Ballroom Dance Styles
Throughout the 20th century, ballroom and other partner dancing evolved through informal social dances as well as efforts to standardize steps and instruction techniques to make particular styles more popular and easier to learn by the general public. This is why a single dance name, such as ChaCha, may refer to several “flavors” of ChaCha: the competitive International or American styles, Country style, a social ballroom style, or a social style as danced in Latino communities. The boundaries between “flavors” are somewhat fluid, as steps and techniques are borrowed and changed among the different styles over time.
The characteristics that differentiate the dances, aside from the music they are danced to, include:
- whether or not the partnership travels around the floor (typically in a counterclockwise direction)
- whether or not the partnership dances in a “slot,” or imaginary, stationary track on the floor
- whether or not there is syncopation in the timing or variation in the timing among different steps to the dance
- whether or not the partners must stay connected in a “hold” throughout the dance
- whether or not there is hip movement, and how that hip movement is generated
This section of our website provides short descriptions of the various dances you will encounter here at Stepping Out and out in the dancing world, organized by style. This list is by no means exhaustive, but meant only as a gentle introduction to the world of ballroom dancing.
Social Latin: Salsa, ChaCha, Merengue, Etc.
Social Latin dancing, which includes the Salsa, Mambo, Merengue, Rumba, ChaCha, Samba, and other offshoots, originated in places like Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, but the dances have been embraced worldwide. In the 1950s and 1960s New York City became a hub for Latin music and dance, and Latin clubs continue to open and thrive in our city today. Latin culture has widened its appeal through television, film and theater as well. Latin music has become mainstream, with popular performers such as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, and Ricky Martin becoming household names. Some typical “flavors” of social Latin you will encounter here at Stepping Out and in New York City are:
- Salsa/Mambo – the most popular Latin dance, enjoyable for beginners to the most dedicated salseros. Styles range from a more classic style derived from the dance’s origins in Cuba, to NY-style “on 2,” to the competitive American Rhythm style. Movement ranges from a simple, sensual basic to the craziest of fast turns and arm movements.
- Merengue – a simple march-like step combines with turn patterns similar to those in salsa/mambo, with lots of room for flirtation along the way.
- Rumba – a social ballroom dance, sensual and slow, with similarities to American Rhythm. International Latin’s Rumba differs in timing and technique, though it shares social Rumba’s sensuality.
- ChaCha – also called Cha-Cha-Cha, this is a social dance which encompasses styles ranging from funky NY street, smoother social ballroom, competitive American Rhythm, competitive International Latin, and even Country Western.
- Samba – joyous, with a distinctive “bounce” action, this social dance is similar to the same dance in International Latin.
- Bachata – soulful and sexy and fun all at once, the Bachata originated in the Dominican Republic and is danced to music of the same name.
“Ballroom dancing” as we know it today developed early in the 20th century as jazz music and dances designed for it rose in popularity. At the same time, there was also a drive to popularize dances by making them standardized and thus teachable and easily learnable. American Style dances developed through the strong influence of Arthur Murray, who established a chain of dance studios and formalized dance steps and instruction. American Style is divided into two categories, Smooth and Rhythm. American Smooth dances come closest to what we often think of as “ballroom dancing” à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
American style is danced both socially and competitively in the U.S.
- Waltz – Languid, fluid dancing to a slower 1-2-3 rhythm
- Tango – Dramatic stalking walks with sharp contrasts between slow and sharp movements
- Viennese Waltz – Flowing waltz danced to a quicker 1-2-3 rhythm than American Waltz
- Foxtrot – The steps may be different, but think of Astaire and Rogers dancing
- ChaCha – Flirtatious and rhythmic, with quick hip movements
- Rumba – Sensual and smooth, with subtle hip motion
- Bolero – A cousin to the American Rumba, this is slower and even more dreamy, with sweeping contrasts between bending and straightening the legs
- Mambo – Closely related to classic social salsa, but danced on a different beat
- Swing – Based on East Coast Swing, with some elements from West Coast Swing, this is an ideal dance for beginners
International Style dancing developed in Europe almost at the same time as the American Style, and was introduced to the U.S. in the 1960s. Originally labeled English Style, it is danced competitively around the world as well as socially (generally outside the U.S.). International Style is divided into two categories which have strict steps and technique: International Standard and International Latin. International Standard also evokes Astaire and Rogers, although partners cannot break out of hold as they can in American Smooth. (Afficionados may also use “Ballroom” or “Modern” to refer to International Standard, which is why Stepping Out uses the more general term “partner dancing.”)
