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Telemark Talk

By Brent & Judy Moore

Let’s talk telemarks. In our manual, there are a dozen or more described telemark figures (three do not use the “tele” prefix but are part of the family) and as we know, there are several others lurking about in choreography that are not described directly and probably some that none of us have heard about as yet. Even though we will not be able to examine all the telemarks in this article, we will consider the fundamental concepts that this family of figures share and some of the nuances in technique that make them different. We will also look at things to look for in how well we perform these actions and offer some tips on how to improve your telemark family of figures.

We can group telemarks into two types . . . those that turn left (most) and those that turn right (a few). Fundamental telemarks can be danced from closed or sidecar positions for left turning telemarks and closed and banjo positions for right turning telemarks. They share common actions and some differences as well. Below are some of the figures that we place in the telemark family.

  • Left turning telemarks: open telemark (Phase IV), closed telemark (Phase IV), telespin to closed (Phase VI), telepspin to semi (Phase VI), telepspin to banjo (Phase VI),double telemark (Phase VI), mini-telespin (Phase V), teleronde (Phase VI), telefeather (Phase VI), quick telemark (unphased), triple telemark (unphased), telespin ending (unphased).

  • Right turning telemarks: natural telemark (Phase V), natural hover cross (Phase V), continuous hover cross (Phase VI), traveling hover cross (Phase VI), double natural telemark (unphased).

First, the fundamental concept behind any and all telemark figures is that they are heel turns for the lady and as such are, no matter the rhythm, technically foxtrot figures . . . that is, they are danced with early rise for the man. This action in theory blocks the lady’s rise and forces her to turn on the heel of the back stepping foot. As the man swings by the lady, he clears the block and allows her to rise. This late rise is characteristic of the one on the inside of any heel turn.

Another concept with telemarks (and all turning figures for that matter) is maintaining the counterbalance that is needed to facilitate smooth and unified movement. This is an issue for some dancers and is usually related to where the head weight is carried. Men tend to look at the partner in turns and this action destroys counterbalance. Men must keep their heads well to the left in all these turns. Ladies too can upset the counterbalance by allowing their heads to center over the body in the turn and to let it come forward when in semi-closed positions.

Part of maintaining counterbalance in turns includes sway. The manual describes it as a stretching of the side opposite the turn. We find this concept to be much misunderstood and mis-danced. The classical definition of sway is the inclination of the body from the ankle upward away from the moving foot. In reality, sides are never stretched . . . they maintain the same length and tone all the time. A better approach is to examine the elevation of the hips relative to each other. If you think of swinging the hip opposite the turn upward, you achieve sway and it helps maintain counterbalance. Side stretching leads to distortion of the body line and loss of connection with the partner.

Rotational speed and constancy are also areas that need to be examined. A general guide is that you rotate at a speed that the partner can follow and, once you start the turning action, you maintain the same rate across the turn. This is especially important in the telespin group where you have a good bit of rotation to achieve. Many times there is a tendency to turn fast, pause and turn fast again in this group of figures. Try thinking of the tips of the elbows turning at the same rate until all the turning is complete.

Exiting rotation is the next area in which problems occur. The tendency is to fall out of the turn, and the greatest problems happen when the exit is to semi-closed position. When exiting a telemark family in semi, two things should happen: the upper body should stop rotation early and the lower body (hips) continues the turn a little bit more so that the bodies retain their connection and counterbalance and the feet are placed to facilitate the next step. An additional concept is to think of the hips and head being connected . . . it really assists the counterbalance. Care should also be taken in head positions for both man and lady. The tendency is to allow the spine to tilt forward which brings the heads forward. When landing in semi on the man’s left (lady’s right) think proud left side to keep the spine vertical which keeps the head back.

Let’s take a quick look at turning action itself that applies to all turns. All turns start with a commencement of turn in the body while on the standing foot. On left turns the first step is taken forward in the direction of the supporting foot which momentarily creates a slight contra position between the body & foot. On right turns, the first step is taken at an angle to the supporting foot in alignment with the body. If you measure turn by the change in foot alignment, that makes the left turns late (turn happens after weight is on the foot) and right turns early (turn is made before weight is on the foot).

Now for a brief look at some figures and the little things that happen in each --

The above actions describe the basic actions needed for the open and closed telemark. Make sure that foot turn is not occurring on step one. If more turn is needed, think of stepping a little wider (to the partner’s elbow) but not allowing the foot to turn. Ensure that the man is swinging past rather than around the lady and check your finishing positions, including spine, head, and hip alignments. On telespins, look to make sure there is constant rotation throughout the turn and make sure the man has placed the foot side and back to open the door for the lady. There is a definite tendency for men to stop rotation when they point the left foot back, which forces too quick a turn as they restart the turning action. Be careful too not to look at the lady as you point the left foot; this stops the turning as well and causes loss of counterbalance.

The standard natural telemark has 3/4 turn and lowering at the end of the third weight change; however, when using that action in a hover cross or continuous hover cross, the turn is greater (almost one full turn), and there is no lowering on step three. On a double natural telemark, even though there is the overturn of the natural telemark, there will be lowering on step three. Another trap for dancers on the double natural telemark and continuous hover telemark is step four; the man keeps his body rotating but slightly delays his fourth step to allow the lady to move in front of him. Stepping too early blocks the lady and momentarily stops the turn.

The double telemark is probably one of the most difficult in this series because of the difficulty in getting the over turn of the telemark (7/8 rather than 3/4) and being in a good semi-closed for the pickup on the thru step. Head weight here is critical; also there is a strong tendency to not lower well at the end of the first telemark. Another issue is trying to pick the lady up too quickly. Remember the rate of turn starts after the thru step is taken and is steady. A source of this problem goes back to our old way of counting the step timing (123;&123). Not only is this musically incorrect, it leads to snatching the pickup action. The revised timing now in the manual encourages a better thru step (123;1&23). An acceptable alternate timing does this as well (123;12&3).

These tips address the most common telemarks that we encounter. Hopefully they can provide a guide for your dancing of this family of figures. A summery of the key points: realize they are heel turns (early rise for man); swing the hip upward to create swing, thus sway; dance past, not around, the lady; watch your head positions; maintain continuous rotation once it starts; be aware of those figures where you lower in the middle of the action and those figures where you don’t; and strive to maintain counterbalance and connection


This article is based on clinic notes published for the Roundalab annual convention, 2007; published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, April 2012.




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