By the Expert
Hello, fellow dancers! Thank you so much for the questions you're sending in! I really feel that we can answer and tackle some of the important issues surrounding ballroom dance today. This next question is a good one.
“Of all of the styles, the ballroom dance community seems to have the least consensus when it comes to rhythm as to what the style is supposed to represent. What are the historical underpinnings for that lack of consensus?”
Okay! This is a two-part question that requires just one answer. Let me explain ….
When American dance competitions came into existence, they were mainly held at supper clubs and resorts. With the introduction of swing in the late 1930s, the only franchise dance studio of the time jumped on the realization that they could take any “club” dance and make it a social dance. This meant breaking it down to the bare bones and simplifying the movements.
By the time Fred Astaire Dance Studios came into existence in the late '40s, dancing was taking a new turn toward a dance called mambo. This new Cuban-based beat was developed in the nightclubs in New York City, and the dance that went along with it was banned from being shown on any TV. It was amazing to see the hip movement based on being low to the ground and dancing on a flexed knee. When the dancers wanted something slower, cha cha was born.
The franchise studios saw the potential of these dances and quickly added them to their syllabus but with a huge difference: gone was the hip action and the flexed knee. (You can see a demonstration of Arthur Murray himself dancing a basic on a PBS documentary Latin Music USA.)
Later, when ballroom dance competitions were becoming popular and more organized among the franchise and independent studios, the rhythm dances no longer looked like they did in the clubs; bigger arms, smoother movement, and clean dancing was all the rage. The Cuban motion and flexed knee action slowly came back once dancers realized the importance of the true musicality of the Latin beat, but it came at a cost. American-style dancers were already feeling the impact of the international style, specifically straighter leg action. I often heard judges refer to American style as being “dirty,” which meant they could not see a leg line or proper body movement.
Today, I feel we have come full circle. By going back to stronger movement and body isolation, we no longer look dirty, but we do look more authentic. Big questions still remain in dances like mambo and bolero, which I can address in the next article.
To continue into the second part of the question, there will always be a conflict of styles as long as there are two styles. The best thing we can do is learn from each other without desecrating the original soul of the dance.
"It takes an athlete to dance but an artist to be a dancer."
— Shanna Leflour