Have you ever seen a couple dancing patterns that no one else seemed to know? Did you wonder if their moves were for real?  Or heard someone say they’re full silver and thought, “What the heck are they talking about?” Are there right steps and wrong steps? To answer these (and many other) questions, you need to understand what a ballroom dance syllabus is and how it pertains to you.

couples dancing in a competition following a ballroom dance syllabus

What Is a Ballroom Dance Syllabus?

A ballroom dance syllabus is a list of approved steps for a particular level of a dance. The levels are Bronze (beginner), Silver (intermediate), Gold (advanced) and Supreme Gold (the icing on the cake). Some studios and competitions break the categories down even more so students don’t feel overwhelmed. For instance, the first 5 steps in an American style rumba syllabus might be called Beginner Bronze Rumba, Pre-bronze Rumba, or Social Rumba, depending on where you learn them.

Who “Approves” the Steps?

Lots of people actually. There are at least five (5!) major dance organizations that produce syllabi. On top of that, some studios also develop their own. Confused? Don’t worry. Almost everyone recognizes The National Dance Council of America (NDCA) syllabi for American Smooth and Rhythm dances and The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) syllabi for International Standard and Latin dances. Consider them the OG’s of the dancing world. The others will generally include the same patterns (although sometimes with different names), and a few additional steps that can be fun to learn.

Do I Need to Follow a Ballroom Dance Syllabus?

It depends on what you’re trying to do, but generally, yes. The good news though is that a qualified instructor or coach will be familiar with the appropriate syllabi. They should be able to keep you on track. 

As a social dancer there are some commonly accepted practices (see Ballroom Etiquette), but otherwise you aren’t really bound by any formal rules. The most important thing for you is to learn to lead or follow effectively. A syllabus can still act as a useful guide though. If you want to be able to dance anywhere and with anyone, you need to know the generally accepted patterns for your skill level.

If you plan to compete, then you must abide by the rules of each competition. Since competitors and judges come from a variety of backgrounds, many competitions will allow several different syllabi. Be sure to check which ones are allowed. And again, almost everyone recognizes NDCA and ISTD syllabi.

For shows and exhibitions the rules kind of go out the window a bit. Choreographers will sometimes mix patterns from different levels (and even different dances) to add some zing to a performance or challenge a student a bit. This is fine (within reason), so if you’re a beginner and your teacher adds a sit-drop to your studio showcase routine, don’t panic.

judges at a ballroom competition - ballroom dance syllabus

Hmm, that penalty judge looks familiar.

A Little Hack for Competition

Instead of trying to memorize every approved pattern of every dance at your level, you may want to familiarize yourself with the restrictions for each category. For example, in all bronze smooth dances (waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz) the feet must close at the end of the pattern, so if you’ve learned some patterns in which the feet don’t close (continuity), then you’ll know not to use them when competing at a bronze level. Easy peasy.

couple in a dramatic dance pose

A beautiful first dance is like a gift for your friends and family.

Your First Dance Dream Team

Couple posing dramatically during first dance.


You’ve put time and effort into preparing an amazing first dance that your friends and family will love and that you will remember forever. Maybe you’ve told everyone you know each fabulous detail, or maybe it’s top secret. Either way, make sure you get the most out of it by communicating ahead of time with a few key professionals.


notebook, pen, candle, and flowers to indicate planning for wedding and first dance

Wedding Planner

It goes without saying that your wedding planner (or day-of coordinator) will be most effective if they know all the details of your dream wedding, including how you want your first dance to go. A few things to discuss might be:

  • How much room are you going to need? Some dances (e.g. waltz) cover a lot of ground, while others (e.g. swing) can be done in a smaller space.
  • Where should people be seated or standing to give everyone a good view?
  • Are you using any special props (yeah, we do that sometimes), or will other people be involved?
  • Will you be changing into a different outfit before the dance?


hand adjusting knobs on a turntable

DJ or Bandleader

Obviously your DJ has a lot to do with how smoothly your first dance goes. They will not only play the music, but announce you beforehand and acknowledge you again when you finish. Since many people do some version of the hang-and-sway, the DJ may be in the habit of killing time by starting the music as the couple walks on the floor and/or fading the music early. Both of these practices can ruin your plans, so let them know that you’re doing something special, and keep the following in mind when you do:

  • Make sure they know you are using an edited version of your song.
  • Get the final edit to them as soon as possible and make sure that the file name is clear (e.g. Let The Good Times Roll_Suzie & Joe edit) so there’s no mixing it up with the full version.
  • Tell them not to fade the song in or out, but to let it play as is.
  • Let them know to start the music either when you signal them or when you are in position.

