Perfect 10: The foxtrot By Rachelle Stretch

 This article first appeared in a series called Perfect 10 in Dance Today (www.dance-today.co.uk)

The slow foxtrot is known to be one of the hardest dances to perfect in the ballroom world,

because of the difficulties in mastering the technique and the co-ordination required to give the dance its character. The dance has not had a simple history either – being influenced by several dance styles and undergoing a number of transformations.

The foxtrot is characterised by a smooth, gliding action and one of the fundamental aspects of the dance is the alignment of figures. It is danced to music with a 4/4 rhythm and 120 beats per minute and, most commonly, beats one and three are accented in foxtrot music.

The dance is based on a walking action, which is enhanced to give the smooth gliding motion. Figures are danced as a series of quick and slow steps; a slow count equals two beats and a quick count one beat, equating to one bar of music.

Foxtrot is all about the timing

As Anton Du Beke puts it in his book Dance Class, “…. It’s the quality of movement across the bar of music combined with the accuracy of timing.” He believes problems usually occur on the slow count: timing the movement of body weight from the standing leg to the moving leg is a key feature of the dance and what makes it so difficult to perfect.

Alex Moore also stressed that beginners need to become familiar with the slow quick quick timing of the three-step, focusing on the footwork and rise and fall to attain the flowing movement.

Perfecting the footwork and action for foxtrot is what makes it notoriously hard to master – it requires a lot of practice and strengthening of the feet and ankles. Anton advises couples should practise walking together with the man focusing on rolling the body weight through the foot as he moves forward (from heel to the ball of the foot) and the lady stepping back on to the toe and delaying the lowering of the heel until the other foot passes it and the body moves over it; the toe of the forward foot should release from the floor as the body moves backwards.

History and origins

One of the earliest origins of the dance was the Victorian two-step, which involved a step forward on the first foot, closing with the other foot and another step forward on the first foot. However, in the 19th century, this was danced with turned out feet rather than the parallel feet of the ballroom dances of today; it was also danced to a faster tempo of 160 beats per minute. Nor did it have the smooth action that is recognisable today. It also involved a closing of the feet, whereas there is typically continuous movement in the basic foxtrot action.

Vernon and Irene Castle introduced the Castle Walk, a dance that is associated with the one-step and two-step, into nightclubs in the early 1900s. This dance originally had four walking steps with one on each beat, but also developed into a slower version with two slow walking steps for each bar of music. Harry Fox was influenced by this dance when he developed the “Fox’s trot” in New York theatres in 1914.

Harry Fox was an American entertainer, a former circus performer and baseball player who was hired to sing songs from the boxes of theatres in San Francisco. In 1914 he was a vaudeville act between shows at the New York Theatre. He danced on the roof of the theatre, which was converted to a “jardin de danse”. Unable to find dancers who could do the more difficult two-step he introduced dances known as the “trots”, which were to a faster tempo of around 40 bars per minute and were influenced by ragtime music and the Castle Walk.

It is thought that the smoothness of the foxtrot developed to counteract the exaggerated movements in the “animal dances” that were popular at the start of the 20th century, and were developed from the native dances of African Americans. These “animal dances”, such as Turkey Trot, Horse Trot and Grizzly Bear, became popular alongside ragtime music, as they utilised syncopated beats. However, there was a perception that these dances were clumsy and unfitting for more conservative members of society, who felt they were overly suggestive.

By the 1920s, jazz influenced the development of the dance, generating a new step known as the jazz roll, which developed into the three-step, one of the key components to a basic foxtrot. The different influences and versatility of the foxtrot probably contributed to its popularity –

It was one of the first dances to have a slow count rather than a single count rhythm.

Harry Fox’s involvement has commonly been taken as the origin of the name of the dance, but there have been other suggestions. One is that it may have evolved from the term used to describe an equestrian gait. Another is that the name may have come from foxes themselves, as they also have an unusual gait in that they can walk with their feet under their bodies leaving a single track of paw-prints. Early on the foxtrot was danced this way, so that both feet would track on one line of dance, each being placed directly in front of or behind each other.

In 1924 the foxtrot was separated into two dances

In 1922, Victor Silvester became the first man to win a world championship in the dance. In 1924 the foxtrot was separated into two dances: the slow foxtrot and quick-time, which evolved into the quickstep. A uniform standard was developed at a meeting of British professionals in 1929 in London, known as the “Great Conference.”

Since the slow foxtrot was standardised for international competition the figures have remained very similar. “The steps of the foxtrot have not changed very much in the past 50 years – the importance is on style, movement, balance and timing, ” comments Anton. Peter Eggleton, former ballroom champion and international adjudicator, agrees that there has been little change in the technique, but feels that couples do not focus on the rhythm of the foxtrot figures enough.

Foxtrot is included in the US style of dances. It is the American style of foxtrot that has the opening out figures and side-by-side movements, which resemble the styles of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly.

The long gliding movement of the slow foxtrot can mean it is difficult to dance on a crowded floor and so a social foxtrot developed, which adapted the basic figures of the quickstep to a slower tempo. The ISTD use this “Rhythm dancing” as part of the medal examinations. Anne Lingard, examiner for the ISTD, explains her experience: “When I was a young teacher in the late 1940s and early 1950s, ballroom floors used to be so crowded that one had to revert to a ‘chassé style’ dance when the many popular foxtrot tunes were played.

“As far as I know this form of foxtrot had been danced for many years in nightclubs. The ISTD has used social foxtrot as a ‘timing exercise’ in examination work – and it is true that it is easy to see if a candidate can really appreciate musical feeling when in the relaxed, informal style of this dance.”

The foxtrot is a beautiful, classic dance. It is a welcome inclusion to the five standard dances in international competitions with its own unique characteristics. Many people believe that the foxtrot epitomises the grace of ballroom dancing and it is regarded as a true measure of dancing ability. It may be one of the hardest dances and it may require many hours of hard work to perfect, but when danced at the highest level it is both wonderful to watch and – so I’m told – wonderful to dance.

©Rachelle Stretch

 
Contributor
Brigitt Mayer-Karakis is the author of the award winning book "Ballroom Icons", and chief archivist for the WDC Dance History project.
1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. Helo Brigit, I am searching for some sheet music covers of Jim Europe, like the Castle Perfect Trot, Half and half… I already have The Castle Rag but need one or two more covers to illustrate a work about Jim Europe. Thanks, cordially, Dan V

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