Our first free couple’s class in the Downtown Memphis Commission Sunken Mall was a hit! (The decorating plans not so much. Outdoors. Candles. Breezes. Should have seen that coming.) Four intrepid couples came out for some dancing and romancing. We started smooth and sweet with slow lounge, and then kicked it up a notch with some push-pull swing. There were lots of smiles, a few missteps, some pretty good dancing, and no broken toes. I call that a win!
Just exercising common courtesy will go a long way on the dance floor, but there are a few ballroom specific things you might want to know.
Navigating the Floor
First of all, where should you be on the floor? For spot dances (swing, rumba, etc.) it really doesn’t matter. Any open space is fine (*usually). But for travelling dances (waltz, foxtrot, etc.) there is a structure similar to a racetrack. If you aren’t moving at all, stay in the center. Move out a little when you are ready to progress and utilize the periphery when you have the skill to move quickly and navigate effectively. And always keep in mind that the flow is counterclockwise, so you don’t end up going the wrong way on a one-way street. [*Some songs are appropriate for multiple dances, so even if you are doing a spot dance, be aware if others are travelling. In other words, don’t do swing in the foxtrot lane.]
Asking For/Accepting a Dance
It is a convention when at a ballroom event to dance with a variety of partners. This is partly to ensure that everyone has a good time, and partly to improve your own dancing. You can dance with more accomplished partners to elevate your own skills, then pay it back by dancing with the less experienced. If you are part of a group, try to dance with everyone at least once. If you’re on your own, spend some of your dances on the wallflowers. Not only is it kind, but you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the experience. You don’t need to avoid approaching someone who is clearly part of a couple, but it is generally a good idea to ask their partner if they mind. Most don’t, but it’s better to ask. And if you are the one being asked, say yes unless there is a compelling reason not to. You don’t have to subject yourself to a partner that is known to be handsy or has extreme body odor, but don’t reject someone because they are inexperienced, socially awkward, or not part of your immediate circle. Again, you might be surprised.
Once you have asked someone to dance you should escort them onto the floor and back off again afterward. Simply walking away and leaving someone standing alone on the floor is rude and probably won’t get you many second dances. When the music ends, thank your partner, offer your arm, and return them to their seat. You may be a little less formal with someone you know well and dance with often, but it’s always appropriate to show appreciation for your partner.
Always strive to complement your partner. For the leader that means not being rough or trying to force patterns far beyond your partners current capabilities. Making someone look good and feel comfortable is far more effective than showing off every move you know on someone who isn’t ready for them. Being able to assess a partner’s competency is a valuable skill, and dancing at (or slightly above) their level will make them feel accomplished and you look like a good leader.
As for followers, they should follow. It may be tempting to try and anticipate your partner’s next move. It’s also hard to resist “helping” a leader who seems to be struggling. Neither makes you or your partner a better dancer. Also, avoid breaking out things like dramatic styling or advanced syncopations on inexperienced partners. It will confuse and short-circuit them. Instead, concentrate on perfecting the basics and save the frills for someone who can match and appreciate them.
And no matter what, avoid blaming and complaining. Even if you’re right, it won’t make you very popular. It’s far too common (and a particular pet peeve of mine) to hear weak dancers complaining about the perceived inadequacies of their partners. You will always be sought-after and admired if you concentrate on improving your own skill and are generally kind and encouraging to others.
Save the tricks for performances. Full body drops, lifts, and the like have no place in social dancing. That kind of behavior is potentially dangerous, intimidates beginners, and irritates experienced dancers. If you’re truly a good dancer, you don’t need to prove it by slinging someone over your head on a crowded floor.
Even the best dancers following all the rules will occasionally bump into one another. So will you. Often it is unclear who bumped into whom. Never try to assign blame. Simply say “excuse me” (or gracefully acknowledge the apology if you where clearly the bumpee) and move on. If you do encounter the rare aggressive (or oblivious) dancer that frequently plows into others, it is best to simply avoid them.
