BackWaltz Steps

Beauty and the BeastOh no, not a waltz!  Let's sit this one out: I've got the wrong number of legs for it.  I can't waltz — or I don't want to waltz; it makes the backs of my legs ache.

I'll grant you that some Folk dances in waltz time aren't much good; I don't think ladies chains and right & left throughs work all that well, and “Streets of Laredo” is possibly the worst dance I've ever done — even Pat Shaw had his failures.  But there are some beautiful dances in waltz time, and I've become much more keen on waltz dances once I discovered I could waltz after all!  The other aspect of course is a free waltz — no caller, just you and your partner.  If you go to a contra dance or an English (Playford-style) dance in the States they always finish with a waltz; at some places the dancers demand a waltz at the end of the first half too, and they're all out there doing it and loving it.  They'd be appalled at the idea of finishing with a polka the way we often (used to) do in England!

  I get people into a circle, with a partner, and then I stand in the middle while explaining this, turning round every so often so that I don't always have my back to the same people.  And I do it without a microphone — that makes it more likely that people will actually listen!

When people say “I can't waltz”, they're probably thinking back to their ballroom dancing days.  But a ballroom waltz is quite a different animal from a country dance waltz.  For one thing, it's a lot slower.  For another, you spend almost the whole time in ballroom position.  But the crucial difference is that a ballroom waltz is made up of three steps.  The man steps forward, putting his right leg between his partner's legs, then he takes his left leg forward and to the side, then he closes right to left.  In the next bar he steps backward on his left, and it's the lady's turn to step forward on the right.

Roger Harrer from Idaho points out that he's always been taught that the man starts with his left foot, and indeed I looked at a number of YouTube videos of the waltz step and only found one where the man starts with the right foot — and YouTube says that one isn't available any more!  But since then Roger has found several references on-line to the man starting on the right foot, so it's not that clear-cut!  Never mind: that's not the kind of waltz I'm talking about, and in fact the folk waltz does usually start on the man's left foot.

The folk waltz is quite different; it's sometimes described as a “one-step waltz”.  You still do three steps, but the second and third are pretty much on the spot; the first step is where you do most of the travelling.  It really isn't forward-side-together; it's step-two-three, step-two-three.  If you concentrate on the first step and let the other two just happen, you'll find the whole thing much easier.  Turn your shoulders and your feet will follow — it sounds silly, but it's absolutely true.

But make sure you actually do all three steps, even if 2 and 3 are just a transfer of weight.  I've seen people (men actually) who instead of 1-2-3, 1-2-3 do right-left-pause, right-left-pause — that's not a waltz, it's a limp.  And other men who are obviously thinking: “I hate waltz dances — I hate everything about them — I will not walk in time with the music — I'll pretend it's a reel instead.”

I go down onto a flat foot for beat 1, and up on the toes for beats 2 and 3, but I don't know whether a real expert would agree with that or would be on the toes the whole time.

  So let's try that to music.  Four waltz steps for each of these moves: Circle left.  Circle right.  In to the middle.  Back out.  Circle left.  Right-hand turn your partner.  Left-hand turn your corner.  Two-hand turn your partner.  That should be 32 bars — once through the tune.

A lot of waltz dances — “Nan's Waltz”, “Waltz Country Dance”, “Maggie's Waltz Square”, “Circle Waltz” “The Ely Waltz” — have various figures and then finish with waltzing round in a ballroom hold.  If you happen to dance Waltz Cotillion there's a great deal of that.  And at the end of an evening the band may play for a free waltz.  This is where the men really panic, because they're supposed to be dancing with someone.  So here are four bits of advice, chaps:

For years I used to tell people I was no good at waltzing.  I would call “Circle Waltz” at a Barn Dance and when it came to the final waltz around I'd say “If you can't waltz, just bluff like I do”.  But then several women in a short period told me I was a good waltzer, and I began to feel much happier about it.  I can't compete with some of the men in the States though — they are just amazing.

  For waltzing round, practice setting on the spot.  Now rotate as you do it.  Now with a partner.

Some waltz dances which I particularly like are:

The Bonny CuckooGail TicknorGail's Maggots
Margaret's WaltzPat ShawPat Shaw Collection
Waterfall WaltzPat ShawPat Shaw Collection
Miss de Jersey's MemorialPat ShawPat Shaw Collection
Turn of the TideRon CoxallRoles
Circle WaltzTraditionalCDM2
When Laura SmilesOrly KrasnerED&S
AlicePhilippe CallensAntwerp Antics
An Enchanted PlaceAntony HeywoodDutch Crossing
Emma's WaltzColin HumeThis website

Orly Krasner read this and was surprised (but pleased) that I'd put “When Laura Smiles” in this list, since she sees it as a three-time dance but not a waltz.  I don't think it's always black and white; there are dances which are certainly waltzes and dances which are certainly not, but there's a grey area in the middle.  My dance “Elizabeth” is popular in the States as a waltz dance, but when I wrote and tried out the dance it never occurred to me that anyone would do it at waltz speed!

