To dance is to move in time with some music. Hopefully such movement is also attractive to watch. In the case of ballet, the dance may tell a story. However, social dancing is more for the entertainment of the participants than any audience.
This collection of files is intended to cover the basics of Modern Ballroom, Latin, Alternative Latin and Sequence dances. Only simple versions of steps will be described here. If you want more detail on footwork or competition technique, you'll have to consult one of the serious books on ballroom dancing. If you think anything should be added or changed on this site, use the contact details at the bottom of the page.
All MIDI music files on this site are copyright Elizabeth Down / Susan Foord. You have permission to play, save, copy or even hack into them! However, you may not claim ownership of or charge anyone else money for this music (in whole or in part). That includes using any of it in your own tracks.
These are explanations that apply to many dances.
Most of the dances described here require 2 people to form a couple. Conventionally this is a man and a woman (no ageism intended). However, it is common for women to dance together. It is also possible, though rare, for men to dance together. So man in this context merely means the person leading while lady means the person following. Note that lady is normally used in preference to woman (presumably because of the behaviour expected). Although gentleman isn't used instead of man, this does not imply that bad behaviour is acceptable.
Another important thing to note is that step groups or figures are named for what the man is doing. The lady is usually doing the opposite (in terms of foot and direction). The sexism is clearly deliberate but now too traditional to be changed. In the spirit of convention, where a diagram shows two people, the man will be blue/cyan and the lady will be red/magenta. In complex or animated diagrams, the paler colour will be used to highlight the moving foot of each dancer.
There is one tradition that really needs breaking. Conventional ballroom etiquette requires the man to ask the lady to dance. This is just not workable in a room of assertive women and shy men. Anyone should be able to ask anyone else to dance. Of course, it has always been permissable to refuse a dance - provided it is done politely.
The direction of dance steps and positions of dancers may be described in terms of a line of dance. This is an imaginary thing not a visible line painted on the floor (unless you happen to be in a gymnasium). By convention, the ballroom line of dance runs anticlockwise around the edge of a room. Typically the lady starts closer to the wall than the man, but positions change during the dance.
In any diagrams used here, the line of dance will be from left to right (like English text). So the wall would be below the diagram and the centre of the room would be above the diagram. The directions are then:
|diag. to centre against LOD||to centre||diag. to centre|
|against LOD||along LOD|
|diag. to wall against LOD||to wall||diag. to wall|
A reasonably large room is required for dancing - eg school or church hall. Though Argentine Tango is supposed to fit on a table top. A sprung wooden floor is best (especially for those with suede-soled shoes). Use the space like fairground Dodgems not Bumper-cars. The man should remember that the lady is not to be used to clear a path for him through other couples. This seems to be a common mistake among beginners and advanced dancers alike.
For Ballroom and Sequence dances the flow follows the line of dance anticlockwise round the edge of the room. Couples make small incursions towards the centre or mad dashes across the diagonals (if not Sequence). This leads to occasional whole body collisions.
In Latin dances the couples distribute themselves randomly round the room. Each couple has their own nominal line of dance which moves with them. This leads to more frequent collisions of extremities.
In Solo or Line dances the individuals should fill the available space in neat rows, all facing the same direction. Each has their own line of dance which rotates in synchronisation with everyone else's. Collisions shouldn't occur at all. Folk, Country or Barn dancing should be similarly tidy but with several people in each set/group sharing a line of dance.
These are conventional descriptions of step speeds. They are abbreviated to S and Q. A Slow is usually one beat of a 2 or 3 beat bar and two beats of a 4 beat bar. A Quick is half a Slow. In dotted rhythms, Slow and Slow means 3/4 + 1/4 + 1 beats (or 2/3 + 1/3 + 1 beats). Quick and Quick is half this. Sometimes the man and lady are using different timings. For example, the brush step in a spin turn takes part of the previous Slow count as if it was 2 Quicks instead.
The Cha-Cha is usually counted as 2 half bars. So a slow is 1 beat and a Quick is 1/2 a beat. This gives SSQQS (or Step Step Cha Cha Cha) for the typical rock step and chassé combination.
