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At times as foggy as the marine layer that rolls over the Southern California coastline, the history of the Balboa, affectionately called “Bal,” is shrouded in mystery. According to Dan Guest, dancers have speculated it grew out of Foxtrot, Charleston, Collegiate Shag, and even Rhumba. Balboa now generally refers to a swing dance that originated in Southern California in the early decades of the twentieth century with origins likely reaching back to the twentieth century’s teen years.
Named for Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula in Southern California, Balboa found its center at the Balboa Pavilion and then the Rendezvous Ballroom when it opened in 1928 (read more on the history of the striking Balboa Pavilion here). Reaching the height of its popularity in the 1930s, this umbrella term is often used to encompass Pure Balboa, which is danced in close embrace, as well as the combination of So-Cal Swing and Balboa called Bal-Swing, which features a broader range of holds and thus a wider variety of moves.
In the 1980s, Balboa was revived as Marge Talkier organized dances bringing together many of the original Balboa dancers in Southern California with new generations of dancers, and it has again become a popular dance nationwide, especially in the swing community.
The most striking characteristics of the Balboa are its upright posture, close embrace hold, and speed. Similar to the posture of 1920s Charleston or Collegiate Shag, Balboa emphasizes the upward line of the body over the grounded aesthetic of Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing, or modern Charleston.
While dancers in Bal-Swing can break from close embrace, Pure Balboa is danced solely chest-to-chest, making it ideal for crowded ballrooms that don’t have space for a Lindy swing out. Balboa’s hold also allows for a strong lead-follow connection so that follows can feel the subtle weight changes in the dance, and this intimacy is one of the great draws of this dance.
When dancing Balboa, most dancers focus on minimizing upper body movement and gliding across the floor, and this gives the dance a smooth. The footwork often remains close to the floor with sliding, gliding, and shuffling. Although speed is not a necessary component of Balboa, it is typically a hallmark of the dance, and the small, controlled steps are ideally suited to it.
Like Lindy Hop, Balboa is typically danced to swing music. While Pure Balboa focuses more on subtle weight changes, Bal-Swing offers more space both literally and figuratively to interpret and improvise with the music because it does not need to remain chest-to-chest. Either Pure Balboa or Bal-Swing works well at very fast speeds because of the step size and simplicity of movement, and it can even be danced to songs over 300 bpm. Step patterns are danced in eight counts, and time signatures for are typically 2/4 or 4/4.