Floorcraft: It sounds like some kind of dancer magic, but it's actually a technical term describing the essential ability to avoid collisions with other couples on the ballroom dance floor. Because success in ballroom doesn't just come down to masterful technique, great choreography, stellar musicality, chemistry between partners and magnetic performance quality—it also requires gracefully navigating a packed floor of competitors.
If there's one thing that separates ballroom dancers from everyone else, it's their swinging, sassy hips. Hip action—the rotation of the hips created by the alternate bending and straightening of the knees—is a hallmark of Latin ballroom dance styles, but it's surprisingly tricky to do correctly. Mastering it will make you look like a pro, even if you're taking your first ballroom steps.
Dance Spirit spoke with Ryan Di Lello, a Season 6 finalist and Seasons 9 and 11 All-Star on “So You Think You Can Dance," and one of the team directors for the ballroom company of Utah Valley University in Orem, UT, for advice to help get you movin' and shakin'.
Ballroom dance is everywhere these days. Whether you're looking to land a spot on “So You Think You Can Dance" or hoping to find work on a commercial tour, having some ballroom training is increasingly necessary to stay competitive. Of course, the best way to prepare for an audition is to take lessons in the style. But what if your studio doesn't offer any ballroom classes? Dance Spirit turned to the pros to learn a few key elements that can help you put your best heeled foot forward.
Daniella Karagach and Pasha Pashkov at the U.S. National Amateur Dancesport Nationals in March (courtesy Karagach)
When a 15-year-old Daniella Karagach was first paired up with a 22-year-old Pasha Pashkov, she had her doubts. “My coaches warned me that because I was so young and he was a top dancer in the finals already, people might not respect us as a compatible pair,” she recalls. But she stuck with Pasha, and after a month of hard work, the pair hit the competition scene together, where it was clear their age difference was a non-issue. The two went on to rack up titles, becoming 2012 Blackpool Dance Festival semifinalists, 2012 United States National Latin Champions and three-time United States 10 Dance National Champions.
In the ballroom world, a bad match can keep you from dancing at your full potential. As a student, you may not be able to choose who you’re paired with, so here’s what you can do if you’re stuck with a partner who’s less than ideal.
Talk It Out
“Teaching dancers how to communicate is difficult,” says Sasha Altukhov, a ballroom teacher at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, UT. “Each dancer has his or her own opinion, and the two have to learn to listen to each other.”
If you’re not feeling the chemistry, be honest. Let your partner know it’s important to you to work toward a better connection. It can take time to develop a comfort with and respect for each other, so don’t give up if there’s not an immediate click. “Just like anything new, you have to adjust to a new partner,” says Karagach. “When you stick together for a long time, you get to really understand each other.”
When a 16-year-old Dmytry Dmytrenko moved from Ukraine to Utah last December, Altukhov paired him with a 17-year-old Cheyenne Murillo. The two had strong, conflicting personalities—not to mention the fact that they spoke different languages. But after planning fun activities together outside the studio, they started to argue less frequently. “We spent time with our coach, getting to know each other and getting over the language barrier,” Murillo says. “We were Dmytry’s first friends in America.”
If your personalities really clash, focus on what you have in common with your partner: a passion for dance. “You and your partner need to be committed to the same goal, whether it’s performing in a show or winning a competition,” Altukhov says. Set these goals from the beginning of your partnership, and remind each other of what you’re aiming for whenever things get rocky.
Train Together—and Apart
Practice makes perfect for Kym Johnson and “Dancing with the Stars” Season 16 partner, Ingo Rademacher. (Rick Rowell/ABC)
Being more or less technically advanced than your partner can throw both of you off. But if you’re paired with someone who’s not on par with your training level and physical strength, there are some tricks that will help close the gap.
To start, take a break from rehearsing choreography to work on your technique together. Even if you’re more advanced, reviewing the basics is always helpful. You’ll show your partner you support him, and that can help you develop a better connection onstage.
If your partner has been dancing longer than you have, put in the extra time and practice on your own. “Dmytry was more experienced than I was when we started dancing together,” Murillo says. “So I started taking two private classes a day to develop my technique.”
“Dancing with the Stars” professional Kym Johnson has mastered working with partners who have little to no training. “Most of the celebrities I dance with will go home and practice on their own with a pillow,” she says. Johnson also suggests taking ballet or Pilates in addition to your ballroom training: “I started with ballet. That’s the best foundation for any form of dance.”