If you have a band or singer, it’s even trickier. Everything above still applies, but you also have the additional step of making sure that the music they play is the same as what you’ve been practicing to. Talk to the band leader as early as possible and see how they like to handle things. This is what we like to do:

  • We edit a recorded version of your song to make sense (length, feeling, highlights) for a first dance.
  • You send the edited version to the band so they can develop a similar arrangement.
  • They record their live version and send it back to you to practice with.


woman looking through camera


Photographers capture moments. Normally there’s not much going on during a first dance, so they concentrate on details like expressions, the ring, shoes, etc. But your dance isn’t going to be ordinary and you’ll want great shots of every lift, dip, and line. Your photographer can only do that if they know what’s coming. Prepare them by doing these two simple things:

  • Discuss with them the types of shots you want.
  • Give them a video of you practicing. This is the best way to make sure they know what to expect and are ready for the highlights.


woman looking at video camera


Like photographers, videographers will focus on close shots if there’s no action, so make sure they know that there will be. [If you aren’t using a professional videographer, be sure to share the same information with a trusted friend or relative. And don’t pick someone that is shy, overly polite, or easily distracted. You want someone who’ll be right up there capturing every moment of your amazing first dance.] Again, doing these easy things ahead of time will get you the best results:

  • If they’re only using one camera, ask them to set it up to capture the whole area you’ll be dancing in. Zoom-ins and other effects can be added post-production.
  • Give them a copy of the same practice video that you provided for the photographer. This will give them an idea of the best placement for the main camera, and where to position themselves for additional footage if a second one is being used.


father dancing his daughter in a circle at his wedding

Of course, all of this also applies to father-daughter and mother-son dances as well.  With a little preparation and good communication, these special moments will be a dream come true, and you’ll be able to enjoy reliving them together for years to come.

Check out our earlier post on common first dance snags (Avoid the Oops!) for more tips, and visit The Mid South Wedding Association’s website (We Help Brides) to find some of the best wedding vendors in Memphis.

Special thanks to The Warmth Around You for the lovely first dance photo.


What to do (or not do) on the dance floor.

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.

Showing Off

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.


Now you know, so go out and have fun!

What, Why, Who, Where, & When

Practice Makes Progress


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.


be Joyful



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!



Dancing is not as scary as skydiving!


It has been brought to my attention numerous times that many (most?) people find the idea of dancing to be terrifying. I’ve felt otherwise very confident and accomplished men literally trembling as we danced (I’m pretty sure I’m not that intimidating), and it’s not unusual to hear students sigh some version of “That wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be,” at the end of a first lesson. The sentiment always surprises me, but it shouldn’t, because if I just think back to my first class, I can remember being pretty nervous myself.

So why is dancing so scary? I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear yours.

First, we don’t often learn completely new skills as an adult. All of the really tough and important ones (walking, talking, making PB&J sandwiches) we learn when we’re young. As adults we may broaden and improve our abilities, but we usually aren’t starting from zero.

When we do take up new hobbies as an adult, they also aren’t usually so public. We can learn to knit, or cook, or play the guitar in private, sharing our accomplishments only when and if we’re good and ready. Dancing by its nature is a social activity and so people are going to see you do it. In general, the more public the activity, the more pressure we feel.

And then there is the social baggage around dancing. Race, gender, religion, age, and a host of other factors play into our feelings about dancing. I’m not going to delve into any of that here, other than to say that most of it doesn’t hold up under closer inspection. Still, we’re all affected (consciously or otherwise) by cultural factors.

Then how can we overcome our perfectly natural feelings of nervousness?

Find your why. This advice is common in situations involving change because it helps you refocus when you start to waiver. Do you want to dance at your child’s wedding? Or feel more at ease at parties? Maybe you need a creative outlet? Chances are your reason for learning is bigger than your fear, so keep it front and center.

