Many of you have now gone through various and vigorous competitions throughout the year.  More than that, you have gone through weeks, months and years of practice to get ready.  Results have varied we can be sure.  Some are undoubtedly pleased with the overall result, having won more than lost, improved your placement over previous times, or just beat that particular person you have been chasing.

Others are wondering what went wrong.  “I never made that mistake while practicing”.  “The music was much too fast, slow, quiet, and loud.” or whatever.  “That other person should have been entered in another level”.  “It was not fair”.  “The Judge missed my best step”.  “I never thought my new outfit would get in the way”.

There may well be some out there, that don’t remember anything.  The whole thing was a fog, caused by fear, anxiety, bottled confidence, or who knows what.  These people are wondering, a) Do I really want to look at the video? and b) Did I even order a video?

Regardless several things have happened, and by and large they are all good.  So let us examine them.  We will come back later to the latest TV shows and what they mean, but to you this should be important.

#1, you have participated in life and not just watched it.  Anyone who has the courage, fortitude, and/or audacity to come out in front of a bunch of strangers, so called experts, and put it on the line has experienced life at some of its most basic and primitive levels.  No matter how civilized some people would like to consider dancing to be, being out in front of the audience is not much different then the leaders of the pack fighting for supremacy of the herd.  While this aspect of the competition might be considered more applicable to men, anybody who has watched couples practice knows that this instinct is often shared or even dominated by members of both sexes.  So for those that look at the evolution of it all, being competitive is not new, but admitting it is OK may be even though it may not be politically correct.

Too much cannot be said about the competitive experience.  It drives us to excel, it enhances our senses, provides a reason to celebrate.  I have said before and firmly believe that it is the competitive experience that gives new meaning to learning.  This is true whether that competitive experience is the result of real life dilemmas or opportunities, or manufactured ones that occur in sport.  In earlier times, children’s games were solely designed to give children the skills they would need later to succeed as adults.  Hide and Seek could teach the art of hiding so that a hunter could develop the patience to wait for its prey.  Tag would instill in its players the need to develop speed, agility and the consequences of losing.  Group games develop the ability to coordinate and plan and take a lead or follow.  Board games of old were obvious stories of life like Monopoly, and Lincoln Logs, baby’s toys help develop dexterity, hand-eye coordination, visual recognition and memory.

#2, your social skills have improved.  Participating in a sport like dancing requires give and take, and promotes the interaction between the sexes.  Maybe even more important, it is an activity that utilizes all the senses as you act and react around real people.  Unlike jobs, where so many work in a cubicle, even more in front of a screen, and with headsets, and others behind a counter repeating the same tasks day in and day out, dancing involves different moves to different music, changes in plans based upon the actions of others, and yes, sometimes accidents that need to be handled without road rage.

You can’t go to a dance competition or studio and not say hello to somebody.  Whether you go as a couple or single person communication is an integral part of the dance scene, both on the floor and off.  In fact most of the communication on the floor is non-verbal or at least should be.  Every lady can tell when her partner is nervous, or tense not by what he says, but by the perspiration she feels, the faster breathing she smells or hears and the feelings associated with an ever tightening grip.  Men know something is wrong, when his legs are always bumping into hers instead of swinging through as usual.  There is no doubt that something has changed when the pain of the fingernails has finally pierced the costume, or the weight finally causes the right shoulder to twitch or buckle.

Professional instructors will teach the man which steps do what.  In the most practical sense every man needs to have at his beck and call steps that turn in each direction on a dime.  They also teach steps that accelerate the movement to pass on the left or right to avoid disaster, as well as steps that cruise along and those that idle along barely traveling while still moving.  Once mastered, the student is expected to learn how to move backwards as easily as forward, to travel at an angle or even check the movement entirely while still looking good.

In previous lectures I have discussed competitions from the point of view of judges, and then from the student’s stand point.  Today we offer a look at competitions from the point of the teacher.  What he has to look out for, what is entailed in good choreography, and how choreography changes for each student.

Beyond the fact that instructors realize the motivating factors behind competition, choosing to compete is rapt with potential problems and pitfalls.  If I choose one student to compete and leave others home, am I choosing a favorite?  Yes everybody has favorites, but instructors of any genre have an obligation to the craft, art or science they are teaching to promulgate, promote and broaden the appreciation of their chosen field to as many people as possible.  Nobody will appreciate the teacher who in third grade comes up to you and says, “You know, being a housekeeper is an admirable field, and maybe your niece should consider it because she hasn’t picked up …. as fast as the others.”  Most of us would be first to the principal’s office demanding a new teacher for our relative.  We want the teacher for our relative who is stretching the students, who is inspiring the students, who won’t quit trying the first time our little nephew says it is too hard.

So let’s look at what teachers consider when putting together routines.  First they must look at exactly how much time do they have to develop the routines.  All too often students want to wait until the last minute to make that big financial commitment.  Students have even told me, teach me like I was going then I can decide later.  The problem with that is that it isn’t only the teacher who has to get involved in the competitive experience and until the commitment is made, until the goal is recognized the reticular activating system in the brain doesn’t move the body and mind in the right direction.  The work involved in getting to the next phase of development isn’t entirely mental, but without the mental picture of where you are going to be, you will not put forth the best effort to get there.

