Federation South logo

Couple dancing Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Couple Dancing
By Bev Wilder


This is the interaction of two dancers dancing together that coordinates their movements. It involves two key attributes, both of which are vitally and equally necessary. The first is leading, which directs the actions of the partners. The second is following, which involves reacting to leading.

A simple example illustrates why both leading and following are necessary. When driving an automobile, only one person can be behind the wheel at a time. That person is the Leader; the other follows along. Classically, couple dancing began in the days of male dominance, and therefore leading became the male's requirement, while the female reacted to his leading by following. Ballroom position couple dancing reached its zenith during the 1930s and early 1940s when most couple dancing was done in closed ballroom dance position, and was exemplified by such couples as the Arthur Murrays, Veloz and Yolanda, Fred Astair and partner, and others. Many different patterns could be selected by the leader and put together in various sequences as the leader chose, so that "free-style" ballroom dancing became the vogue. Good leaders knew many step-patterns and could lead and execute them without conscious thought, and their partners followed without hesitation.


This involves the use of the whole body to signal the required couple movement. These signals must "very slightly" anticipate the next required movement, so that the partner can react in time to execute the desired movement on time. Leads are given by the Leader's shoulders, hands, arms, body position, and direction of movement. Leads must be firm but not rough; precise, but not sloppy; and consistent, so that the same signal means the same thing every time it is employed. Leading is a skill that can be learned.


This entails reacting to leads. It is equally important to leading in couple dancing, and is a demanding skill that can be taught and learned. The Follower must have good dance posture, and give a "slight" resistance to the Leader so that leads are transmitted to the Follower. A joined hand connected to a "spaghetti" arm cannot react to a lead. At the same time, there cannot be so much resistance that the couple doesn't move together. This is a delicate balance that the Follower must attain, and when it is achieved, it becomes instinctive, and couple dancing becomes a joy for both partners.


There are a wide variety of positions commonly employed. Among these are: closed, semi-open ballroom, open ballroom; inside hands joined, Varsouvienne, cross-hand promenade, back Skater's, two-hand circle, and crossed-hand circle. In general, when both hands are held, the partners are both on the same foot, and when one opposite hand is held, they are on opposite feet. Thus, in ballroom positions and inside-hand joined positions, the partners are usually on opposite footwork. A prominent exception is the right-hip-to-right-hip (Banjo) position, or left-hip-to-left-hip (Sidecar) position, where the two partners normally use the same foot action. Another exception is in the cross-hand (square dance) promenade position, where the partners may be either on the same or opposite footwork, depending on the dance requirements.


The most commonly used couple turns require two measures of music to complete one full rotation of the couple. Prominent exceptions to this are the Step-Hop, Pivot, and Polska/Pols turns. Each type of turn will be discussed separately below, beginning with the simpler two-measure turns. It is essential that both partners understand that each partner does the same action in the turn, but they begin that action depending on the direction they are facing to begin their turn. Thus, in a two-measure turn when the woman is doing the action of measure 1, the man is doing the action of measure 2; on the following measure they have reversed positions and do the other measure's action.

In the discussions below it is assumed that the couple will be moving around the dance floor in the dance-flow direction, or line of direction (counter-clockwise), and turning as a couple clockwise – for counter-clockwise turns, use opposite footwork. It is further assumed that the person on the inside facing out is the man and the person on the outside facing in is the woman.

It is important for dancers to understand the mechanism of a turn. For the normal clockwise turn, moving in line of direction, the man must get around in front of the woman to the outside of the circle, while the woman turns almost in place and acts as a pivot for the couple. This is the action of the first measure, which ends with the man on the outside facing in, and the woman on the inside facing out. During measure 2, their roles are reversed and the woman must get around in front of the man to the outside, while the man acts as the couple pivot. Note that the partners exactly reverse roles in the two measures.

Abbreviations used below

bk = back
bkwd = backward
cpl = couple
ct = count
cts = counts
ctr = center (of big circle)
CW = clockwise
CCW = counterclockwise
dir = direction
ft = foot/feet
fwd = forward
L = left foot/arm/side/direction
LOD = line of direction
M = man/men
meas = measure/measures
pos = position
ptr = partner
R = right foot/arm/side/direction
RLOD = reverse line of direction
sdwd = sideward
shldr = shoulder
twd = toward
W = woman/women
wt = weight.


