BALLROOM DANCING'S BEST KEPT SECRET
By Helmut Licht, a composer, orchestra leader, and ballroom dancer in Baltimore, MD
A message on my answering machine: "This is Betty Easterday. I understand you want to find out what round dancing is all about. Well, you should try to come to Cherry Hill Park this coming weekend. We'll be there Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for our Spring Round-A-Rama. I hope you can make it on one of these days. See ya!"
I happened to be free last Saturday evening so my wife Ronne and I decided to go there and check it out. We arrived at the park about 8:30 and as we approached the dance hall we could see people dancing. We entered and when I realized what was going on I was totally awe struck; maybe shocked would be a better expression, or maybe dumbfounded. I really don't quite know how I felt at that moment: it was a mixture of emotions and reactions.
I have been involved with ballroom dancing since 1958 and thought I had seen everything having to do with this, my favorite sport and pastime. WRONG! Here, in front of me, was an aspect of ballroom dancing I had never come across.
There were about 150 dancers ranging in age from the mid 20's to their 70's. The music was soft and a calm voice was calling out steps. No sooner was a step called did the dancers execute it in perfect synchronization with each other. They were all doing the same steps at the same time. Some of these steps were highly advanced along the ballroom syllabus. I recognized some of the names, such as Telemark, Lunge, Open Impetus, and Promenade Weave. When I taught for Arthur Murray's these steps were Gold level material and were only taught to students who had had many, many hours of instruction! Other names of steps, such as the Aida, I did not recognize as they are probably unique to this type of ballroom dancing. What amazed me was that I had NEVER in all my years of ballroom dancing met this particular child of the family. It's called Round Dancing.
After that particular dance was finished I asked a lady next to me where we could find Betty and Irv Easterday. She pointed to a couple on the other side of the ballroom. We walked over and introduced ourselves. Betty, still slightly out of breath from the previous dance, took us by the arm and guided us out the door to a side room. "It's cooler and quieter in here, and we can talk better," she explained with a smile. After conveying to her my surprise and astonishment, she laughed and started to explain a few things.
Right off the bat she wanted to make it clear that round dancing is strictly social and for the fun of it. No competitions ever! It is done all over the world. The Easterdays had just returned from a round dancing clinic in Germany. Last year they visited and taught in Japan. In the world of round dancing there are the choreographers who write a dance routine to a certain piece of music of their choice. Certain choreographers seem to specialize in, excel in, or prefer to choreograph certain dances. After a dance is choreographed a cue sheet is printed out and distributed by mail or over the internet.
When a song gets accepted, i.e. becomes popular, then a 45 record is pressed and the cuers around the world can buy a copy with the cue sheets in order to teach the dance to their students. Students are given a copy of the cue sheets to facilitate their practice.
Having taught ballroom dancing for years, round dancing makes perfect sense to me. The dancers are forced to perform a sequence of steps and, in so doing, learn how to connect different steps. The music is soft because the cuer's voice has to be heard. There is hardly any bumping into each other, because the dancers move in a counterclockwise motion and perform the same patterns at the same time. There is none of the stopping in the middle of a dance and glaring at your partner. There is no dancing against the flow of traffic.
I have been round dancing for year and didn't even know it. When I teach a dance to a group of students, I create a routine, which contains the steps we have mastered. The students then dance this routine. When a new step is taught, it is added to the routine. Thus a certain pattern is always danced in context.
There are seven levels of dancing. A beginner will start on level one and will have to learn a basic repertoire of level 1 steps. Any song that is choreographed in level 1 would only use level 1 patterns. Thus, if you have mastered all level 1 steps, you could theoretically dance to any song which is choreographed, and consequently cued, at this level. Different songs will have different combinations of these steps. The dancers thus learn how to connect all level 1 steps in many different combinations! That's great! How many times have I heard: "Gee, he knows about 20 steps in Fox Trot but uses the same 8 steps over and over again!" As the levels get higher, the steps become more intricate and exciting.
A unique feature of round dancing is that you do not switch partners. You learn the steps with a partner and stick with that partner. Betty commented that this, combined with the advanced cueing of the steps, might prevent the male dancers from becoming strong leaders. Perhaps, but to me everybody I saw looked happy and radiated a sense of accomplishment when a dance was successfully completed. And that's what it is all about. Have a good time and end up feeling good about yourself.
There is much more about round dancing, I'm sure. Perhaps some of my readers can fill in some points I have missed. But my BIG question now is: How come the Amateur Dancer and USABDA in general do not include round dancing in their domain? After all, they are amateurs and they ballroom dance! They might not be doing it quite the way you and I do it, but, what the heck, this is the age of diversity! And, frankly, I walked away from that place with a new sense of excitement about this, our great sport and pastime!
Keep dancing and romancing!
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