DWTS Rants & Raves: Why It’s Too Early for the Jive (and Other Dances)

So apparently we all seemed to be on the same page about the dances done the other night: the consensus is “It’s too early for the jive & the quickstep!!! Why on earth did they make the couples do it so early???” Well, we’ve always said that DWTS, try as it might, will never be a “real ballroom competition”.  And I don’t really think it should try to be, since its objective is different: it’s an entertainment program for ratings, rather than a serious competition for skilled dancers.  However, there is one page in the “real ballroom” book that DWTS could stand to copy a few things from: the order in which the dances are done.

Many of you have probably already heard most of this next spiel from the comments sections of a few other posts this week, but I’m going to go into greater detail here.  When learning how to ballroom dance in the “real world”, there is a certain order that the dances are taught in, and each successive dance you learn tends to build & elaborate on the technique you’ve learned in a previous dance.  Most teachers will start with the cha-cha – comparatively, the easiest of the Latin dances.  It introduces Latin hip action, and the beat sets the trend for moving on the 2 (which also happens in the rumba and mambo).  Plus, the beat is common enough that cha-cha can be danced to just about any upbeat song on the radio.  It’s a good, relatable dance to start with.  DWTS was right to start out with it in week 1.  As for the ballroom dances, the first dance taught is usually the standard waltz – the “slow one” in 3/4 time.  It’s slow enough for beginners to keep up with, and allows them to focus on new concepts like rise & fall, rotation, line of dance, and holding a good frame.  It will also set the framework for the Viennese waltz (which will come much further down the line), since it’s a sped-up version of the regular waltz.  DWTS actually got it right in seasons 1, 2, & 8 - the first week, the couples did either a cha-cha or a waltz. Two dances of equal difficulty that are fitting first dances for beginners.

After getting the cha-cha and waltz drilled into your brain ad infinitum to get you accustomed to Latin & ballroom basics, most teachers will then teach the rumba and either the tango or quickstep, depending on whether they’re teaching you American or international style (there is no “American quickstep” – which is why it’s the only dance where the couples must stay in-hold the entire time, since you can’t break hold in the international style).  The rumba has been a notoriously difficult dance to learn on DWTS, but in real life, it’s actually probably the 2nd easiest Latin dance to learn because the technique is nearly identical to that of the cha-cha: you move on the 2, you use Latin hip action, and many of the figures are the same, but just simplified to fit the slower tempo of the rumba.  Fun fact: any cha-cha song can be turned into a rumba if you slow it down enough – you just hold on the “4&1″ instead of doing a chasse (the side step…the “cha-cha-cha”).  The rumba is the dance that really forces students to focus on their hip action, since it’s so slow – you can hide a lack of hip action better on a fast dance like the cha-cha, but in a rumba…you’re painfully exposed and hip action problems stick out like a sore thumb.  So it’s one of those dances that’s “DWTS-hard” but not so much “real-life hard” :-) As for the tango and quickstep – most teachers I’ve had do the tango after the waltz, since the timing, technique, and footwork is pretty straightforward.  The only hurdles: the hold for the tango is a bit different, and head movement becomes more important because of the very staccato timing.  But a few instructors I’ve had like to at least touch on the quickstep, since the quickstep is a sped-up version of the foxtrot – it actually used to be called the “fast fox”.  In truth, the basic movement of the quickstep is not terribly hard – what IS hard is when you move on to more advanced figures that involve bounces, runs, and skips.  The big challenge there is keeping your topline level and your frame intact while your feet are going crazy :-) And that is actually one area where the quickstep & jive can be equally hard: both require the ability to separate the movement of the bottom half of the body from the movement of the top half of the body.  A good visual once given to me by a teacher: if you were doing the jive or the quickstep in front of a hip-level fence/wall/divider/etc., you should look like you’re barely moving to someone on the other side of the wall that can’t see your legs.