When the couple rotate clockwise (to the right) this is a natural turn. When the couple rotate anticlockwise (to the left) this is a reverse turn. Whatever the direction of rotation, the size of step is very important. The person on the outside of a turn must take a large step while the one on the inside takes a small step. This is vital for the Viennese Waltz and is one reason why beginners fail to make turns. The simplest way to remember is to follow a forward step with a large side step and a backward step with a small side step. Only in a pivot or rocking turn will partners have the same size of step.
Many steps and step groups or figures involve some amount of turn. For example, basics in Rumba and Cha Cha are supposed to rotate slowly anticlockwise.
An inline step (left or right) is straight in front of the body. The other person (man or lady) has to move their opposite foot out of the way. With the couple slightly offset from each other, it may be more like a step between the partner's legs.
An outside step (right or left) is across and in front of the body. It is outside the body and legs of the partner, who should be crossing their opposite foot (left or right) behind. This means the same leg of each person is adjacent, right to right or left to left. However, the upper bodies often remain facing by twisting at the hips.
Many dances include walks forwards and backwards. Forward walks are just what you might expect - placing one foot in front of the other, transferring weight and then repeating with the other foot. In the Samba there is a special type of walk that is very different. Backward walks are usually a reversal of normal walking with a few exceptions. In the Tango walks curve to the left and the right toe needs to be tucked in. In the Foxtrot the heels are dragged back first as in Michael Jackson's Moonwalking.
A check step begins with a walk forwards, backwards, across or sideways. However, instead of proceeding onwards, the next step reverses the first one. So weight is transferred onto the moving foot and then replaced onto the original foot. It is quite common in the Foxtrot in order to change direction. The rock step in some Latin dances and Rock 'n' Roll is similar. The timing is usally quicker and weight may not be transferred fully onto the checking foot before replacing. A hover step seems to be merely a check when up on the toes or balls of the feet (but possibly including some turn). Again, weight may not be transferred fully.
A lunge is a much longer and heavier check step used mostly in the Tango but also Rock 'n' Roll. The man is usually going forwards. Both man and lady bend the supporting knee on the lunge.
The chassé is a step + close + step combination. Take a step sideways, close by moving the other foot next to the first one and then repeat the original step. The timing is quick quick slow in most dances but is quick and quick in the Jive. It is usually a sideways move although it can be forwards and backwards (eg Argentine Tango).
It is more normal to use a lock than a chassé when going forwards or backwards. The timing is the same but the lock movement replaces the close. When going forwards the locking foot is tucked behind the stepping foot so that the legs cross slightly. When going backwards the locking foot is tucked in front. A lock is danced on the balls of the feet with the heels raised so that the legs can touch while crossed.
The whisk is a step to the side followed by the other foot being crossed behind it. In Ballroom the step is always (?) in the same direction but is named for the step the man takes before it - left foot forward or back. In Latin the whisk is used in both directions but is named for the man's sideways step - left or right. The crossing behind is quicker and weight is immediately replaced onto the other foot.
The man leads the lady to dance the figure he has chosen next. Even in a sequence dance, where no choice of steps is possible, the man should lead to indicate the next figure in the sequence. Leading is done by changes in body position and hand pressure or hand signals. All leads should be subtle not forceful.
Transferring weight to one foot (along with the inevitable slight sway) indicates the other foot is going to move next. This applies particularly to the beginning of a dance. If the dancers are close enough together, hip pressure during the dance will show which foot is moving. Sway and body angle indicate the direction of chassé steps.
With the man's right hand on the lady's back, a number of leads are possible. Releasing the fingers and pressing with the heel of the hand directs the lady to turn out to promenade position (eg for a whisk). Pressure on the fingers directs the lady to turn back in from promenade to closed position (eg at the end of a chassé). This is also the lead from closed position to step outside the man on the right. Pushing sideways with the hand directs the lady to step outside the man on the left (eg for a wing). Stepping flat (not rising to the toes) and pressing down with the hand to prevent the lady rising indicates a hesitation step.
The linked hands are used less in ballroom than latin. Pushing out with the left hand as a result of turning the top of the body is part of leading a whisk. In latin dances the linked hands are used to lead turns. Special hand grips indicate particular steps or figures. All these leads are far less subtle than the ballroom ones.