Get on the Same Level
In an ideal match the male is slightly taller than the female. “It looks funny if there’s a big height difference,” Karagach says. “You want to dance with someone who’s a good fit for you.” Height disparities are more apparent in standard styles than in Latin styles, since the dancers’ bodies have to be closer together.
If your heights are mismatched—a common issue with juniors, since girls often grow faster than boys—try experimenting with different heel heights (available for both women and men). Karagach also advises using levels in your routine to fool the audience. Altukhov suggests using costumes to balance a height difference. “A shorter boy can wear pants with a higher waist, so his legs appear longer,” he says.
If all else fails, talk to your teachers. “Even if you feel nervous or embarrassed, just be honest, and it’ll all work out,” says Johnson, who has changed partners several times in her competitive professional career. Pull them aside, and let them know exactly why you’re unhappy. Chances are, this isn’t the first time they’ve dealt with a conflict between partners. “Teachers are there to guide you, and they can do a much better job of that if they have insight into how you feel about your relationship with your partner,” Johnson says. If there comes a point when you’re not happy dancing anymore because of your partner, it’s time to switch.
Gev Manoukian and Chelsie Hightower on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 4 (Kelsey McNeal/FOX)
B-boy Gev Manoukian auditioned for “So You Think You Can Dance” for the first time during Season 2. He made it to Las Vegas, but his lack of familiarity with other styles kept him out of the Top 20. Gev especially struggled with the precise technique, partnering and hip movements of ballroom. So when he decided to try out again in Season 4, he headed to a ballroom intensive before the audition.
The ballroom styles that came most naturally to him? Latin dances, such as the cha-cha and paso doble. Since b-boying has roots in Latin American dancing and music, Gev found that these styles felt best on his body. “They’re groovy, with a lot of sass and personality,” he says. “The music has syncopation, and the moves are high energy.”
Gev branched out to other styles as well, and when he finally felt ready to face the “SYTYCD” judges, he made it to the Top 10. Now a bona fide ballroom dancer, he recently finished touring with Louis van Amstel’s Ballroom with a Twist.
Adding ballroom to your repertoire like Gev can only improve your chances of making it big. And many former classical or hip-hop dancers excel in ballroom careers. But if you’re looking to make the switch, should you begin with the waltz or the jive? The samba or the fox-trot? Based on the genre of dance you train in now, DS researched the best style to kick-start your ballroom training, and got tips from the pros on how to make the transition as smooth as possible.
If you’re a ballet dancer, try the rumba.
“Ballet dancers already have the stunning posture and beautiful long necks and lines for ballroom,” says Kim DelGrosso, co-owner and artistic director of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, UT. While it can be difficult for ballet dancers to move in a parallel position, the rumba actually allows for some turnout and straight knees, making it a natural option.
“The rumba is all about the leg action, much like ballet,” says competitive ballroom dancer Ethan White, adding that he and wife/dance partner Nikki first started with rumba and salsa classes. The couple, who made it to the Top 3 on Paula Abdul’s “Live to Dance,” met while dancing for Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, and decided to add ballroom to their skill set, in part, to extend the length of their careers. “Ballet is demanding on the body,” Nikki says. “And ballroom is something you can do for a very long time.”
Jaleel White and Kym Johnson on “Dancing with the Stars” (Adam Taylor/ABC)
If you’re a modern, lyrical or contemporary dancer, try the waltz.
“A background in modern dance—especially Horton and Graham techniques—translates well to the waltz because it involves dancing in parallel,” Ethan says. You’ll also need to be comfortable dancing with soft knees and off-balance movement. The waltz—
and other “smooth” styles—are about sweeping and traveling through movements while staying aware of your lines.
“While the styling and frame may have a very ballet-like aesthetic, the footwork is much easier for a modern dancer because it’s low and grounded,” says Ethan.
If you’re a tap, jazz or hip-hop dancer, try the jive.
Dancers who enjoy hard-hitting, rhythm-enhancing movement will love the jive and other Latin styles, which focus on keeping up with the beat and playing with syncopation.
“The jive is fast footwork, and if you can do that, you can pretty much do anything,” says Kym Johnson, a professional ballroom dancer on “Dancing with the Stars.” She excelled in tap, jazz and ballet before starting ballroom classes at 13 and found she had a natural talent—although she credits her diverse dance training to her success. “My background gave me grounding for that ballroom technique,” she says, adding that she still takes tap and Broadway dance classes regularly.