After several months of doing only cha-cha/rumba or waltz/tango/quickstep to the point where you’re probably sick to death of those dances, an instructor will likely move onto the samba and foxtrot next.  A lot of the DWTS pros seem to agree that the samba is the hardest of the Latin dances for the celebs to pick up, even though the steps themselves aren’t terribly complicated.  The big challenge is the characteristic samba “tic”: the bounce generated through the knees, hips, and core that moves with the “1&2, 2&2″ beat of the samba.  A secondary challenge: the samba is the only Latin dance that moves around the floor like the ballroom dances. Here’s another area where DWTS and the “real world” differ: in the real world, where students have had ample time to focus on Latin hip action, the samba typically comes quicker and easier.  But in the DWTS universe, where you’ve barely touched on technique before performing a dance and then moving onto another one, the samba bounce can be a real pain :-) The only celeb in the history of the show that I can recall being impressed with their samba technique is Hines – it wasn’t perfect or professional, but he at least seemed to be trying to get the characteristic “bounce” instead of keeping his legs “flat” like most of the other celebs.  And then there’s the foxtrot – a dance that has confounded me for years. The basic movement of the foxtrot is simple – it’s basically just walking forward or back.  It’s the ridiculous technique (that actually makes it look cool) that infuriates you to no end – in the American style (which most of the pros on the show seem to choose for their foxtrot – it’s easier than international), the challenge is sliding the feet along the floor properly and getting the correct rise & fall; in the international style foxtrot (which is widely considered the most difficult dance to learn, out of all the Latin & ballroom dances), it takes years to nail the core-straining, perpetual motion feel of the dance and the nary-impossible heel turn that the ladies must do.  But here’s a strange area in which DWTS & the real world differ: on DWTS, the foxtrot is “fakeable”.  And by “fakeable”, I mean that as long as a pro can choreograph something crowd-pleasing and fun to watch, no one really pays attention to the technique.  I don’t think I’ve seen a couple on the show do a foxtrot yet that was actually technique-heavy – hell, even some of the pros *cough*LACEY*cough* have atrocious foxtrot technique themselves.  But that’s the big caveat of foxtrot on DWTS: if you can’t choreograph an entertaining foxtrot, you could be screwed – statistically, the greatest number of eliminated couples have been eliminated in the week they did the foxtrot.  What does that mean? Likely that the foxtrot is a make-it-or-break-it dance…it’s a pretty simple dance and if you fail to make an impact with it, viewers may not even remember to vote for you.

The last dances one typically learns are the jive and the Viennese waltz (which, ironically, are dances that 6 of the remaining couples have already gotten out of the way early in the competition). As I’ve mentioned before, both dances are incredibly fast – they’re actually the two fastest dances, tempo-wise.  In the case of the jive, you’re also dealing with a dance that doesn’t have much in common with its other Latin siblings – it’s almost pointless to try and draw on any of the technique of the cha-cha, rumba, samba, or paso doble (which I’ll get later).  The technique of the jive is difficult in that it requires using your core to help lift your legs, which in turn helps conserve your energy a bit more since you’re not just lifting up your legs like they’re dead weight, and also gives the jive its characteristic controlled bounce.  These celebs only have a week to learn the jive – so of course they’re not going to have time to focus on the technique, and so they’re going to make rookie mistakes like using their legs to move rather than their core and they’re going to be bouncing out of control & wearing themselves out - David’s jive was a prime example of it.  Much like Hines & the samba, the only celeb I’ve seen really use proper jive technique is Nicole – watch how she gets her knees so high without the rest of her body moving much.  THAT is jive. As for the Viennese waltz – it’s maybe a skosh easier than the jive in that you can at least draw on the timing & feel of the standard waltz a bit.  But the similarity really stops there; since VW is so much faster than the waltz, there’s no time for the wide, sweeping steps of the standard waltz, instead, you’ve gotta keep your footwork compact, and learn how to position your body so that while you’re completing one step, you’re already prepped and ready for the next step – the biggest mistake I see a lot of celebs making in the Viennese waltz is trying to remain completely “square” to their partner…in other words, facing them symmetrically.  This results in the forward stepping partner not being able to get around the backward-facing partner, and then creates a longer distance for the backward-facing partner to travel when they start the forward-moving part of their step.  And with the fast tempo of this dance, there’s simply no time to get around, and that’s how many of the couples get “off-time”.  In order to keep up with this one, you’ve gotta learn to “wind up” your body to help propel yourself through the steps – your torso may be facing your partner, but your hips and legs are already angling away for the next step.  And for the love of god, keep your steps small! There’s no reason (or time) to take wide-set, long strides.  The technique is what gives the Viennese waltz its “sweeping” feel - not so much the length of your steps.  Another problem I see every now and then: celebs getting a bit dizzy.  Since it is a fast-moving, rotating dance, it is possible to get a bit disoriented – and it’s easily fixable, if you know how to “spot” your turns.  But how many beginners know how to properly spot their turns? Odds are, not many.  And hence, the dance gets even harder :-)

