I know that all of you have heard your dance instructor talk about footwork during your dance lessons. When you start dancing, footwork seems to be the least of your concerns. At the higher levels of dancing, however, footwork becomes very important. Footwork is instrumental in determining the character of a particular dance, controlling movement and is very important in the process of lead and follow.
Footwork basically defines how the foot strikes the floor. If you were to walk forward naturally down the floor, your heel would be the first part of your foot to hit the floor. This is called a "heel lead". However, it gets more technical than that. There are "inside edge", "outside edge" and "straight" heels steps. There are also "inside edge", "outside edge" and "straight" "toe" steps and transition steps from "heel to flat to ball" and "ball to flat" and "ball to flat to heel" (stepping backwards). A "toe" usually refers to the edges of the front part of the shoe. The "ball" generally refers to the sole of the front part of the shoe. For example, "rise" in Waltz is on the "ball" of the foot. The term "rise" implies "ball" footwork and the term "fall" implies "flat" footwork. A ballerina on point would illustrate being on the "toe" of the shoe. Sometimes instructors use the terms "ball" and "toe" interchangeably. When taking lessons, make sure you know exactly what the instructor is trying to communicate.
Footwork is determined primarily by body position. In the competition world, judges often watch the feet to determine if the dancer's body is in the correct position. The dancer's costumes (dresses, tails, etc.) can keep the dancers bodies from being seen. For example, an inside or outside edge heel is the result of the correct body position of dancers moving forward in the promenade position.Many group lesson instructors don't talk too much about footwork because they think it is too technical. I personally like to teach footwork because it is so important to good dancing and it creates the specific character of the dance. The footwork (rise and fall) in a Waltz basic box pattern makes the student feel like he/she is actually waltzing not just walking through steps. The rise and fall in Waltz also helps the partner feel the weight changes and makes following easier. The rise in American Style Silver Waltz allows "leg swing" to occur during the second step of an "open left turn". It is hard to tell a Silver Foxtrot from a Silver Waltz when the "rise and fall" is incorrect or doesn't exist.
American Style Silver Waltz is danced with what is called delayed "rise" in it's footwork. This means that normally "rise" occurs at the end of the two beat instead of at the beginning of the two beat. There are exceptions of course. One of the main differences between the lead in a Back Hover (Hover 3) and a Back Whisk is the timing of the "rise" on the second step. The Whisk has "immediate rise" on the two beat instead of "delayed rise".
Quickstep has an interesting use of the ball step (rise). Quickstep is a rather fast dance, therefore, changing directions becomes more of a challenge. Lets look at a "quarter turn" pattern from the leaders point of view. It's a simple pattern: (S,Q,Q,S) forward diagonal wall, side together facing wall, backward diagonal center. The footwork is: heel-ball, ball, ball, ball-flat. The momentum of the "forward step" allows the dancer to have a slight backward feeling on the "ball, ball, chasse steps" which results in a controlled fall on the "backward step". This makes direction changes easy and controlled.
The Viennese Waltz footwork for a 1,2,3 "Open Left Turn" (leader's point of view) is "heel-flat", "ball", "flat". This footwork minimizes Slow Waltz type rise and fall and creates more "sway". Viennese Waltz is another rather fast dance and there is no time for rise and fall.
Footwork is just as important in Latin/Rhythm dances. Latin/Cuban motion is based on the use of "inside-edge toe" steps both forward and backward. The footwork is basically "inside-edge toe" to "flat" steps. This allows the ankles to be the driving force for the Latin movement. The footwork for all of the Latin/Rhythm dances is basically the same, the major difference between the dances is the rhythm and speed of the music. There are no "heel steps" in the Latin/Rhythm dances.
The above is just a very small sample of how footwork is used to accomplish various types of movement. Without the correct footwork, all of the dances pretty much look the same. I hope you realize how important foot work is to precise and controlled movement and how it determines the unique character of each dance. I always tell my students: "If a completely deaf person were to watch you dance, they should be able to tell what dance you are dancing by the way you are moving".