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Put your Best (Dancing) Foot Forward
--by Karin Dean-Kraft
This article was written and published as a three-part article in the “Gauzeitung” in 1995.It was reprinted and distributed for the Dance Workshop of Gaufest 1995. Please keep in mind that dances vary by region in Bayern, and that the style danced in each region differs slightly. The information contained in this paper is, therefore, directional, not absolute. Sources include the various Chroniks of the Gauverbaende in Bayern, “Auf Geht’s: Das Buch Uebers Schuhplatteln,” observations of dance performances done by Trachtler and Trachtlerinnen in Bayern (after all, they should be our role models), and discussions with knowledgeable dancers.
Gaufest fever will soon invade our Vereine. Dancers start to think about Preisplatteln and Ehrentaenze, and practices get more serious. Whether or not your Verein participates in Preisplatteln, the following information about dancing can be used to help you understand, explain, or improve your overall performance.
How is the Landler different from the waltz? Both are done in 3/4 time. To the unaware eye and ear, there may be little difference -- but there are significant distinctions.
--The Landler is played and danced in a very even 1-2-3 rhythm, with each beat given the same emphasis. (A waltz, on the other foot, puts the emphasis on the first beat, producing a OOOONNEE-2-3 step.)
--The size of each step in the Landler is the same, and each step is fairly small. (The size of the first waltz step tends to be a longer stride, in keeping with holding the first beat longer.)
--When doing a Landler, you hold your body relatively still, there is no up-and-down motion. (In a waltz, that first long, "gliding" step makes your body dip, going back up again on beat two.)
In most parts of Bayern, the Landler is done on the ball of the foot with the heel only slightly off the ground, so that the foot is fairly "flat." Also, the feet should always be lifted and moved to the next spot, not dragged. If you hear "shuffle-shuffle-shuffle," you're dragging your feet, and that's not a good Landler.
Be aware of how you transfer your body weight from foot to foot; keep your weight evenly distributed at all times (easier to do if your steps are fairly small). Do not put your entire weight into any step, because that will make you lurch. The object is to look smooth and graceful. In general, during each measure of music (3 beats), you pivot 180 degrees. So it takes two measures to complete one whole rotation.
Dancing in the Chiemgau region differs dramatically. The dancers, both men and women, perform the Landler on their toes, with their heels very high off the ground. However, they also turn (incredibly fast!) and plattl on their toes! While the ladies turn to the Plattler in double time, the Landler rotation is done more slowly, taking more than two measures to complete a rotation.
Sounds easy enough -- put one foot in front of the other in time to the music and go. But what makes the Marsch look smooth and effortless takes some thought and work. First of all, the men have the inside circle, the women the outside. That means that the women have to "travel" a greater distance with each step they take (remember playing "crack the whip" as a child?). If the men are taking "man size" steps, the women (who generally take smaller steps than men) are forced to take giant steps.
Those giant steps make the Marsch look awkward. The woman has a difficult time keeping her balance, because her back foot is straining on its toes and her front foot is coming down on its heel. The woman's steps look unnatural (they are), and that poor balance translates to poor timing (or disaster if the floor is slippery).
Improve your Marsch by having the men take smaller steps right from the step off. It's especially important that the steps be short when the circle begins to take shape. To find out what's most comfortable for the ladies, have the ladies set the size of the step. If your men are used to taking "regular" steps, this will at first feel quite unnatural to them, but the overall group appearance will be strengthened.
Another important point is that the typical Marsch is "seen and not heard." Don't shuffle in; pick up your feet. Just as bad as a shuffle-shuffle is the "clop-clop-clop-clop" that results from landing each foot flat rather than a heel-to-toe motion. The step to the Marsch is not a military "march" step, it's a walking step done in time to march music. It should be done as quietly as a normal walking step.
This "small step" advice can also be applied to any figure dances (Sterntanz, Kronentanz, Muehlradl, etc.) or Volkstaenze in which the men and women travel together in a circle. The men should take smaller steps so that the women can take "normal" size steps. And if the lady is turning right next to the man, he should match his step to the size step she takes while turning. Otherwise, the lady will not be able to control her turning, and her skirt will not bell properly.
What sets one performance apart from another? What makes one group's dancing so much more pleasing to the eye than another? Attention to basics is often the key. Spacing, timing, and posture are basics, and they need to be practiced and emphasized regularly so that they are done well. Doing the basics with control and exactness (that doesn't mean military precision or a rigid, wooden performance) is often what makes the dance look better.
Circle Size and Spacing
A circle that's too small doesn't give the dancers enough room to move, making them look cramped and clumsy. Give yourselves space to maneuver! And a circle that collapses as the dance progresses will soon become too small; the dancers will again look out of control.
Spacing includes how far you are from the couple behind and in front, as well as how far you are from the imaginary "center spot" of the circle. To make a nice round, equally spaced circle, practice this: All dancers join hands with arms spread wide (don't tuck your elbows) but not stretched. Lean back just a little because this puts some tension in the circle and makes it a bit more rounded. Drop hands. That's the outside circle. The men now form an inside circle next to their partners. This results in a good circle and gives each couple the proper amount of space in which to dance (true for most dances, especially Volkstaenze).
