Ballroom Dancing Styles and Steps

  • Ballroom dancing is divided into two main categories. In the early 20th century ballroom dancing was being developed simultaneously in the United States and Europe. As a result, two slightly different versions arose:  American, danced socially in the United States, and International, a more formal version danced worldwide. Although International is primarily used for competition, some competitions will include both styles.

    American and International are both divided into two smaller categories with different names but pertaining to the same dances: Smooth or Standard, which included traditional, fluid styles such as the Waltz, Foxtrot, and Tango, and Rhythm or Latin, which includes the more cadenced styles of the Cha Cha, Rumba, Swing, and Jive.

    Social dances have also emerged. These are not technically a part of competitive ballroom dancing, but are popular recreationally. These include Salsa, Meringue, West Coast Swing, and the Lindy.

    The five most popular Ballroom dances are Foxtrot, Waltz, Rumba, Cha Cha, and Swing.


    Foxtrot originated with a Vaudeville entertainer named Harry Fox who performed little hopping steps to ragtime music. The dance style was hugely popular and became known as “Fox’s Trot.” As the ballroom dancing craze grew, travelling dances like the Waltz were less practical and a need for an “on the spot” dance arose. An American and a British dancer paired together and adapted “Fox’s Trot” into a ballroom dance that could travel or remain in one spot.

    The Steps

    Foxtrot is a simple 4/4 timed dance with a closed-hold position that repeats four steps, two long and two short: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow, quick-quick. Foxtrot was a major development in the world of ballroom dancing. The combination of quick and slow steps permits more flexibility and room for expression than the one-step and two-step that came before it. Foxtrot allows for more variety than any other dance and many other dances are derivatives of it: Quickstep, Peabody, Roseland Foxtrot, and even the Lindy and the Hustle!


    Other than re-enactments of court dances, the Waltz is the oldest form of ballroom dancing that is still used today. The name comes from the German word walzen, which means to turn or glide. The dance evolved from the folk “turning” dances of peasants in the Austrian region in the mid-1700’s. It eventually made a splash in high society provoking both enthusiasm and outrage.

    As the first closed-hold dance, it required the ballroom dancers to physically touch at five different points: hands, arms, shoulder, waist, and chest. Dances in vogue at the time included the minuet and allemande, each of which required minimal “hand only” contact. The church was dismayed at the dance’s “ vulgar immorality” and dance masters – a staple in any noble household - worried for their jobs because the Waltz was easy to learn and competently execute in comparison to earlier dances that required ongoing and intense instruction to perform. For all its opposition, however the Waltz prevailed and became wildly popular in both Europe, America and eventually throughout the world. Over time two main styles emerged, the quick and whirling Viennese Waltz and the slower, more gliding Boston Waltz – known today as simply “The Waltz.”

    The Steps

    Danced in ¾ time with a heavy accent on the first beat, the Waltz is a gracefully lilting dance characterized by flowing movements, continuous turns, rise and fall, and long travelling. American Waltz is especially expressive and includes extravagant open movements, underarm turns, and solo spins.


    Rumba has roots in the cultures of East India and Africa but was developed in rural Cuba in the late 19th century. The term can refer to a variety of things including a range of Afro-Cuban music and dances.  The Rumba danced in Cuba today, and even the Rumba danced recreationally in the United States, differ significantly from the Rumba of competitive ballroom dancing. Early Rumba was fast and wild with lots of improvisation and individual expression. In ballroom culture today, Rumba is more refined, stylized, and sedate. Ballroom Rumba is actually an adaptation of the Cuban dance called the Son, which is slower and uses smaller steps and more subtle hip movement. With a little modification, the Son became the Rumba of modern ballroom dancing. It became popular in the United States during Prohibition when Americans ventured to Cuban in search of debauchery and often visited cafes and theatres that featured short, crude plays and Rumba and Son dancing. The dancing utilized varying degrees of sexual flirtation and pursuit / rejection between partners.

    The Steps

    Rumba is predicated on the basic box step. It follows 4/4 timing with the syncopation of: slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick. The first count of each measure is reserved for hip movement and spiral turns, while steps are  taken on beats two, three, and four. The couple remains “on-spot” and counting correctly is essential.


    In the mid 1950’s Mambo was popular in the United States and dancers responded to the jaunty triple-note beat in the midst of the slower-paced music. Cha-cha (originally called the Cha-cha-cha) sprung from the three quick steps dancers performed to that beat.

    The Steps

    The Cha-cha is performed in 4/4 time with two long steps followed by three short, quick steps and a half beat hold: slow, slow, quick-quick-quick-hold, slow, slow, quick-quick-quick…


    Swing dancing sprung from the evolution of jazz music in the United States in the 1920’s. Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom was an infamous hotspot for dance enthusiasts and legendary Big Band and jazz musicians. It was the era of “Swinging Jazz” and the response by dancers was enormous! Although it first encountered resistance by the traditional dance community, by the 1940’s Swing dancing received attention from Arthur Murray, who instructed each of his dance studios to observe the dance in local clubs and begin teaching it. As a result, different variants of Swing were taught across the country.

    Through the decades Swing dancing accommodated itself to a variety of  musical styles: Jazz, BeBop, Rock, Rhythm and Blues, Disco, Country. New, slightly altered versions emerged in different regions of the country.  In the late 1950's "American Bandstand” and other programs awakened the Swing craze in a country full of teenagers.

    The Steps

    Competitions feature East Coast Swing, which is an on-spot dance in ¾ time that uses two slow lateral steps and one quick rock-back step: slow, slow, quick-quick… Embellishments such as underarm twirls are executed during the rock-back step.


    Popular styles of swing include:

    • Savoy Swing: Danced to “swinging jazz” music in the 30's and 40's and developed in the Savoy Ballroom. The Savoy style is a very fast, jumpy, and improvisational.
    • Lindy: Slower and more fluid style of swing.
    • West Coast Swing: Developed in California ballroom in the 30’2 and 40’s. Features a fast pace and intricate footwork.
    • East Coast Swing: a 6 count style of Lindy popular in the ballroom dance school organizations.
    • Jive: This is the International version of East Coast Swing and is the swing style used in competition both in the US and worldwide.