By: Amy VanKirk
The Cuban hip motion, celebrated in jazz dance and integral in Latin ballroom dance, presents a seamless bridge between the two styles. Both share roots in Afro-Cuban social dances, and this crossover provides an excellent opportunity to discuss this shared lineage in class. The popularity of ballroom dance has seen a great resurgence in the past decade, becoming increasingly visible on reality-competition television series, music videos, commercials, and films. Ballroom styles are now making their way into Broadway shows, commercial and film work, cruise ship shows, and onto the concert dance stage. As dance educators this gives us a valuable opportunity to build off of this popularity and find new ways to engage students in the classroom by incorporating Latin ballroom elements in to jazz class.
With training and performance experience in both jazz and ballroom styles, I look forward to including a Latin jazz section in every university level jazz course I teach. These fundamental concepts can easily be shared across different educational settings and populations as well. I have found pedagogical success in teaching the Cuban hip motion from the perspective of my ballroom training, which has given me clarity in both the language I use and the way I demonstrate the concepts. For the first class of the Latin jazz unit, I use the following structure and exercises:
I start with an overview of a few foundational components in Latin ballroom technique. In my brief “Latin ballroom crash course” I cover the following concepts, reinforced by specific cues or images.
I then move on to a detailed breakdown of the Cuban hip motion. I start with forward walks, and students are always in flat shoes (not ballroom heels).
Despite the name, Cuban hip action is a LEG action, not a “hip” action. Students often think of a Cuban walk as walking while “doing hips,” when in fact the hip motion comes from the leg action. Cuban hip motion:
While stepping forward onto a bent leg with a lengthened back leg, the opposite hip automatically falls back, creating the “look” of the hip motion.
As I transition into stepping to the side and the back, there are a few more things to watch out for:
-While teaching the motion I emphasize natural oppositional arms, with slightly bent elbows. Dancers often switch to “same arm same leg,” so the oppositional arm movement has to be reiterated.
-When stepping to the side dancers often step onto a turned out foot. The steps need to be in parallel at all times, even slightly turned in, to create the motion.
-SMALL STEPS. The “look” is lost, especially while first learning, when dancers take large steps to the side. Remind them of the thera-band around the ankles.
-This is the most difficult concept to get across. All of a sudden students step on straight leg and “pop” or bevel front leg. To “trick” body into maintaining the correct mechanics I do drills of taking four small steps to the front, four in place, and then four small steps moving back. This way they are already “in the groove” and have a better chance of maintaining technique. This takes time.
This motion can be challenging on the body if not done with proper technique. It’s important to put an emphasis on safe body placement and clear technique, with the goal of curbing the mimicking that occurs with “YouTube learning,” which often results in incorrect form.
Injury prevention notes:
When done properly, the Cuban hip motion should be an excellent oblique exercise. When done improperly, it can be terrible on the lower back and knees. I always finish the lesson with appropriate stretches to counteract it the repeated use of this motion such as back stretches in a contraction, quadricep stretches, calf stretches, and piriformis stretches.
Amy VanKirk, MFAis an Associate Professor of Dance at Radford University. She has had original work showcased at the New York Jazz Choreography Project, American College Dance Association, Ferguson Center for the Arts, Alluvion Stage Company, and at various universities across the country. In 2017 VanKirk collaborated with the NASA Langley Research Center where she was commissioned to create an original work,Remember the Future, to celebrate NASA’s Centennial. VanKirk has choreographed numerous full-length musicals, including the creation and direction of an original a full-length musical based on family history,Keep This For Me: Memories of the Last World War.
Amy received a BFA in Dance from the University at Buffalo and an MFA in Dance from the University of Arizona. While in Arizona she served as the rehearsal assistant for Ann Reinking'sChicago Suite. Before pursuing a graduate degree, Amy worked for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as a dancer, dance captain, and rehearsal director. Other professional credits include danahbella DanceWorks, Artifact Dance Project, John Taylor Productions, and the Music is Art Festival.
Amy is a member of the National Dance Education Organization where she has been accepted to present on numerous topics. Amy’s primary teaching focus is jazz dance technique, with additional focuses on composition, new student seminar, senior seminar, tap, musical theatre, and ballroom. She is also a certified Ultra Barre℠ Instructor. Amy’s research interests focus on interdisciplinary collaborations, weaving together the arts and movement with the research of colleagues in history, engineering, and the sciences.
To learn more about Amy,click here to check out her website!