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Picture Figures, Fact and Fantasy

by Roy & Sally Plaisance

Webster defines Picture as "a transitory (of brief duration) visible image," and Figure as "a bodily shape or form -- appearance made or impression produced -- movement in dance." For Round Dancing purposes, we can then say that a picture figure is "a transitory visible image of a bodily shape producing an impression by movement in dance." Simple. Right? Well, maybe not simple, but with a little understanding and practice, a whole lot easier.

Most of the picture figures occur in the modern rhythms, particularly in the waltz and foxtrot. For the most part, wherever these figures are encountered, they will be the same; only the rhythm and timing will change.

For the uninitiated, the mere thought of a picture figure can evoke thoughts from the dark side -- scary and downright frightening. But they don't have to be. A picture figure is nothing more than striking a line. That line is like throwing a ball into the air where at some point in time it is in a state of suspension. The picture figure causes a suspension of movement in the dance. Everyone can strike a line. The real question is understanding how to get there.

Be aware of your partner for any figure, but especially for picture figures. Each partner's part must fit together to produce a complete picture. Each partner must strive not to make their move alone and leave their partner stranded. Shape is used in all picture figures. Shape is a turning of the body line to accommodate your partner. This shape will give you the balance you need in figure execution. Contra body movement (CBM) independent of the feet is a mystery to a lot of us and we tend to either ignore it completely or give it little attention. It takes practice to maintain a parallel shoulder line, but it must be done to execute and properly balance picture figures.

You must be aware of your total body and your partner's body at all times. The shoulders do not turn farther than the hips. Actually, the line is made by the hips and thighs, and the body contact is from the waist to just below the lady's bust line. At all times, the head weight must be danced with the spine. Ladies use their heads more than men, so they must be careful not to overemphasize head movement. Ladies NEVER try to initiate movement with the head -- the head should only be an extension of the body. All 4 joints of the leg -- 8 in all -- must be used to effect body action into smooth body movement. With knees flexed, you first use the hip muscle, then the knee, followed by the ankle, and finally the toe. If you have a flexed knee, then the hip is flexed also.

As a general rule of thumb, the lady takes all picture lines to the right, and the man takes all picture lines to the left. Centralize the weight over the foot, parallel shoulders, counter balance each other's line -- do not cross over into your partner's space with your body, stay on your side of the "fence." Do not lean over the top of your partner. Take a deep breath to straighten the spine and pull the stomach in, developing body tone.

Following are a few pointers aimed at the most common trouble spots in picture figures. Watch out for these spots, and after just a little bit of practice you will be dancing your own picture figures with more ease and grace. Good Luck and Happy Dancing.

Contra Check: The problem here is a misunderstanding of what you are asking your body to do -- the result a lot of times is a grotesque look. The middle of the body starts the action, but that doesn't mean to throw the head and shoulders back creating an awkward line. It really is a forward poise with a softening of the right knee that lets the lady know the action is about to start, followed by a slight turn to the left, with the upper body moving forward as a unit (CBMP). The lady really controls the movement with her right foot -- she feels like she is going over backward and downward and her right foot controls this -- but she must be sure she doesn't allow her body weight to fall back on her heel. Most ladies are reluctant to bring their left shoulder back far enough and their heads far enough to the left and away from the man. The man's best head position is right, looking just past the lady's nose.

Hinge: The basic problem with this figure is a general lack of upswing and a turning to the left too soon. This figure requires considerable movement, and we don't seem willing to give it the movement necessary for a good execution. The man's step with his left foot should be SIDEWAYS with a definite flexing of his left knee. This will give the lady a chance to develop an extended whisk action and only then should the man turn strongly to the left. His turn should be with a shaping upward with a rotary action of the upper body.

Oversway: There is some confusion about what is meant by the term oversway. Oversway is derived from a motion created by the man leading a slight left-face body turn as he extends his right foot going into a strong right sway. The lady extends her left foot and keeps her head and shoulders well back to her left. Be sure to centralize the body weight over the man's left and the lady's right feet. Keep the shoulders parallel to the floor and to your partner. The lady's head is closed and the man's head is looking right.

