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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.
re: Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by Independent Thinker
7/11/2003  10:43:00 AM
Just to correct the more outrageous of many typos, I'm obviously misquoting DVIDA on the first step of the continuity finish footwork. The point I was trying to make is that even though they list TH for the right foot (same as the ISTD would have for a feather) the woman is shown pushing off of her right toe rather than her heel.
re: Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by MSC
7/11/2003  11:08:00 AM
IT-
Smooth has always had those characteristics. You forgot the "popping" through the ankles to rise and the crashing on lowering (going directly from toe to heel rather than rolling through the foot.) Smooth technique often repeats the mantra that "all three blocks remain on top of each other" ... ah well, who needs metronome swing anyway?
re: Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by twnkltoz
7/11/2003  4:05:00 PM
Typical...a few bad apples mean that all American teachers are the same, right?

I've been dancing for eight years, both international and smooth. I teach bronze level smooth and rhythm. My smooth coaches teach the same technique for smooth as they do for standard...sway, swing (yes, even metronomic), and all. And no, we don't teach swing and sway from the very beginning at our studio. We want our beginning students to relax and enjoy themselves, something they can do with a minimum of technique (ie, lead and follow, correct positioning and footwork), so they don't become discouraged. We want them to actually learn how to social dance, if that's what they came for, which doesn't have to include all-out competitive styling. I watch people dance on Saturday night...they're not great, and they know it, but they're having a good time. So, is it necessary to insult them? As our dancers progress, we introduce various pieces of technique. Dancers who want to compete obviously take private lessons and learn more technique much more quickly.

And MSC, anyone who tells you to go from a true toe to a heel is flat out wrong. That is incorrect in anyone's syllabus. As for "popping" through the ankles, I've never heard of that either.
re: Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by Jonathan Atkinson
7/11/2003  9:03:00 PM
These sound like the rants of someone whose exposure to American style is limited to certain chain schools with sub-par training. Those of us in the upper ranks of the American Smooth know that as of about the last 5 years or so, you can't get very far in the professional competition scene without a comprehesive understanding of Standard technique.

That is not to say that Standard technique is the end-all criteria for judging American style. If it were, there would be no reason for having an American style separate from Int'l style. Dancing should be judged on all of its aspects, and since American Smooth incorporates a good deal of open work, including many Latin techniques such as weight connection, inner body action, synchronization in side-by-side position, etc, these criteria should be taken into consideration when comparing couples.

What this means is that, while you may only be able to get so far without proper Standard technique, you may nonetheless sometimes see one couple place below another, even though the lower-placing couple actually has slightly better ballroom technique. But this should only happen when the higher-placing couple has other strengths which outweigh the difference in their ballroom technique.

This fact is often overlooked by many Standard-only judges and competitors, whose only frame of reference is ballroom technique. And this is where I think they fail as judges. They don't know (or more often, simply don't care) what they're looking at until the couple takes closed position hold, and use that as the sole consideration of placement. In my book, we call that a "cop-out". And I hope such judges aren't allowed to judge Latin.

Still, there is in the chain school scene a certain disregard for competitive technique. But this is less an "American Style" thing than it is a social-vs-competitive dancing thing. Chain schools focus on social dancing, as they should, and the technique and ideals for good social dancing are different than they are for competitive dancing. You can call it a shortcoming, but they're the ones laughing all the way to the bank. There's a lot of money to be made in social dancing, and that fact has not escaped the attention of Mr. Murray and Mr. Astaire.

Is this "ruining" American style? Actually, if it weren't for the chain schools, American style probably wouldn't exist as it does today. American style was born of social dancing. The competitive side of American style has the English style to thank for its technical influence, and as time goes on it will only get better. But I should hope that it will never become just another form of Int'l Standard. Thanks to the Americans, including all of those chain schools, we now have a beautiful style which is both unique and technically challenging.

In other words, Americans aren't ruining smooth. They're inventing it.

Regards,
Jonathan
re: Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by Independent Thinker
7/11/2003  9:47:00 PM
Jonathan,

Thanks for your comments. Part of the reason I chose your forum is that you have come across in the past as being someone who generally promotes the use of standard technique for the standard-like actions in smooth.

Certainly, there are many aspects to smooth that have nothing in common with standard - and those are the specific areas in which we try to seek out help from people who are specifically smooth coaches.

The problem I am finding though is the emergence of an indigenous 'smooth technique' of motion that is not based in standard traditions at all, but rather seems to come from a trivial extension of the very vertical social bronze taught in chain studios. Some of these people say that this is uniquely smooth technique (implying they would dance standard differently), wheras others actually claim that this is the proper way to do standard as well.

