Hustle (n Flow)

Thanks to my affiliation with the Richmond Village Beacon and the Richmond District Neighborhood Center, I’ve had the privilege of teaching a wonderful class of a large group of enthusiastic students across a diverse array of styles. In the beginning, we would switch styles each week and have a little crash course from beginning to intermediate in the space of two hours. Oftentimes I would be asked why we would change styles so frequently and the answer was this: if you go to a ballroom party, there are many styles to dance. Most ballrooms include at least 10 styles at their parties — usually more. Smooth, Rhythm and Social/Nightclub are all fair game and you’re expected to get out there and dance each and every one. I always suggest leaders know a handful of basics and at least one fancier, more intricate “power move” to keep things interesting. Followers have a much more difficult time as they don’t know what leaders might throw at them. The best course of action for a follower is to try and experience as many different techniques and elements as she can in order to follow even the most advanced leader — provided he was leading correctly. It’s a luxury to only have to work on and practice one or two styles — and that luxury really puts enormous limitations on social dancers who are too precious about the few styles they do. My classes are intended to train that versatility into dancers; to change direction on a dime and fall in love with whatever style you’re asked to dance. With all that in mind, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time each week to briefly* explain what’s great and worth remembering about these styles to help organize your mind around the tasks at hand with the second-hand knowledge I’ve accrued and my own experiences.

*As if I’ve ever been brief in my life…


When I first think of hustle, I think of sitting outside of MacArthur BART station in Emeryville, on my way to the Allegro Ballroom. I was a BDTC student enrolled in the Nightclub quarter and today we were starting to learn hustle. It occurred to me that of the years I’d spent researching and studying ballroom dances, of the 17 BDTC styles I couldn’t quite paint a picture in my mind of what hustle looked like. Was it fast? Slow? Smooth? Sharp? I’d maybe seen hustle once or twice on television but it hadn’t made much or any of an impression on me. It was a strange feeling to walk into class as a blank slate for once — terrified that I’d be spending the next two hours line dancing.

Julie Lowe began taking us through some exercises and the syllabus figures. My first thought had nothing to do with hustle itself. A month into dancing and things were getting a lot easier! I was picking this up so much faster and more comfortably. My mind could interpret Julie’s direction and relay it to my body. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start! By the end of the night, there was a definite breakthrough. Dancing the alternating underarm turns with a friendly Southern gal named Allie who was a much better dancer than me, Julie stopped the class to point us out. We had gotten it! &1: we broke back! 23: we slickly changed places, tracing our hands across our partner’s back to regain the connection quickly and efficiently. Never before had Julie allowed me to demonstrate anything! My goal until then had truly been to go completely unnoticed and now to have people watching our success felt so intoxicating! It was here that I began my love affair with hustle that continues to this day.

Since then, I’ve come to know hustle in numerous forms and more advanced levels. Most commonly, hustle is seen with three timing options (all NDCA approved!). I started learning hustle as syncopated hustle: &123 timing with a syncopated break on &1. Later on, I learned four step hustle with the even timing of 1234, removing the syncopation and typically starting with a forward break to build the compression needed for slower breaks. The last and probably least common in this area is 12&3 timing. It sort of bridges the gap between syncopated and four step, starting with a forward four step break and leading into a syncopated back break. It’s a useful timing to know for social dancing but I honestly get more use from the other two. It’s main purpose in my hustle is to bridge the gap from syncopated to four step as needed.

The technique of hustle is fairly simple — as with most social dances, the tricky part is calibrating your hustle to your song and variant. What’s most often forgotten is that hustle comes out of latin social dances (mambo, specifically). A big pet peeve of mine is seeing hustle danced more like a swing dance than a latin dance which leads to a more clunky, disjointed style. In order to dance hustle to its fullest potential, we must include the latin separation at the waist that we’d use in any more traditionally latin dance. This is to let the moving leg swing freely out from underneath the body rather than moving as one entire piece, incorrectly pulling the upper body with the moving foot. The pelvis must move freely to not disturb the connection while also being quite attractive and rhythmical.

Additionally, the other major factor in the creation of hustle was ballet. The last remaining partner dancers in New York it seemed were the latin salsa/mambo community. Also alive and kicking in NYC were ballet and modern dance communities such as the American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies. As disco music began to gain a foothold in the social dance scene, the dancers of New York were unsure of what to do to this new sound. The result combined latin breaks and the forward poise and turning capacity of ballet dancers in an entirely new partner dance. After years of solo dancing, this new ‘touch’ dance where partners regained contact caught fire and became hustle. Although things may have changed over the following 40-odd years with the influences of contemporary ballroom dancing, international latin, DiscoFox, west coast swing and other styles, it’s very helpful to keep these two core factors in mind.

While salsa has remained a staple, many of us don’t have any concept of how ballet might affect this style. The points worth remembering are the turnout in your feet, extreme forward poise onto the balls of the feet and the long, vertical style of turns. Unlike other styles, your weight pretty much never shifts anywhere near your heels and it is a cardinal sin to drop your heel on back rocks. As for turns, you will find that they are almost always pivots rather than walk-turn or spiraling actions that are commonly seen in other dances. As far as hip action, we try to avoid breaking our body laterally in a figure-eight type action as we would in more common Cuban dances. Instead, the straightened knee and risen heel creates a strong hip lift action that will result in a longer body line and strong compression in the lat muscles. Additionally, although it may seem a little strange, there isn’t another dance that has the same combination of freedom and elegance as hustle. You must move so fluidly and gracefully across the slot while constantly changing positions and rocking that you really need a balletic stretch to your body and core. Forget about speed and just try to make yourself look long and graceful and your hustle will improve tenfold.

Hopefully, some of these tips will help you love hustle like I know I do. Practice and enjoy!