Common (Or Not) Sense
And finally, a few general guidelines that apply whether in a lesson or at a gala. They may seem like common sense, but experience tells me they still bear mentioning.
Don’t eat garlic or onions beforehand (unless everyone does), and don’t convince yourself that you can cover it up with a swig of mouthwash.
Take a shower and wear clean clothes.
Carry gum or mints.
Don’t douse yourself in cologne/perfume.
Put away the cell phone (unless you’re a surgeon or volunteer fireman on call) and pay attention to the people you’re with.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines practice as to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually or to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient. The upshot is repetition and habit. Trying to remember some steps 5 minutes before your lesson is not practice – it’s review.
Have Fun Practicing With Friends
Notice that part of the second definition above is to become proficient. That is one of the main reasons for practice. Presumably you’re taking dance lessons with the goal of becoming a good dancer, and practice is the key to success. You’ll also enjoy your lessons more because you’ll progress faster and feel a greater sense of achievement. And if your goal is specific and short term (e.g. a first dance at a wedding), you’ll save money because you’ll need fewer lessons to reach your objective.
Another important (and often underappreciated) reason for practicing is simply that it’s fun. If it’s not, then you’re taking it too seriously or you need to find another hobby.
Alone. I often hear people say they can’t practice because they don’t have a partner. I’m going to call bull on that. Sure, dancing with someone else is part of the fun and is necessary to improve your ability to lead or follow. But rhythm, timing, technique, quality of movement, body lines, and pattern recall can all be practiced on your own. That’s a lot of stuff! Take responsibility for improving your own dancing and not only will you feel pride in your accomplishments, but you’ll be a far more attractive to potential dance partners when they’re available.
With a Partner. If you do have a partner that is willing and available, then by all means take advantage of it. Now is the time to sharpen your leading or following skills. Just make sure it’s fun, because be it a friend, spouse, sibling, or whatever, a partner that has fun and feels appreciated is far more likely to want to repeat the experience.
In Your Own Head. Don’t underestimate the power of power of visualization Many elite athletes use it regularly and so can you. Fully engage your senses. Hear the music. Picture your lines. Sense your partner. Feel your muscles contract and lengthen. Done correctly visualization can be highly productive. It can also be deeply engrossing, so though you can do it anywhere (at the airport, in the grocery line, at a red light), use some common sense about when to practice in it.
Hear It, See It, Feel It
At Home. Practicing in your home is the easiest (and lowest pressure) option and probably the one you will use the most. Push back the chairs, pour a glass of wine (or not), put on some music, and have some fun.
At a Studio. Most studios have a weekly practice party, and many also organize outings for their students. There are several advantages to attending these on a regular basis. You will get the chance to practice with others that are interested in and learning the same things you are, instructors will be on hand to help if you get stuck, and the music will be varied and appropriate.
Gyms, Churches, Country Clubs, and Community Centers. Many organizations have rooms set aside for group exercise and social gatherings that are available to members when not in use. Be sure to find out what the policy is to access them, and if there are any restrictions (such as available times or types of footwear allowed), but don’t be afraid to think outside the box. More than once I’ve heard of people practicing in unused racquetball courts or park pavilions.
At Work. No, I’m not suggesting that you start slacking at work or engaging your coworkers in flash mobs. This one is best explained with a few examples from actual students that have found creative ways to fit practice into their workdays.
A couple that work in the same office use the conference room to practice during lunch. Note that people may look at you funny when you both come out rumpled and breathing hard.
A man improves his Latin motion while walking up the parking garage ramp. He says the attendants love it.
A middle school football coach practices choreography with his fiancée in the gym after school.
A blacksmith dances hustle while at the forge. I still can’t quite picture how this works, but he’s a great dancer, so it must.
On the Town. For some this is the most intimidating possibility, but if you go to a nightclub, class reunion, or wedding reception and have the opportunity to dance, then take it. Don’t worry if you don’t know much or no one else is dancing. Chances are they know even less than you do, and they’ll be impressed and curious about what you’re doing.
