Like Joseph and Michelle Used to Do: American Foxtrot

In my senior year of high school, I was placed in Video class. I’m not sure how that happened — I don’t recall signing up or showing any interest in video as an art form other than my not being able to draw. But I’m not one to rock the boat, so I just went with it and took Video like a man. Over the course of a year, we had a number of very fun projects. We used found footage, made music videos (mine was to “Bone Chaos in the Castle” by Kaki King) and did stop-motion. I even learned to sew to make a puppet that looked like the then-pope Benedict XVI for a puppets-on-a-green-screen project. For the final assignment, we could create whatever we wanted.

As previously mentioned, high school is also where I fell in love with ballroom. And by “fell in love” I mean “developed an all-consuming obsession”. I watched ballroom, I read about ballroom and I talked about ballroom… a lot. That is… until the eventual question of “how long have you been dancing?” Me? Oh, I’ve never danced a day in my life. I just like watching it. I thought this was on par with guys who watch football on Sundays. The ones who know everyone’s names and the plays but haven’t touched a football since prior to puberty. Nobody asks those guys why they don’t play. Our answers would be the same though — we’re lazy and scared of being awful. Happy now, inquisitive stranger?

So as high school was coming to a close and I had just this one Video assignment left to finish, I decided to finally give ballroom a try in my own special way. I didn’t know how to dance dance any of it, but I knew I wanted to dance and kind of knew how the shapes should basically look. The hard part of movement as an art is the moving… so I just took that out. That is how a stop-motion foxtrot came to be.

And so on a Friday afternoon with a video camera, a tripod, and two classmates (my tiny chum Michelle to partner me and appropriately-sized camerawoman Nicole) in an empty gym, magic happened. Upon reading that sentence back, I know — I hear it too.  But get your mind out of the gutter. At the time, most of my ballroom aspirations came from So You Think You Can Dance? routines — which I know now in hindsight are just lift-vehicles with a couple seconds of closed position thrown in for effect. For ninety minutes I picked Michelle up and threw her around, holding each maneuver for a few seconds while Nicole clicked the shutter.

God works in mysterious ways. An excellent example of that is his making sure I didn’t get a copy of that video to look back at and cringe. I had no idea what I was doing then and looking back I admire my willingness to set fear aside and pretend. What I’m sure I wouldn’t admire is my likely abhorrent posture, strained faces and dumb choreography in addition to the high school grossness we all experienced. The Monday following, I uploaded it to the school computers and set it all to “Tout Doucement” by Feist. The entire project, foxtrot included, was completed and rendered in the last class on the last day of my time in high school. I think I got a good grade on it…. I never actually found out.

Why do I write all this nonsense? Because before I even could dance I had foxtrot on my mind. It’s an American classic! One of the few things we as Americans can call our own in the dance world. Yet when I look back out into that same world of dance, I can’t help but be disappointed in a lot of the foxtrotting I see these days.

And that’s because foxtrot is difficult. Difficult to do and difficult to understand. It doesn’t have the same clear-cut distinctions as the eternally-rotary waltzes, the definitive dramatic tango or it’s long and linear slow international counterpart. How do we describe it even? “It’s cool! Jazzy! Fun! Elegant! Romantic! Exciting!” A lot of those are kind of true but also somewhat contradictory. What the hell is smooth foxtrot? It doesn’t really have figures of its own and it’s mid tempo music doesn’t provide it an ease or an urgency to give it distinction. People don’t understand American foxtrot all that well as a style and that’s a damn shame because without foxtrot, there’d be no smooth at all.

Starting in bronze, I believe we’re already doing American foxtrot a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I love bronze foxtrot with all my heart but it is also a very hard dance to do well. Even very good teachers sometimes do bronze foxtrot in very sloppy and boring ways. I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past. If you take the time to really get a mastery of bronze foxtrot, it will really set you up for an easy time in silver and beyond. But the shame is that foxtrot often gets glanced over as just a walking dance or secondary to the waltzes when really bronze foxtrot teaches how to connect actions like walks and chasses with basic techniques of compression and the creation and dissolution of sway. Don’t just get caught up doing twinkle variations. Do literally everything in your power to distance your foxtrot from your waltz. Personally, I found learning Peabody really beneficial to my foxtrot even though I learned it long after I was certified in bronze. In a perfect world, I’d say Peabody should be mandatory in bronze smooth. (Just for bronze, though. Conversely, I think open levels should have 8-dance American Style competitions instead of 9-dances, but that’s another story.)