Growing up in the sixties, most polls of children would have shown that being an astronaut would have ranked high in the list of desired vocations. However it was only those that actually expected to become astronauts that took the steps anyone knew were required.  Namely science classes, learning avionics, becoming a pilot were all requisites of early pioneers in space and majoring in basketball just wasn’t going to get you there no matter how much you wanted to fly around in space.

The same is true in developing your routine.  First look at movement.  Every dance has its particular brand.  Smooth dances are defined, one, as those dances that move in a counter clockwise direction around the floor.  Secondly and maybe even more importantly as dances that create their movement from going from point A to point B, and each in its own unique way.

This means that movement in Tango may be similar to the movement generated by a train as it rumbles down the tracks, and a teacher must either develop in the student the strength, knowledge, and footwork and leg action to do that better than the competitors or lacking that time or commitment, hopefully choose steps that will appear to satisfy that look in the eyes of the Judges as they are watching a multitude of people.  The competitor hopes to win through clever use of patterns, or maybe the floor, knowing full well that if the Judge is able in the malaise of competitors to recognize the difference, the competitor dancing right will beat the one dancing smart.

Most of you have seen the competitors who, while dancing, will skip an entire corner, or even side just to zip past the judges again.  And, while I firmly believe that in a smooth dance, he that gets around the most should win, that is only when all else is equal.  Granted in the heat of a competition one judge may be impressed with the quick reappearance of that gold dress, it only works when the fundamentals are lacking in everybody.  Do you really want to take that chance?  That everybody else is just as lacking.

Quiz number 1:

Each standard of dance is comprised of various patterns put together by:

  1. A group of enlightened dancers who start with the easiest steps and work to the hardest.


  1. A marketing firm that chooses the patterns students will most likely buy.


  1. Trial and error selection of patterns that will facilitate the use of the floor and music.

The answer of course is “C”.

What this means is that school figures as they are so often called, may have less to do with showing the movement necessary and expected in the dance, and more to do with practicalities of dancing in the crowded real world.  Take Foxtrot for example.  At the beginning, Intermediate and Bronze Level, the steps are chosen to teach the dancer how to control the floor.  This means there are steps that go forward or back, steps that change position on the floor, steps that turn left, steps that turn right, and even steps that just hang around.  Only the steps that go forward or maybe back, if done around LOD, actually portray what judges normally expect to see in Foxtrot and that is movement.  A successful choreographed Foxtrot shows the movement of the dance so the judges will feel the dance with the music.  What steps can we perfect going in what direction that will continue the movement around the floor?  Does that mean you won’t use that famous left turn?  Of course you will, but only to prevent yourself from getting clobbered by the bigger guy coming along who is not looking.  Being able to interject the practical steps as needed is much harder than just putting them in somewhere in the choreography, but the actual result is a dance that moves when it can, and still dances when it can’t.

Waltz, known for its ice skating style and all too often country western music likewise has a characteristic movement judges want to see.  The strong “1” beat and swinging action into the side steps.   School figures all too often are turns, hesitations and steps though pretty, really don’t add to the choreography if not properly placed.  Movement in such dances is created through the use of one’s legs, feet, and maybe most importantly ankles.  European Judges have noted that one of the great failing of so many American dancers is weak ankles.  How much time and effort are you willing to put into developing the strength and skill necessary?  Certainly not much if the only real commitment is to lodge night where the space is limited and long steps won’t be of much use.  In fact, we often find that the competitive dancers are most adept in crowded circumstances.  They have stretched themselves to learn how to use steps to create the desired movement and that understanding is as vital to club dancing as it is to competitive dancing.  It is the skill good teachers want to develop in their students.

Movement in the Rhythm dances is entirely different.  It is not about going from point A to point B, but rather what we do with our body once we have moved.  This can include motion, Cuban or vertical, turns, spins, shuffling or triple action, or whatever, but it is not about going anywhere.  Fair minded people may argue whether that includes different moves for different sized floors, and how floor craft can best be utilized when I need to gain the attention of the judges on the other side of the room.  In the real world it may be the man on the other side of the room, and you are just using this one to get to him.  It is all OK.  The world is different for everybody, and you never have to justify your place in it, but once you choose to get on the floor just as a highway, you have certain rules to follow.

Faster feet in rhythm and Latin dances give you more time to dance the movement.  The more time a Judge has to see the movement the better the score.  Simple – Yes.  Easy – No.  Having fast feet and no movement to follow results in a choppy, unattractive look that will rarely score on or off the floor.  Notice all the discussion so far is about movement, and none includes the music.

Let us now look at one step, the Box step, which as many of you know can be danced in the Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Rumba, Merengue, Samba, Mambo and probably others as well.  Many have mastered the step.  Ask yourself when you watch your video replay; if the sound was off, and all they could see was the box step would your friends recognize the dance?  Most dancers recognize it because we recognize the steps, but you will only be considered good when the audience and judges recognize the movement before the steps.

