Friday, February 24, 2012

2012 American Style Congress: Rhythm

On to the Rhythm portion of the day. I'll be honest -- I was kind of worried heading into it after hearing some not-so-kind views about the Congress on Rhythm last year, including that there was no unified view of what Rhythm should be and that all the talks were more confusing than helpful. I'm glad to say that those expectations weren't met, and every talk came with a healthy dose of "This is our style and the way we see it -- take it or leave it, make sure to find out what works for you." It echoes a sentiment that Tomas Mielnicki stated in his talk in the Smooth section when he was talking about the coachings he and JT got from Toni Redpath and Eddie Simon -- it was never "You MUST do it this way." It was always "Here's the technique -- use it to your own advantage if you'd like to." Most of the talks spoke to what I personally believe Rhythm technique should be, though my few instances of dissent will be duly noted below. As with my post on Smooth, all opinions unless otherwise stated herein are mine and mine alone.

Ricky Bentzen and Albina Habrle kicked things off with a talk on their belief of what basic Rhythm rumba technique is. It's a given that when you step, you land on a flexed leg. This allows for better expression of and rhythm through the body. However, when you land, you don't send your energy down into the floor -- that causes your upper body posture to break and creates ugly lines. Rather, the energy of the upper body drives in the opposite direction from the lifted hip of the leg you left behind, so that energy travels across the floor, rather than down into the floor and stopping you cold. Hearing it explained that way was eye-opening. I know that whenever I dance Rhythm, I place such an emphasis on the groundedness and the earthy quality of every dance that I send my energy into the floor; I really do dig. Albina helped me see, though, that by doing that, I'm missing a really great opportunity to project outward and to keep my posture up, which is always an ongoing battle for me. All in all, what Albina and Ricky want Rhythm couples to do is to make sure that every routine is readable (if the music were turned off, could the judges tell that you're dancing a rumba, or would they confuse it with the bolero? the cha cha?), and you have to stay true to the style -- if you're going to step onto a straight leg à la Latin, make sure you're doing it for a reason, like you're about to turn or you're creating a deliberate line (i.e., don't bring Latin technique into Rhythm just because that's what you know and that's what you resort to).

Next up were Peter and Alexandra Perzhu, who tackled my personal favorite Rhythm dance, the swing. They spoke of the importance of Cuban motion throughout the basic, where the bending and the straightening of the legs really help the hip to swing in the way that it's supposed to. Also, it's important that in the rock step, the heel barely kisses the floor -- you should never be backweighted on that rock step, which is a problem I see all over the place in swing. There are two major kinds of chasses in swing: the progressive (side, together, side), and in place (very small step, together, side). The former has a half, half, whole timing, and the latter has a three quarter, quarter, one timing. (That last bit is arguable to me, but I love the Perzhus so much that I'm willing to let it slide.)

They demonstrated a basic amalgamation that consisted of progressive basics to four kick ball changes to sailor shuffles to toe swivels and then chicken walks. Then, like their colleagues in the Smooth portion, they showed how they could build upon those basics into a high-level competitive routine, using the momentum of the progressive basics to go into pivots, separating into side by side, and so on. It was truly great to watch (and now I have a great new pattern to try out involving syncopated sailor shuffles!).

Then, Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine and Liana Churilova built upon their lecture last year, where they talked about technique, with a lecture this year on rhythmicality, musicality, and personality. Rhythmicality involves using the body to display the different rhythms of the music, whether you're vibrating, shimmying, using staccato actions, impulse actions -- the list goes on and on. With musicality, you can be clean and precise in your moves, but unless you're phrasing correctly and working with the music you're given, it's not going to be very effective. Personality involves three different directions of focus: inward, towards the partner, and towards your audience. Through the combination of the three, your dancing can become connected, beautiful, and worth watching.

After a short break, Cher Rutherford took the floor to discuss the bolero with an assist from Rufus Dustin and Lori Woods-Gay. First off, HOLY CRAP. Talk about legends. Second off, the talk was wonderfully detailed, going through the technical specifics of the bolero basics. It is one of the three rumbas (guaracha [or box], son [like International rumba], and bolero), with a speed of 24 measures per minute. The first myth that was debunked was that there is rise and fall in bolero. You are supposed to place the foot first, and then elevate above the standing foot. If the elevation, which comes from body rise, results in foot rise, so be it, but "rise and fall" leads to a fallacy that you have to arrive on a toe, which results in a lack of balance and stability for your partner. The bolero incorporates the lowering, bending action of the waltz, the groundedness of the tango, and the softness of the son-style rumba.

There are four basic actions that you can incorporate into a bolero basic: a checked action (with a contra-check action when you are going forward), a drifting action, a whisk-like action, and a Cuban action. It's impossible to demonstrate each through text, so yet another shameless plug for the DVD, but combining all four throughout a piece of bolero choreography can truly enhance it and give it layers and fun dynamics to play with.

She went on to talk about different types of basic actions: open breaks (further broken down into a backward open break with checked action, a forward open break with drift action, and a point break), crossover breaks and fifth position breaks (with the four types of basic action mentioned above), cross-body leads (from closed hold, from a modified wider closed hold, and from an open hold), and the right side pass (from an open hold with a pivot for the lady).