The key to mastering your new technique is to take as many classes in it as possible. If your studio doesn’t offer ballroom, try an open class at another, like an Arthur Murray or Fred Astaire franchised studio. Keep in mind that many studios will offer classes in “smooth” or “rhythm” styles (also known as standard and Latin styles), so you might learn more than one style at a time. “Ballroom dance styles are intricate, and they take a long time to learn correctly,” says DelGrosso, who puts as much emphasis on ballroom in her students’ training as she does on ballet or jazz. “But if you want to be a working dancer, you must be acquainted with the many music and dance styles—plus the partnering and handholds involved.”
by Krista Fogle
When reality TV star Kristin Cavallari stepped onto the dance floor to perform during the second week of “Dancing with the Stars” Season 13, she seemed like an early front-runner. She and her professional partner, Mark Ballas, had prepared a glamorous quickstep number they thought was sure to dazzle. Though judges Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli noted that she had improved since the first week, they still singled out Cavallari for not holding proper frame throughout the dance. “Your beautiful lines got lost,” Tonioli told her.
Dance newbies—celebrities or not—aren’t the only ones who have trouble grasping ballroom frame. Even dancers highly trained in other styles sometimes find it challenging to master the arm positioning and stance required for ballroom styles. For example, ballet dancers “understand posture brilliantly, but don’t always get that you need a certain amount of grounding,” says “DWTS” pro Chelsie Hightower. “Most dancers learn visually, so they’ll try to mimic proper body position, but often they don’t understand the roots of where it’s coming from.”
So what is frame, exactly? “Frame” is the word used to describe a dancer’s body position in terms of how she stands, holds her arms and physically connects with her partner.
Hightower says traditional rules of frame apply more to standard ballroom dance styles (like the waltz and foxtrot) than to Latin ballroom styles (like the cha-cha and rumba). “Frame is so important in the standard styles. Not only is it something you’re judged on, but having the right frame can also improve your dancing, whereas not having it can seriously hinder you,” she says. “Without frame, dancers’ bodies aren’t able to connect. Lopsided, sloppy frame means you’re not able to move together as one. Plus, it can really throw off your center of balance.”
Here, Hightower and ballroom expert John Cassese share their tips for mastering proper standard ballroom frame:
Understand the basics. According to Hightower, correct frame begins with the four points of connection: the guy’s left hand to the girl’s right hand, the guy’s right hand to girl’s left lat (the muscles in your upper back), the girl’s left forearm to the guy’s right elbow, and the girl’s left hand to the man’s right bicep.
For stable frame, Hightower says you should picture a long, strong line stretching between your elbows (“almost as if there were two muscle men pulling your arms out”). She also suggests “locking down your lats,” which means keeping your shoulders back and down.
by Krista Fogle
Perfect your posture. Upright posture is a major part of proper frame. When Cassese teaches new students at his Santa Monica studio, The Dance Doctor, he always starts with one simple exercise. “Stand with your back against the wall, pressing your feet, calves, buttocks, shoulders and head against it, and then walk away and try to maintain that position—now you’re in perfect posture,” says Cassese, who has trained celebs including Elizabeth Hurley, Adam Sandler and U2’s The Edge. “The stretch in your abs should feel like an elastic band, pulling both up and down from the waist.” Cassese advises beginning ballroom dancers to do that exercise several times a day so the correct posture begins to feel more natural.
Resistance is key. Remember the “spaghetti arms” from Dirty Dancing? They’re a major don’t in ballroom. “If both partners are limp, there’s no connection and you can’t travel as a unit,” Cassese says.
To avoid noodle limbs, add a touch of resistance to your frame. Typically, the male partner sets the tone by applying slight pressure in the connected palm, and the female partner follows his lead by giving the same amount back. “The female has to be very precise so that she’s not overly resistant,” adds Cassese. “If you over-resist, you can’t be led. If you under-resist, you can’t be led. It has to be the perfect flow of energy, like electricity traveling from one person into the other.”
Let it bloom. For a great overall visual of what frame is supposed to look like, Hightower and Cassese tell their students to picture a flower blossoming. “We use the visual of a rose opening up in full blossom because it brings to mind a very narrow stem and a big flower,” Cassese says. “From the diaphragm down is the stem; from the diaphragm up forms the flower.”
Confused? Basically, the man’s right leg should go between the woman’s legs, and they should stay intertwined throughout the dance. Partners should stay close from the kneecap to the chest (like a stem) and then blossom outward with their upper bodies. “Think of the legs as puzzle pieces—the middle of her body should line up with the right side of his body,” says Hightower. “One of the difficulties of learning to do ballroom well is figuring out how to dance while keeping that connection. The frame is what holds it all together—it’s the glue.”