Gene Murrow points out that the travelling waltz needs to go at a slower tempo than the ballroom position free waltz, and bands in both England and America play too fast, causing people to take little mincing steps or give up altogether.  The correct tempo makes dances like “Margaret's Waltz” work (ladies chain and all), and has a lot to do with dancers' enjoyment of a waltz country dance.

Brad Foster and many other leaders in the States teach that a waltz is three equal steps, which I totally disagree with, as did Wendy Crouch.  I said as much on the ECD List in 2020 when we were discussing favourite neglected dances and Victoria Bestock made the point that in White Wheat many people cannot manage four steps for the corners crossing and everyone is getting into the stars a bar early.  Bruce Hamilton agreed.

Lucy Weinstein said:

In the New York dance community, we were taught, as Colin says, to do the waltz step as long-short-short.  Fried Herman (and her disciples) made a big point about the difference between a waltz step, above, and a triple step (3 equal steps).  I can still hear Fried's voice admonishing us if we dared to challenge her instructions …

Graham Christian said:

Modern American dancers have the disadvantage of making big strides.  This is helpful in certain dances, but not in others.  The message we need to get across is not “get there as quickly as possible and show off how fast you can move,” but “listen to the musical phrase.”  Fried was very firm that a waltz is long-short-short, and that is absolutely what I teach, and have many times.

And Lucy added:

Exactly, Graham. But one can take big strides and still stay with the musical phrase.  Indeed, for me, there is pure ecstasy in arriving back to join my partner in the correct place exactly on the beat.  As you say, big strides are not for all dances.  Fried liked us to take up more space in many of the dances than other callers.  Of course we needed to follow the musical phrase.  (Sad that many of our dancers don't seem to hear the musical beat and/or don't seem to get the same joy as I do about arriving in the right place in time.)

And of course I agree with all of that.

Waltz Notes by John Wells and Ann Fallon


I was in the States at the Winter Dance Week at Brasstown, North Carolina in 1995 (an event which I highly recommend), and on the staff were John Wells and Ann Fallon teaching a Waltz Class each day — now that's something I've never heard of in England.  A few years later, when Renata and I were at Buffalo Gap on our honeymoon, we again went along to a Waltz Class for an hour a day.  We learnt all sorts of fancy moves, many of which we've now forgotten, but I find I get up with much more confidence to do a waltz now.

John and Ann have kindly allowed me to publish their notes here.  I've modified them and changed bits I didn't understand, so you can blame me too!  They explain the basic waltz step and then move on to the clever stuff, so if there's a waltz at the end of the evening you and your partner can impress the crowd!  If you want to book them to run a waltz class, their contact information is at the end.  One particularly impressive move is the Pivot, in which you do six full steps, turning on each.  Get in really close, warn your partner that you're going to do it — then get up on your toes and go for it.  It's something you cannot be tentative about — you've got to do it with confidence.  You should turn round completely twice in the six steps, and be ready to set off in the direction you were going.  Or you'll both be lying on the floor!

I should mention that Paul and Victoria Bestock strongly disagree with the bit about the woman's arm position.  They feel that the woman will be dragging the man down, and he will not enjoy waltzing with her.  They recommend the woman to put her left arm under and in contact with his right arm, matching the curve, and placing her hand behind his back, on his shoulder blade.  This allows both partners to give weight, support and balance each other, and it makes turning much easier and more equal.

Posture and position

Your bodies should form a “V”, with feet very close together, in between partner's feet.  The Woman's left arm should rest on the Man's right arm.  Man's hand and wrist should be as flat as possible near upper center of partner's back.  This is extremely important, as this connection is where the Man or leader signals his lead.

Measures of music

Each waltz step uses one three-count measure of music (1, 2, 3), but try to think in terms of 6 — two measures.  Man begins on left foot, Woman on right.  These are referred to as the “first foot”.  So two measures would be counted:

                1  (first foot),  2,  3;  2  (second foot),  2,  3.

Turning Step

Ideally, one complete rotation is accomplished in two measures or two waltz steps.  After the end of the second waltz step, you are facing the direction you were before you began turning, with the Man facing towards LOD (line of dance).  Step into partner's place as you turn.  Man's first step is around partner; on the second step, Woman steps around partner.  Turn with confidence.  It's important to give weight and support when turning.  If it's too hard to do a full rotation in two waltz steps, try breaking it down into quarter turns, thus taking four waltz steps for the complete rotation.

