Welcome. You must be new to ballroom, given you clicked on this link. So it seems that you, not unlike myself, saw some sort of appeal in the type of partner dance you see in black-and-white movies that Hollywood churned out years ago.
Sure, you see ballroom dance in some modern movies, but it’s usually two people roughly in frame bobbing back in forth to music that is meant to be waltzed to. Nothing could be further than the truth.
So let’s get started. I won’t go too much into the actual physical stuff because I am no dance coach, but I can get you briefed on the conceptual stuff that you’ll need. It would have made my life so much easier when I was learning to know this stuff, so voila! You’ll learn now.
First things first. You may have belabored under the delusion that I did: that ballroom is danced solely to old music. I assure you that is wrong on so many levels. What if I told you that Toxic was a tango and that Cake by the Ocean was a cha-cha?
You’d be shocked. So was I.
You could find a ballroom dance that matches anything you hear on the radio or at a house party or wherever the hell the kids find hip new music these days; I listen to mostly old-style music so I couldn’t tell you, but perhaps you might know.
As of writing in February 2018, most of what’s popular nowadays is a hustle. Or maybe an east coast swing, or a west coast swing. The more Latin sounding stuff is cha-cha or salsa or maybe samba or bachata.
Naturally, you’ll learn to get in frame. That’s when the lead has their right arm wrapped around the follow and the right hand on the left shoulder blade. The follow’s left hand is on the lead’s right shoulder.
It’s the lead’s left and the follow’s right hand where things start getting tripped up. For the love of all that is holy, do not interlock the fingers! That’s how you get your digits ripped off, and even if you don’t get your digits ripped off, it makes turns impossible.
And on lead and follow: the former is traditionally male, and the latter is traditionally female. On college campuses, men will follow and women will lead, but the traditional roles still are the majority.
In mainstream places, the roles are much more expected. It’s not unheard of those places for the roles to be reversed, but the tradition is the standard. It’s, for this reason, I say that ballroom, and swing and salsa by extension, has a degree of ingrained social conservatism baked into it. As I said, it’s not impossible to break the role, but in more mainstream places you’ll have more difficulty breaking them.
I’m a man, no surprise given my name, so I lead. I can give advice to leads, but not to follows, who had best consult elsewhere. For the enterprising young new lead, I impart you with the advice given to me by an older man from Virginia Beach: it’s your job to make her look good.
Nobody pays attention to the man when a couple dances unless they’re really into ballroom. This once again assumes traditional gender roles; for simplicity, for the rest of this article I’ll refer to the lead as a ‘he’ and the follow as a ‘she’ as that’s still overwhelmingly what happens. There’s nothing wrong in breaking the traditional roles, indeed I encourage it, but that’s reality for you.
You see, the lead is putting a show on for the follow, with twists and turns and all the flourishes that whichever dance it necessitates. When you get down to it, I think that ballroom evolved from what amounted to elaborate courtship displays, and how skillful a lead was was a way of proving his worth. Most ballroomers nowadays wouldn’t say that’s the case in its current state, but at its core that heritage is still there. No way around it.
One little bit of advice, for either lead or follow, for it applies to both. You’re in close contact, and you’ll be afraid that you’ll step on your partner’s feet. This is where I get into what I call the ballroomer’s paradox. The paradox states:
“The more any given ballroom dancer attempts to avoid stepping on his or her partner’s feet, the more said dancer will step on said partner’s feet.”
These dances were designed, based off of street dances from different parts of the world, to avoid stepping on your partner’s feet. I’m certain the likes of Arthur Murray, who did more than anyone else to popularize our art, knew this better than either you or I do. So keep to the syllabus, at least in the beginning.
Now for the beefy stuff: the dances themselves, and the music that they are danced to. We will start with:
The Core Six
These six are ballroom’s bread and butter. These are the first six you’ll be taught, so it’s best to familiarize yourself with them now.
Waltz: When the words ‘ballroom dance’ enter the average person’s mind, around five times out of ten they’ll think of a waltz. A German dance, it’s danced in ¾ time going around the room. We call that circular pattern ‘line of dance,’ something that applies for all smooth dances. Waltz is a genteel, ‘old-timey’ dance, one that commands dignity in all who dance it, for it is danced with graceful glides.
The music: Usually very elegant, orchestral, and with that unmistakable ¾ time signature. Lots of strings. Often melodramatic. A good example.
East Coast Swing: As waltz is often your first smooth dance, East Coast Swing is your first rhythm dance. In some ways the polar opposite of waltz, east coast is a very bouncy dance that doesn’t travel much. But when it bounces, oh boy it bounces.
They who dance swing are practically throwing themselves at each other, going this way and that. It’s the really energetic dance you see young people dancing in old movies, with that bounce that never goes away. The thing it does keep in common with waltz: it’s classy. It’s not dripping in sensuality, for you’ll be much too tired to indulge in that by the time you’re finished. You just keep bouncing about in your nice suit and hat, or your fancy dress.
The music: more than any other dance, this one’s music runs the gamut stylistically. What keeps them all together is this driving percussion beat on the two and four, this thump-a-thump-a-thump. It’s a pattern that’s remained remarkably popular over the past several decades. You can have classic swing, like Sing Sing Sing, with a full big band dressed their nicest giving you a beat that makes you realize just why some people back then thought jazz was satanic. You get the stuff that straddles modern and older music, like this Alex Swings and Oscar Sings tune that I’m pretty sure I’ve heard at every venue I’ve been to. This Demi Lovato tune, which you’ve probably heard in a movie trailer or somesuch, makes a very good modern swing. So does this. As I said, it runs the gamut.