Realize that you’re not alone. Almost everyone in a beginner dance class thinks that he or she is the worst student ever. So talk with others. You’ll likely find that they’re having the same doubts that you are. You’ll also build a network of “dance friends” that understand your frustrations and triumphs and can support you on your journey.

Choose a nurturing environment. When you go to classes, lessons, or parties you should feel a culture of mutual support and encouragement. Constructive feedback from your instructor is important, but there should be no judgement. If this isn’t the case, it isn’t you who’s failing, it’s the studio. Go someplace else.

And if you still need a push, list the pros and cons. I think you’ll see that one list far outweighs the other. Here are some ideas to get you started. Happy dancing!


It’s a cool hobby.

It’ll reduce stress and help me relax.

I’ll enjoy it.

My friends and family will be impressed.

I’ll be able to meet social obligations.

It’ll be great for networking.

The exercise will be fun.

I’ll have a skill most others don’t.

My poise and grace will increase.

I’ll meet interesting new people.


I’ll feel silly.

I might step on someone.


Wedding Dance Snags to Watch Out For

The first dance is one of the highlights of the reception, so you’ll want to make sure that it goes as smoothly as possible. Let’s look at a few common (and easily preventable) problems that you might encounter.

Too Long Song

Let’s start with your song. Hopefully you’ve picked out something that you both love and that is meaningful to you. That doesn’t mean you have to use the whole thing! People get bored quickly and you’d be surprised how long 3 or 4 minutes can feel when everyone’s eyes are on you. Have your song professionally edited (not that expensive) down to 1 ½ to 2 minutes and everyone will be happier.


Gorgeous, but can she do the wobble?

 Dress Stress

You deserve to look like a princess on your wedding day, but remember that all those layers, lace, sequins, pearls, and whatever else will feel very different from what you usually wear. Even bustled, wedding dresses sometimes cause unexpected problems. Long before the big day you should put on the dress and try moving around in all directions. Walk forwards, backwards (often difficult), and sideways. Try spinning around. And if your gown is strapless, make sure you can raise your arms over your head comfortably. Having a boob pop out when your dad twirls you around is next level embarrassing.

If you do find any problems with movement, your dressmaker may be able to help. If not, just make sure you clue in your fiancé, father, and choreographer (if you have one) ahead of time about your concerns

Shoe Boo

Just as with the dress, practice dancing in your wedding shoes. This is especially true if you’ll be wearing 4-inch stilettos when you normally sport tennis shoes. And if you plan to wear different shoes for the ceremony and reception, be sure to tell your dressmaker to account for any difference in height. Whatever height heel you decide on, use a nail file to smooth any rough spots so they won’t catch on the fabric of your dress. And if your shoes don’t have straps, consider using clear elastic straps over your instep when you’re dancing so that your shoes stay on securely.


Professional Confessional

Good communication with the professionals involved in your wedding is essential to avoid disappointing results. Speak to everyone ahead of time so they know exactly what you want.

First speak to your contact at the venue about the size and layout of the floor. How will people be arranged around it? Where will you be walking on from? What type of surface (carpet, tile, wood) will you be dancing on? Also ask if you can practice on it ahead of time. You’ll feel more relaxed if you can.

If you’ve had your song edited, make sure your DJ has a copy. If not, you may want to ask him or her to fade it out after a certain amount of time. He or she also needs to know when to start the music (i.e. as you’re announce, while you’re walking on, when you’re in position, or on your cue).

The photographer and videographer will approach your dance a little differently depending on what you’re doing, so tell them what to expect. If you’re doing a standard stand-and-sway (no judgement) they’ll stay close and focus on your faces and maybe take some shots of your feet. If you have something more elaborate planned they’ll want to move back a bit to be sure to fit it all in. Clue them in on any “spectacular” moves like lifts or dips so they know where to position themselves for the best shots.

Rehearsal Dispersal (okay, it’s a stretch)

The last (and maybe the most important) thing is to practice together ahead of time as often as you can. You’ll feel a lot less stressed if you can dance with each other comfortably and know what to expect. And besides, it’s fun!

Is Ballroom Dancing Really Exercise?

 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.








3 Dances Everyone Should Know How to Do


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?


     Do I Really Need Ballroom Dance Shoes?


