As a viewing public, we have gotten used to seeing shows like Dancing with the Stars and have heard of all sorts of different types of dances. From Waltz to Mambo and Paso Doble to East Coast Swing, we have been graced with a delightful view of the ballroom world. Seldom do we wonder where the dances come from, why they look the way they do, or what differences (subtle and otherwise) there may be between them.
Because of this, most people think that there is only one way to do each dance – that a Rumba is just a Rumba. Quite to the contrary, there are two major classifications of traditional ballroom that make up the dancing world – American and International. There are several notable differences between the styles and what dances they contain, so let’s buckle in and get started.
First up is American Style. This is the typical style you will see going out for a night of dancing on the town. American style has two genres of dance within itself – Smooth and Rhythm. Smooth consists of Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, and Viennese Waltz, while Rhythm has Cha-Cha, Rumba, East Coast Swing, Mambo and Bolero.
The style as a whole derived from International and was developed in the United States (go figure). American style is more relaxed, letting movements have a great deal of freedom (again, go figure). This makes the style excellent for social dancing. The steps are designed to be done in whatever order you choose and with generous leeway in regards to alignments. Dancers are allowed to break frame in Smooth, making for very grand expressions and arm styling as they move around the floor. Also, in Rhythm, Cuban motion in the hips is achieved by stepping on a bent leg and flexing the knee.
Being so open to the creativity and individuality of dancers is what has made the American style so popular. This has also allowed for several variations of the same step to flourish. Artistic license, attitude and personal style shine through while dancing American. However, despite all of the freedoms, the following remains constant – each dance is started with the left foot for the lead and the right foot for the follow.
On the other end of the spectrum is International. Like American, International contains two genres – Standard and Latin. Standard equates to American’s Smooth, containing Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, and Viennese Waltz. Standard also brings in the addition of the fast and lively Quickstep. Latin is similar to American’s Rhythm, with Rumba and Cha-Cha included. However, International has Jive, Samba and Paso Doble replacing East Coast Swing, Mambo and Bolero.
International style has been around longer than American, and is focused more on discipline. Dance steps have particular alignments, and there is a set list of moves that you can do both before and after a step. This way it gives a set of rules and clearly defined boundaries. The figures in each dance are like pieces of a chain with the stipulation that only certain pieces can connect. It is up to us as the dancer to learn each figure and know what we can do to chain the movements all together.
One of the most noticeable aspects of Standard is that the dancers are not allowed to break frame. All of the patterns must be done in hold, forcing couples to rely on foot placement, leg work and partnership to move around the floor. For Latin, dancers still have hip action, but it is achieved in a different way. Rather than stepping on a bent leg like American’s Rhythm, Latin maintains a straight leg, causing a sharp and immediate hip movement. Lastly, International style changes up which foot the leads and follows will start the dance with. Some dances have the lead start with their left, others start with their right. The same goes for the follows.
Between American and International, there are a lot of the same movements for each dance. Though the steps may be called something different and have some minor changes to technique and execution, they still share the basic fundamental principles. The differences between each style bring a unique perspective and flavorful personality to the ballroom. I recommend trying out both!
Of course there are other dance styles out there, like Nightclub and Vintage, which contain some of our other favorite dances that were not mentioned above. American and International are just the two most frequent styles you’ll see, especially at competitions. I’ll dive into the other styles another day, but hopefully this was informative and helpful in understanding the main differences between the American and International styles.