So let’s say you’re dancing with a partner, and you want to execute a simple ninety-degree turn to the left. You know you’re going to be using some sort of body alignment to make that happen. (If you don’t know what I mean by alignments, see my post here.)
As far as alignments go, you have a couple of options. You could step in natural and lead your partner to also step in natural. You could step in contra and lead your partner to also step in contra. Or you could step in natural yourself, but lead your partner to step in contra. Let’s look at these three different options.
Natural/natural. If they’re not aware of alignments, many people in the swing and blues community will default to using natural-natural. In this version, the leader steps in natural, opening out on the right side and causing his follower to open out on her right in natural and then turn backwards. Ironically, this is the least “natural” and efficient of the three options for turning. But it is very common for swing and blues dancers to unconsciously restrict their normal everyday body motion when they get on the dance floor. Natural-natural is not a great choice because it can cause the partners to split their weight, and in order to make the turn work, the leader has to hold the follower with his arm and sort of lift her around the corner as he steps around. This can make the follower feel as if she’s waddling or being dragged off her feet.
Contra/contra. Most of the time, in a casual dance setting, both partners will find that they’re turning in contra. For a ninety-degree turn to the left, the lead steps forward on the left, closing the right side of his body, and the follower steps backward on her right while opening the left side of her body. Both partners stepping into contra creates a turn that works, but has little power or precision. It doesn’t really generate enough momentum to pivot.
Turning this way is not the best option for the leader’s knee. When stepping forward in contra there’s a lot of risk that at some point your knee is going to be in a funny position, collapsed to one side or the other. You have to keep opening the hip and pelvis to keep the knee aligned over the toe. And then as you come through you have to actually turn the foot. With sticky shoes this doesn’t work so well.
Natural/contra. If you want the follow to really pivot with a clear sharpness, and if as a leader you want space to be able to pivot and use your knee with healthy alignment, then the best way is to step in natural while leading the follow in contra. This creates the sharpest turn with the most power. Opening up the right side of your body while stepping forward on the left sets you up for more momentum and is good technique for any turning box step.
What’s happening here, and why does this work? Because more of the leader’s body is left behind when stepping in natural, there’s more body weight swinging around to create momentum for the turn. So instead of just closing the turn, there’s a sharper pivot action for the leader. Also, there’s a point where both partners’ bodies are angled together; the leader’s left ribcage and the follow’s right ribcage are wrapping toward each other. That creates a feeling of compression between the partners, which sends the follow out of the leader’s way with more power.
Now just because this is the most efficient way to move, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is advanced stuff and difficult to master. Most people will find that if they are collapsing anywhere in their hip, back, core, rib cage, sternum, or shoulder, the turn will fall apart.
One tricky thing about this turn is the arm. When you step forward into natural, opening on the right side, if your right arm also swings open, then your follow will just end up in natural going backwards. So in order to lead this turn, you have to maintain space for the follow on your right side, while at the same time angling your own body into contra. Somehow you need to wrap toward the follow while still keeping your right side open.
But when you make that adjustment with your arm, if your chest closes over to the left, then you’re right back in contra. There’s a subtle difference between adjusting your arm while in natural, and allowing your arm to reverse your upper body and pull you into contra. The goal is natural alignment of the spine, with the arm angled forward.
The way to do this is by stepping forward in natural but leaving your arms in the same orientation in space. You step into natural and bring your left side into the space, but allow your arms to stay in front of you and not open to the side. This will ideally allow your follow to move into contra in response.
One thing to be aware of is that if you were stepping in contra, you’d probably turn your head to the left, but if you’re stepping in natural you wouldn’t. It’s really your intention that creates that subtle difference.
Because your whole body is moving together, in natural you should feel a diagonal stretch across the body and some torque in your hips. And when you make that adjustment with the arm, you can feel it across your upper back. The stored energy in the right side is wrapping back, and then when you release the back leg and hip it’s going to send the energy forward. If you were stepping in contra you’d also feel a twist, but it’s much more of a wringing action, while natural alignment feels something like pulling back a bow.
You will find that there are some followers who are not open to being led into contra. If a follow has too much tone in her torso she’ll block the lead and won’t feel it; if she doesn’t have enough tone she won’t be responsive to it. Either way, if the follower isn’t open to alignments, then you have no choice in leading a turning box but to go natural-natural. That’s fine; it’s the less efficient way, but it still works.
A hint for the followers: if you’re following a leader who is not aware of alignments, you can make things a little smoother for yourself if you go into contra when it becomes clear that he is prepping a turn. If you don’t want to be split-weight, then don’t split your weight. At some point in the pattern you will have to go through a series of alignments to move yourself from one foot to the other. It’s perfectly legal to use a higher level of prep technique in your own body. Sometimes this can save you from being swept off your feet.