Photo by Natasha D’Souza via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve always loved to waltz. It is one of those moves that feels really good, like swimming in the ocean or falling in love. A waltz sways and moves, has grace and elegance, it always feels pretty. It’s so intimately connected to the music that when it’s right, it’s less about you dancing to the music than going inside the music, allowing it to dance you.

Waltzing originated as an Austrian and Bavarian folk dance from the eighteenth century, and like all good things, was quite shocking to the upper classes in its day. Naturally the close embrace in particular was frowned upon. It subsequently became popular in Vienna, leading to the birth of ballroom dance. 

While the step itself is simple, the necessary fluidity and ease of a waltz is what makes it difficult to master. (Why are things that require ease so challenging? Perhaps letting go is actually harder than holding on!) 

A waltz is also one of the most creative moves in ballet, done in many different ways and directions and combined with a variety of other steps. It can be done side to side, front to back, turning, with legs brushing through. Who knew ballet could be so…sexy?

How to waltz:

  • Start with music written in 3/4 time. Use Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker if you’re feeling traditional, or Prince’s Sometimes it Snows in April if you’re feeling oldschool (or you read this blog). Other good waltz songs are Nora Jones’s Come Away With Me or Edwin McCain’s I’ll Be. Recently one of my dancers introduced me to a beautiful Spanish song called Mi Ancla by Mindy Gledhill. In the song, she talks about being carried away by a red balloon but her lover is her anchor, mi ancla. This sweet little song captures the intoxication of being carried away by the wind or a waltz. 
  • Whatever waltz music you choose, you should hear a strong 1 count downbeat, followed by lighter 2, 3 counts. Take a moment to listen for these counts before you start to move.
  • Now stand up (no turn out, no pointed feet) and just sway to the music. Change your weight from your right foot to your left foot on each strong  1 count. Notice counts 2 & 3, but at first only move on the 1 counts. (I’m trying to get you to feel the music.)
  • Now add two smaller steps on counts 2 and 3. March in place for now. It is helpful to say to yourself BIG, little, little; BIG, little little as you are stepping. 
  • Now that you are easily stepping on each count, make your BIG step less about taking a venti sized step and more about stepping into plié. The emphasis should go downward. And then make your two little steps up on relevé, so now instead of just stepping on the beats, you are adding levels. Be sure your first step is flat on the floor, with your whole foot down on the ground, including the heel – just like a pedestrian taking a regular step – and bend your knee. The second two steps are up on the balls of your feet, in relevé. It is helpful to say to yourself DOWN, up, up; DOWN, up, up. If you get confused, take out the relevé and go back to BIG, little, little. Don’t turn out or point your feet or or think ‘ballet’ right now. Even if you get mixed up, keep going. 
  • Start to move around the room with your BIG, little, little, or your DOWN, up, up. Listen to the music. Be sure you are exactly in sync with each beat. Feel the music taking you with it. Play with expressive qualities as you move such as direction and gesture. (Extra credit for laughing at yourself, or at least smiling!)

In ballet, we call waltzing doing a balancé. But the idea is the same, the point is to be smooth and effortless. Even if you’re an advanced dancer, sometimes a balancé can look awkward or can pop up. Do less. Stop pointing your feet for a minute and go back to the music, feel the wind in your hair and imagine sunshine and mountains. This dance was originated by Bavarian peasants in a gorgeous place on earth. Dance is about expressing life.

Once you are feeling confident, try these patterns:

1. Balancé Side to side: Step on your right foot to the right side, step behind your right foot with a small second step on your left and then step in place with the right foot for the third small step. It’s more like SIDE, back, front; or DOWN, up, down. As you take your first step to the right, sweep your left arm forward and across at rib cage height towards the right, with the palm facing down as the right arm opens to second position. Then as you finish the third step on the right side, your hands will switch so that as you step to your left the right arm sweeps across to the left side as you step to the left, SIDE, back, and front. Your upper body and head should also follow the swaying movement towards the right when you are stepping right, and towards the left as you are stepping left. 

2. Balancé front to back: Stand croisé, on your left foot on a diagonal with your right foot free behind you in “B+”. Step a big step forward on your right foot, along the diagonal, bring your left foot behind your right, step up on relevé on it, and then step down in place on your right foot (FRONT, up, down); then step backwards along that same diagonal with your left foot, and bring your right foot behind your left and step into relevé on your right foot and then step back down on your left (BACK, up, down.) Your right arm will sweep up as you go forward into a high arabesque line, eyes and head looking up, following the line of the hand, and then as you go back, your right arm will sweep towards the floor, as you balancé backwards. My teacher used to say it was like picking an apple off the tree way up high and almost leaning back a wee bit as you balancé forward, and then bend forward from the waist as you balancé back, as if you are placing that apple into a basket on the floor. 

3. Straight leg Waltz: This Waltz step turns in one complete rotation – half way around when doing the right side, and completing the turn when doing the left side. You travel along a diagonal towards the down right corner of the room. (I tried explaining this in detail but it didn’t work. I will find a video to show this and include a link.)

Try this combination: 

Start near the upper left corner of the room, two steps towards the center. Balance forward towards the down right corner of the room on a diagonal, balance backwards, turning towards your right, ending facing the down left corner of the room. It’s like a balancé front and back except the balancé to the back turns. Step into piqué back attitude on your right foot towards the downstage left corner of the room, arms in third position with the left arm high. Piqué passé along your original diagonal, toward the corner, followed by two piqué turns towards the corner and ending with a straight leg waltz. 

Enjoy waltzing and let me know how it goes – hopefully up, up and away! 

~ Sarah


I hope this helps, Malcolm! 

Join me for ballet on Tuesdays 7-8pm and Saturdays 12-1:30. Only $10. I will be away in Honolulu from March 2-17 and returning the 18th. See you at the barre! 

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