- Waltz – Fluid, sweeping dancing to a slow 1-2-3 rhythm
- Tango – Dramatic walks with contrasts between slow stalking and sharp movements of the head and changes of direction
- Viennese Waltz – Whirling, flowing waltz danced to a quick 1-2-3 rhythm
- Slow Foxtrot – Elegant, smooth, and continuous movements across the floor
- Quickstep – Dynamic movement with many patterns including hops, runs and rotations, at a fast tempo
- ChaCha – Cheeky and rhythmic, with quick hip movements and syncopation
- Samba – Lively, joyous, and bouncy, with many changes in rhythm
- Rumba – Sensuous, smooth, and slow, to better highlight full hip action
- Paso Doble – A dramatic marching dance that portrays the leader as matador and the follower as the bull or cape
- Jive – A high energy and uninhibited form of swing, with sharp kicks and flicks
Country Western features a wide variety of dance styles, including eight partner dances, many of which overlap with other ballroom, Latin, and swing styles. Country Western also includes line dancing, which is solo dancing to rhythms that are similar to the partner dances.
Country differs from other partner dances in a few ways. Three dances, including the signature dance Two Step, are unique to country. Other dances, such as Country Waltz, are very similar to the ballroom equivalents, but country adds a slightly different, distinct character.
Country dancing, both as a social and competitive dance genre, emphasizes expressiveness and fun!
- Two Step – A fast, hybrid, traveling dance characterized by spinning and weaving.
- Country Waltz – A soft, romantic dance that glides across the floor.
- Polka – A fast, fun, rhythmical, traveling dance with even more spinning than Two Step!
- Triple Two – A smooth, traveling dance characterized by looped patterns and curved swaying actions like feathers.
- Nightclub – A sweet, slotted dance characterized by draping and shaping like grass blowing in the wind.
- West Coast Swing – A sassy, slinky, slotted dance that can be danced to a wide variety of music ranging from blues to country to pop.
- East Coast Swing – A bouncy, upbeat, rotational dance that uses lilt.
- Country ChaCha – A firey, stationary dance characterized by Cuban motion.
- Lilt/Pulse – Solo East Coast Swing, Jive, Polka, or Samba
- Cuban – Solo ChaCha, Mambo, or Rumba
- Smooth – Solo Nightclub, West Coast Swing, Hustle, or Tango
- Rise and Fall – Solo Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, or Quickstep
- Novelty – Solo Lyrical, Jazz, Modern, or Ballet
- Funky – Solo Hip Hop, Poppin’, Break Dance, or Crumpin’
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Argentine Tango gained popularity in America when Rudolph Valentino took Hollywood by storm in his smoldering performance in 1926 in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The dance has never lost its charismatic power, and there are Tango clubs and “milongas” all over the world, as well as touring Tango shows. Tango aficionados range from those who dance only to traditional Argentine music to those who dance to “nuevo” tango electronica. New York City has one of the largest Argentine Tango communities in the world, a community in which Stepping Out is proud to have played an integral part in developing.
Argentine Tango has also inspired other forms of Tango, including versions of the dance in International Standard and American Smooth.
Swing has a long and involved history, with each decade developing a unique style based on popular music trends. Styles include the original Lindy Hop, “jump” style swing, smooth style, West Coast Swing (a slinky, slot dance done to rhythm and blues music), Jive (a fast-paced International Latin dance), Carolina Shag, New Orleans Zydeco, and France’s Rock’n'Roll or “Le Roc.” Swing has seen a dynamic resurgence over the past 10 years, with Swing clubs, films, and shows appearing all over the world.
- East Coast Swing – carefree and casual, adaptable to music ranging from big band to rock and roll to Motown, this dance is one of the easiest dances for beginners to learn.
- West Coast Swing – a smoother style than East Coast, with opportunities for improvisation by both partners, often danced to blues, country, funk, and contemporary pop music.
Hustle developed in the 1970s as a street dance, was introduced to American audiences in the hit movie Saturday Night Fever, and is still going strong with a following of over a million people dancing to contemporary pop music as well as 70s disco classics. A challenging dance where the follower almost constantly spins, hustle showcases divas! There are Hustle parties and competitions year round, including Stepping Out’s own Wednesday night “Hustle Jam.”