The lady is also permitted to lead under special circumstances. This is when she sees that the man is likely to step back into the path of another couple. In ballroom, the lady should use pressure with her left hand on the man's right shoulder to warn him. In latin, the lady can pull back a little on the linked hand(s).
CBM stands for Contrary Body Movement and CBMP stands for Contrary Body Movement Position. The first applies to a step when turning and the second to one that merely looks as if it is turning. Both mean that when a foot moves, the opposite side of the body should also move in that direction. I think this is a lot of fuss about nothing as it is effectively stating the obvious.
The important thing to remember when dancing is that most of the time your body has to go where your feet go. There is no point in stepping forwards on the right foot into a natural turn if you leave the left side of your body behind. It will be difficult and look ungainly to try and catch up on the next step. As a man, it will be impossible to lead the turn properly because your upper body is responsible for leading not the feet. Try thinking about where you want your body (and the lady!) to go first and then use your feet to get you there. Similarly when following as a lady, it should be obvious where the man wants your body to go so use your feet to achieve this.
Old-Time dances frequently use foot positions from ballet. The step notation I use in the dance instructions largely ignores this complication, but the accompanying diagrams do illustrate it. However, note that everywhere else a 3rd position is shown the same as a 5th because I couldn't be bothered to duplicate all the GIFs. So for anyone who cares:
|3rd Position (right foot)|
|4th Position (right foot)|
|5th Position (right foot)|
This is my way of describing dance steps not a standard one. All the serious dance notations are far too complicated for beginners.
Step descriptions begin with which foot is moving: L = left or R = right. This is followed by at least one of the following basic directions: F = forwards, B = backwards, S = sideways and C = closing. These may be combined with each other or with: D = diagonally, X = crossing or K = locking. In addition, the step may be taken without weight: t = tap, br = brush, pt = point or fl = flick. This means the same foot will be used again next step (whereas normally the feet are used alternately just like walking!). Examples of combinations are:
When turning, the apparent leg position will change. The amount of turn is given in eighths. So 2 is a quarter turn and 4 is a half turn. A positive value means a right / natural / clockwise turn. A negative value means a left / reverse / anticlockwise turn. This results in combinations such as RXFS -4 then LSFX -4 for a swivel turn to the left.
The basic hold is CH = Close Hold, but this is closer for ballroom than for latin dances. The man holds the lady's right hand in his left, out to the side a little and approximately level with his ear. There should be space between their elbows. He places his right hand on her back about halfway between waist and shoulder. The lady places her left hand on the man's right arm or shoulder (or even behind it). The actual position depends on distance apart and relative heights. The lady must not lean on the man, it is not his job to hold her upright. The hold should be neither too floppy nor too stiff. Maintaining this position seems to be very difficult for beginners.
NH = No Hold (eg when the couple release hold in order to perform solo turns). DH = Double hand Hold (man holds lady's right hand in his left and her left hand in his right). HH = High Hold, which is a variation on the double where the hands are high and to the side (see Cha-Cha). SH = double over the Shoulder Hold in shadow position. This is where the hands are linked left to left and right to right. It is used in the Gay Gordons - starting with the lady on the man's right but turning together so that she is then on his left.
For other holds: L = left and R = right. The man's hand is specified before the lady's hand. LRH is the most common Latin hold (man's left holding lady's right) when facing, in fan position or for underarm turns. When turning it is vital not to hold partner's hand too tightly. Let the grip slip round as necessary. LRH and RLH are used when side by side (for Hand-to-Hand and New York figures or in Old-Time sequences). The couple may use RRH or LLH for some turns in latin dances. In shadow position, the man may use RRH or LLH and also place his other hand on the lady's back/waist. Old-Time sequences frequently use the left to left handhold this way.
Rock 'n' Roll or Jive may use a crossed double handhold before one or other of the couple turns under the linked arms. This is specified as XRH (man's right on top) or XLH (man's left on top). Half way through such a turn the hold becomes BH for double handhold behind the back.
Most of the time in Ballroom dances the man and lady stand quite close to each other and facing. When their feet are together they do not quite line up but are offset so that each looks over the other's right shoulder. The offset is particularly obvious in Tango. Despite this, the next step should be inline with partner. FP = Facing Position and is nearly always combined with closed hold (CH).