A word on the paso doble: the reason I haven’t included it in my dance “schedule” above is that paso is a dance that is not typically taught to beginners or strictly social dancers in the “real world” – it’s only really taught & performed in high-level competition & showcase routines, as it’s a dance that relies more heavily on pre-determined choreography than lead & follow between partners.  There’s a reason why you don’t see scenes in dance movies where the handsome leading man saunters up to the beautiful young ingenue and coos “Care to paso doble, sweetheart?” ;-) It’s far too space-consuming & theatrical to be suitable as a social dance – which is why it’s perfect for DWTS.  The large, dramatic movement of it is like catnip to the average viewer – it may have mediocre (or downright bad) technique, but if a couple sells it well, it doesn’t usually matter.  Like the foxtrot, it’s a dance that’s “fakeable” on DWTS; however, also like the foxtrot, its steps are rather simple and not necessarily exciting by themselves, so if a couple fails to sell it – it could be curtains for them.  Remember how I said the foxtrot was the dance statistically most likely to send a couple home? The paso doble is the 2nd most likely – interesting how the dances most likely to send a couple home are not the extraordinarily difficult ones…but the easier ones.

As for the Argentine tango & salsa – I’d say the former is a bit more on the difficult side, while the latter tends to fall on the easier end of the spectrum.  AT is difficult in that the technique is only vaguely similar to that of the standard tango, the hold is completely different, and the footwork is quite a bit more intricate; however, it’s also a “fakeable” dance to a certain degree, as the average viewer (and judge, for that matter) tends to get lost in the passion and romance of it (and tends to overlook bad execution) if the couple sells it right.  The salsa is similar in difficulty to the cha-cha, and has the same fun, flirtatious feel; it’s also a dance that tends to fit well with very current, popular music.  There is quite a bit more armwork with the salsa than the cha-cha (or any of the other dances), so it could potentially foul up some celebs; there’s also the potential for it to look a bit boring if it’s not injected with enough flash, as the basic step is rather elementary.  I know a lot of ballroom “purists” tend to complain that “Argentine tango and salsa are not real ballroom dances!”, but once again, I reiterate: DWTS is not a real ballroom competition :-) They were likely added to the roster not only to fill time, but to appeal to the average viewer – AT is dramatic & fun to watch, while salsa is fun and relateable, since most folks have at least heard of it.  I think they both offer a bit of a respite from some of the more difficult, rigid dances, as they leave room for more artistic interpretation…and less flak from the judges, as I’m convinced that 2 of the 3 have a minimal amount of knowledge of the 10 core ballroom dances…and are utterly clueless when it comes to more unique ones :-P

So what to make of all of this? The powers that be are likely going more for what will grab ratings rather than what is good for the celebs – so they’re going to make silly mistakes like swapping out the waltz with the Viennese waltz in week one (cause the latter is soooo much more exciting than the former! *eye roll*), and go for 2 of the most energetic dances in week 2, when the ratings drop off after the premiere.  And the judges, in their infinite wisdom (*sarcasm*), are going to continue to be all over the place with their scoring, only citing the technique of a dance when it suits their agenda and ignoring it when it doesn’t.  As always, DWTS will never be a “real ballroom competition”.  But at least it helps to understand just why these couples are struggling so much right off the bat. So what do you guys think? Is the order in which the dances are learned detrimental to the couples, or does it really even matter? What would you change? What would you keep the same? Sound off!!!

*SPECIAL PUREDWTS PSA: Due to a case of writer’s block on Heidi & I’s part (and me feeling a bit under the weather), there will be no cheesecake this weekend :-( However, we will be doing a dual week 2/week 3 cheesecake and will be posting it earlier in the week – maybe Wednesday.  We apologize to those of you waiting with baited breath for your weekly dose of snark…but if you haven’t already, maybe you can get your fix from this week’s edition of lolDWTS ;-)