For a smaller circle, have only the men set the size of the inside circle by joining hands as described; the women take their places in an outside circle next to the men (gives the men a good circle for a Plattler). Of course, you can't set a circle this way during a performance, but doing so regularly at practice gets you accustomed to how the circle should look and feel.
This gives you a great start for your circle, but how do you keep it from collapsing during the course of the dance? You need to know what the circle should feel like. After you've set your circle size, take the time to walk around the circle, maintaining your spacing both from the center spot and from the couple ahead of you. (Don't worry about the couple behind you, since you shouldn't be swiveling your head around to watch them. Let them key off you.) If your circle has an even number of couples, you can also watch that you're directly across from your counterparts on the other side of the circle.
If you're doing a line dance, watch that you're lined up straight. Decide which person in the line is the "right" one (person #1 at the end, for instance), and everyone else cue off that person. Zig-zaggy lines look sloppy; straight, even lines put that extra polish into the dance.
Some people are naturals when it comes to timing. They can hear the beat and perform their step, hit, or turn in perfect time to it without even thinking. If only all of us were so blessed! Understanding how music is written (beats, measures, repeats, patterns), even if you don't play an instrument, can help a great deal. Ask your musician for a crash course. Being familiar with the particular music you are dancing to is a plus. Listen to it, without dancing, and feel the way the music flows.
Take a cue from the way athletes train--visualize yourself dancing while you listen to the music. Perhaps someone who knows the dance well can "narrate" the music; narrate women's and men's parts separately. You can emphasize, for instance, the exact beat on which to perform a particular step. Once you know what moves you should be making, anticipate (but don't rush) the next move so you'll be ready to make it. If you don't anticipate, you'llreact--usually just a tad late.
Some Volkstanz instruction tapes have catchy sing-song directions of what moves you should be making. If it works for you, it's a great memory device; make up your own words.
Your posture--whether a Trachtler or Trachtlerin--should be relaxed but erect. Concentrate on keeping your shoulders square over your hips and both turned forward; shoulders level and down (don't shrug or slouch); your body even and straight; and your head erect and facing forward. This sounds a bit strange, but pull your belly button to your spine to help lift your upper body. Your body needs to look flexible but controlled. (A Schuhplattler who doesn't hold his body in a controlled manner will look like one of those little toys that you push on the button on the base and the figure flops this way or that.)
Imagine having your body suspended from a string attached to your head--your body would hang in a straight line. Hold your head up, chin roughly parallel to the floor. Especially when you're marching in or out, be careful not to lean forward, looking like you're "leading" in with your head. Look ahead, not down at the floor or your audience will think your eyes are closed.
Basics are too often taken for granted because they're considered easy, too simple to "waste" time on. In reality, ignoring the basics and working only on "tougher stuff" will likely result in a mediocre overall performance. Working on basics is boring and therefore requires discipline. But even a short amount of time devoted regularly to basics will be rewarded with a significant improvement in performance quality.
What's the "ideal" of the Trachtlerin's dancing ability when she is turning (drehen)? When she turns, she should look controlled, relaxed, happy; her posture should be graceful; her skirt should bell fully and not wobble or rock. The ladies as a group stay evenly spaced from one another, stay equally spaced around the circle's "center point," and turn at the same speed. What contributes to this ideal? Good posture, small and controlled steps (traveling in an "orbit" around the circle), and even speed of turning (your "rotation" speed).
How to Achieve a Better Bell
Several things contribute to how nicely the skirt bells: length of the step, weight distribution, speed of the turn, and how the skirt is made.
The more uniform your steps, both in speed and length, the more control you'll have over your turning. Control translates to the graceful, delicate appearance that gives the dance a more flirtatous, personal feel. (After all, the dance is meant to be for the couple to woo each other!) Small steps are called for in the book "Auf Geht's: Das Buch uebers Schuhplatteln." Besides providing greater control, small steps also help you keep your body weight distributed evenly over your feet, which helps keep your bell from wobbling.
Step length and circle spacing: When any lady alters the length of her steps during a dance, it causes the other ladies to try to adjust, resulting in a sort of "yo-yo" effect that disrupts the spacing of the circle. Each lady should keep her own step length consistent, and the step length should be consistent among the ladies; this will improve your spacing. The step length should be a set length and not vary by dance or circle size. When it comes time for the catch, the men should adjust their step length to time the catch properly. The men can see one another more readily (they're not spinning), and take their cues as to the size of step needed to make the catch.
Wear your dance skirt whenever you practice. The tough part about getting to that "ideal" level of turning is that you can't see yourself, and perhaps you don't get the feedback you want/need. After all, if you don't know there's anything to improve, you can't fix it. Pay attention to the way your skirt "feels"; it can tell you and anyone watching whether something needs fixing. Like what?
