancing is “second only to
correct and adequate basic step training in the development of good
round dancers,” he wrote. “It is far more important than ‘teaching
another new dance’.”
If partners dance in correct position—standing upright and in
balance—the leading problem is half solved, he wrote. So when do you
begin to learn this? Partnering, correct body position, and how to be
in balance are concepts that will evolve as dancers become more
advanced, but all should be introduced at the beginning. Ladies need to
learn to “wait.” Both partners hear the cues in round dancing, but she
has to allow the partnership to move, otherwise both are leading, like
having four hands on the steering wheel, as it has been called.
Being in correct position means don’t look down. Don’t look at your
partner’s feet. Yes, if you are not sure, and you see the partner is
stepping into a New Yorker, you might remember what to do. But, looking
down shifts your center of gravity, tips you off center, and may pull
your partner off balance. You will also be “late” starting the figure
and that will put you “off time.” Ah, so much to think about.
Eddie & Audrey Palmquist, who did clinics around the country in the
1970s and 80s, started every workshop with a talk about frame and being
in good position with the partner. Every position needs a feeling of
being connected that comes from having tone in the arms, even Butterfly
and Open. Even beginners can benefit from understanding how tone and
In closed position, his frame needs to be “solid” to transmit what his
body is doing. She needs to hold up her left arm and not droop it on
his right arm. This creates a weight on his arm that can be intolerable
after one dance. Holding her own arm also puts tone in her upper body
so she can respond to his body movement. His right wrist under her left
arm is a major guide for her, and if his arms don’t go limp like
spaghetti, she will feel his movement. Her goal is to move and dance
into his right hand, which is on her shoulder blade. As Hamilton wrote,
“if the man relaxes his right hand and position or if she moves inside
this hand to lose contact at her back, it is very difficult to dance in
So, putting the modern Three Rs into practice: Respect begins with
self-respect. Have good posture and smile, be kind to yourself and your
partner. In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or
think you can’t—you’re right.”
The Sissies book suggests a “Rule of 3” to apply when there are
disagreements. Try it once his way, once her way and if it still
doesn’t work, take it to a teacher.
The second R: Responsibility. Each partner can dance only his or her
own part. Practice together and separately. Cultivate good posture,
move yourself, stay in balance, don’t criticize.
And the third R: Responsiveness. Recognize that dancing is a
conversation between two people. Men were once taught to lead by brute
force. No more. The man moves his own body and she moves in response.
The lead is communicated through his frame but not by pushing. If she
doesn’t follow? He needs to respond to what she does. Lead what you
want, choreographer Brent Moore used to say, but dance what you get.
From a club
newsletter, January 2020,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, February 2020.