Giving Weight

It's important, when turning, for each to give weight.  When moving straight, Woman can give weight by making sure she is leaning into partner's right hand (without making him “carry” her).  It's okay to ask verbally for weight, if you need to.


Most of the waltzes played at contra dances or elsewhere are written in eight-bar (measure) phrases.  Most of the choreography shown here is done in groups of eight measures or eight waltz steps, so that a move can be begun and completed in one or maybe two eight-bar phrases.

Open position

Open position is with Man's arm round Woman's waist, Woman's hand on Man's nearer shoulder — you must open out like a book or a hinge.  The lead comes from the Man's right arm.

Man signals the opening out just before beginning the second step, and must drop his right arm and “turn” the Woman with the palm of his hand, to guide her into the open position.  The strong hinge connection made by Man's right arm and Woman's left arm is very important here, and is still maintained after the opening out.

Suggested sequence:

While in Open position, Man can pass the Woman across to his other side and they can promenade improper for a few measures.  Man can then pass the Woman back and at the same time move into ballroom position.

Cape position

Cape position is with both dancers facing the same way, Man on the left, right hand joined to right and left hand joined to left — like a matador with a cape.  The man's left hand is behind the lady's back.  Also known as “Butterfly hold” and “Gay Gordons hold”.

Suggested sequence:

Optical Illusion

This one is easier than it looks, and should leave people saying: “Wow!  How did they do that?”

When you are both on your second foot (inside foot for both) the Man steps across in front of the Woman, gently “forcing” her to turn with him, until they have turned 360°, but Woman is on the Man's left.  It takes two steps to complete that turn, then the Man can waltz in place, guide the Woman across in front of him, to his right side.  Man should keep his hands directly over Woman's shoulders during the turn, so that the steps, and therefore the turn, will be small or tight.

Suggested sequence:


The windows step can begin on either right or left foot, and it's easiest to begin from Cape position.  It's difficult to describe the arm movements.  The windows step begins with a turn to the outside, Woman turning away from partner.  It's about 1½ turns around for the Woman, while the Man dances in place.  Partners do not “change” hands, they remain right-to-right, and left-to-left, but handhold must be loose in order for Woman to be able to turn freely.  Keep both hands high.  In the “right” window, the window is opened at the end of the two turns by bringing the joined left hands down to rest on the adjacent right arms, which compose the window sill.  You can get back to Cape position by turning in the opposite direction; when you reach Cape position the Woman can continue to turn towards the left, again about 1½ times, to make a window on the left.  The joined right hands are brought to rest on the left arms, which make the window-sill.

Suggested sequence:


Reverse position

Reverse position is where the dancers are facing in opposite directions: Right Reverse position means they are right shoulder to right.


You travel in a saw-tooth pattern, at about a 45° angle in line of dance.  It's important to keep moving in line of dance.

Suggested sequence:

Easy Scissors


The emphasis is on stepping into partner's place, and turning further in the same amount of time.  We like to pivot at the end of an 8-count phrase, ideally doing 2 pivot steps on counts 7 & 8.  The lead is a shift in weight or a “tightening” of the connection between you and your partner, because this turn requires more support.  Coming out of the pivot, do a slight pause before the first beat of measure One (hang there) to tell partner you're not going to pivot again — she can feel it.

Reverse Turn

When turning counter-clockwise, you must be confident of your ability to step forward between partner's feet.  It's tighter than in the clockwise turn because you are not stepping around on the first, or lead foot, but rather, back for Man and forward for Woman.

Suggested sequence:

Small-Caldwell Turn

This is best when done at the end of a phrase of turning steps, on measures 7 and 8.  This is a solo outside turn for the woman, mainly done on measure 8.  On beat Three of measure 7, Man begins to lead Woman to outside turn by disengaging his left hand from her right, and by movement of the palm of his right hand, to indicate an outside turn.  The Woman thus actually begins the turn on her first, or right foot, at the end of beat Three.  On beat One of 8, the Woman continues the turn, taking care to make it tight and small — which is helped by raising her left arm and keeping it close to her body.  Meanwhile, the Man dances forward to “catch” the Woman at the end of the turn, on beat Three of 8, in such a way as to continue turning on Measure 1 of the next phrase.

John Wells and Ann Fallon         You must enable JavaScript to see this email address.
11 Tucker Street
MD 21401

Telephone: 1-410-268-0231

If you want to learn more, there are many resources on the web.  Richard Powers gives a demonstration of cross-step waltz at syllabi/cross-step_waltz.htm

On Thursday, July 13, 2006, ashley from united states of america wrote:
this is a great site but alittle would be better if you had visuals.