When we arrive in silver smooth, it’s arduous to locate a syllabus figure that can really encapsulate foxtrot as a style. Perhaps it’s because I personally learned them in waltz first, but the open left and open right turns just feel waltzier to me. In fact, when I’m dancing foxtrot it’s more of a matter of editing out figures that seem inappropriate to foxtrot than connecting figures that epitomize the style. A large part of this issue is the fact that nearly all syllabus foxtrot figures are closed and variations on left and right turns. There isn’t a ton of material to teach us how to create the open look of smooth foxtrot. Between the commonly used USISTD and DVIDA silver smooth syllabi, there is exactly one open figure — #8 Promenade and Counter Promenade Runs from the USISTD*. A figure that is essentially rotary in the fact that one partner is always rotating as the unit progresses down the line, which kind of undercuts its foxtrot appeal. Besides that, I feel like the vast majority of open foxtrot I see is just grapevines of some kind. Grapevines may be a classic but they might also be verging on cliche. When you add it all up, we don’t really know how to be creative with our foxtrot because what we have either doesn’t fit or is done to death.

The issue at hand isn’t really the syllabi itself but the way we’ve been dancing it. If one takes on a piece of general smooth choreography, they must be calibrate and recalibrate it to the style it must fit. When I see flip flops or open right turns in shadow in foxtrot, I think “no, that’s too waltzy.” When the truth of the matter is we can — and should! — be able to fit anything and everything into foxtrot and dance it like foxtrot. But when we’re not learning the leg action and the technique for foxtrot, things will end up looking rather high and rotary like waltz and the transplant will be rejected.

Have we forgotten what foxtrot should be about? I have a hard time thinking of foxtrots that have knocked my socks off from any platform — competitions, showcases, TV, or any others. Slawek Sochacki and Marzena Stachura’s foxtrot was top notch, as is Peter and Alexandra Perzhu’s. Alise Halbert does a mean foxtrot. There’s a pro-am silver foxtrot with Shalene Archer-Ermis and one of her students that I’ve always found charming. What sets these dances and dancers apart? They’ve all got character. They’ve all got a little personality/soul/funk that makes them more than just a walking dance and especially more American in the way Smooth foxtrot should be. Because it really is a no holds barred dance that should have all the fun and flavor American Style can muster — more than just a tried and true grapevine. American foxtrot needs to be not only graceful and controlled but complimented with a heavy dose of the inner sparkle we should try to bring to all of our dances.

So the next time you head out to the floor to dance to dance foxtrot socially or hunker down to build some smooth choreography (always start with foxtrot; you need every possible action available so give foxtrot first dibs) remember that foxtrot is not just a SQQ waltz — it’s the cornerstone of all American Style dancing! Take the time to develop long, slow leg actions and steady, gradual rotations. Build your choreography with the whimsy and spontaneity of a broadway musical that takes us on a feel-good journey! Now is the time for us to take foxtrot back to where it started. A bold, elegant dance that should convey the greatest American principle: freedom.


*I reminded myself after writing that that in Toni Redpath and Michael Mead’s newly revised syllabus for DVIDA, they’ve opened foxtrot up a lot. Mazel tov. If the folks who are largely responsible for what modern smooth became can’t fix foxtrot, then lord help us all.


So You Think You Can Dance? Season 11 Finale

Tonight we learn who has been chosen as America’s Favorite Dancer! And also if Adam Shankman can irritate me more than Jesse-Tyler Ferguson! And yay! Debbie Allen is here! Spoilers ahead!

Top 20 Group: Broadway I think this season’s real breakout star has been Warren Carlyle. So fresh but still classic and authentic. Makes the other broadway choreographers (except maybe Sean Cheeseman) look like amateurs. What ever happened to Joey Dowling?

Mary’s Choice- Jessica & Casey: Contemporary Definitely more joyful than the first time. I think Jessica had a little more zest for life now that she’s at the and than after getting knocked down for a couple weeks. Even with a bobbled lift, still a great piece.

Debbie’s Choice- Valerie & Ricky: Hip Hop Remember what I said about Warren Carlyle? Yeah, that for Pharside and Phoenix times a million. My one criticism is I remembered Ricky’s hat as being larger. Wishful thinking, I guess.

Zack’s Choice- Zack & Amy: Contemporary Not my favorite for Zack. A good routine for eternally understated Amy but I never really bought it. Maybe it was different in person and it definitely showed a different side if Zack but I think there were better choices of his talent. I’m gonna have to assume those are coming up later tonight or why else would he pick this?

Nigel’s Choice- Rudy & Allison: Jazz Ray Leeper loves a ballroom trick, doesn’t he? The floor slash, the death sweep. I didn’t really notice how good Rudy was in this. It was an excellent routine and was one of the best of the night originally but that middle section really grabs you if you’re not staring at Allison.

