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Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by Independent Thinker
7/11/2003  10:02:00 AM
Are Americans Ruining Smooth?

As a standard dancer who was trained in smooth as a second style by other standard dancers, I've lately been finding myself in a lot of technical disagreement with local mid-level smooth teachers and competitors. In trying to understand the reasons for this conflict, I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that the dominant institutions of American dancing - the chain studios and their alumni - do not really understand smooth. A handful of their teachers may be able to dance it quite well, but they lack the understanding to efficiently pass on what they actually do to their students.

But this should not actually be that surprising. We need look no further than the abysmal placings of American standard couples overseas to see that trademark approaches of these American institutions have completely failed in teaching standard. The few Americans who do manage reasonable showings internationally have done extensive work with English coaches, and even here at home are likely to work with coaches whose allegiance is more to their own English training than to anything domestic. The chain studio approach does a tolerable job of cranking out mediocre social dancers - but their magic formula cannot not produce standard champions.

Neither, I'm belatedly realizing, can it produce smooth ones.

To understand why, watch an attentive, obedient competition student from a chain studio try to lead bronze American foxtrot. What you see is a perfect reproduction of how his teacher explained a basic walking action - compress into the standing leg, develop the knee forward of the toe, transition between the feet by way of split weight, pull onto the forward foot, collect, repeat. It's grounded, it's accurate, it's powerful, and it's about as interesting as watching paint dry. Not only are sway and shape completely absent, but the smooth gliding motion of foxtrot is replaced by a pronounced bounce arising from the overemphasized foot action. This look is so established in the community that we often see less developed students who execute an artificial little bounce without any underlying power to their walking action. That is not to say that walking actions are not critically important to all of the standard and smooth dances. But in my opinion, it is a mistake to try to pass off a pure walking exercises as a dance.

Or look at bronze American waltz. Here we have dance that has the same foot closure as international waltz, yet tends to be taught without the sway and shape that standard uses to make that action natural. With proper international-style waltz motion, foot closure is automatic, and a powerful lowering action, while still taking practice to develop, at least seems to make sense. But try to do the dance standing absolutely vertical, and all of the technique that the teacher is trying to drill feels very unnatural. Without the associated sway and shape, textbook footwork is fundamentally at odds with body mechanics.

Should our student somehow survive to silver, continuity footwork will be introduced. But if the teacher does not really understand the definitive foot passing dance (and we just established that Americans do not as a general rule understand international foxtrot), what ends up being taught is not actually continuity at all, but rather a
slightly passing version of the stilted bronze action. There is nothing more ironic than watching an "advanced" smooth dancer take two beautiful gliding steps by rolling through the entire foot, then come to a crashing halt by placing the third step almost directly under their body. The explanation though is simple - they are not dancing smooth, but rather a traveling version of latin, where it is essential to always be grounded and vertical. Without adopting the sway, poise, and footwork of standard, it is impossible to complete passing foot actions without introducing distortions that would preclude closed hold dancing. Hence many smooth dancers avoid the awkward closed positions and stick to open work, where their underdeveloped actions simply look (but not longer feel) stilted.

Even prominent pedagological materials are wrong - a quick glance at the DVIDA Smooth syllabus shows several positions being incorrectly demonstrated. In a picture labeled "feather finish" the woman is standing split weight between her toes - a position never reached in a proper feather finish, and actually inconsistent with the T, TH, TH footwork this syllabus gives for a continuity finish from promenade. The pictures of closed hold promenade positions show the leader's left side disgustingly open from his partner, and a complete absence of the left sway specified in the included description of the figures.

Fortunately though, there do seem to be a handful of smooth dancers and teachers who do understand what they are doing. Primarily, these are those with high level international training. When such examples are not available, my approach has been to study technique with international teachers, and get choreography from smooth teachers. Though it's often a challenge to minimize the time wasted trying to satisfy someone's artifical concept of smooth technique to the point where they are willing to work on what we sought them out for.
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