Things Newcomers Need to Know

Top Hat Ballroom Dancers Dancing Under the Stars with The Huntington Symphony August 18, 2007

Top Hat Ballroom Dancers Dancing Under the Stars with The Huntington Symphony August 18, 2007

Dance is the only art form where the artist is also the medium of expression. — unknown

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Good for you! You have made the big move from just wishing you could dance to beginning a class! Now you can make some progress. You will realize benefits from the physical and mental exercise, the social exchange and the artistic expression to music. Dance is a life-long interest that can enrich our lives on more levels than any other art. A dancer is both a musician and an athlete. The study of dance makes you a part of a large community of dancers who will be a big part of your  enjoyment of the art.

As you begin to study dance, we want to offer a few observations that may smooth the way for you in your efforts to learn this enjoyable new skill. You have taken the first big step to move from a spectator to a dancer–you are taking lessons! For the most part, the process is simple: you will attend classes, make an effort to learn the skills and note your progress as you continue. On the other hand, in the years that we have taught people to dance we have noticed some patterns among the folks who learned well and among those who had problems and these notes are an effort to give you the benefit of those observations. Ballroom dance has so many real benefits for so many people that we want to ensure that no one give up on dancing when a small change or two could open the door to a really positive experience.

Keep it fun!

Keep it fun! Enjoyment is the objective. Stay close to the fun and you will gain more from your class experience. There’s no need to be nervous or self-conscious. Everybody is unsure at first and learning is always just the process of learning to make mistakes less frequently. We laugh a lot in our classes but never at anyone in particular. We will all make enough mistakes to keep us humble and enough progress to make us proud.

Ballroom dance is a partner activity

Ballroom dance is a partner activity. It is an art practiced by a couple. Therefore, we can certainly say at the outset that the most basic skill of dancing is learning to relate to the partner. If we are to succeed, we must have our partner’s support and cooperation. We must succeed together or not at all. Attitude and behavior will decide which. If we are positive and encouraging, our partners will likely respond in kind. Respect and a positive attitude will make the experience good for everybody. It is important to communicate your willingness to work through the lesson without blame and guilt. When you dance or take lessons with a partner, you will need to be considerate when mistakes are made. You may feel vulnerable and unsure of yourself and so may your partner. Work to build each other’s confidence. You will soon learn the value of patience and understanding. You will appreciate these virtues in your partner and you need to be prepared to exercise them in the dance  relationship. Mistakes are not unexpected. They are part of the learning process. Get used to it. Apologies are not necessary in class. The best way to say “I’m sorry.” Is to say “Let’s try it again.” Your partner will appreciate your cheerfulness and willingness to try again more than all the apologies in the world.

Dance is a physical skill

Dance is a physical skill. When all is said and done, you can only learn to dance by dancing. The most appropriate parallel experience is that of a child learning to walk. Think of your own experience or remember how a child you know learned to walk. At first, they were awkward and ungraceful. Their balance was unsure. They used mostly large muscles and were wobbly and tentative about the whole thing. Mysteriously, the more they walked, the better they got. Their balance was better. Their coordination improved and what was before awkward and clumsy became graceful and easy for the child. Finally, walking came to be taken for granted as they happily walked everywhere. You can learn to dance the same way, but only by  actually dancing. Watching classes, tapes and videos doesn’t count. Reading books and viewing web pages are only helpful if you actually move through the dance you want to learn. The mechanism of learning is called muscle memory. This means  that our  muscles can be programmed much like a computer. In dance, there is no learning without movement. The only way to hasten the process is to repeat the movements more frequently. As we carry out the same movements over and over, our muscles remember the movements and they become automatic.

Give attention to how your body works

Give attention to how your body works. Your teacher will be referring to a lot of terminology that is unfamiliar at first. You will learn about stepping on the toe, the heel, the whole foot, the inside of the foot and the outside of the foot. You will hear of knees straight and bent, sides stretched and compressed, hips dropped, lifted or level. The teacher will talk a lot about the frame of the couple and how it holds the couple in alignment. The physical movements of the dance will be described in considerable detail. You must feel free to move in class and try to understand physically the movement that is being taught.

Learning to dance is a cumulative process

Learning to dance is a cumulative process. Dance is a complex art that is learned on a number of levels. Stated another way, it is one art that is really a combination of many. This means that we will learn the basics first and build from that foundation. There is no reason to be frustrated when you don’t learn it all in the first lesson. It is unrealistic to expect that such a complex art can be mastered in a short time. We often tell students, “If you could learn it all in two weeks, you would be bored in three weeks.” Like playing a musical instrument, or learning yoga, dance is a lifelong endeavor. There’s no point getting in a hurry. You will be learning and growing in the art the rest of your life. Haste creates impatience and ruins your enjoyment in the present. There are, though, two things that will keep you moving toward your goal. They are regular classes and regular practice. Be patient and keep going. You don’t need to get it all today. Persistence will bring progress and every month will show you how far you have come.