This, done to 3/4 meter, takes two meas to complete and uses one step per musical ct. Once the turn is initiated, there is continuous rotation of the couple in order that the couple will turn smoothly throughout the turn.

Described for the person facing in, normally the woman.
She acts as the couple-pivot for the first meas and must take small steps. She takes a small step R in LOD, with the toe pointing more or less in LOD (ct 1). This step starts her CW turn, her body turning up to 1/4 CW. She continues to turn, stepping L, R to face out (cts 2,3). She is now in the M's position at the beginning of that meas. On meas 2, ct 1, She must take a fairly large step L across in front of the M to get to the outside of the circle, her left heel should be pointing more or less in LOD, and she has turned about 1/4 CW (ct 1); she continues the turn to face in, stepping R near or just in back of her L heel (ct 2), and closing the R to the L ft (ct 3). She has now completed one full CW turn. For the M, he does the action of the W's meas 2 as meas 1, and her meas 1 as his meas 2. To lead the turn the M must push with his extended L hand to start the W turning and to prevent her moving in LOD and blocking him, at the same time twisting the W's waist with his R hand so that she turns CW. During meas 2, he must use a strong pulling action with his R hand to assist her to get to the outside of the circle, at the same time pushing with his L hand to keep her turning and moving in LOD.


This is done to 4/4 meter with steps on cts 1,2,3, and no step on ct 4. The turn differs from the Waltz Turn in that there is not the continuous turning. Most of the turning comes on cts 3,4.

Described for the W facing in.
Meas 1: step R sdwd R (ct 1); close L to R (ct 2); step on R sdwd to R with toe pointing almost in LOD, starting body into a 1/4 CW turn (ct 3); low hop on R, completing the CW turn to face out (ct 4). Meas 2: continuing in LOD, step on L sdwd to L (ct 1); close R to L (ct 2); step on L to L, pointing L heel almost in LOD, and starting body into a 1/4 CW turn (ct 3); low hop on L, completing the CW turn to face in (ct 4). This completes one CW turn. For the M facing out, do meas 2 as described, and for meas 2, do meas 1 as described. To lead the turn: Meas 1: pull in LOD with L hand, at the same time push at W's R waist with the R hand during cts 1 and 2. On ct 3, push with L hand and pull with R hand at W's waist to initiate the turn and continue with slightly more force during ct 4. Meas 2: cts 1 and 2, push with L hand twd W's body, at the same time pulling with R hand twd LOD. This keeps the cpl moving in LOD but not turning. On ct 3, start the turn by pushing with the M L hand, at the same time twisting the W's waist with his R hand so they turn up to 1/4 CW. On ct 4, continue the same action with a little more force to complete the CW turn.


Described for 2/4 meter, with two meas per turn with a rhythm of quick-quick-slow in each meas (cts 1,&,2). The footwork is the same as that described for the Schottishce Turn, but the timing is different. Described for W facing in. Meas 1: step R sdwd R (ct 1); close L to R (ct &); small step R in LOD, pointing R toe twd LOD, and starting a 1/4 CW turn (ct 2); pivot on the ball of R without hopping to face out (ct &). Meas 2: step L sdwd L (ct 1); close R to L (ct &); step L sdwd L, stepping with L heel more or less pointing LOD and initiating a 1/4 CW turn (ct 2); pivoting on ball of L to continue CW, turn to face in (ct &). This completes one CW turn. M does ftwk of meas 2 for his meas 1, and ftwk of meas 1 for his meas 2. The leads are the same as for the Schottische Turn.


Done to a 2/4 meter with one turn done in two meas. In 4/4 meter, one turn is done in each meas; that is, cts 1,&,2,3,&,4. The ftwk is the same as for the Two-Step Turn, except that on ct & of ct 2, there may be a hop or in some countries, a slight dip. Usually the polka turn starts with the hop on the upbeat (ah) just ahead of the meas that you are starting.


Described for 4/4 meter; often done as part of a Schottische pattern. It takes one meas or two step-hops to complete one CW turn. A good dance pos is required, with the shldr lines of both ptrs parallel, but offset slightly to the L so that each is looking straight ahead on a vertical line with their ptr's R shldr. This allows the R ft to step between the ptr's ft on the turn, without ft interference. There is continuous rotation of the cpl throughout the turn. Described for the W facing in. Meas 1: small step R in LOD, with R toe pointing more or less in LOD and between ptrs ft (ct 1), initiating a 1/4 CW turn; hop on R continuing the CW turn to face out (ct 2); step L in LOD, a fairly large step, with heel pointing more or less in LOD, and turning about 1/4 CW (ct 3); hop on L continuing the CW turn to face in (ct 4). This completes one CW turn. The M facing out does the W's actions of cts 3-4 on his cts 1-2, and her actions of ct 1-2 on his cts 3-4. To lead, the M must push constantly with his L hand and pull at the W's waist with his R hand to keep the cpl constantly turning.


Done to 2/4 meter, with one full CW turn for each meas. Ftwk is identical to the Stop-hop Turn, but with no hop, keep it smooth, and for each step there must be a 1/2 CW turn! Both ptrs must help in the turn. Ptrs must stay close together, keep their R ft moving fwd in LOD between their ptrs ft. As there is no pause at the end of each meas, this turn is faster and must be done very smoothly, pivoting on the balls of the ft. Both ptrs must help each other make a full CW turn each meas – this mean that anytime one steps with the R ft it must be pointed in the LOD. If the cpl tends to move twd the ctr of the big circle, it is because both ptrs are not getting all the way around so that their R ft points in LOD when they put wt on it. The lead is the same as for the Step-hop Turn and must be constant and smooth. The M must help the W get across in front of him in LOD by taking small steps.


Done to 3/4 meter, with one full CW turn per meas. The turn can be started with the ftwk of any of the three cts described, depending on the dance and whether leading or following. An interesting note is that although the ftwk is essentially identical for both ptrs, the W's ftwk is 1 ct ahead of the M's in the meas pattern – that is, if the M's ftwk is R,L,both, the W's is L,both,R; if the M's is L,both,R, the W's is both,R,L. The same principal works as with the Waltz Turn, that the person facing in is the pivot for the cpl and takes small steps, and the person facing out must take longer steps to cross in front of the ptr to the outside of the circle.

Starting facing in: small step R in LOD with toe pointing in LOD, starting a CW turn (ct 1); a larger step L around across in front of ptr in LOD with L heel pointing in LOD and making almost a 3/4 CW turn (ct 2); complete the CW turn putting wt on both feet and end facing ctr (in some cases, the W do not put wt on R but touch it near L – depends on the dance) (ct 3). Important note: at that instant you are facing ctr, you have wt on both ft, or on L with R touching near it. Also note: the L ft takes the largest step and swings across in front of ptr in LOD. It is desirable that it land slightly beyond the LOD. Beginning facing out, wt on R ft: large L step across in front of ptr with heel pointing in LOD and making almost a full pivot CW to nearly face in (ct 1); complete the turn to face in, closing R to L or touching R next to L (ct 2); small step R in LOD, pointing R toe in LOD (ct 3). On the next meas, one does not have to turn so far on the L step as the turn is already initiated. Note: The polska Turn can be: L,R,both; r,both,L; or both,R,L, depending on the dance's requirements but the steps are always done in that sequence. In the Hambo Turn, the M begins R,L,both while the W begins L,both,R. The principles of leading are the same as previously described above for the turns.

LEADING IN BALLROOM POSITION (not involving turning)

To move sdwd L: M pulls with his L, at the same time pushing R to the L at W's waist. If this is continued, both ptrs will do step-closes to M's L. If the M alternates pushes and pulls with his R hand, the W will do a grapevine (side, behind, side, front). To move sdwd R, use the L hand twd her body, assisting with the R at her waist. To move straight ahead, M fwd, W bkwd, with M leading L ft fwd: push slightly in LOD with L hand, turning M's L shldr slightly fwd of his R, the W will compensate by pushing her R shldr bkwd and will step bkwd on her R. Reverse these actions for the M to move fwd R and W move bkwd L.

NOTE: All leads are done the easiest and most practical way. Keep them that way! Enjoy couple dancing; it is a world of fun for both partners.

Reprinted from the 1993 University of the Pacific (Stockton) Folk Dance Camp syllabus.