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.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.