Whats behind the name of a figure?

Compiled by Pedro Coimbra

As there are various dictionaries for ballet (As for example: “Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet”, Dover Books, by Gail Grant), there should and could be at least one for Ballroom and Latin American Dances in English too, including the popular Latin American Dances as Salsa, Merengue, Argentine Tango, Bachata, Lambada, Zouk, etc.

Maybe there could be a Ballroom and Latin American Dictionary online like the Wikipedia one (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alemana) where everybody can contribute to create, improve and update it! Wouldn’t that be great?!

As many other dancers and teachers I am curious and would like to know more about the origin of the names of the dance steps in Ballroom and Latin American Dances. Many of us would like to have a history book of Ballroom and Latin American Dances including a dictionary/thesaurus explaining the origin of the names of the steps. The names in English are usually pretty descriptive, easy to understand and visualise but others are not so clear. And it is so important to know where things come from, how they evolved, sometimes in different directions (Like for example: Salsa, Cha Cha and Rumba Bolero, they all branched off from Cuban Son) and understand why they are like they are these days. It is so good to know the story behind the steps to make more sense out of what one is doing, help the dancer visualize the original and find inside its own sense and way of doing it.

So below, in alphabetic order is a compilation of steps and its respective origin/meaning/explanation, from some Education Department WDC&AL Facebook Group publications.

I also took the liberty to suggest a few more dances and steps so people can contribute by sharing their knowledge.

Ballroom Standard Dances

Slow Waltz (English Waltz)

The Big Top: “I believe the big top was a creation of necessity / floor craft. Stepping from promenade only to be interrupted from continuing due to traffic, forcing the man’s left leg behind to turn away from the trouble.” (by Damon Sugden)

The Contra check: “I have often thought that all picture lines happened on accident because someone was in their way. The throwaway oversway was probably an open finish that the man had to over shape to get his partner to stop from running into the wall or something. The Contra check the same thing. Starting to drive forward and someone is there …so, over shape and a beautiful contra check! (by Michael Shultz)

The Double Reverse Spin: “This is how Josephine Bradley explained it to me. It was not an invention it was an accident
“When we were practising the basic reverse turn in the waltz my partner put too much emphasis on step two which caused me to close my feet(heel turn). He overturned to end diagonally to wall and I finished up with my feet crossed. So we accidently doubled our amount of turn hence the name Double Reverse Spin.” (by Education Master: Anthony Hurley)

The Reverse Wave: “this is priceless! I was told by my former mentors Gene Jennings and Rona Pick that the reverse wave had something to do with Alex Moore avoiding a piano in a rather cramped studio? Thank you so very much Mr Hurley! I love these historical titbits.” (by David Alford)

The Same Foot Lunge: “The same foot lunge was developed when the second half of a natural turn was being danced and some one got in the way. This is Eric Lahbrookes version of events” (by Keith Morris)

The Throwaway Oversway: “I have often thought that all picture lines happened on accident because someone was in their way. The throwaway oversway was probably an open finish that the man had to over shape to get his partner to stop from running into the wall or something. The Contra check the same thing. Starting to drive forward and someone is there …so, over shape and a beautiful contra check! (by Michael Shultz)

The Whisk: “The story goes that Alex Moore MBE of Revised Technique fame and leading world statesman of international dancing was working out some figures for inclusion in one of his publications. He arrived in a position with his left foot crossed behind his right foot, he realised of course the lady could comfortably dance the normal opposite. At the time he was relaxing and dancing this action he had a glass of whisky in his hand, now you know why it became the Whisk.” (by Education Master: Anthony Hurley)

The Wing: “Now you have to imagine a bird on the ground opening and spreading its left wing, now transform your thoughts to a man leading his lady across his body to his left side, the lady has followed the line of the bird opening its wing, another wonderful Josephine Bradley mental picture.” (by Education Master: Anthony Hurley)

Slow Foxtrot

The Feather Step: “The shape of the feather step has a slight curve to the right outlining the shape of a bird’s feather. Perhaps a better picture is to imagine the shape of the old quill pen our ancestors used to write with.”
(by Education Master: Anthony Hurley)

Latin American Dances

“Pedro: FYI there IS a dancesport dictionary available in german if you can manage to muddle through that. i found it very informative: woerterbuch des tanzsports i believe is the original title. it is NOT definitive, but does have a lot of very good information.additionally, the handbook ” a concise history of latin-american dancing in the uk” has a lot of good historical information(and it’s in english!). i have some disagreements with info. on the history of “rumba”, but all in all it is good. to really get closer to the truth i’ve had to go back to original cuban sources, or in the case of jive to american ones. i had the great pleasure and honour of meeting frankie manning who literally helped invent the lindy hop.there are some other great materials available. should you have the interest let me know.” (by David Alford )

Cha Cha

“Cha-cha-cha is the name of a dance of Cuban origin. It is danced to the music of the same name introduced by Cuban composer and violinist Enrique Jorrín in 1953. This rhythm was developed from the danzón by asyncopation of the fourth beat. The name is onomatopoeic, derived from the rhythm of the güiro (scraper) and the shuffling of the dancers’ feet.