That Australian dude was insane! Really amazing. So controlled and alive but elegant and regal at the same time. Also, Pavlo Barsuk and Anna Trebunskaya paso doble’d to that song on America’s Ballroom Challenge (IT’S COMING BACK!) in 2008. He kinda put them to shame.

Valerie’s Choice- Valerie & Zack: Tap How great are those two together? They should just get married and have the most homespun children ever. But seeing it again made me nervous because it went so well the first time and what are the chances of lightning striking twice. But we’re talking about Valerie and Zack here. Lightning strikes when they say it strikes.

Les Twins I would trade every contemporary dance I’ve seen this season for more of that.

Ricky’s Choice- Jessica & Ricky: Contemporary I remember being fond of this the first week and now 10 weeks later, I’m feel like both of them can do so much more and we’ve seem them do it. This routine just sort if fades away into history. It’s ether now.

America’s Choice- Carly & Serge: Hip Hop America chose wrong. Great routine, lovely dancers and updated production but Emilio & Jasmine shoulda had this in the bag. That said, I liked this the first time and it was nice seeing it again.

Jenna’s Choice- Tanisha & Rudy: Jazz I completely forgot this routine existed and honestly felt like I was seeing something completely new. Tanisha and Rudy really killed it this season. If I had voted, they’re who I would’ve voted for. They remind more of many seasons ago when you had perfect pairings like Courtney and Gev. A bygone era… But good choice Jenna, whoever you are.

Can someone tell Enrique Iglesias it’s not 2003 anymore? It tickles me how sedate the audience is. Flat out polite. For a song titled “Dancing” they couldn’t pull one person out from backstage to dance a little and distract us from the hasbeens?

Adam’s Choice- Zack & Ricky: Hip Hop Is someone about to get results?! I’ve seen this trick before. Butter us up with excellent dancing and then slam us down.

NOOOOOO! Not Zack! I mean… Yeah. I get it but still. Kid has heart. If we’re strictly playing favorites, he’s probably the most relatable and accessible contestant and I’ve really enjoyed him. Good luck, Zack!

Tara’s Choice- Emilio & Jasmine: Hip Hop OK, good picking up the pieces, Tara. Loved that routine the first time and really liked it again. I’m kind of realizing how Emilio doesn’t make much of an impression. I hope he works a lot after this. Make your own opportunities, Emilio!

Jesse-Tyler Ferguson is here. Sorry, Adam Shankman, you’re never gonna beat that.

Top 10 & All-Stars: Pop Can’t really call that jazz or hip hop so I’m going with pop like Wade Robson or Brian Friedman used to do. But better. So much better! So exciting and full and beautiful. Really made you want to get up and dance. Also really showed who the stars of this season were. Watch it again and recognize the fact that there were a number of Top 10 finalists you didn’t notice at all. But as a unit they all blended so beautifully. Glad they let Rudy and Tanisha work together again.

That Wanted Crew or whatever really showed the world that you can’t keep the sequined vest industry down.

Jessica’s Choice- Jessica & Robert: Contemporary Jessica made a smart choice and probably picked her best routine. Was she really that challenged this season? I don’t really think so. And then she got the boot.

Cat’s Choice- Valerie & Ricky Contemporary Soooo… No ballroom tonight? Ok, I’ll get my things and go. But first, that was lovely. They really grew into one another as partners. Didn’t love it the first time but now I dig what they bring to the table together and apart. They are a quintessential SYTYCD top 2. And the winner is…

RICKY! That poor boy is so overwhelmed. But good for him. It’s nice when the sort of powerhouse who starts the season ends up taking it home. The only drawback is the idea that an 18-year-old just got a ridiculous amount of money. Don’t spend it on pixie sticks!

Merengue: Marching to The Beat of Your Own Tambora

Oh, the simple things in life! Jeans and t-shirts. A deck of cards. Toast.

Sometimes we forget to appreciate the simple things in this go-go-go world of ours. As such, when you take the time to simplify, it’s very refreshing. I know this is absolutely true when it comes to dancing. Your basics are the only things that will be able to set you above other dancers. Many very strong competitive couples fail on the basis that while they may have a lot of flash and skills to demonstrate, they lack the clarity of strong, well-practiced basics. This is true of all styles. Couples like Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova, Tony Dovolani and Elena Grinenko and Tomas Mielnicki and JT Thomas built careers and became champions on the basis of their basics. I love complexity to death but if it’s not supporting your basics in some way, it’s not worth your time. Look at any top-tier professional’s choreography: Believe it or not, it’s usually a manipulated basic sequence punctuated by lines/highlights and padded with elements that embody the style they’re dancing. Ta da!