Teachers make choices based upon the time and commitment given.  If I have a student that looks only 3 months down the road, are they willing to do the exercises, work to get their body to the next stage?  No, because the image they can create of themselves is only what they can achieve in the next 3 months, and until they are willing to break out of that comfort zone and push themselves into getting to that next stage they will remain the same dancer with more steps.

Ask yourself why is it that a Silver Teacher is normally a so much better dancer than a Silver Student?  Not because they are smarter or even more athletic.  It is because too many students get caught up in learning the steps and not the dance.  In fact all too often the student knows only 8 – 10 steps.  Granted as they move up, it is another or different 8 – 10 steps, but it is only steps.  Know the dance, know the movement and know the steps that do stuff and what stuff it is they do.  I mean a good dancer or teacher has at his or her beck and call steps that go Forward, Backwards, Change position in the room, Turn Left, Turn Right, Stay in Place while moving and Create shapes, as well as those that work best towards the outside of the room and those that work best towards the inside of the room.

In fairness, the advanced student is always working to know more and learn more so the goal is to know and use the latest stuff.  The result is the earlier stuff is all too often forgotten.  Very few people are willing to spend valuable time and money remembering when the fun is in the new.  Teachers mostly have students at various levels so they must keep their variety and therefore are forced to stay abreast of more steps, have greater utilization and more steps at their command, and thus are better dancers.

There are varying opinions about how important it is to memorize the routine.  I have seen teachers who expect their students, male or female, to be able to dance the whole routine by themselves with music, posture, etc.  and others who say just hang on baby because here we go.  Once again fair minded people may disagree, but all will agree that as long as you are concentrating on doing the steps you can’t concentrate on how to do the steps, and it is the how we want to speak on next.

How includes the Footwork, Timing, Style including the Head, Arms, and Body, Posture and Poise, and finally Technique.  Briefly let’s look at these and how the teacher must make choices.

Footwork is to many the nuts and bolts.  We hear that you should use heel leads when going forward in a slow step in a smooth dance to create movement.  Then along comes somebody who used to be a basketball player and the legs are going to out stride yours no matter what you do.  Does footwork no longer matter?  After all, we got the distance now.  In fact it does, because it is not just the distance across the floor that we notice but the smoothness, the push, the harshness, and/or staccato action we see.  The fact is that the main reason heel leads are used is to keep the body moving while the free foot catches up.  So it not just the forward action that is affected but the movement in between.

Timing is defined as how long our foot is in play before it is put down, and tempo is defined as speed.  Rhythm is a regular pulse or beat within the music.  Telling someone he has no rhythm means he is dead.  Timing is learned and in fact if you saw someone going down the street with just about any popular dance timing the people in the white coats would not be far behind.  So relax and understand this is where the music comes in.  Judges will watch couples and wonder what music they are hearing, and unfortunately it is all too often the music they were practicing to, which was their favorite, but not the DJ’s at the event.

Style comes in two varieties.  One is the style or characteristic of the dance, and the other is the style you yourself have or that you create for yourselves as a couple.  Whereas style may be the most subjective, it is also the most obvious when lacking.  How you use your hands when in open position, how your arms either add or detract from the movement of the step, or how your body stands and looks to others are vitally important on a competition floor or for that matter in a nightclub when attracting others.  You can be sure wherever you go dancing somebody is watching.  The style you have is obvious to others.  Just to remind you how important, if you took three men to a nightclub, even if they themselves were not consummate dancers, and asked them to choose the best dancer, they would all choose the one with the best hand and arm styling even if they did not know it, because it that basic visual edge that styling affords, and you don’t want to be without it.

Posture and Poise or the infamous dance hold may seem obvious, but in order for it to be an advantage it has to be natural, functional as well as attractive.  Posture for the man means elbows are bumpers, and the frame the man maintains provides protection.  Technique is the “how to” and not the “what to”.  All of these have two things in common.  One they are not step specific.  I mean that good technique, style, etc. is usable in many steps not just one particular step and two they require thought and practice separate from the steps.

This is one of the main reasons routines are such good learning tools.  Once you have the “what to” down, as in the steps, all your time can be spent on these other things like style, technique, and footwork.  Conversely as long as your mind is working on which step to use, your brain is not free to choose correct technique and you are hoping it happens, not expecting it to happen.  While as you progress it may happen sometime by accident, but when the pressure comes, it will fail you.

Good routines impress at all levels.  A good routine will have a variety of movements, some slow, some fast.  A good routine will express a variety of emotions, some soft, some strong.  A good routine will display many pictures, some shapes, and some lines.  A good routine will provide a variety of shapes, some in dance position, some in shadow, some in sweetheart, and some side by side.  How teachers choose to put these elements together and the vast variety you see is testament to the endless options there are.  How much time, effort and practice students choose to give will ultimately mean more than the choice of steps.  Developing the body to support, strengthening the legs to move, controlling the frame to shape, knowing how to use the floor all combine to allow the couple to enjoy the music in their own way, and to display to the audience and judges their unique interpretation of the dance.  That is what audiences enjoy and judges too.

Thank you and happy dancing!

Michael Reichenbach

Dane Week

November 25, 2005

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