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The language of Strictly Come Dancing

The language of Strictly Come Dancing

If, like me, you spend your Saturday evenings with a bottle of red, agonizing over Sophie’s samba or Fiona’s foxtrot on Strictly Come Dancing, or wait impatiently for it when it’s not on, then… you should find the nearest mirror and take a long, hard look at yourself. You also sound like you would be my dream dance partner so join me and we can waltz through the language of Ballroom and Latin-American dancing together.


Ahh the waltz. Done properly and it will make even the coldest hearts melt. Done poorly and critics like Craig Revel Horwood will describe it using one, fatal word. The waltz is defined in Oxford Dictionaries as: “a dance in triple time performed by a couple, who turn rhythmically round and round as they progress around the dance floor.” The first recorded use of the word ‘waltz’ is listed in the OED as 1781, noting that it was “a favourite German dance”. If you’re going to become a waltz aficionado, first you need to master the box step. This is the first, basic Waltz step and is so-called because the pattern your feet make while dancing resembles a square box shape.


Compared to the waltz, the foxtrot is a relatively new ballroom dance, and is characterized by long, flowing movements across the dance floor using steps such as forward basics, reverse turns, and feather finishes. The dance premiered in 1914 in USA, and the first recorded use of the dance ‘foxtrot’ in the OED is as early as 1915. The most prominent theory for how the foxtrot acquired its peculiar name is that it was named after the vaudeville actor, Harry Fox, who popularized the fox-trot steps in the 1910s. Originally, the foxtrot was danced to ragtime music, but when rock’n’roll burst onto the scene in the 1950’s, rock labels such as Decca Records released their rock songs as ‘foxtrots’ such was the popularity of the dance amongst the younger generation. In fact, the foxtrot is widely considered to have been the most popular American dance from the 1910s until the 1970s. Recently, the foxtrot has split into two forms – the classic foxtrot and the speedier quickstep – both of which feature on Strictly Come Dancing.

Latin Dances

You’re a party person. Latin Dancing is in your blood. I can see it in your eyes. Let’s therefore skip past Ballroom, and move on to some Latin-American dances.

Although Latin dances such as the rumba, the samba, and the cha-cha are equally as fun to do as to say out loud, the Latin style of dancing is very strict and tends to be more structured and based on technical ability and sharp, crisp lines compared to Ballroom dances. Timing and musicality is crucial in these dances as the accent is often on the first beat or, in the case with the samba, on the downbeat. You will also need fluid, swaying hip movements and a bounce in your feet to get those 10/10 scores on a Saturday night.

The first recorded use of the word ‘tango’ in the OED demonstrates that, at first, it was derided as being a ‘vulgar’ dance. It was a smorgasbord of cultures that influenced the inception of the tango in late 19th-century Buenos Aires. Indian rhythms, African drums, and Latin-American passion are all evident in the traditional music which accompanies the dance. It’s just one of many that contestants have to master if they want to aim for the Glitter Ball and avoid ending up in the proverbial gutter.

The tango may be a Latin dance at heart, but it is actually the European, Ballroom version that is danced on Strictly Come Dancing each week. The African drums that punctuate this sensual dance, the ‘tan-go’ rhythm of the beat, are also the root of its name. In the midst of such a passionate dance, it is easy to loosen your grip on dance terminology. Have you ever criticized a celebrity for an atrocious heel turn only to later discover that you meant to say heel lead? I have and will never get over the embarrassment I caused my family. Now armed with a better understanding of Strictly Come Dancing lingo, perhaps now is the time for you to try to replicate some of the moves themselves? I once tried an Aleesha Dixon-inspired cha-cha-cha but the less said about that the better.


Like a sequin or two on your ballgown? Of course you do, squire. For many people, the staggering popularity of prime-time show Strictly Come Dancing is not simply down to the dancing. The spectacle also extends to the dresses that barely cover the female dancers and the shirts that definitely do not cover the torsos of the male dancers. For these people, and for all those girls who attempt inappropriate dances on a Saturday night in even less appropriate footwear, I offer the following anecdote on the etymology of the word ‘stiletto’:

The term ‘stiletto’ is first cited in English in the OED in 1611 but it isn’t until the early 1950s that it was used to describe a type of high-heeled shoe. It originally meant ‘a short dagger with a thick blade’, coming from the Italian diminutive of stilo, meaning ‘dagger’ (in turn from Latin stilus, meaning ‘pointed instrument, especially one used for writing’).

I hope you enjoyed our quickstep through the history of some of the key dancing terms used on Strictly Come Dancing and that it has inspired you to “keeeeeep dancing”. It’s been nice to see you, to see you nice.

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