"Rotation" speed: The speed, whether doing Platzdrehen or Weiterdrehen, should be consistent, or else your bell will collapse/wobble. For instance, if the bell collapses a tad then comes back up, collapses, etc., you're either turning at an uneven speed or bobbing up and down like a top. Perhaps you're pushing off hard on one foot (whosh! up goes the skirt), then allowing your speed to decrease (the skirt starts to lose its bell) before pushing off hard again. From this symptom, you'll know to work on keeping the speed even.
"Bobbing" will also collapse your bell for an instant or make one side fly up higher than the other, rocking up and down. Bobbing is caused by, among other things, turning flat footed on one foot and high on the toes of the other foot; or you may be flexing or bouncing your knees too much. Also, as you take your steps (applies when you're walking too), keep your weight evenly distributed. If you shift all of your weight from one foot to the other, the bell sort of jerks. It's easier to keep your weight distributed evenly if your steps are small. And even weight distribution makes you look smooth and graceful.
Posture makes Perfect
Your posture is very important to your bell as well as to your overall look. From head to toe, your body should form a straight, vertical line. If your head is bent to one side, your shoulders slouched and twisted, and your hips pointed in yet another direction, your bell will be just as crooked and confused. Concentrate on keeping your shoulders square over your hips and both turned forward; shoulders level and down (don't shrug); your body even and straight; and your head erect and facing forward. This sounds a bit strange, but pull your belly button to your spine to help lift your upper body. (This does not mean sticking either your bust or your fanny out, unless you want to look like a Bavarian duck!)
Imagine that your body is suspended by a string attached to the top of your head. It may remind you not to pitch yourself forward as though you're walking uphill or lean to the right as though your shoulders and head are "leading" you through your turning. When you lose that good posture, you'll notice that your bell quality deteriorates. (Confirm this by deliberately making your posture bad.) Of course, the other trick is looking relaxed at the same time you're keeping your body controlled. Good posture all the time makes you look better, including taller, thinner, more energetic and alert. Once your body is used to being held this way, you won't have to concentrate so hard on it, and it'll look and feel natural.
If your group does "weiterdrehen" or moving completely around the circle during the Plattler (vs. Platzdrehen, turning in place), spacing becomes a critical issue. Uniform spacing between girls is a result of three things: 1) Consistently taking the same length steps; 2) taking those steps at the same time, i.e., in time to the music (also called aprons in and out); and 3) staying on that invisible line sometimes called your "orbit." If any ingredient is not there, a chain reaction collision threatens!
All the girls must take their steps at the same time (i.e., in time to the music, generally one step per beat) so that everyone is taking the same number of steps. One way to count the music and coordinate the foot movements is to take one step (half a rotation) for each beat of the music. (See box below.) So on beat #1, you face into the circle, stepping on your right foot; beat #2 - face out of the circle, step on left foot; beat #3 in/right foot, etc.
If someone weaves back and forth too much across that invisible orbit line, it'll throw the spacing off, since the weaver is actually traveling a greater distance than the non-weavers. This is the old chicken-and-egg sort of question -- both timing and spacing develop together, but it's hard to know which to work on first. Mine is but one opinion: I think that each individual must understand the music, be able to stay in time with it, and take consistent length steps before the greater emphasis is put on overall spacing.
When you learn a new dance, you generally learn it one portion at a time, then move to the next, and finally put it all together. When you're trying to improve an already known dance, do the same thing. Concentrate on one aspect of the dance, polish it up, then move on to another aspect. Trying to perfect the entire dance all at once will get too frustrating and your progress will be too slow to be encouraging.
"Counting during Drehen"
Note: This is but one way for the ladies to "count" the music and coordinate their foot movements. It is certainly NOT the only way. Feel free to use it, adjust it, or ignore it as you wish. If your Verein has another way and you'd like to share that, I'd very much like to hear about it. During Preisplatteln, a great emphasis is put on the aprons going "in and out" at the same time. In Bayern, that emphasis is not widespread (although "in time to the music" is).
Because there are three beats to a measure and you have only two feet, it can get confusing as to which foot to be on at which beat of the music. Taking a mathematical approach, use the least common denominator, which is "6" (3 beats times 2 feet). This is how the "6-count" works:
Beats of music 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
Feet R L R L R L R L R
Facing Direction In Out In Out In Out In Out In
You Count 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3
(The base line of the music is typically played C-c-c G-c-c C-c-c G-c-c, so you can hear which beat is "1" and which is "4". This is a great time to get your musician involved in teaching how the music is set up.)
Notice that by counting to 6, you will be on your right foot on every "odd" count; on your left foot on every "even" count (or vice versa). Begin counting 1-2-3-4-5-6 from the first beat of the music after the introduction. The counting flows right into the Landler, where the footing remains the same. To determine which foot to start on at the beginning of the music, first analyze which foot you are on during the Landler. Then work backwards to the beginning of the music to know exactly which foot to start on (left or right).
Once you get used to counting this way, you'll actually find yourself "singing" the Plattler music, singing the word "and" for the notes on the half beats. Try doing this without actually dancing. In my mind I "sing" Reit im Winkl this way: "da-da one-two-three four-five-and six one-and-two-and-three-and four-and-five-and-six one-two-three four-five and six......"