High Line: This is really a variation of the basic oversway. It is entirely a lateral movement with body rise up on the toes and an open head for the lady. Often this is followed by a change of sway to an oversway position.

Challenge Line: This is a variation of the high line. It is taken flat-footed with strong body rise, where the man places himself slightly ahead of the lady.

Throwaway Oversway: This figure is an extension of the oversway. The turn into the "throwaway" is a continuous motion with the feeling that the man is putting the lady out on a slight diagonal. This one takes some work on body positioning at the point of throwaway to avoid any unsightly body twist or couple unbalance. The man steps side on his left foot and pivots left-face with an upward shape, flexes the left knee and centralizes the weight over the left foot, while leaving the right extended straight back. The lady steps on her right toe, then lowers to the heel before bringing her left foot to her right and extending it back while turning her head and shoulders strongly left. The throwaway motion created by the man rotating his upper body to the left makes the lady extend her left foot back.

Same Foot Lunge: This figure starts in a modified closed position, man facing generally either center of hall or wall and the lady at a slight diagonal to his body. The lowering on the man's left and subsequent left sway are keys to a successful same foot lunge. In the lunge position, the man must keep his right shoulder and hip over his right foot. Be careful not to drop the right elbow or push the lady into position with the left hand. The pelvic area is carried into the lunge and provides a supportive area for the lady. Be careful that the bodies do not pull apart on count 3 and that the man does not change his relative body position. The lady, even though on a flexed right knee, should be light and buoyant to avoid dropping heavily onto her right foot. As the man reaches side and the lady reaches back with their right feet, be sure you are properly balanced or the rest of the figure won't happen properly. Never overdo the lunge action and DO NOT LEAN ON EACH OTHER.

Opposition Points: The lady will follow the man's sway. If a strong right side stretch is used by the man, the lady will have an open head to the right and will follow the man's line. The amount you lower is purely by preference. Be sure that the lady's right knee is on the inside of the man's right knee and both the left feet are extended sideward. Open the top line with a little distance between chest and heads.

X-Line: This one is really a pose occurring on a single step. The name comes from the configuration of the partners' bodies where the "X" crosses at the hip level. To have a really good X-Line, it should be proceeded by something in closed or semi-closed position. the man will flex his right knee with a right-face swiveling action on the ball of the foot while shaping to the left. The left leg is extended sideward as far as is comfortable. This action forces the lady to open to the right and into a right sway. The lady's right leg is extended to match the man's. The supportive knees are flexed and the bodies open up to nearly a 180-degree line from the hips. Both look away.

Chair: This figure is used in nearly all rhythms and from almost any facing position. There are several ways of dancing a chair. A "forward poise" or a "backward poise" can be used, or a combination of the two. Each couple will have to do a little experimentation to find which is right for them. The most common mistake in any chair action is in the dancer NOT putting all the body weight forward onto the lunge step, leaving the heel up off the floor and creating a weak and timid chair. If a forward poise is used, the heads will remain straight forward, and on the backward poise the head and shoulder line will turn in toward your partner. Also on the backward poise the lunge foot will be turned in slightly. Be sure to remain snug and not open up too much into a flat semi-closed position.


We hope this will help you have a better understanding of Picture Figures and an easier time executing them. Some of the figures above are not true picture figures, but most do have that moment in time when movement is suspended for a fraction of a second and most have some kind of line or pose for an instant. Remember, these are our thoughts and you or someone else might have a different thought about certain figures. Try all the different ways available to you and make your own decisions as to how you will execute a line or what feels comfortable to you. This is merely some views and pointers to help you get started or perhaps improve your figures. Again, Good Luck and Happy Dancing. Stand Tall, Smile and have Fun.


From clinic notes for a ROUNDALAB Teacher's Seminar and published in the ROUNDALAB Journal, Fall 1990. Published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, November 2012.




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