by Nicole Barron
There’s a lot of overlap between International Standard and American Smooth, but both styles are uniquely different. While they share most of the same dances – Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, and Viennese Waltz – these dances shouldn’t necessarily be danced the same way. Each style has individual characteristics that help them develop differently as you progress.
Standard is a style in which you can showcase your and your partner’s closed work. It highlights the classic silhouette of a leader and follower dancing in frame, which is what connects you to your partner and allows you to move together around the floor seamlessly. The body contact connection also means that a lot of what is done in Standard is subtle and is often invisible to a spectator. Because the leading and following is more nuanced, it takes a lot of patience and perseverance until it starts to feel comfortable and free, but the end result of beautiful, frictionless movement makes it worth it.
Smooth also showcases movement around the floor with a partner, but it often more overtly displays partner dancing than Standard. To achieve this, Smooth brings in skills from a variety of disciplines. Though the style does require the use of closed frame and a lot of the same skills as Standard, Smooth gives dancers the opportunity to employ techniques they may have learned from other ballroom styles like Latin and Rhythm and from other dance styles such as ballet, jazz, zouk, modern, bachata, and West Coast swing.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are among the first examples of Smooth before it was defined as a style. In their movies, they showcased the beauty of partner dancing as they moved around the floor together in hold and additionally showed off their own side-by-side individual dancing. This is where the original essence of Smooth comes from and where it began to grow. When Smooth was introduced to the competitive ballroom scene, it took these early influences from Fred and Ginger and the style grew from there.
Because Smooth is such an innovative style, you’ll see a large variety of characterizations on the floor, each playing to a couple’s strengths. You might see a very Latin-influenced couple with many quick syncopations that they learned from dancing Latin together for three years. You might see a couple that showcases how well the leader learned to turn from his ten years of studying ballet prior to picking up ballroom. You might see a couple who wants to showcase their great Standard technique through closed position, shadow position, and movement across the floor. You might also see a very classic couple that grew up watching Fred and Ginger and wants to evoke their very essence through similar mannerisms and stylings. Smooth allows a couple to utilize a wider range of dance skills and techniques in order to develop their own version of what Smooth is.
Despite including the same dances, the music in Standard and Smooth has developed differently over time, and therefore defines the major contrast between the two styles. Up until the early to mid-1990s, DJs played more contemporary music for Standard and more traditional instrumental music for Smooth. Then, DJs started to play more jazzy Foxtrots for Smooth which started to differentiate it from the slow Foxtrot for Standard. Whether this change was led by the DJs themselves or if they were inspired by the jazzy movements the dancers were starting to perform, we don’t know, but it was the beginning of a musical change for Smooth.
After the shift in Foxtrots, Smooth dancers started getting more contemporary Waltzes, followed by Argentinian-inspired and electric Tangos, and lastly by more contemporary Viennese Waltzes. This change in music for Smooth has allowed the style to differentiate itself more clearly from Standard. Smooth music today is more soulful, explosive, and passionate than it used to be, and the dancing has developed to match that evolution. However, that isn’t to say that Standard isn’t all of those things. Standard dancing can be just as explosive and passionate as Smooth, but it’s expressed differently. In Smooth you might build up the dancing to hit a big line or a standing spin to match the musical build, and in Standard you might build to hit a throwaway oversway or a contra check. Both can be impactful to the audience, but Smooth music lends itself to the greater range of body movements afforded to the style.
Dancing Both Standard and Smooth
Standard and Smooth look very different at the Open levels, but not as much when you’re dancing Newcomer through Silver. There are a lot of commonalities between Standard and Smooth at the early levels including footwork, legwork, posture, and frame. Having a strong foundation in those will help both styles. This is often why in Smooth competitions, dancers who prioritize Standard practice do better than Smooth dancers who don’t practice those same fundamentals as often. A strong foundation will make doing all Smooth movements much easier.
Only when you have your fundamental practice time down should you start to practice how to differentiate your Smooth from your Standard. One of the best ways to do that is to learn some of the Smooth-specific holds outside of the closed hold. Some of the most common holds are a two hand hold, underarm turns, shadow position, and extended hold. These can help you start to explore what other movements are possible in Smooth early on, that you won’t find in standard. This is also where you can start to bring in your dance skills from other styles, whether from competitive ballroom styles or other types of dance, into your Smooth dancing. The more you tap into these other strengths, the more your style of Smooth will look different from someone else’s, and definitely different from your Standard dancing. While Smooth requires a more diverse skill set, it really pays off as you begin to create your our personal Smooth style.
Standard and Smooth should develop differently as you learn them, so that you can experience what makes each separate style distinct and wonderful. If you want to dance Standard, keep working on your movement with and without your partner to make your dancing stronger when you come back together. If you want to dance Smooth, make it your own. The way you dance Smooth should be different than the way someone next to you dances it. And if you dance both, show off how you can make both styles differently from the other, so that you can express your dancing in multiple ways.
Nicole Barron is the two-time USA Dance National Amateur Smooth Champion and an NDCA National finalist with her partner Steve Torres. They also compete in Championship Standard. Nicole started dancing ballroom in college at NYU.