by Vanda Polakova
The question is not so much how Rhythm is different from Latin in terms of bent knees or straight knees, but what the character of each dance is and which actions create that character.
Let’s look at Rumba, which is common to both styles, but very different in each.
There are some similarities of technique in each style. The footwork for the Rumba walk in both Latin and Rhythm is BF (ball flat). This means that the heel of the foot is nearly instantaneously lowered to the floor upon the placement of the ball of foot. The difference in the leg action is that the knee of the moving leg is generally straight upon placement in the Latin and the knee is generally bent upon placement in Rhythm.
I write in a general sense, because in Latin Rumba, there are places where the foot could or should be placed with a bent knee action such as in Cucarachas and Cuban Rocks. There are other steps where the placement of ball and then the flat foot are even more pronounced like Pressed Forward or Pressed Backward walks.
The beginning of a step in each style is the same. The supporting leg is straight and we move the body forward towards the ball of the foot, rotating the hip back. The difference in American Rumba is what comes right after that. With pressure from the standing leg that continues through the rotation of the hip, the moving leg is placed with a bent knee. This is the moment many people refer to as the hip-lift: the reaction of the hip to pressure from the now-back leg, which causes it to lift.
Because the leg is placed with a bent knee that allows for the potential of a fuller and more delayed body action in Rhythm versus Latin. This is exactly why Latin dancers choose some actions on a bent knee like in the rock ending to the Aida (and why many current rhythm dancers borrow those types of figures from Latin). The bent knee allows for greater range of body motion, and the ability to use it for more time across each weight change.
In both styles there should be a vertically balanced spine throughout the body action. Vertical balance of the spine means that the blocks of weight in the torso stay stacked on top of one another but are free to twist, rotate, and otherwise move for the sake of fluidity and balance. This doesn’t mean keep the spine straight. Just experience what happens when we go through the process of rotating hips and transferring weight from foot to foot. There is a ton of movement in the spine just to do that.
What often happens in Rhythm is that the shapes are overdone by dancers shifting their rib cages and lats out of line (over-exaggeration in what I call the typewriter action). In Latin, more often this distortion is achieved by pushing the lower spine and hips too far side to side. In both cases this results in a forced, unnatural look, which is (most importantly) unbalanced and weak. In Rhythm, the spine should keep its vertical alignment as in Latin. Keeping that vertical alignment of the spine allows for maximum rotational movement of the hips and back muscles, and a greater feeling of opposition between the top and bottom.
American Style Rumba music is definitely faster than International Rumba by tempo and more upbeat by feel. The rhythmic characterization is also very different. Whereas in the International the steps are on beats 2, 3, and 4 (1 being held), the American is danced on the 1, 3, and 4, or 1, 2, and 3 depending on whether you use the Son (SQQ) or Guaracha (QQS) timings. The music is what decides the actions because it sets the mood and speed of the dance. That is where the technique comes from.
The Bottom Line
Good dancing is good dancing no matter what the style. The music dictates the style. In competitions, we often get music that doesn’t fully complement the style. In those cases we must accentuate the elements of our body movement that refer back to the original idea of the style, and that is what we think of as making up the technique for each dance.
Vanda Polakova is a 2-time Slovakian Amateur Latin champion, the Czech Republic Professional Latin champion, and a 3-time US and World Professional American Rhythm finalist. She is currently teaching in New York City.