Heel Pivots in International Standard Dancing

As part of a launch of our new online newsletter, written and arranged by dancers for dancers, I wrote an article that is an overview of the difficult technique of performing Heel Pivoting Actions. While the article is posted on our online Newsletter, and is posted on our Emotions DanceSport blog at http://blog2.emotionsdancesport.com , I decided to post the article here as well, just in case anyone would like the information. If anyone is interested in viewing the full newsletter, you can do so at this address:


So without further ado, here it is:

The Heel Pivoting Action

Heel turns are difficult. Heel turns done well take years of training. Given the difficulty and the common occurance of heel turns in International Style Standard dancing, it is of no surprise that many misconceptions have arisen as to the performance of heel turns. In this article, I will offer some advice as to the correct performance of heel turns, and I hope to be able to offer some tips that will lead to a greater intellectual understanding of this commonly misunderstood action.

The title of my article is “The Heel Pivoting Action”, not “The Heel Turn”, because a heel turn is only a type of heel pivot. There are multiple types of heel pivots, which included the Heel Turn, the Heel Pull, the Open Heel Pivot, the Open Heel Pivot Action, and the Rising Heel Pivot Action. To start, I will give a definition of all of the above Heel Pivoting Actions, as written by Geoffrey Hearn in his book, A Technique of Advanced Ballroom Figuresl turns.

The First, the all-important Heel Turn. In The Ballroom Technique, arranged by The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), a heel turn is described as such: “A turn that is first commenced on the ball of the stepping foot and then continued on the heel…. The weight is transferred on to the foot that has closed as the turn is complete.” Mr. Hearn gives the following disambiguation: “The turn commences with at toe turned in and is completed on the heel of foot with foot flat whilst the other foot closes flat with weight…. Foot rise will not occur until the projection of the body weight forwards into the following step.” The above definitions can be practiced with a simple exercise. Start by standing on the right foot, the left foot back behind you. Step back on the left foot, toe turned in, and transfer weight into the heel before any turn is made. Pivot on the heel of your left foot whilst turning to your right; for ease of the exercise, turn only 1/4 to your right. As you turn, practice gradually bringing in the right foot, toes parallel, until the feet have closed completely. Once your feet have closed, transfer weight onto the right foot and project your body weight forward. Complete with a forward step on your left foot. You are now in a position to repeat the exercise with right foot back, turning to your left.

Secondly, we have what is called a Heel Pull. The Ballroom Technique begins their definition with the following notation: “A type of Heel Turn”. They continue: “The turn to right is made on the heel of the supporting foot, and the moving foot is pulled back and to the side of the supporting foot (slightly apart).” In Mr. Hearn’s definition, he chooses to ignore the specification of the direction of turn. Probably this is because in The Ballroom Technique, which covers only steps that are permitted within the medallist’s system, the only time a Heel Pull is danced is when one is turning to the right. For instance, the second half of a Natural Turn in Foxtrot, or on step 5 of the Hesitation Change in Waltz. However, as Mr. Hearn’s book covers the technique for the many advanced steps danced at the Open level, he neglects to specify the direction of turn most probably because it would be possible to dance a Heel Pull turning to the left. Here is Mr. Hearn’s disambiguation: “A turn made on the heel of foot with foot flat whilst the other foot is ‘pulled’ to side with feet parallel to end flat.”

The next three types of heel pivots are not mentioned in The Ballroom Technique because they are danced in figures that do not exist within the medallist system. For instance, the first of these heel pivots, the Open Heel Pivot, is danced on step 3 of the Man’s Telespin. The Open Heel Pivot Action, meanwhile, is danced on step 4 of the Man’s Quick Outside Spin. The term Open is used to specify the action of a heel pivot wherein the foot of the free leg does not close to the turning foot, as opposed to the original action of a Heel Pivot, wherein as the turn is made of the heel of the supporting leg, the foot of the free leg closes to the turning foot. Note, that in a Heel Pivot, weight is not transferred to the closing foot. This action can be found in the Man’s technique of the Quarter Turn to Left in Quickstep.

Mr. Hearn’s definition of an Open Heel Pivot is, therefore: “A turn made of the heel of foot with foot flat whilst the other foot remains in place until rotation is completed.” Please remember, this is danced  on step 3 of the Man’s Telespin and is, therefore, considered a very advanced technique. My suggestion is to apply to your teacher for an example of this action.

As definition of the Open Heel Pivot Action: “[the same as above], wherein the turn originates on the heels [as opposed to the toes].”

And finally, the definition of the extremely rare Rising Heel Pivot Action, which was not written by Mr. Hearn in his A Technique of Advanced Standard Ballroom Figures, but compiled through my own experience with this action: A turn made on the heel of flat foot whilst the other foot attempts to close. At the last moment, the foot of the free leg will slip forward into a toe pivot. This action is only danced as Lady.

Now that we have a basic understanding of Heel Pivoting Actions, I will attempt to dispel some common myths and misconceptions about performing them. Most of these will be concerned with specifically the Heel Turn, as this is the most commonly danced Heel Pivoting Action.

Many students think, as many teachers instruct, that in order to lead (or, as lady, to follow) a Heel Turn, there must exist a type of action called “Early Rise”. I cannot disagree more. If one were to read the technique under any heel pivoting figure in The Ballroom Technique, the rise given for Heel Turns, specifically, is no different than the rise given for any other type of turn. In fact, there are some Heel Turns that have no rise at all; such as, the Heel Turn danced on step 2 of the Lady’s Open Reverse Turn, Lady In Line in Tango, and step 2 of the Lady’s Zig-Zag, Back Lock, and Running Finish in Quickstep. Furthermore, in the Advanced Technique, the Lady’s part of an Open Telemark and Telespin, danced in Tango, also has a Heel Turn with no rise. The existence of these three figures, alone, should dispel any myths about the enigmatic “Early Rise”.

Yet now the question arises…. If “Early Rise” is not required to lead (or feel the follow into) a Heel Pivot, what is required? For this answer, we turn to an analogy that was given to me by 5-time World Standard Champion, Michael Barr. He described the act of leading the lady into any type of turn as playing Billiards (or Snooker, or Pool; call it what you like). Even if you don’t play Billiards, you surely know the basic idea. Using a long stick, called the cue, you must hit a white ball, called a cue ball, into any number of colored balls, therefore ricocheting the colored balls into a socket. All the best Billiards players have a good understanding of geometry and the physics of angles and spin (as do the best Ballroom Dancers). Imagine you want to hit the green ball diagonally forward. You would aim the cue ball to hit at the back corner of the green ball. This would be a normal turning figure. Now imagine you want to hit the green diagonally backward. You must aim the cue ball to hit the front corner of the green ball, creating a back spin that will ricochet the ball almost into itself, therefore causing the green ball to move back. This would be a Heel Pivoting Action.

Next, beginning students often misinterpret the priorities of a Heel Turn. This misinterpretation also extends to inexperienced teachers, who in their zeal to produce good quality dancing, often over-emphasize the requirement of the student to close their feet. Time and again, I have seen the student step back and hurriedly close their feet, resulting in a heel turn that is danced on two heels simultaneously. With nothing else to do, they then pop up onto their toes while their feet are still together. This mix-up of priorities leaves the student looking very ignorant, and even more so in the case of the teacher. It will be remembered that the name of the step is a Heel Turn, not a Heels Turn (plural). Turn is danced on the heel of one foot only; meanwhile the foot of the free leg is drawn in gradually, with the weight not transferring until the count of the second step. Geoffrey Hearn writes: “The foot should be felt as ‘pulled’ into the closed position from a position of movement under its own hip line.”

Once the first mistake is corrected, chances are the second mistake will be corrected, as well. You will remember that the student who closes their feet too soon invariably rise too soon. However, the student should not rise to their toes until they project their weight into the forward step (step 3). Mr. Hearn reminds us clearly: “Foot rise will not occur until the projection of the body weight forwards into the following step.” Obviously, this mistake has been around for a long time. In 1971, dance legend Phyllis Haylor wrote an article intended to aid candidates for professional examination. In this article, she described the above two mistakes and offered some advice on how to fix it:

“When asked to give the Rise and Fall in the Natural Turn in the Foxtrot as lady, the candidate, after closing the feet hurriedly without any lift of the body – knees bent – stops with feet together and rises immediately on to the toes of both feet… this interpretation shows a completely misunderstanding of Body Rise and has a very detrimental effect on the movement of the dance…. The first way to correct this fault is to understand that on a Heel Turn the Rise concerns the body only on the first step – corresponding to the man’s swing as he makes the turn between steps 1 and 2. The turn for the lady should be completed on her left foot before she transfers her weight onto her right foot, maintaining the body rise and releasing her right heel as, on the third step, her left foot moves immediately forward… as [her partner] steps backwards.”

In conclusion, I hope that these definitions and pieces of advice will help both the medallist, the student both competitive and social, and the teacher in correctly explaining and dancing the Heel Pivot Actions, and in particular the Heel Turn, in the future.

* * *


About korastoynova

With my husband, Simeon Stoynov, I travel the world in pursuit of our dreams, of which we have many. And, thankfully, all of our dreams are within our reach. We have made sure of it. From our lives as competitive ballroom dancers, a life which has taken us around the world and back, to my struggles to becoming an author, to Simeon's love of business, we have learned what it means to sacrifice, to apply ourselves with discipline, and to enjoy the journey to success. Our lives truly are made of the stuff of dreams.
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