Posture and frame, and their influence on lead/follow, are among the biggest challenges for ballroom dancers. Your average 21st-century American just doesn’t absorb a dancer’s upright carriage without years of practice and many, many corrections, and the nuances of communicating movement to another person through the body are even harder to talk about than they are to get right. Nevertheless, posture and frame are so important that for the past 2 weeks I’ve been on a personal crusade titled “It’s Not About The Steps.”
People associate dancing first and foremost with moving the feet. This association is not wrong, of course. Last week I tried out my It’s Not About The Steps theory on one of our wedding couples and the groom said, “But if I don’t know any steps, I can’t dance.” He’s right, and he has identified the reductio ad absurdam point at which my theory ceases to operate. I would suggest, though, that a person can’t get very far with learning steps before posture and frame become essential to successfully executing the steps. If you can do the step by yourself but can’t do it with a partner, IT’S NOT ABOUT THE STEPS.
The theory works in this way: dancers really only need to know a small number of steps to have a good time getting around the floor. You could manage to dance a basic waltz, for instance, with only 2 steps: traveling half-boxes down the walls and a twinkle to get you around the corners. But a twinkle requires a change of body position, from closed hold to promenade and back again. Turning into promenade isn’t difficult, but in order for both partners to get into it and out of it, they have to pay attention to their posture, frame, and head position. Keep the frame consistent in promenade (that elbow stays perpendicular) and clearly turn your head to match your direction of travel: nose follows toes. If the frame was consistent on the way into promenade, getting out of promenade should just be a matter of keeping the frame up while bringing the torso back into closed position and adjusting the head to match.
Holding a good frame also alleviates a lot of personal-space-invasion problems and stepped-on toes. New dancers tend to want to gaze into each other’s eyes as they dance, which is totally romantic but, at least in the smooth dances (waltz, tango, foxtrot), problematic. I fear looking like a cold-hearted cynic when I say this, but when Daniel and I dance smooth in competition, I’m deliberately conscious of NOT looking at him unless we do a step like the “butterfly” in foxtrot where we are supposed to look at each other. It seems a lot less lovey-dovey but it actually looks more impressive and more like we are in tune with one another if we can move in and out of positions without ever making eye contact: like I just know where he’s going to be, and vice versa.
We all want to focus on getting the steps right, and it’s true that the steps are an important basic starting point. But as soon as you have a step memorized, start improving everything that’s needed to make it successful but isn’t about moving your feet. Like the steps themselves, posture and frame will become more and more automatic with more and more practice. Good posture and a big, elegant frame also help a dancer look confident even if he/she is only a beginner.
One of my Tweeps posted this video today of an International Standard tango by Arunas & Katusha. Standard style is different from what Daniel and I dance because you have to stay in closed hold all the time–promenade is allowed but there’s no shadow position, no side-by-side work, no open positions of any kind. In this choreography you can REALLY see that it’s not about the steps. The body positions and head weight communicate the lead/follow and give the dance its characteristic, dramatic look: