International versus American style ballroom

The basic issue

Contemporary ballroom dancing comes in two major styles, American style and international style. American style was developed by the major U.S. studio chains, Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire, and by the independent U.S. studios. International style was developed by the British, particularly through the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) and the International Dance Teachers' Association (IDTA). While most of the world uses int'l style exclusively, both styles are popular in North America.

American Smooth versus International Standard

Although American style smooth and international style standard (formerly `modern') are taught very differently, the styles are very similar. The most obvious difference is that int'l standard includes quickstep, which is not part of American smooth. The other major difference is that int'l style permits figures in closed position only, while American style allows open positions and even solo actions. Beyond that, the main differences between the two styles are in emphasis rather than result.

American Rhythm versus International Latin (or Latin American)

Compared to smooth/standard, rhythm/Latin has relatively little overlap. While each category has cha cha, rumba and a swing dance, int'l has samba and paso doble, while American has bolero -- another, slower rumba dance -- and mambo. The rumba dances are dissimilar, even in their basic counts, with steps on counts 1, 3, 4 for American and 2, 3, 4 for int'l. Most importantly, the hip motion differs: in American style, one steps onto a bent leg; in int'l style, onto a straight leg. [Henry Neeman]

More detail

It is believed that a lot of the Smooth closed figures are just toned-down versions of similar Standard figures. Likewise a lot of the Smooth closed figure timings are simplified from the more varied and complex timings of Standard figures. This was supposedly done to allow social dancers to pick up American Smooth more easily; after all, two people unfamiliar with each other would have a much easier time dancing together if the allowed moves and timings were restricted.

While Waltz, Foxtrot, and Tango have both Smooth and Standard versions, Quick Step remains a Standard-only dance. Because International dancers ofter refer to Foxtrot as the "Slow Foxtrot," it leads one to think that Quick Step is the "Quick Foxtrot." However, Quick Step is really a dance of itself, with aspects of both Foxtrot and Waltz along with other dances. Sometimes one hears of an American Quick Step, but officially there is no such animal right now.

If you are learning social dancing, you are mostly likely doing American Smooth. In American Foxtrot (and Waltz), Bronze figures are mostly closing ones (feet collect) while Silver figures are continuity passing ones (feet pass). A lot of these terms can be found in the glossary at www.ballroomdancers.com. In general, the closing figures use SSQQ timing whereas the passing figures use SQQ timing. Note however that lot of figures don't follow this basic rule, such as the Bronze box steps and Silver open box steps both having SQQ timing and the Bronze rock steps or grapevine steps having QQQQ timing, but most American dancers tend to think of the SSQQ and SQQ as a differentiator between Bronze and Silver. International Foxtrot is not divided this way between Bronze and Silver, since timing is more attached to the figures, and a sequence such as SQQ QQS SSS is common; so goes Quick Step. [avid_dancer}

"Smooth" is the American version of standard. We include every dance except the Quickstep. In competition, the main difference between Smooth and Standard is that in Smooth open work, you may make use of the various open positions found in latin dancing, or even break apart altogether and do side-by-side or interactive stuff. It's similar to Int'l showdancing, but without the lifts.

Since the American smooth has only 4 dances, one would think that it is slightly easier, but trust me, there is a reason that they left out that Qstep. Of all 4 styles of Ballroom, it is by far the most dangerous. Not only do we fly around the floor at lightning speed like the standard dancers, but we also dance apart with limbs flying everywhere, like the latin dancers. With these open positions, the couple doesn't have nearly the maneuvering ability that a standard dancer has, and so floorcraft is a much bigger challenge.

The character of the dances is portrayed differently, too. Our Tango varies stylistically, but most couples showcase the theatrical quality by having a more Paso-Dobleish or Argentine Tangoish interpretation than the average standard Tango dancer. Foxtrot is radically different: The Int'l Foxtrot is slow and elegant, but the Americn Foxtrot is upbeat and sprightly, looking more like an old Fred and Ginger movie. We still use the International element, but add to it a jazziness and showdancy quality that is not appropriate (or even possible) in Int'l Foxtrot. Our Viennese is also very different, but mostly because of the fact that we are not limited to 5 figures. We can do just about anything we want choreographically, including the open stuff. In spite of that, Viennese choreography tends to stay on the simple side, and our interpretation is very similar to the Int'l version: fast, but graceful and smooth. Our Waltz is the dance which is most similar in interpretation to the Int'l, but again, with the ability to break apart, it can look quite different as a whole. [Jonathan Atkinson]

Historical development

Historically, American style ballroom (called Smooth) was developing on the west side of the Atlantic during the same period as English style ballroom (called Modern) was developing near the east side of the Atlantic. There was probably some cross fertilization, but there was also a lot of independent development. Competition seems to have started to dominate the development of English style fairly early (1920s), while American style was more rooted in social dancing as taught by the Murray studios and a desire to emulate the stage and screen dancing as epitomized in the Fred Astaire movies.

You can generally trace many open American style foxtrot figures to things that Fred and Ginger did in various choreographic sequences in their movies, for example. In fact, because of those movies, there was probably more influence of American style on English style than vice versa.

It wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that English style really started catching on internationally, and came to be called International style (and later, Standard). Between then and now, there has probably been more influence of International style on American than vice versa, but it's been influence on an established style, not a derivation. [Warren Dew]

>The history of "International Style" is that it arose 
>from an exercise done primarily by British dancers in the 1940's and 50's 
>to document the steps and moves done by the top international competition 
>dancers of the time.[Andy Broomsgove]

This "documentation" was heavily political in character. It was not simply descriptive, but also prescriptive, largely and primarily in the interests of the English dance teachers involved. They established a power base formed by having organized the first extensive dance competition system which they exported around the British Empire and much of the rest of the world. They then created, for example, a "Viennese" Waltz with virtually no steps in it (over the strong objections of the Viennese masters, as I understand), and a Slow "English" Waltz with an extensive syllabus. They created Jive, based on an American dance, and wonder why Americans don't conform to their "descriptions." They created Tango, which is quite different from the Argentine version it was based on.

America was unusual in that it had its own active dance "documenters" who did more or less the same thing in the U.S. that the English did in England. The U.S. was much less influential in the dance world, however, so their style didn't spread, and the English simply enforced their standards more broadly (they mostly decided who won the "International" competitions, after all). [Bill Sherman]

Convergence?

Way back many moons ago, they were very different. They developed in different environments, and for different reasons. But each year they grow a little closer until now, as you say, the distinctions are mostly technical. It has caused many of us recently to start questioning the American style, asking, "Why are doing this? What is it about American style that makes it unique and worthwhile?"

For the smooth dancers, this introspection has proven very beneficial (in my opinion), because for the last 3 to 4 years, we have been trying to move it in a different direction which makes it more unique. Thanks to the contributions of the likes of David Hamilton, Olga Foropanova, Toni Redpath, and Nicholas Kasovich (to name a few), American Smooth is much more than just International Standard with occasional open moves. It now has a totally unique look and feel which is anything but Standard, even if its roots and basic technique are Standard.

American Rhythm, on the other hand, seems to still be moving in a direction closer to its International counterpart. So in a way, I tend to think that it's a few years behind smooth. But then I'm not sure what direction would be a good one for it to go in, since for obvious reasons, it can't do the same thing that Smooth did. [Jonathan Atkinson]

Difference between American and International technique

A common question runs as follows:

> Having been a student of American style smooth for the last 5 years, I
> will be beginning a series of lessons with a well-qualified
> international instructor.  We will work thru the syallabus figures on
> QS and waltz, focusing on all the technique cosiderations applicable
> to correct execution of these movements.  My question is...will the
> issues and matters discussed in this program apply with equal force
> and effect to American style dancing or are there technique
> considerations applicable to I'tl style that are not applicable to
> American style. [letschacha]

To which one possible answer is:

I may get argument here, but the techniques used in American style and International style are not the same. American style features open work, under-arm turns, open extended lines, etc., while International style requires a close proximity of the partners at all times, and hence can use the concept of a "common center" which allows for a three- dimensional body action in unison that does not quite work for American style.

An example. The rise used in American style Waltz must remain mostly vertical in order to allow for open work, under-arm turns, etc. It is felt mostly through the legs and ankles and a vertical "lifting" of the body, and thus could be considered two-dimensional rise (i.e. mostly up). International style Waltz uses a different rise for most of its basic figures called pendulum swing. It is created almost entirely by a body line that is flighted forward and upward, and the rise is a natural consequence of this action. Such rise requires a closed body position. [Michael Champion]

It seems to me that there's another reason for a difference in waltz rise: the standard waltz figures are much different in the two styles. Side swing plays a much larger part in International waltz, for example, because the fundamental figures involve foot closures, which is not true of American style waltz once one begins to use continuity styling. [Warren Dew]

> I may get argument here, but the techniques used in American style and
> International style are not the same.

I think American and International style technique are identical except where music style and tempo dictate otherwise.

One point I find myself constantly reiterating to my students is that even when you're dancing far apart, you still have to dance *as though* you're in body contact. I want to feel the exact same muscles being used on a Natural Turn to keep my position directed towards my partner whether in closed, open, apart, or even shadow position. In fact, sometimes even more so in open position because the technique required to compensate for inside/outside or rotation becomes amplified by the increased distance between partners.

> An example. The rise used in American style Waltz must remain
> mostly vertical in order to allow for open work, under-arm turns,
> etc. It is felt mostly through the legs and ankles and a
> vertical "lifting" of the body.

I completely disagree. There's nothing in the mechanics of the movement that calls for a rise & fall that's any different that that of closed posistion. Whether I'm dancing a Chasse to R in CP or a Chasse to R. with Lady's underarm turn left, I'd use the exact same rise & fall, and I'd have her do the same.

> International style Waltz uses a different rise for most of its basic
> figures called pendulum swing. [...] Such rise requires a closed body position.

Not at all. You can do the exact same thing completely by yourself. Or better yet, in shadow position with body contact. It looks great. It's very Waltzy. If I were to pop up onto my toes instead, it wouldn't look like American style... it would just look like bad Waltz. [Jonathan Atkinson]

Samba

American Style also includes the Samba, although it's been noted many many times that the Samba is probably the dance with the least amount of differences between AS and IS. In fact, it's been observed that the dance is EXACTLY the same in both styles. [Brian Antonio]

Swing and Jive style

Swing does appear more "grounded" than Jive, although I think that grounded is probably not the right word for it, since it implies that Jive is not grounded. I prefer to think of true Swing as smooth, whereas the Jive is more "hoppy". Then again, the style of AS Swing in competition does seem to be a lot more "jivey" these days. The judges seem to be marking a "jivey" style over a smooth, "west coasty" type of style. [Brian Antonio]

That is funny, because meanwhile the swing style is creeping into the jive IMO causing it to lose its ticking action to some extent, which should be present 90% of the time as I wish to see it. (And intend to do it.) [Matyas Sustik]


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Last modified on: 2000, Monday May 8.