Whatever your specialty as a dancer, there’s no doubt being well-rounded will get you far, and ballroom dance is an increasingly important piece of that versatility. Just watch “So You Think You Can Dance,” where the contestants who stick around longest are those who breeze through a tough contemporary routine and make an intricate cha-cha number look easy. Or look at New York City Ballet, whose company members are called upon to dance ballroom-inspired works like George Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes, or I’m Old Fashioned, Jerome Robbins’ tribute to Fred Astaire.
While you may not want to become a ballroom expert, there are a few steps every dancer should know. We asked some of ballroom’s familiar faces to share their must-master moves.
Step #1: New Yorkers
Recommended by: Afton DelGrosso (DS January 2011), who danced in Le Rêve and performed on “Dancing with the Stars” during the “Pick a Pro” competition in Season 8.
What it looks like: You’ll see this four-count move in the cha-cha. You and your partner start facing each other, holding hands at waist height. On the second count, release your downstage hands and step toward the audience with your upstage foot. On the third count, step back to face each other and join hands again. Then, in a quick triplet, chassé upstage on counts four-and-one. Reverse the entire sequence, opening and stepping away from the audience again on count two. “New Yorkers are such a recognizable step because they’re a staple in every cha-cha routine,” Afton says. “They really teach you the cha-cha timing.”
Afton’s Technique Tips:
- “Focus on the rhythm,” Afton says, “so you and your partner are opening and closing at the same time."
- Keep your legs straight.
- Stay close to your partner, Afton says, “otherwise it looks like a big, wide door swinging open and closed.”
Step #2: Box Step
Recommended by: Anya Garnis from “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 3, Burn the Floor and “Superstars of Dance.”
What it looks like: A typical box-step sequence uses a basic foot pattern of forward-side-together and back-side-together in counts of three. Step forward with the left foot, to the side with the right foot and together again with the left. Then step back with the right foot, to the side with the left foot and together with the right. Anya says the box step, which shows up in many styles, is the first thing she teaches in ballroom lessons.
Anya’s Technique Tips:
- The box step should look completely different in each ballroom style. For instance, the rumba box step is “very earthy with hip action,” Anya says, while the waltz version features a graceful rise and fall, and the fox-trot box can be “somewhat bouncy.”
- The type of dance will also determine how you place your foot when stepping and transferring weight. In the rumba and other Latin styles, you place your toe before your heel. In the waltz, fox-trot and tango, you step onto your heel, and then place your toe.
- “Control the standing leg as you’re transferring weight,” Anya says. “That control is crucial and defines the regular box step.”
Step #3: Cucaracha
Recommended by: “So You Think You Can Dance” judge Mary Murphy, who also runs her own studio, San Diego’s Champion Ballroom Academy.
What it looks like: In this step, which you’ll see in the rumba, cha-cha, samba and mambo, you face your partner and hold hands while stepping in a quick-quick-slow pattern. You step to the side with your right foot, shift your weight onto your left foot, then step together with your right foot. Then you reverse the sequence. As you step from side to side, your hips move in a figure-eight pattern.
Mary’s Technique Tips:
- “Make sure you go from the balls of your feet to the heels,” Mary says. “Plant the ball, lower the heel and straighten into the leg.”
- Mary warns that many dancers can be “choppy” when executing a cucaracha. Be sure to keep your movement fluid and continuous.
- “Put a book on top of your head and try to keep your head flat in the midst of all the hip movement,” Mary suggests. “You want your head to be still.”
Picture this: You’re wearing a floor-length, rhinestone-encrusted dress and your partner is looking regal in his dark suit. You walk to the center of the dance floor in a fancy ballroom, lock eyes and begin to perform an elegant waltz. You lean back slightly and gaze into the distance while your feet execute intricate steps with ease, making it appear as if you’re floating.
It may seem like a fantasy, but for competitive ballroom dancers, this scenario is a part of everyday life. If you’ve ever watched “Dancing with the Stars,” you’ve gotten a peek at the variety of dance styles—from the foxtrot to the samba. You may have even wondered what it would be like to be one of the pros. But Chelsie Hightower (DS January 2009) and Cheryl Burke (DS September 2006) aren’t the only ones cha cha-ing for trophies. On the competitive ballroom circuit, dancers as young as 7 participate as well. DS talked with a few couples to learn more about what life as a young ballroom dancer is really like.