The living legends theme continued with 12-time National Rhythm champions Bob Powers and Julia Gorchokova, who gave my favorite talk of the Rhythm section, where they broke down fundamental Rhythm action into 6 easy (?) steps:

1. Steps are initiated with a body action (namely in the back). The isometric compression prepares you for your eventual step. Rhythm is in the body, not in just moving a foot from step to step.
2. Step onto a flexed leg, but do not change height. It's a very similar concept to what Albina said above about the upper body stretching in opposition to the hip you're leaving behind; otherwise, you're digging into the floor and stopping your flow of energy.
3. Split your weight and then shift to the new standing leg. Some coaches advocate for transferring your weight 100% when you arrive on the leg; however, splitting and then transferring is what worked best for Bob and Julia.
4. Work a compressed figure 8. If you think of your hips moving in that constant track around, it creates a seamless movement, like the second hand of a real Rolex watch (unlike the second hand of a fake Rolex watch, which ticks instead of moving continuously).
5. Maintain delayed hip action. "The hip moves back in relation to the body, but forward in relation to space ... The energy is created in the hip of the standing leg and remains there until we hit two straight legs, at which time the moving leg now becomes the standing leg." Check out that principle in action on the DVD, or ask me if you see me in person and I'll try to present my horribly deficient, bastardized version of it (I daresay I'm not quite as good as Bob Powers or Julia Gorchakova).
6. At some point, you do hit two straight legs.

I have a minor quibble, but that will be addressed in my third blog.

Then Bill Sparks spoke about Structured Actional Movement (or SAM technique) with assists by Jason and Sveta Daly and another couple whose names I didn't quite catch. I'll be completely honest. I had the same problem that I had when I attended a cha cha talk by Bill at IDB last summer. He's extremely intelligent and a great dancer, but to be quite frank, I got very lost in all the big words that he used, to the point where even the demonstrations of the SAM technique by the very able couples couldn't help me out. From what I could understand, the essentials are that on a step or weight transfer, the weight is caught in the knee of the moving leg and the hip and the ball of the foot left behind. There are three kinds of hip lifts, including vertical, foot driven, and knee driven. At the point of a leg straightening, it becomes the new standing leg. The top exhibits rotation in relation to all this action that's going on in the bottom. All of this is coming from my notes, which are just about as scattered and confused as my memories of the talk. Even given all that, though, the technique doesn't quite sound like my cup of tea, though power and no offense to anyone whom it helps. Perhaps I came into the talk a bit biased after reading through the conversation about it on the Strictly Rhythm group on Facebook. Either way, not quite my favorite talk.

Finally, Taliat Tarsinov lectured on the general impression about the American Rhythm style and some spectators' problems with certain kinds of choreography, and he illustrated with a surprise assist from Jose DeCamps and Joanna Zacharewicz. Not going to lie, I pretty much died of excitement when John DePalma announced their names. It was my first time watching them dance live after watching nearly every Youtube video of them and professing that that's exactly the kind of dancer I want to become. I may or may not have teared up a little at their bolero, but that's coming later. Taliat talked about how he got into Rhythm and then had a small digression on the three different types of weight transfers: progressive, which helps you move; delayed, which creates a flexibility and elasticity throughout the body; and checked, which helps you change direction.

Then he tackled the general problems with modern choreography for the rumba, swing, and bolero. For the rumba, it's meant to be a stationary dance, which allows for expressive, elastic body motion, but many couples turn it into a traveling dance, aiming to cover the whole floor and using grand lines rather than staying true to the original character of the dance. Then in swing, couples aren't using enough actual swing (metronomic, pendular, and rotational) and the in-and-out elasticity of the partnership, where the space expands and contracts (as in the sugar push). Then, in bolero, it becomes very lifted and line-y, instead of grounded, where you exhibit elevation rather than rise and fall. All three dances were demonstrated by Jose and Joanna, whereupon I cried tears of joy and died of happiness.

The day ended with a question and answer session. First up, does a Latin background hinder or help a dancer that's trying to learn Rhythm? The general answer seemed to be that ANY dance background, whether it be Latin, ballet, folk, jazz, anything, can be a help, as long as you're willing to learn something new and figure out how you can use your previous training to inform it, rather than fall back on your previous training in lieu of learning something new. Then came an easy question where Peter and Alexandra Perzhu were asked whether they think their ideas about the swing are in line with current judges' opinions ("Yes. Yeah."). Next, Bob Powers and Bill Sparks demonstrated the evolution of the arms on crossover breaks, and Bob fielded a question about how the ribcage moves with regard to their theory about basic movement (answer: you can't move bones, ribcage = back, therefore it works great with their ideology). The last question was directed at Eddie Simon, who was asked about body rise versus foot rise in the bolero. Cf. my ditty on Cher Rutherford up above.

I skipped over two questions, one involving footwork on the forward break in rumba/cha cha and another involving the SAM technique, but that's the subject of my next and final post on the American Style Congress. I will say that I was feeling pretty fantastic about the entire day, learning new things that I really want to try out, just like I did with the Smooth section, but the way these last two questions I'll talk about were handled put a really sour taste in my mouth. Stay tuned for that.

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