DANCING USA JUNE / JULY 2000
“OUR SALSA NEVER FELT SO GOOD!”
ROTATION: AN OBSERVATION
BY JEFF ALLEN
The telephone rings its usual three times and I answer, “Hello this is Jeff Allen speaking.”
The caller questions, “I see that you teach Latin Dancing,” “Yes, I do.” They continue, “We know several of the basics in Salsa but neither myself nor my partner rarely get those rotations and we are becoming very frustrated. We end up off balance; our hands never seem to meet. We think we need some private lessons. Do you think you can help us?”
“I’d be happy to. The good news is we can probably solve all these problems in one two hour session using a figure I call the Mambo turn that is very popular in Salsa. Your problem is common and like the many others that have been helped, it is probably nothing more than timing the sequence of the lead and where to feel your rotation.
The couple gave their names as Leader and Follower and made their appointment. We would meet in two days on Saturday morning. I suggested that we should be all fresh and certainly not fatigued by the normal workday for our fast paced two-hour session. They arrive a moment or two early, teachers love that, and are ready to begin on time to explore the many facets we will learn about each other’s dancing, rotations, and the Mambo turns.
To begin the lesson I felt it was important to let Leader & Follower burn off some nervous energy so I let them dance to some music of their choice. In this new setting, using some familiar music would put a smile on their face and would help them feel more at home. I tried to remain inconspicuous during these early moments by watching them only through their reflection in the studio’s mirrors. I did not want them to see my, “dance teacher’s face,” too soon. It was pleasing to see that they were dancing in time with the music and actually were aggressive with their body rhythms – they seemed to show me that they were there to learn and not just to be entertained so that they could tell their friends later. Of course, during my observation, I was making a mental list and organizing it so that I could present their lesson in a hierarchy of muscle usage and technique that would maximize their future success during the time we had available.
The area for Leader that immediately gained my attention was the way the upper body was being overused to initiate weight change and foot movement. Follower seemed to be shuffling the feet and as a result was not providing consistent support for the ribcage. Some minor things in their partnering skills would need work but because they were symptomatic, however correcting the issues I noticed that would adversely effect this couple’s balance would ultimately free them to make a greater physical contribution to their partnering skills.
It was time to demonstrate the four weight changes and sequence of physical skills used in the Mambo turns. These would be the tools to help improve this couple’s dancing. My top student was available to mannequin for my new students and dance the Mambo turns with me. We danced without music counting a simple Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow rhythm both as solos and together using several alignments for convenient observation for Leader and Follower.
Step #1: Leader stepping side with the left and Follower with the right foot respectively on the any Slow count while facing each other.
Step # 2: A ½ rotation for Leader counter-clockwise and a ½ rotation for Follower clockwise on the 1st Quick count completing the hip action once the turn has been completed.
Step # 3: During the 2nd Quick count they would maintain the back to back position shifting their weight to the unsupported leg followed by the characteristic hip action.
Step # 4: Leader & Follower would complete and additional ½ rotation in their original direction followed by the completion of their weight change and characteristic hip action.
I wanted Leader & Follower to focus on just themselves as individuals so we all stood side by side in front of the mirror and asked them to rotate with me in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions to my count. We were going to focus on balance. As we started, Leader was watching my feet and Follower was watching my image in the mirror. Letting them rotate through the Mambo turn, neither rotation was particularly clean. At this time, I was just observing the preliminary skills each employed to begin.
They both understood the figure’s choreography so it was time to begin the instruction. My first explanation was directed toward the usage of their eyes.
Before we attempt to rotate again, I asked, “Please keep your eyes at your horizon or eye level in the mirror, looking where you’re going is a brilliant concept! The eyes are the body’s first line of defense and seeing the point of entrance to the turn last and rotating the head so that the arrival point is seen first, prior to the body’s completion of the rotation gives the dancer new stability and confidence especially, if they have never tried this before.” I told them I had just had occasion to view the new video called “Turns & Spins,” by Shirley Ballas and that preceding each practice variation she amplified the importance of spotting. Shirley had formatted an excellent training regiment to establish the spotting technique. Both tried this new spotting technique and there was indeed a marked improvement in the following attempts. Now we had to deal with issues of timing.
Leader was trying to motor through the rotation with the shoulders and Follower was attempting to create the turn using the unsupported leg by swinging it in front of the body. Both of these errors were just merely caused by misunderstanding or lack of knowledge in the mechanics of good rotation. I learned long ago that telling a student not to do something would never solve an existing problem. That student would need to be taught a new physical skill that would simply REPLACE the error in their muscle memory and give them a new feeling. This is where the teaching and learning really exists particularly for the social dancer.