Origin: The modern style of dancing the cha-cha-chá comes from studies made by dance teacher Monsieur Pierre (Pierre Zurcher-Margolle), who partnered Doris Lavelle.[5]

Pierre, then from London, visited Cuba in 1952 to find out how and what Cubans were dancing at the time. He noted that this new dance had a split fourth beat, and to dance it one started on the second beat, not the first. He brought this dance idea to England and eventually created what is now known as ballroom cha-cha-cha.[6]

The validity of his analysis is well established for that time, and some forms of evidence exist today. First, there is in existence film of Orquesta Jorrin playing to a cha-cha-cha dance contest in Cuba; second, the rhythm of the Benny More classic Santa Isabel de las Lajas written and recorded at about the same time is quite clearly syncopated on the fourth beat. Also, note that the slower bolero-son (“rumba”) was always danced on the second beat.” (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

New York: “Most British folks tell me that the people commissioned to study the steps could not remember that step called the cross over break that people were doing in New York so they called it the New Yorker instead.” (by Michael Shultz)

“So nice that so many people are interested.The New york was simply named because she learnt it in NY.Why call it checks from pp and cpp.So easy for people to remember the New York” (by Philip Nicholas )

Fan: ““Abanico” in Spanish, this figure and position resembles the shape of a Hand Fan Opening.” (by Pedro Coimbra)


Bota Fogo: “She also told me (Doris Lavelle) the night they learnt the Bota fogo they came away from the dance hall and saw a sign saying Bota Fogo beach. And that is where the name comes from. It means make the fire.” (by Philip Nicholas)

“bota fogo means: feet in fire and may have related more to sand heated by the sun in Brazil. when the sand is too hot you try to put as little weight as possible on your feet and that could explain the partial weight transfer in this figure.” (by Benoit Papineau )

“Just Googled Botafogo…Botafogo was named after João Pereira de Sousa Botafogo, who was responsible for the galleon Botafogo’s artillery, so he included the ship’s name in his family name. When he went to live in Brazil, the Portuguese Crown granted him the land known today as Botafogo. The name literally means “set it on fire” (a reference to the Botafogo galleon’s artillery power)”. (by Sandra Wollin)

“About the Botafogo, I am Portuguese and it means: a torch to light on the fire, put something on fire or somebody doing something that disturbs the peace. It is also the name of a neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro in Brasil. Years ago, I was told by an examiner that this step’s name came from the natural reaction of a person walking in the hot burning sand of the Rio de Janeiro beaches. I think this is a quite a good image to relate to!” (by Pedro Coimbra)

Corta Jaca: “Also Jaca is a big brasilian fruit and not a bread and you cut it with a knife indeed, so the move of the hands combined with the feet protraits the movement of the cutting knife.” ( by Jonathan Sergio Morrison Brilhante)

Rumba / Bolero

Aida: “Doris named the Aida after the lady that always dance that step, the three threes was first called the butterfly because the arm positions made her think of a butterfly. She was a wonderful lady.” (byPhilip Nicholas)

“There is a picture in Ballroom Icons page 37…in Doris Lavelles profile, with Pepe Llorenz and his wife Aida (the name-giver for the Aida figure) dancing the Rope-spinning. Its from that moviereel that exists/existed somewhere…Pierre (Doris Lavelles partner is playing the claves). The film was taken by James (Jimmy) Arnell.” (Brigitt Mayer)

“Hi there, in relationship to the Aida, I learned from Mr Vernon Kemp that Aida was the name of the lady who used to dance this particular figure. There was even another move that they named it Aida II that had nothing to do with the Aida.” (by Jonathan Sergio Morrison Brilhante)

Alemana: “alemana is an actual original cuban name for a figure done in both the cuban danzon and the chachacha, that is, it was not given that name by pierre /lavelle.it is actually listed in a cuban technique book as alemanda(note spelling!).i have compiled a list of the original names of the figures as given in cuban sources BEFORE they were given english names by pierre/lavelle if anybody has an interest in that.” (by David Alford)

Fan: “Abanico” in Spanish, this figure and position resembles the shape of a Hand Fan Opening.” (by Pedro Coimbra)

Kiki Walks: “and the kiki walks after a man by that nickname, if i am not mistaken.(by David Alford )

“aida and kiki, as the nickname for enrique (from kiki walks) were both people that pierre/lavelle studied alongside.pepe and suzy rivera,however, were their main teachers.” (by David Alford)

Three Threes: “Wasn’t the figure 3 3’s originally named “penicilina”? or was that another figure? this was a famous danzon in cuba circa 1945 composed by abelardo valdes and would tie-in with the timeframe in which pierre and doris lavelle were studying there(late 40s). thanks for your input as it adds to my historical research. (by David Alford )

“Doris did not agree with the change of name she always told me it was the butterfly. She really liked this figure.” (by Philip Nicholas)

“i found pierre’s book”latin and american dances”(1948) to be very informative.” (by David Alford)

More on Rumba Bolero:

“for those interested in seeing the figures we dance as done by cubans, check “CUBAN SON DANCERS-SANTIAGO,CUBA” on youtube. superb clip showing rope spin,tops, fan,etc.” (by David Alford)

“some of the original cuban spanish names that were, and still are, used in the son cubano(what we call ballroom “rumba”) were/are” dile que no” or “salida” for the closed hip twist/fan,”el paseo” for the walks,” el paso lateral” for the side step,”giron” or” papillon” for the tops, “lanzandera” for the open hip twist. i have a more complete list for interested parties.” (David Alford)

Do you know other origins of dance step names? Share using the comments area below.

1 comment
  1. 2 corrections B/room.. Pierres visit was in the 40s, not 50s, and the Whisk was developed in Alex’s studio ,and the dancer was Carl Bryant .

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