Make The Most Of Your Workday
As often as possible.
They May Have The Hold Backwards, But They’re Having Fun!
We didn’t know what would happen when we canceled all of our practice parties for the summer and set up a series of “road trips” instead. Turns out that what happened was some great dancing and a whole lot of fun!
I love to dance, create, and even perform (although it still gives me butterflies). But add in a willing partner who’s up for anything and a great cause like The Baddour Center, and it’s pure heaven. This year’s Dancing For Our Stars raised over $58,000! Thank you to everyone who helped with their time, talent, donations, and good wishes.
I recently read a wonderful analogy about dancing on the Time magazine website. Rick Smeeton, a lecturer at University of Brighton, compared dancing to a car being driven in the city. Frequent stopping, starting, and changing direction pushes the body to burn a lot of calories just as it causes a car to use more fuel. In fact, while engaging in partner dancing you can burn up to 500 calories per hour, but you probably won’t realize it because you’ll be having so much fun!
But calorie burn isn’t the only thing that makes ballroom dancing a great form of exercise. When dancing with a partner your entire body is engaged. You will use not only the large powerful muscles that move you through life, but many of the smaller accessory muscles that are not challenged by normal daily activities. Your core, back, and shoulders must act together to maintain good posture and a toned frame so that you can have a good connection with your partner. Your legs and hips must propel you not only forward and backward, but also side-to-side and up-and-down. And because dancing is low impact, it tones your muscles and improves your coordination without stressing your joints.
So, is ballroom dancing really exercise? Yes! And a darned good one at that.
All right, if I’m honest, I think you should know a lot more than three dances. But in general, you need at least three: one for slow music, one for fast music, and one for intermediate tempos. So here are three very handy dances that will fit the bill for almost any occasion.
Not every studio teaches slow lounge, but it works beautifully for those slow songs that will inevitably be playing for the first half-hour or so of any event (wedding reception, class reunion, charity gala). It can be relaxed and friendly, sensual and romantic, or even a little campy, depending on the song and the mood of the couple dancing. In fact, many engaged couples will learn it for their first dance and then also use it for the father-daughter or mother-son dance. It’s that versatile!
Swing is a big umbrella that includes several dances (many of them regional), but the simplest is push-pull. It’s fast and fun, making it a go to dance for parties. Unlike most forms of swing (which use a syncopated 6-count rhythm), push-pull has a simple four beat pattern, making it easier to learn and to lead. It’s also less taxing than its more complex cousins, and therefore appropriate for almost any age or fitness level.
And then there is rumba. At first glance it’s not an obvious choice, since it’s traditionally a Latin dance, but the rumba rhythm can be found in oldies, pop, and even country music. The basic movement is a simple box-step that anyone can learn. From there you can add a few simple patterns for social dancing, or develop a sophisticated repertoire of wraps, turns, Latin motion, and styling.
So, these are my choices for the three dances everyone should know. What are yours?
When I first started dancing, I resisted getting dance shoes. I felt I wasn’t “good enough”. To me, they were something only professionals and serious competitors wore, and as a rank amateur I wasn’t worthy of calling myself a dancer. So I dithered and wore sandals, ballet flats, and even moccasins to class. Adequate, but hardly exciting.
I don’t remember what finally pushed me to purchase my first pair. Perhaps it was an upcoming show, or simply that everyone else at my level had long since taken the plunge. At any rate, they were only a middling quality basic black t-strap pump, but to me they were magic. From the moment I put them on I felt like a “real dancer”. Instantly I held myself differently, stood taller, and had a little more sass in my step. The steel shank supporting my foot made me feel stable and strong. The suede sole let me turn and spin with abandon. And ahhh, the padding.
I’ve purchased many, many dance shoes since then, but I still have that first pair. They’re full of holes and full of memories. So, do you really need dance shoes? Strictly speaking, you do not. But why not treat yourself to a pair and see if they don’t come with a sprinkle of magic?