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.