How you practice is important

How you practice is important. Practice doesn’t need to take up a lot of time, but it needs to be frequent and regular. When you are impatient to make more progress, consider it a reminder to run through your current step or a few minutes. In practice, frequency is more important than length. A couple of minutes of practice a few times a day is better than an hour once a week. Use the odd minutes of your day to reinforce your learning. You can practice in line at the grocery or the restaurant. Watch for opportunities for practice in your schedule. You will be amazed at how your dancing becomes more fluent in a short time.

Take it slowly

Take it slowly. Learn the moves slowly and then let the speed increase. There is no point in trying to do a step rapidly until you can do it slowly. If the step doesn’t work, stop at the error and fix it, and then move ahead. As much as possible, repeat the correct movement, not the errors. When you can execute the moves slowly, you are ready to increase the speed. What we are actually doing is making physical habits. If we repeat the movements we want, the habit becomes ingrained and repeatable. If we want to change a habit, we do the desired sequence slowly until the habit is formed and then work on increasing the speed. You will be more comfortable if you resist the urge to hurry the process. Practice regularly with an eye to doing the steps comfortably. You will surprise yourself with your progress in time.

Work to conquer discouragement

Work to conquer discouragement. Understand that frustration does not mean failure. Frustration is just part of the learning process. Don’t let it get to you. Every dancer learns to overcome frustration with positive effort. You will learn how sweet it is to keep at a dance step until you master it. You will work and you will win. Understand that whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right. Beginning students often repeat the same frustrated sayings: “I have two left feet.” Or “I have a tin ear.” This kind of negative attitude is not helpful. We insist that anyone can learn to dance if they are willing to apply their attention and patience to the task. Stay positive. Give yourself a break and keep making the effort. Consistent effort over time is the only sure way to success in dance.

Music is part of what we learn in dancing!

Music is part of what we learn in dancing. Every dancer must be a musician to a degree, and, as a dancer, you will relate to music in an entirely new way. Every style of dance has a count, or cadence that guides the dancers to step in time with the music. You will listen for the cadence of the dance in the music you hear. Relax and tap your feet or fingers, or bob your head as you listen. Convert the music to motion in your body. This process is the beginning of dance. For example, the Waltz cadence of 1-2-3 is probably the easiest to hear. The Rumba is Slow-Quick-Quick, or SQQ as it is commonly abbreviated. Everyone has some difficulty hearing the different dances at first. That is, they may have difficulty telling a Tango from a Rumba or a Foxtrot. The process is simple to describe but complicated in practice. You will listen to the music and imagine dancing to it. First decide whether the song is a smooth or a rhythm selection. Then try the possibilities in your imagination one at a time, say, first foxtrot, then tango, and so on. If you can hear the cadence of the dance in the music, then you are ready to dance. Give it a try with your partner. If one dance doesn’t fit, try another. Be patient with yourself. It gets better with practice. If in doubt, ask. It’s a good way to start a conversation!

Each dance style has its own character

Each dance style has its own character. Don’t miss the character of the different dances we are learning. Learn the difference between the dances that make the whole art of the dance such a full and interesting field. The graceful Waltz is not just a different floor pattern from the playful Foxtrot. Every dance has emotional and cultural content beyond the mere footfalls of the steps. Learn the whole dance and your experience in class will be richer.

Be realistic about your expectations

Remember that our goal is enjoyment, not perfection. We can all enjoy dancing and we don’t have to be Fred and Ginger to do it. Students who find the fun in dancing always progress more quickly, so look for the fun right away! Keep a sense of humor and a sense of proportion. Learn to have a laugh at your own expense and give the step another try. Dancing, both in class and out, is about having a good time. We can certainly work to be all we can be, but ultimately, the great test is whether we can enjoy an evening of dancing and bring pleasure to our partners and the other dancers with us.

As to attire for class

As to attire for class, your clothes should be comfortable and allow for freedom of movement. Floppy or flowing clothes can get caught in our partner’s hands. Jewelry that can swing and interfere with your partner should be avoided. It’s better to avoid hair styles that can swing in your partner’s face. Common sense will keep you from problems like these. Remember that ballroom dancing brings us close to our partners, so we should be careful to be pleasant to be near. Have a shower and a breath mint if in doubt, but avoid strong fragrances. Some people are allergic. Shoes should be comfortable and smooth-soled. Flip-flops or other floppy shoes should be avoided. Dancers need to spin and turn easily on their feet. As soon as you are sure you want to continue the study of dance you should get dance shoes. They have suede leather soles that provide the proper balance of traction and ability to turn. Shoes made for running or sports have soles designed for traction instead of ease of turning. They work against you and can cause knee and ankle pain for dancers. Dance shoes are available from Top Hat and from online sources.

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