I have written several articles in the past describing the characteristics of the various ballroom dances but I haven't talked about how these characteristics are created. The characteristics I am talking about are the swooping up and down movement of Waltz, the swaying horizontal rotating movement of Viennese Waltz, the powerful staccato movement of Tango, the very smooth continuous movement of Foxtrot, the slow powerful romantic movement of Rumba, the fast and sassy movement of Cha Cha, etc.
In standardized American Style Ballroom dancing as well as in International Style, the elements/patterns are designed for music at a defined range of tempos for that specific dance. When the tempo is too fast or too slow for a particular dance, it is difficult to develop the characteristics that are unique for that dance.
It is very important that the dancer understands how the dance works mechanically as opposed to watching and trying to imitate the movement. There is a lot of illusion in ballroom dancing. The way you think you see how it works and the way it actually works can be very different.
The characteristics of American Style Slow Waltz is a swooping up and down movement. The illusion is that Waltz travels horizontally down the floor on each step. The reality is that you travel horizontally on the first step and travel up and down on steps two and three. Basically, the first step forward (by the leader or follower) is a heel step that creates the power for steps two and three. I like to describe this action as "power and glide". The up and down movement is created by rising through the feet (ankles), through the legs (knees) and through the body (stretching the torso upwards). Silver Waltz and above has what is described as "delayed rise". Beginning Waltz rises between the one and two beats. Silver Waltz and above rises at the end of the two beat (delayed rise). Waltz footwork is generally described as "Heel, Toe, Toe" when moving forward. The term "Toe" in this case actually means "Ball". Be careful because these terms are used interchangeably by many instructors. Generally speaking, rise happens through the ankle, knee and body all at the same time. The fall (lowering), however, happens first through the ankle, then the knee, followed by the body (this is a very serial vertical movement). There is little horizontal movement during rise and fall. This creates the classic up and down movement of Slow Waltz.
The characteristics of Viennese Waltz is a flat, swaying, rotating movement around the floor. Unlike Slow Waltz, Viennese Waltz has no rise and fall. The foot work is described as "Heel, Ball, Flat" when moving forward. The 1st step is a "Heel" that supplies the power for the element. The 2nd step is a "Ball" step that creates a long leg that causes the "Swaying" action. The 3rd step slides under the body "Flat". There is no spinning in Viennese Waltz. Just a series of 180 degree rotations down the floor. The rotation is created through the muscles of the supporting leg and foot placements. There is NO foot swivel in Viennese Waltz and the tempo of the music is almost double that of Slow Waltz. Viennese Waltz travels on the 1st step and rotates on the 2nd and 3rd steps. It feels like "travel and stop to rotate". You don't want to be traveling very much during the rotation.
The characteristics of American Style Tango is a very connected, powerful and pulsing (staccato) movement. Tango has no rise and fall and is danced with bent knees. The forward foot steps are almost exclusively "Heels". At the higher levels of Tango, there is a lot of contact in the legs. Many instructors teach Tango with no leg connection because the leg connection is so hard to teach. I call this style "Foxtrot Tango" because it results in a smooth not pulsing movement. I teach what feels the best and is the best interpretation of the characteristic of the dance no matter how hard it is to teach. The pulsing action is created primarily during the "slows". The body surges ahead to a complete weight change on the 1st beat of the slow and the trailing leg closes on the 2nd beat of the slow.
The characteristics of American Style Slow Foxtrot is a very smooth, continuous, flat, controlled movement. I believe that Slow Foxtrot is the hardest of all ballroom dances because it takes so much control to dance it properly. I am only going to talk about the Silver level and above of Foxtrot here. Foxtrot has no rise or fall that reaches the body of the dancer. The body does not go up and down. The foot work for forward movement is "Heel", "Ball", "Ball". The ankle movement during the "Ball" steps are absorbed in the legs (knees) to neutralize any up and down movement of the body. Technically there is rise and fall in the foot (ankle) but no where else.
The Latin/Cuban motion of the Rhythm/Latin dances are basically the same. The characteristics of the dances are primarily developed by the tempo of the music and the rhythm of the dances. For example the rhythm of American Style Rumba is: "Slow, Quick, Quick" (3 steps); Cha Cha is: "1, 2, 3, 4 &" (5 steps); Samba is: "1, ah, 2" (3 steps). Samba is slightly different because it has a Lifting action and a Pendulum feeling. Latin/Cuban motion implies foot work of "Ball/Flat" steps.
I have given you a very basic description of how the characteristics of some of the ballroom dances are created. Each of all the ballroom dances have their own unique feel and personality. Your goal should be: "If a completely deaf person is watching you dance, he/she should be able to tell what dance you are doing by the way you move".