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Picture Figures

by Pat & Joe Hilton

In this article, we would like to focus on the key components of picture figures and on ways to make these beautiful figures easier to execute. As Kay Read once said, are our pictures suitable only for a driver’s license, or are they worthy of being displayed on the mantle? To hopefully develop more mantle-piece moments, we will focus on some concepts to keep in mind.

The concepts we will explore include:

  • “Less is better” when executing picture figures

  • Maintaining good dance position while executing a picture figure

  • The role of stretch and rotation in developing a picture figure

Is Less Really Better When Executing Picture Figures?

When we see a dance leader execute a picture figure beautifully, our eyes tell us that they made big, bold movements to get into and out of that wonderful figure. The dancer learning that figure tries to mimic the actions he has observed. This often leads to significant problems for the dancing partner. The main reason for this is: what a dancer thinks he saw may not be what actually happened. In actuality, the seemingly big, bold movement is an illusion created by the amplified movement of the upper body, which was caused by relatively small movements in the lower body. Unfortunately, many people are not able to see and understand the actions that cause the figure to develop properly. Usually attention is drawn and eyes are focused on the bigger picture developed by the dancers’ top line.

If the foregoing analysis is correct, we may conclude that less really is better when executing picture figures. We need to understand not only the body mechanics of each figure, but also the part of the body’s movement that needs to be reduced to make the figure work properly. Let us explore some of the basics of picture figures.

Good Dance Position Must Be Maintained Throughout Figure Execution.

The most fundamental tenet is that good dance position must be maintained throughout figure execution. Good dance position is that relationship between the dance partners where their body lines are generally parallel to each other. This position is best seen in closed position (CP). CP occurs when the leader maintains a good frame that allows the follower to stay in a position with the follower’s right side aligned with the leader’s center line. The partner’s shoulders and hips are also parallel to each other. The partnership should try to maintain this position throughout the dance. Good dance position will vary slightly when the partnership goes to Semi-Closed Position (SCP), Banjo (BJO), or Sidecar (SCAR) position, but dancers should strive to maintain this parallel relationship as much as possible. The dance position most common in picture figures is CP. Although a figure may start in SCP, the figure will usually resolve into CP. We will use a Waltz (WZ) Throwaway Oversway to demonstrate the movement from SCP into CP.

Throwaway Oversway (A through step is usually required to start the figure from SCP) --

MAN: Side and forward left relaxing left knee and allowing right to point side and back while keeping right side in toward woman and looking at her [with left side stretch] (WOMAN: Side and forward right turning left face while relaxing right knee and sliding left foot back under body past the right foot to point back meanwhile looking well to the left and keeping left side in toward man.)

The direction for the man to keep his right side in toward the woman and for the woman to keep her right side in toward the man effectively moves them into CP. While the timing of the Throwaway Oversway may vary, depending on the choreography, the movement should be constant throughout the figure with the dancers shaping up to each other. If the lady keeps her right toe pointed toward the man as she swivels, it may make it easier for the lady to keep her left side toward the man, instead of turning away from him. If the man places his hips over his left foot and then turns on the left foot, he can overcome the tendency to over-rotate the right shoulder. Over-rotation of the man’s right shoulder causes it to extend forward over the lady, and also causes the man to lean forward over the lady because his hips are too far back. Maintenance of a good dance position is essential for the dancers to move easily through a picture figure. Loss of good dance position increases the chances of losing one’s balance or being injured.

Picture Figures Are All About The Lady.

To make a picture figure be "all about the lady," the man must think of himself as the frame of the picture. The picture frame provides a stable setting for the picture and should never over-shadow the picture. The man’s main thought should be to maintain his body in an upright posture. This will reduce the potential of leaning over the lady. When a man leans over the lady, he puts pressure on her and increases the potential for the lady to get hurt.

The lady provides most of the embellishments that add a bit of flair to the figure and draw attention to her. While the lady is adding the flair, she must concentrate on keeping her relationship to her partner, in order to maintain good dance position. The problem that occurs most often is the loss of good dance position when the partners allow their sides to drift apart.

Stretch and Rotation Make The Picture Happen.

Picture figures can only be executed when our bodies stretch and rotate in a coordinated manner to add a new dimension to the basic shape. It is the stretch and/or rotation that keeps the bodies in movement throughout a picture figure. It is so important not to rush the stretching or rotating action in the figure.

Dancers should step into the figure prior to initiating any stretch or rotation. Many of us have a tendency to immediately start our stretch or rotation. When we do that, we are putting the cart before the horse. We need to step into the figure first, to establish a stable base for the following actions. We will use the waltz Contra Check to demonstrate this concept.

Contra Check --

MAN: Starting in CP lower into the left leg and turn the body slightly left while stepping forward heel/flat on the left with a strong right side lead in CBMP. (WOMAN: Starting in CP lower into the right knee and turn the body slightly left face while stepping back onto the right toe in CBMP keeping heel off floor and with head well to the left.)

In this case the step into the figure occurred when we took weight on the man’s right and the woman’s left foot. When we flex our knees, we lower our bodies. The man's left and woman's right leg precede the body to move into the next step, as the upper body rotates left face and the dancers glide forward on the lowered plane to place their weight on the moving foot. That same gliding action will occur as the dancers recover from the contra checked position and prior to rising on their trail feet.

Although the feet will be diagonally across the line of dance and the legs will be crossed at the thighs, the dancers are still in good dance position with their bodies parallel to each other and in CP. You should feel that your body moves up to your partner as you roll onto the supporting foot. This is a figure where the man must really concentrate on staying upright and keeping his shoulders parallel to the floor, or he will tend to roll over the lady. If you have time to extend this figure, there is a technique that can be used to grow your top line. That can be done by tilting the pelvis forward. By tilting the pelvis forward, we are able to move apart at the top line, without bending our backs. We recommend that you try this technique; it's lots of fun.

We have looked at ways to improve our picture figures by concentrating on a few key concepts:

  1. Relatively small, controlled, lower-body movements let us generate much larger top line movements.

  2. Small movements allow us to move easily and maintain good dance position.

  3. Good dance position is vital to dance through picture figures safely and easily.

  4. The lady is the focus of picture figures.

  5. Stretch and rotation are the building blocks of all picture figures.

  6. Step into the figure prior to initiating stretch or rotation to ensure there is a stable base to use to build the figure.


From clinic notes for the ROUNDALAB Convention, 2009, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2013.



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