When facing in Latin dances, the man and lady stand a little further apart. This allows room for twisting steps. The feet line up so that the couple look directly at each other. Maintaining eye contact is important in dances such as the rumba. FP is less likely to be combined with CH. Instead a more open position is common, using DH or LRH.
Occasionally, in sequences or routines the couple may dance back to back. BP = Back-to-back Position and would usually be combined with a single handhold (LRH or RLH).
In PP = Promenade Position the hold is still close but both face the same way. If this is along the line of dance, then the man's feet point diag to wall and the lady's point diag to centre. The lady's left hip should be touching just behind the man's right hip. PP may be the result of a whisk or a partially completed turn (usually by the lady) but in Tango the man may simply twist the lady to PP between figures. In normal promenade the couple both walk forwards. In fallaway promenade they both walk backwards.
There is also CP = Counter-promenade Position where the couple face the other way. This is more awkward and occurs less often with the close hold of Ballroom dances. However, Samba has whisks to both sides and uses a more open hold.
Quite often in Ballroom, Latin and sequence dances, the couple have turned and one of them will have to step outside partner. This is usually the man, but it may also be the lady (described as partner outside in the conventional male dominated view!). Another turn will be necessary to restore the normal facing position. ORP = Outside Position on the Right is by far the most common option in Ballroom dances (eg Quickstep and Foxtrot). The right sides of the couple are adjacent regardless of which is stepping outside.
OLP = Outside Position on the Left. It occurs in some Latin figures and sequence dances. One of the couple, usually the man, will step outside partner and their left sides are adjacent.
In Shadow Position the lady stands in front of or behind the man and possibly just to one side. SFP = Shadow Position with the lady in Front of the man. This position is used sometimes in Latin dances and frequently in sequence dances such as Saunters. The commonest handholds are SH (over the shoulders of the lady) and LLH.
SBP = Shadow Position with the lady Behind the man. This might occur in Cha-Cha or Samba. The commonest handholds are SH (over the shoulders of the man) and RRH.
SRP = Shadow or Side-by-side Position with the lady on the Right of the man. Many sequence dances start with the couple side by side facing along the line of dance. Normally the lady is on the outside of the circle (nearest the wall) and the man is on the inside of the circle (nearest the centre). The man's right hand holds the lady's left. It is also used in the Hand-to-Hand and New York figures of Latin dances.
SLP = Shadow or Side-by-side Position with the lady on the Left of the man. The man's left hand holds the lady's right. It is used in latin or sequence dances when the partners turn individually to face against the line of dance.
For anyone who can't dance at all and is unsure about music there is social dancing. It is easy and works with any beat & tempo. Otherwise beginners should start with Waltz. Quickstep and Cha Cha are next easiest. Foxtrot and Viennese Waltz are usually regarded as difficult.
Links from the table below are to step instructions and music samples. The category is for competition purposes (there are 5 official ballroom and latin dances). The beat (strong beats per bar) and tempo (bars per minute, BPM) describe the music used.
|Ballroom||Viennese Waltz||3||60 (50-64)||SSS|
|Slow Waltz||3||30 (28-34)||SSS, SQQS, QQSS|
|Quickstep||4||50 (40-54)||½bar S, QQ|
|Foxtrot||4||30 (26-36)||½bar S, QQ|
|Tango||4 / 2||33 (28-34)||½bar S, QQ|
|Latin||Samba||2||50 (45-65)||SS, SaS, SQQ|
|Jive||4 / 12||44 (30-50)||½bar QQ, QaQ|
|Cha Cha||4||32 (30-40)||½bar SS, QQS|
|Paso Doble||2||62 (58-66)||SS|
|Bossa Nova||2||35 (30-42)||SaS, SQQ|
|West Coast Swing||4 / 12||35 (30-40)||½bar QQ, S, QaQ|
|Rock 'n' Roll||4||40 (30-50)||½bar S, QQ, QaQ|
|Argentine Tango||4 / 2||33 (28-34)||½bar S, QQ|
|Old-Time||Old-Time Waltz||3||42 (38-48)||S-, SQ, QQQ, QS|
|Two-Step||2 / 6||46 (43-50)||SS, SaS|
Rag-Time / Swing
|4 / 2||60 (54-66)||½bar S, QQ|
Stroll / Glide
|4 / 12||28 (24-30)||½bar S, QQ|
|Gavotte||4 / 12||24 (23-26)||½bar S, QQ|
Note that the difference between 4 and 2 is not always clear. Tango is usually described as being 2-beat but I think Tango music is definitely 4 not 2 (except for some with no rhythm at all!).