Before you can enter this glamorous world, you have to find a partner. For many amateur couples, this often happens with the help of a teacher. Fourteen-year-old William Stansbury and 12-year-old Jenny Sokolsky first met when William was 8 and Jenny was just 6. They were enrolled in the same class at The Dance Spectrum, a ballroom dance studio in Campbell, CA. After other parents suggested William and Jenny might make a good partnership, their instructor, Giselle Peacock, an international champion, secured the match. “She paired us together because I had strong showmanship and Jenny had strong technique,” William says. “She thought we could learn from each other.” Peacock was right: Last year the couple took home their first national title at the USA National DanceSport Championships.
In the Studio
Finding the right partner is crucial since you’ll be spending a lot of time together. William and Jenny are at the studio almost every day training with multiple teachers.
Fifteen-year-old Landon Anderson and his partner, 16-year-old Jenna Johnson, train independently with ballroom professionals and take additional classes at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, UT. The couple spends up to 30 hours a week in rehearsal or class studying Latin ballroom styles like the paso doble and rumba, as well as other dance disciplines, including ballet, contemporary and hip hop. The couple also schedules additional private sessions whenever they can. (“Dancing with the Stars” pro Louis Van Amstel frequently works with them—he choreographed all of their current routines!) They practice by doing mock competitions at their studio: The students all come together to perform their routines as they would in competition. “It’s a great way to build stamina and confidence,” Jenna says.
On the Floor
The ballroom dancers you see on TV competitions are at the top of their game, but amateur ballroom competitions are for everyone, regardless of skill level. Many couples enter the “newcomer” category at regional competitions with only a few months of training under their belts.
But being the new kid on the floor can be intimidating. To ease any fears, you’ll want to know what to expect. Most important, know that you and your partner won’t be on the dance floor alone. At ballroom competitions, couples perform alongside other dancers—there can be as many as 20 couples on the floor at the same time! Even though the dancers follow a set pattern, competitors often change their choreography on the spot to prevent traffic jams and crashes. “For traveling dances like the samba and paso doble, you move counter-clockwise on the right side of the floor,” William says. The ability to navigate around other couples is known as “floorcraft.” Yang Chen, a former competitive ballroom dancer and president of the Greater New York chapter of USA Dance (ballroom’s governing body in the U.S.), says the best ballroom dancers can make these shifts seamlessly.
Ballroom competitions are set up as a series of rounds, and each round can contain several “heats.” During each heat, dancers perform five styles, usually either international Latin styles (the samba, cha cha, rumba, paso doble and jive) or international Standard dances (the waltz, Viennese waltz, tango, foxtrot and quickstep). While couples dance, judges surround the floor, assessing their performance quality and technical skills. After each heat, the highest-scoring couples move on. But when there are as many as 40 dancers on the floor, perhaps the biggest challenge is making your presence known to the judges. If you don’t get noticed, you risk getting eliminated! Even a couple with flawless technique could be cut if it fails to catch the judges’ attention.
So what will help you and your partner stand out in the crowd? Pizzazz! Ballroom dancers usually wear vibrantly colored costumes with elaborate detail and plenty of bling. And they highlight their faces with lots of makeup. “People who have never seen a ballroom competition before may be thrown by how theatrical the outfits and makeup can be,” Chen says. “But it’s so you’ll get noticed on the floor.” And often, the dancers get to help create those fabulous costumes. Along with her partner and coaches, Jenna designs her outfits, from color to cut.
Once you’re all dolled up, you and your partner will be ready to show your stuff on the ballroom floor. Like any other dance discipline, mastering ballroom takes time and dedication. But with the right partner, plenty of training and an eye-catching wardrobe, before long, you’ll be dancing circles around the competition.
Common Partnership Pitfalls
Although it’s hard to say goodbye, ballroom couples don’t always stay together forever. Here are a few of the most common causes for a ballroom break-up:
Landon Anderson, who’s 15, says he literally outgrew his last partner when he shot up six inches in a matter of months!
For ballroom bliss, you and your partner have to get along. Even if both of you are strong dancers, without a personal connection, your performance will suffer.
Different Commitment Levels
Some dancers want to go for gold at competitions; others may simply want to learn some ballroom basics. When your goals are different, parting ways may be better for both individuals.
Interested in trying ballroom dance? Check out classes at reputable franchised studios, such as the Arthur Murray Ballroom Dance Studios or Fred Astaire Dance Studios. The have locations from California to Florida!