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'.
Tip: Start from the Bottom
“Many people don't know that the movement of the hips actually begins with the proper foot pressure into the floor," Di Lello says. Connect to the floor by pushing through your foot muscles—the energy will travel up through your leg into the hip, creating proper hip action.
Tip: Put the Pedal to the Metal
When performing moves that travel front to back, “your back foot should serve as the engine, propelling you forward and creating hip action," Di Lello says. This is also when it's most important to connect to the floor with your foot muscles and push into a straight leg. That will raise your hip and send it in the proper direction.
Tip: Prepare for Landing
When you transition between your two feet, especially during samba movements where your legs cross, be sure to “cushion" your landing. When you release your hip and move onto your opposite leg, transfer your weight in an even way that allows your hip to naturally swing from one side to the other. This will make the movement look seamless, not sloppy.
Tip: Show that Opposites Attract
“The hips and ribs should move in opposition to one another to make hip movement more noticeable," Di Lello says. It's super-important to practice isolating the two, as unnatural as it may feel.
Get a Handle on Hip Action
Kosta Karakashyan, a member of the Columbia University ballroom team, suggests this simple exercise to help you discover proper hip action.
1. Stand in second position with your feet shoulder-distance apart, keeping both heels on the ground.
2. Move your hips in a figure-8 shape by going diagonally forward with your right hip, then rotating back until your left hip is facing diagonally forward—you should feel your hip bones drawing the “8."
3. After a few repetitions, begin bending and straightening your knees as you rotate your hips diagonally—bending the left knee and straightening the right as you swing your hips right, and vice versa. With practice, you'll begin to feel when to “cushion" into the step and when to rise. Think of the hips like a swinging pendulum.