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Some Basics About Picture Figures

by Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid

What do we think of when we say the word picture? It is a flash, a moment taken with a camera. It freezes the action. But a picture can also be a flowing, moving picture, like a "motion picture" or movie. We would like to combine these two ideas when talking about picture figures in Round Dancing. We will not be discussing here all the movements getting into or out of a figure, nor the actual actions or execution of these figures.

ROUNDALAB's definition of a picture figure is, " An action or movement where the majority of the activity centers around the frame of the couple's dance position."

NOTE: We will usually give the RAL definition in italics at the beginning of each figure.

There are a few rules, or things we need to think about, when executing a picture figure.

  1. You should always both be in balance yourselves, and you should be in balance as a couple.
  2. You should always have your weight on one foot and be "over" that weighted foot.
  3. You never extend, or lower, further than you could get up by yourself.
  4. You should never look down, or collapse.
  5. You should never try to out-do your partner; the emphasis is on the couple.

Often when we think of picture figures we think right away of the more advanced figures. But remember, an action extended and momentarily stopped is a picture figure, and we have those in the beginning of our dancing. We will start with a very basic figure and continue up through some phase IV figures. Take a look at each one and go point by point through the 5 basic rules we have presented above, and see if you have a problem there.

Apart, point - unphased

This is usually the first picture figure that we will come across. It is not done in a closed hold, and that makes it fairly simple to execute; let's look at the rules. Rules 1 and 3 here are usually no problem, but we often see dancers looking down or away (rule 4), and sometimes, often maybe trying to be "funny" one partner does something strange (rule 5). Sometimes beginning dancers put weight on their pointing foot (breaks rule 2). Then they don't know which foot is free.

Dip (back) – phase II

MAN OR WOMAN: Step in direction indicated and take full weight with the knee relaxed or slightly bent. The other leg remains extended with the knee and ankle forming a straight line from the hip and the toe remaining on the floor.

Some problems that we have seen with this figure is that dancers do not first of all step back; they often step side and back and twist their bodies. Right away, this makes a problem with rule 1 and 2. Often the lady will look down (rule 4), and sometimes the man, probably trying to show off his strength, will pull his partner off of balance (rule 1 and 5 and for the lady rule 2).

Dip (back) & twist – phase II

This has the same beginning action as the dip (back), but adds a twist at the end. RAL's definition of a twist is, "The turning of the upper body to change facing direction without changing weight." What we often see happening is that the couple will dance these 2 actions as 1 action. You have then lost the "flash," that final moment when the picture is taken. Also, a number of dancers will break rule 4 or 5, if the man pulls the lady into a twist, pulling her off balance.

Corte – phase III

MAN: Usually in closed position step back and side left using lowering action with supporting leg relaxed.
WOMAN: Usually in closed position step forward and side right using lowering action with supporting leg relaxed.


This figure is listed only in rumba and tango, but we see it used also in other rhythms.

The important thing here is that you step side and back (or forward if you are the lady). Again, you need to be sure that you both have your balance before the man leads into the figure, and that the man does not pull the lady off balance.

Side corte – phase III

MAN: Step side left flexing supporting knee and turning to reverse semi-closed position leaving right leg extended with toe pointing to floor.
WOMAN: Step side right flexing supporting knee and turning to reverse semi-closed
position leaving left leg extended with toe pointing to floor.


This figure is only listed in the RAL definitions under tango, but again, we often see it in other rhythms as well.

While you do step and turn to RSCP, you need to be sure not to look down (rule 4) as that will break your line.

Chair – phase III

MAN: Forward right lunge step.
WOMAN: Forward left lunge step.


This is a one-step figure, but in most cases will use a full measure of music. (We are discussing the figure "chair" here, not a "chair, recover, slip." In using a full measure, this is the first figure we come to that goes through the "motion picture" stage to get to the "flash photo" stage. In this figure we really need to be sure that we stay up and do not "collapse" – no broken chairs here, please. In using all the music, you can settle into the chair, then minutely raise & re-settle. This gives a nice "photo finish."

Right lunge – phase IV

MAN: Flex left knee move side and slightly forward onto right keeping left side in toward partner and as weight is taken on right flex right knee and make slight left face body turn and look at partner.
WOMAN: Flex right knee move side and slightly back on to left keeping right side in toward partner and as weight is taken on left flex left knee and make slight left face body turn.


We will discuss the right lunge here as a full measure of waltz timing. This figure also goes into through the "motion picture" to get to the "flash photo" stage. The flash photo comes at the very end, just before you are ready to start into the next figure. Before that, you should use all the time to gradually get to that point. That is the motion picture.

Let's be sure that we go through all 5 points. 1) The man should not start his side step into the right lunge until both partners have their full balance. He needs to feel that he is not pulling his partner right, but leading her to the right. 2) As the man places his right foot he will flex his right knee and bring his weight onto that foot. The flexed knee will help with balance. 3) Of course, the man will not over-extend his lunge, nor extend it past the comfortable lunge position of his partner (rule 5). Remember to keep your head up; the man will be looking over the lady’s left shoulder (rule 4).

Promenade sway – phase IV

MAN: Side and forward left turning to Semi-Closed Position and stretching body upward to look over joined lead hands, relax left knee,
WOMAN: Side and forward right turning to Semi-Closed Position and stretching body upward to look over joined lead hands, relax right knee,

We will again use the waltz rhythm here, and while the RAL definition only shows two beats being used, the figure usually uses the full 3 beats of a waltz measure, the first beat being a preparatory step either back or thru. This is also a picture figure that goes through the motion picture to the flash picture stage. You need to check yourself with all 5 rules. Especially rule 4: don't look down or collapse. In the promenade sway you need to stretch up, and you will both be looking over the outside of your own lead hands; the outside of your own wrist. The man will have his right side stretched, the lady her left side stretched.

Oversway – phase IV

MAN: Side left relaxing left knee leaving right leg extended and stretching left side of body and looking in designated direction.
WOMAN: Side right relaxing right knee leaving left leg extended and stretching right side looking well to the left.


While they say in RAL that the man looks in the "designated direction," more often than not he will be looking towards the right. This is a one-step figure, so in this case it is a "flash picture," but often you will have a full measure to do the figure. Then of course you want to make your movement a moving picture, with the flash picture at the end. Especially if you go directly into the figure, there will also often be a preparatory step, either thru or back, to the oversway.

Change of sway – phase V

From any sway position without weight change, change stretch of body and head position to opposite direction [there may be body rotation]. Timing will vary.

This is not considered a figure in RAL, but an action. An action is a motion without a weight change. This is the difference between an "oversway" and a "change of sway." After a promenade sway, we often hear the cue, "change to an oversway." What is really meant here is just "change sway."

This figure can be used after any sway figure, but let's look at how it would be after a promenade sway. You are standing in your promenade sway position. You are standing completely on one foot (your lead foot), that leg is slightly bent and your trail leg is straight. You have your sway towards your lead side, so facing the wall, the man's sway is towards LOD. To change our sway, we do not want to drop our shoulders or hips. The man needs to raise his right hip into and towards the lady as he stretches his left side and with a slight left rotation changes his sway towards his right side. It is very important here not to break your sway. You do the action with your body, not with your shoulders. Be sure that you do not change weight. You should still be able to lift your free trail foot.


© 2007 & reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, November 2012. For a round world, Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid.




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If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.



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