I decided to work up a sequence to treat these two varying entrance problems. Since Leader and Follower would be dancing together, I wanted them to create a MIRROR IMAGE of each movement and timing. Focusing on Leader, I explained that the best way a dancer removes their foot from the floor would be by lifting the thigh by allowing the ball socket joint at the hip assembly to rotate freely much in the same way anyone would do to ascend a staircase. At the mirror, we all did this and allowed the moving foot to pass under the corresponding pelvis while remaining in contact with the floor throughout. I assured them that this first movement apart from the way they normally removed their foot from the dance floor would improve their balance going into the turn. Leader noted, “Wow, I have not lost any control of my body, it’s so still!” I said, “Great, at this point we want to maintain control through this sequence so there will no longer be a need to counter-balance.
Now I want you both to begin to rotate by first allowing the supporting foot to turn as the knee of the moving leg passes by the knee of the supporting leg.” This idea really caught Follower’s attention, “I was never aware of ever turning that foot before!“ In the past, Follower’s standing foot during a turn had acted as an obstacle causing a rough landing and now it became the pivotal point of the rotation. For an added measure, I instructed them to be certain that their abdominal wall was toned and their ribcages were absolutely balanced and level as their knee passed this point. They would conclude the leg’s movement by placing the foot at the next position with floor contact yet without any body weight after successfully completing their ½ rotation.
Light bulbs where going off in their eyes! They actually experienced a successful ½ rotation while maintaining total control realizing that this portion of the Mambo turn occurred before the Quick count as part of the former dance step. I told them I had coined the phrase in two of my “Quickstart Books,” as the rule of, “Step then Turn.” The experience of segregating the rotation from the dance step’s weight change was one of total joy for now they were both able to complete the weight change together and enjoy the feeling of settling the hip in this wonderful Latin dance. This completed Step # 2.
Continuing to work as solos they easily transferred their weight for Step # 3. Leader remarked, “This is exactly the way the second step felt at the end.” “Yes,” I replied, “The beginning of the actual weight change of this type of dance step should have no feeling of weight change attached to it.” We continued successfully to practice the entire 4 steps repeatedly using the same technique for each of the half turns until I believed they were ready for the second stage of our lesson – doing it together.
Working hard, we took a short break. During those quiet moments, I wanted to describe a shortcut to the technique. As you know, “Working with your partner will probably make this turn a little more difficult for a while so I want you both to try a little, ”Cheating technique! Use the inside edge of your big toe to make the first contact with the dance floor and NOT the ball of your foot. It is impractical to think you can control the last moment of the rotation if it is your physical intention to place ball of the foot on the floor immediately. The software in your brain tells the hardware in your body this would be the moment of weight change and as a result, you may lose that beautiful segregated moment you both found a moment ago.” I wanted Leader & Follower to know that the big toe can actually be used to prevent the weight change for an additional moment by simply applying pressure to the dance floor with it. In other words, a new tool to correct their balance after any spin if necessary as they move into the next phase of the lesson. You might say, “You can learn to hold onto the dance floor instead of your partner with the big toe!”
It was time for Leader & Follower to try the Mambo turn as a couple. The good news was the turn itself was executed with a much higher degree of proficiency. The other news was the entry was done virtually by remote control – verbal lead, “Are you ready?” They were not ready to continue with another figure or repeat the Mambo turn in the alternate direction. This was to be expected so it was far from a failure. Once again, it would just be some simple technique to correct and then conclude this very successful lesson.
My assistant suddenly appeared in just the knick of time to re-demonstrate the hand connection and usage along with the timing. I told them that in the early stages of leading transition a dependable lead could be delivered at the conclusion of the preceding weight change. Leader would have to alter his former hand position to the compression type by wrapping (not squeezing) his thumb and middle finger around the back of Follower’s palm. Leader would then move his wrist in the direction of the turn while at the same time rolling the handholds over so the palms of both members of the couple are also facing the direction of the turn. This specialized hand position is very dependable and virtually impossible for Follower to hang onto beyond the required moment of release. They like it because it afforded comfort throughout the connection. I addressed the finishing position for Follower. “It seems that during the course of a rotation you are timid with your free arm and as a result leave it behind you or I noticed that you drop it along side of your ribcage. I want you to accelerate your arm past the outside of your body during the later portion of the concluding (second) rotation so that your arm is available for your partner the moment after you spot him.”
Follower did this with confidence since there was now a complete sense of balance throughout the entire moments of rotation. They connected wonderfully completing their hip action together a moment after the new hand connection and simultaneously responded with, “That was easy, our Salsa never felt so good!”
In summary, I told them they had learned about some important devices to improve any rotation. “Eliminate any obstacles that would cause the ribcage to become uneven or unstable. Make sure that the first movement of the body for rotation begins at the supporting foot. The speed of the rotation is generated at the outside of the hips and ribcage, NOT the shoulders and hands should always be available for connection.” Leader and Follower agreed. “Well the clock tells me that our two hours are completed. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you and please feel free to call or Email me again.”