Obviously, the top smooth dancers do not suffer from this - and today some are probably approaching technical parity with our top indigenous standard dancers. But the problem is that they are being widely misquoted by numerous second-tier teachers and competitors, who reinterpret their ideas through the lens of the bronze studio traditions they do understand, rather than the foreign standard traditions they never really figured out.

Certainly smooth as synthesis of different dance techniques is an American invention. But smooth as an excuse to replace proven basic principals like standard technique just so that we can be uniquely American is precisely the mistake we cannot afford to make.
re: Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by Jonathan Atkinson
7/12/2003  12:44:00 AM
My experiences have not led me to encounter nearly the opposition you have. With all but one exception, I've never met anyone who disagrees with the concept that Smooth and Standard technique are nearly identical in all respects (exceptions noted below). I do recall one rather lengthy debate on rec.arts.dance with someone who insisted that American Waltz should be absent of sway, without the full swinging actions. But as I said, this was just one exception in my many years of teaching.

Any other time I've encountered someone with a misconception regarding smooth technique, it seems to me that it stems from a lack of understanding rather than a firm belief in an opposing idea, and they'll usually accept when I correct or inform them. Of course, most of my recent experiences which are currently springing to mind are related to an A.M. staff which I am currently training, and this particular group of kids is very respectful and eager to learn. So it's certainly possible that my experiences, especially of late, are not a good representation of the chain school community as a whole.

On the topic of technique which is exclusively American style in nature, one very notable example comes to mind. I've come to call it "inverted sway", although others may have another name for it. It applies to many 3-step turning figures, such as Open Side Lock, but also to "Flip-Flops" and similar figures which swicth back and forth between open PP and open CPP.

Normally when dancing a Twinkle, for example, I would sway left from 2-3 as man. But if I were to release the LH-RH connection and open the "V" to a wider angle (as in a Flip-Flop), I would be more likely to take just the opposite sway -- to the right. I would then switch to left sway for steps 5-6, as I flip-flop to CPP.

This type of sway would be terrible if you keep a traditional closed position hold, but the open promenade position affords you the space you need to sway right and still maintain a positive direction as you step into PP.

I could probably think up more examples, but the main point is that if there are techniques which are uniquely American, it's not necessarily because they were invented by Americans, or because they were patented by Fred Astaire, but because the open positions of American style allow for a greater variety of techniques.

So there are indeed times when the open position creates a difference in the technique. But these are generally the exception, not the rule, and it usually applies to very specific movements or figures, not the mechanics of the basic building blocks such as a walking step, or of common figures such as the basic closed position turns, Twinkles, pivots, etc.

Anyone who would argue that Smooth technique is different than Standard had better have a sound, mechanical reason for it based on the difference in positioning. "Because Arthur Murray said so" is not going to hold water here, or in any competition for that matter (unless, I suppose, you have a judging panel which is predominantly A.M.).

If you do happen across anybody who would argue some technical difference, send 'em here. I'd love to pick their brain.

Regards,
Jonathan
re: Are Americans Ruining Smooth?
Posted by Independent Thinker
7/12/2003  5:13:00 AM
Jonathan raises an interesting point about a special smooth action that may not appear in standard:


Normally when dancing a Twinkle, for example, I would sway left from 2-3 as man. But if I were to release the LH-RH connection and open the "V" to a wider angle (as in a Flip-Flop), I would be more likely to take just the opposite sway -- to the right. I would then switch to left sway for steps 5-6, as I flip-flop to CPP.

This type of sway would be terrible if you keep a traditional closed position hold, but the open promenade position affords you the space you need to sway right and still maintain a positive direction as you step into PP.


I think I generally agree with you about the execution of this action, however I feel that it is fairly consistent with the underlying rules that govern standard technique. Two specific comments:

1) I'm moving in opposition to my parnter on these (typically crossing eachother's paths) and that is going to change the relationship between the direction in which I'm leading her and the direction in which I'm taking my own body - even if we aren't touching or even both on the floor when I try it.

2) I think of these figures as somewhere between a feather with waltz rise and a closed telemark (and their mirror images). Both of those are outside partner figures, and because of that there is going to be some change in the sway that feels right to me. In standard, the ISTD gives a R sway for the feather, and though the book claims it should be straight I would guess I'm presently using a bit of R sway when I step outside partner in the closed hover telemark too.

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