Foxtrot: East Coast’s slinkier cousin, foxtrot is a dance that is also very much a product of the early twentieth century. It doesn’t quite slide, like a waltz does, but it slinks. It’s much sultrier than waltz, and there’s the hint here and there of the sort of sensuality that was wrapped in innuendo, the sort that was allowable in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s ideally danced in suits and ball gowns, and still oozing with class.
The music: There are two words to describe music for Foxtrot: Frank. Sinatra. No, that’s not literally true, but that sort of slower big band music that his era made in abundance. Brass dominates. It’s the music of a time where, in glitzy New York hotels, immigrant waitstaff catered every whim of the most opulent men in the country, the men whose hubris caused the Great Depression. You already have one link. Here’s another, a very common one. Fun fact about that one: it was originally sung by showgirls, teasing and tempting the aforementioned bigwigs, in a broadway music. I doubt many people who foxtrot to it nowadays know it, but lo and behold, now you, dear reader, do.
Tango: This one’s dramatic. Remember when I said that when the average person hears the words ‘ballroom dance,’ they think of waltz five times out of ten? This is the other five. This is the dance where men have roses in their teeth and lead daring, flamboyant promenades.
The music is harsh and aggressive, and evokes things of great drama and great importance. To me, it evokes the Islamic conception of the afterlife, where the dead must traverse a dangerously thin bridge to heaven with their sin forming literal weight. If they are noble enough, they can walk their way to heaven. If they have sinned, though, they plunge into hellfire. That’s the sort of teetering that tango calls to mind.
The music: Angry strings and occasionally castanets. Very harsh sounding, lyrics often in Spanish. It can almost reminds you of a bullfight, the matador’s red cape billowing in the wind. Here’s a traditional tango, and here’s a modern one. In the latter, the instrumentation is far from classical, but it has that ‘dangerous’ sound to it.
Rhumba: Very few people know that you’re supposed to write the American form of this Cuban dance with an ‘h.’ But you are, and now you know. This is the first real honest-to-god Latin dance in the way that we often think of them, with much more sensuality, for whatever reason, that ranges from present but understated to often very blunt; I’m not convinced it’s a coincidence that the most sensual dances come from the places where the Catholic Church was once so dominant, but keep in mind I’m no historian of this such a thing. Rhumba is in between; its music is composed of dreamy Latin American-sounding love songs or American imitations thereof. Like Waltz, its basic is a box step, but it goes in a radically different direction.
The music: Very dreamy sounding, in that “scenic aerial views of the Florida coastline” sort of way, with a very laid-back sound. This is a personal favorite, because I’m also a geography nerd, and hearing this got me a tossup at a quizbowl tournament. There is, however, another sound for a Rhumba, but still dreamy, but in the sense of a bad drug trip, or so I’d imagine. The closest thing to any sort of altered consciousness was listening to heavy metal while horrendously sleep-deprived, so I’m not the best judge.
Cha-Cha: Technically ideally written with three ‘chas,’ cha-cha originated as a fast rhumba on Cuban porch decks, whose wood made a scraping noise whose onomatopoeia is the source of the name. More sensual still than rhumba, it’s a fast dance, with a lot of modern Latin pop music providing a suitable backing. Like east coast, you’ll be sweating like a waterfall by the time you’re done.
That’s the core six. However, there are of course other dances you’ll inevitably run into. Here’s a nonexhaustive list.
Viennese Waltz: The faster, spinnier cousin of the waltz. Together, the partners are essentially a top on a table, spinning round and round and round. You’ll be dizzy afterwards.
The Music: Like Waltz, but in 6/8, not ¾. Much quicker. Like this. Three notes per beat, two beats per measure.
West Coast Swing: Colloquially ‘westie,’ it’s the variant of what would become east coast designed for Hollywood. Slower, spinnier, and less bouncy, you can dance it to damn near everything. Also, everything you can westie to you can also hustle to, for the dances are quite similar in some ways.
The Music: generally slower but not to slow jazz or rock. This is one of many, many songs you could do it to. It would double the length of this piece to be exhaustive about it.
Blues: This dance came to be after people who wanted to east coast were simply too tired to do so. It has the simplest basic step of all dances I am aware of, simply swaying left to right and back. It is by far the most sensual of the dances that originated in the United States, and were not merely acclimated to an American audience with origins in Latin America.
The music: traditional blues, really raunchy sounding big band music, some hip-hop. I prefer the second, like so.
Salsa: The most ‘nightclub’ of all the dances here. Most Latin-influenced pop falls in this category. Very freewheeling. You dress casually for a salsa dance, unlike the class demanded by much of the core six. Not my favorite, but you will run across it sooner or later.
The music: As I said, Latin-influenced pop, characterized by this intense “DUM-ba-dum-ba-DUM-ba-dum-ba-DUM” beat that infects every second of it.
Bachata: Everything said about Salsa, but doubly so. It’s not for nothing that I once saw a ‘water balloons and Bachata’ event attended by a friend of mine in New York.
The music: a rarer kind of Latin music with a specific sort of drum running through it.