On Sunday, July 30, 2006, Colin Hume from Letchworth, England wrote:
I'm sure you're right Ashley, but it would be an awful lot of work!  Are there any particular parts that you find confusing?
On Friday, December 22, 2006, willie from Cape Town    South Africa wrote:
Reading the instructions for the tricky waltz steps it would be nice to have a grapic of the movements (picture of feet and arrows)
Cant wait to try some of the moves
On Friday, March 2, 2007, r de paoli from london      UK wrote:
Sorry to say this. Just too many words.
No footprints
No guide arrows.
No photos.
No video.
No nothing.
To trawl thro' all those long descriptions is far too tedious.
I read 5/6 lines and gave up.

On Monday, October 25, 2010, O Tempora from Penn., USA wrote:
I'm hesitant to look askance at any help, but... as a newbie dancer it's exciting to see so many options (all I know right now is Box), yet not understand how to position my feet -- or my wife's -- to do them.  I'd be glad to do some graphics if I understood.  Regardless, I thank you for your effort.
On Friday, December 3, 2010, Yvonne from United Kingdom wrote:
I actually thought the descriptions were good - good on line resource for dance teachers, as there were some hints and tips in there I did not know.
On Friday, December 3, 2010, Colin Hume from Letchworth wrote:
Yvonne -

Thanks very much.  I know other people have said that there should be diagrams and videos, but no-one's paying me to do this!

On Friday, June 17, 2011, Donna Howell from New Mexico wrote:
Why oh why don't you just describe a waltz basic as 123, 456? In every other couple dance form we describe a basic as the steps you need to do in order to get back on your first foot again...thus 123 is NOT a basic, but more important, if you teach folks to count a waltz as 123, 123, you're hobbling the men from ever learning to lead. For instance, a simple outside turn for the woman (underarm turn to her right), if lead on a 1, has her logically and gracefully using her right foot to step around to her right. IF its led on a 4 (the second 123), the woman must turn right by corkscrewing her left leg around her right. The guy wonders why sometimes his partner turns beautifully and sometimes she turns like she's drunk. Certain moves are more comfortably led on 1's, others on 4's. Basic waltz may be 123,123 to musicians, but for us dancers a waltz basic is and will always be 123, 456. Dancers, in a very short time, learn to hear and think in 6s and will be able to distinguish a 1 from a 4 in the music.
On Friday, June 24, 2011, Colin Hume from Letchworth wrote:
Donna -

In my own set of notes I'm not talking about outside turns or other couple dance moves; I'm talking about Folk Dances (or Country Dances as they say in The States).  When we come to the Waltz Notes by John Wells and Ann Fallon, which ARE talking about couple dancing, they say in the introduction "Each waltz step uses one three-count measure of music (1, 2, 3), but try to think in terms of 6 - two measures."
On Saturday, June 25, 2011, Brock MacDonald from Canada wrote:
Great site! I really appreciate it. any chance there could be some foot steps illustrations or something for the more complicated one? and I'm a little confused what her and my free hands are suppose to do when she spins and how we get our hands together for the cape. It has and will continue to help me grow in my waltzing abilities. Many thanks again


On Sunday, June 26, 2011, Colin Hume from Letchworth wrote:
Brock -

I'm glad you like the site.  Other people have made similar requests about foot illustrations, but I just haven't had time!

Twirling into Cape position: You have left hand joined to her right hand, so you raise your right hand so that you can switch hands at the end of the move, then your left hand is free to take her left hand.

On Monday, August 22, 2011, Mark Fisher from United States wrote:
Lovely Article.  I TOTALLY agree with your description of the Country Waltz style.  That is what I do.  My waltz is a melange of Country Waltzes (i.e., from Contra Dancing, etc.); Cajun Waltzes; Country Western Waltzes; some Ballroom moves but NOT the form :); Cross Step Waltz moves; and anything else I can think of!  :) It is a really liberating experience.  You simply feel the music and flow with it.  Ballroom purists may carp about the lack of form.  That's OK.  Let them.  :)

I do wish to echo the comment re utilizing the 123 456 step sequence.  This really and truly helps both partners keep matters straight.  When I took notes (usually use a video camera now), I found it much easier to simply put down: 1...; 2....; etc.  You "know" 1 is M's L and L's R; 2 is M's R and L's L; etc, etc.
On Monday, July 13, 2015, Stella Sklar from Arlington, Va wrote:
It would be super helpful if there were video clips or images of each of the steps/positions. 
On Thursday, June 29, 2023, Keith  from Ny wrote:
This not a comment but a question.
Many years back I did a waltz move with my late wife. Di c we mahe up the move or is it in the syllabus?
Iaz I placed her in to cape position i did a foot change. Now we are dancing on the same foot.  I lead her forward as I step behind her
Next, on the stride I lower our hands about wouldn't height (give or take). Then on the 2,3 i bring both hands above her head and she does a full turn like a music box ballerina.
Note she is facing LOD before and after the nove.and itself prep and turn are done in 1/2 a basic.
Does this move have a name?