“But basics are boring!” “Basics are hard!” “I’m beyond basics!” Wrong. Right. Wrong! Students by and large have complicated relationships with their basics for a myriad of reasons. I think this stems in large part from most students not knowing how to practice on their own. Many people only practice choreography and the priority shifts to being able to execute someone’s larger idea and interpretation of a style than the actual style itself. Choreography probably takes more brain power to memorize but you’re doing a body a disservice by not allowing it to absorb and practice the core principles. I always tell my students to begin by practicing elements — start with simple, singular movements like walks, rocking or initiation. Once your elements are refined, apply them to the basic figures they inhabit. Upon refreshing your basics, your choreography will really start to sing. Now repeat. Every day. Until you die.

The dance that epitomizes this idea of the neglected basic is unfortunately merengue.

I am of two minds when it comes to merengue. The first is from my first experience with it while in the BDTC. The Rhythm II quarter had just begun and I was feeling stronger and more competent after a rough Rhythm I quarter. The thing about rhythm and most Latin dancing is that it takes time to sink into your body and for your body to respond by creating actions through your hips and ribcage. I know now how dumb it was of me to expect to be excellent but I did and I wasn’t so my rhythm relationship was strained. So along comes merengue — the most paired-down, simple dance of the bunch. I did that same shimmying tip toe everyone does when they first dance merengue. It wasn’t pretty, but it was kinda fun (’cause Melissa Saphir can make anything fun). Learning the syllabus was tricky because what’s actually a great thing about merengue — you can do anything! But without a set guideline of a repeatable pattern, the merengue figures just got more and more jumbled. Chassés, side rocks, fifth-positions… It was all marching to me.

Cut to: not a long while later, I was working at my first studio in Oakland. Three times a week we would have parties and would dance all different styles with our students. The beauty of merengue is quickly found when one must grab a stranger with unknown dance experience and lead them smoothly and impressively for the next two-ish minutes. Then the simple marching dance is revealed for what it is: a playground of plentiful actions and is actually a ton of fun. Everything I liked about other styles I incorporated along with tricks and exciting things because it was so simple. A stripped down style shows one how dances are made interesting, whether socially or choreographically. Variety in timings, positions and actions make dancing fun — though this is only done when you understand how to dance the style itself.

When you combine these two ideas — the structure and technique of a dance teacher and the raucous-yet-pragmatic partygoer — you find the beauty of merengue. Simple and straight-forward while still spontaneous, merengue really beats the band.

It doesn’t take much to enhance merengue. The trick is mainly not to waste energy and (you guessed it!) simplify.

Due to the speed and incremental direction changes, merengue action is different from normal Cuban motion. Using a stronger-than-normal ribcage action as well as a very direct up and down piston-like action through the hips to decrease lateral pull from side to side. The body shouldn’t break up  like in other dances — it must move with a precise conveyance of energy from the ball of the foot connecting with the floor to the shoulder’s response to a contracting lat muscle.

Additionally, probably the most upsetting part of merengue as it’s danced socially is that Dramamine-requiring metronomic rocking. Our goal in all styles should be to stay as tall and vertical as we can manage unless deliberately shaping one way or an other. This is the not only to create an attractive body shape, allowing our hips to move freely and clearly but it also allows us to interpret timing changes. If I want to change the timing either faster or slower, I’ll need to either rise or lower to communicate that. Dancing with a long, clear spine will transform any figure into a malleable piece of choreography.

Lastly, the most important factor in dancing merengue to me is making it flow. You have two choices: connect or contrast. I’m always conscious as a leader of what I’m doing and more importantly, what I’m doing next. I want to make sure that what I do makes sense on the whole from an aesthetic and balance standpoint. I’d need to link my actions together in coherent, deliberate ways. The easiest way to do this is to take my time. Taking a couple extra beats to figure out what’s next benefits everyone. Meanwhile, my partner would not like it if I made her turn left a dozen times in a row. It would not look good to the outside if I just did similar wrapping actions over and over — it would be boring. This is why I also must do contrasting actions. Left turns followed by right turns, wraps followed by hammerlocks, tunnels followed by ducks. The more creative you get with your dancing the more interesting it will be for both partners and the more mileage you’ll get out of your punctuating basics.

The simple dances may seem fun and easy but they necessitate clean and precise movements. So take your jitterbugs, your merengues, your four-step hustles and ask yourself, “am I doing too much? Or not enough?” The answers may surprise you.