Dance ED Tip #80: Cuban Hip Motion:
A Ballroom and Jazz Essential

October 01, 2019 - 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.

  • 1- All steps move on a “grid”-90 degree angles, no diagonal steps, with feet remaining in parallel position the entire time. “Imagine dancing on a tile floor and only moving along the lines.”
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  • 2- Assertive weight shift with each step…no shared weight. To demonstrate this concept, I take a partner with a two-hand hold and stand with weight evenly distributed. I ask if they can tell where I am about to step…of course the answer is no, and I reiterate how hard it would be to follow if the leader was constantly in a shared weight stance. I then ask the same question with my weight fully on one side, to show the difference in clarity.
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  • 3- Move with entire body, not just the feet. When first learning ballroom, the dancers tend to lead with their feet tentatively, with the body arriving after. To remedy this, I ask them imagine stepping forward with the whole body and a “strong pelvis”. I then have them walk across the floor using this concept.
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  • 4- Latin ballroom dances are stationary (as opposed to the standard dances that sweep around the ballroom such as waltz and tango). Dancers LOVE to cover space and take large steps, but for this particular technique this hinders the movement. I share how I personally learned to take small but strong steps during in my own training through having a thera-band tied around my ankles while practicing. I was also taught to keep my feet in constant connection with the floor by dancing with a tissue under each foot. These analogies seem to be easily comprehended by the students.

 

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:

  1. 1- Involves one lengthened leg and one bent leg
  2. 2- Steps onto bent leg regardless of direction
  3. 3- Uses parallel a parallel position and flat feet, no demi-pointe
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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.

  • I reiterate the concept of assertive steps with no shared weight. Students cannot accomplish the motion if they don’t step FULLY onto the bent leg. I ask them to pick up the straight leg to test if they have fully shifted their weight. If their weight is not fully on the bent leg, and both legs are slightly bent, they will have to “force” the hip.

 

As I transition into stepping to the side and the back, there are a few more things to watch out for:

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  • Challenges with stepping to the side:
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-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.

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  • Challenges for walking backwards:
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-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:

  • Hyperextending the lengthened leg is a common problem. Students should focus on lifting in the leg, letting the kneecap float up and not back, and lengthening not locking.
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  • Proper use of use of core is key. The mimicking that occurs often encourages a forward pelvic tilt and exaggerated curve in the lumbar spine. In reality, the focus of the spine is should not be an arch, but in a slight pitch forward. I describe the slight pitch forward as leaning forward onto a bar.

 

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, MFA is 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's Chicago 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!