Otherwise the beat may be halved or doubled in some cases, but this affects the listed tempo. Non-sequence Quickstep and Jive work on half bars of 4-beat, so they can work with 2-beat music (at 100 and 88 BPM respectively). Paso Doble is often described as 4 at 31 BPM rather than 2 at 62 BPM. Although Waltzes are all 3-beat, Viennese and Old-Time may be danced to 6-beat (at 30 and 21 BPM respectively).
The beat may be tripled without affecting the tempo - just the style. 12 and 6 are triplet substitutes for 4 and 2 respectively. Jive is usually described as 4-beat but Jive music is more often 12 than 4. Similarly, the Saunter may be 12 not 4 and the Two-Step may be 6 not 2.
In sequence dances, everyone should be using the same fixed pattern of steps. In solo or line dances, all face the same way in whatever rows and columns fit the room. In folk, country or barn dances, groups of dancers form a set and these sets are arranged to fit the room. Otherwise the line of dance runs anticlockwise around the edge of a room and couples spread out along it. The man usually starts on the inside of the circle and the lady on the outside. They may be facing each other or both facing the LOD. In modern dances, the man always begins with his left foot. Therefore the lady begins with her right foot except when shadowing or solo. In older folk dances the man begins with his right foot.
Step instructions given here are my interpretation of what I've seen. They may not match the original author's description. Unfortunately, for many sequences I have no idea who the author was. I will correct any mistakes in the steps when I find an accurate source for each dance.
|Slow Waltz||Old-time Waltz||Viennese Waltz||Two-Step|
Waltz Across Texas (solo)|
|Foxtrot / Saunter||Tango||Quickstep / Swing||Miscellaneous|
Palais Glide (group)
Square Tango (group)
Blackpool Belle (solo)
Cow-Girl Charleston (solo)
Beat Barn Dance
|Rumba||Cha-Cha||Jive||Samba + Mambo|
Queen of Hearts Rumba
Rumba Royale = Tango!
Stroller Cha-Cha (solo)|
Lindy Hop (solo)
This is a very brief history of how dances came to be.
Folk dancing has always been around but less formal than today. Different tribes (and later countries) had different traditions. With travel and writing came a shared tradition. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Branle, Pavane and Galliarde had been recorded. Dancing became popular in royal courts - especially in France. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, the Minuet and Gavotte dominated. Steps were extremely complex and decorative. Many Old-Time dances use ballet steps and foot positions. This is because they are partly derived from court dances whose steps were formalised before ballet left the ballroom for the stage.
The Waltz is probably based on an Austrian / German folk dance - the Ländler. This had a medium tempo and the step groups or figures varied from region to region. The faster Viennese Waltz became popular at the end of the eighteenth century. The modern Slow Waltz allows time for more complex steps. The Waltz dominated Europe for the next century, despite the arrival of the Polka, Mazurka and Schottische.
Then America took over - although much of the inspiration was actually African. It contributed the Two-Step and Barn Dance at the end of the nineteenth century and the Boston, One-Step and Rag at the start of the twentieth. However, its real breakthrough was the Foxtrot in 1914. This started as a medium tempo informal dance which split into 2 distinct styles. The slower, smoother form became the modern Foxtrot. The faster, jerkier form was called the Quick-time Foxtrot and Charleston for a while before settling as the Quickstep. The uncontrolled Lindy Hop and Jitterbug led to the formalised Jive, Swing and Rock 'n' Roll styles.
The Paso Doble is Spanish and the Tango has Argentine origins. However, the modern ballroom Tango bears very little resemblance to the Argentine, having been sanitised for the British public. Other Latin American dances are the Rumba, Mambo, Cha-Cha-Cha, Samba and Bossa Nova which are largely derived from African rhythms.