No. Yes. Maybe.  


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?



How Do I Know Which Dance to Do?

The mysteries of dance music.

Imagine you’re out with friends. Music is playing and everyone is in a great mood. You’ve had some dance lessons and you’re ready to try out your new skills. A song comes on that you really like and … Uh oh, you have no idea what dance to do! If you’re new to dancing you’ve probably already had questions about how to know which dance is appropriate for a particular piece of music. Heck, even if you’ve been dancing for a while you may still have questions. So how do you know which dance to do?


The short answer is, it doesn’t matter! Do whatever you feel. Dancing is personal, and as long as you’re having fun, any dance will do. When you first start you’ll probably only know a limited number of styles anyhow, so use what you’ve got. I’ve been at dances and seen couples happily doing swing to every song that played. Maybe they just loved swing, or maybe they didn’t know any other dances, but they were up and enjoying themselves. And the truth is, you aren’t going to fool anyone, so don’t worry about it.



Okay, so you want the long answer too.

First, determine the time signature. Most music that we dance to is in 4/4 time, meaning that the beats come in clusters of 4. There are a few exceptions however. Samba, paso doble, merengue, and polka are in 2/4 time, but unless you are very familiar with music theory, you may not notice the difference between 4/4 and 2/4. One time signature that should be relatively obvious though is that of the waltz, which is the only popular dance that is in 3/4 time. Listen for something that sounds like Oom pah pah.

Next, consider the speed of the music (tempo). You can look up charts of beats per minute (BPM) if you want to, but basically some dances are faster and others are slower. For instance, bolero music has 96 – 104 BPM (slow) compared to East Coast Swing’s 136 – 144 BPM (fast).

Tempo alone isn’t enough though. American style tango, foxtrot, and cha cha can all be danced at 120 BPM, but they are very different dances. Related to tempo is rhythm. There’s a reason dance teachers spell out T-A-N-G-O or cha-cha-cha when teaching the basic steps of these dances. You can hear it in the rhythm! So contemplate whether the beat is steady or has syncopations (single beats split in two). Ask yourself if there more whole notes (4 beats), half notes (2 beats), or quarter notes (1 beat) and how they are arranged. Listen for a clave (a distinctive syncopated sound made with hollow wooden sticks), which lets you know that you are dealing with a Latin dance (salsa, cha cha, rumba, etc).



Each dance also has its own character, which is the result of some magical combination of timing, tempo, and rhythm. Can you imagine Cinderella at the ball doing a flirty cha cha? Of course not. That image is reserved for the elegant and flowing waltz. Likewise, Gomez Adams danced the tango with Morticia because of its fire and passion.

Finally, how does the music make you feel? Do you want to sway, glide, bounce, or shimmy? Is it romantic or playful? Does it fill you with yearning or joy? Notice that we’ve essentially returned to the short answer. Because again, dancing is personal and how you interpret a piece of music is up to you. As Michael Stern, director of the IRIS Orchestra and the Kansas City Symphony once said, “Tempo is about more than just clicks per minute – it’s about the character of the music itself, and about pulse, and how that pulse connects to the beating of our hearts and the rhythm of our breath. It’s about what makes music come alive.”



A Few Tips & Notes

Listen to a variety of music and try to feel what your body wants to do.

Watch other dancers on the floor to see what they are doing. Don’t be surprised if two or more dances look equally good.

Ask more experienced dancers how they would interpret the music.

Use the annotated playlists provided at many dances as a guide.


Waltz – elegant and flowing – Moon River

Foxtrot – smooth, big-band sound – Fly Me to the Moon

Tango – march-like, staccato – Hernando’s Hideaway

Rumba – romantic, frequently pop and country in addition to Latin – Besa Me Mucho

Cha Cha – flirtatious and quick – Mean Spirited Sal

EC Swing – fast, usually pop – Old Time Rock and Roll

WC Swing – bluesy or jazzy and mellow – Son of a Preacher Man

Samba – bouncy, big-band meets Afro-cuban, lots of percussion – Bailamos

Quickstep – foxtrot on speed – I’m Gonna Live Till I Die

Salsa – jazz meets Afro-cuban, distinctive clave rhythm – Casino

Mambo – old school salsa, emphasis on second beat – Bonito y Sabroso