7 ways to practice ballroom dancing using an iPod, etc.

by James Joseph

Photo by David Goehring

Photo by David Goehring

I propose: you can learn to ballroom dance lying poolside, with a cold drink in hand, listening to an iPod. Seriously, you can learn a lot by actively listening to music—alone, by yourself. You can also do this standing on line at the post office, working out at the gym, commuting to work, listening to background music on a TV show, drifting off to sleep at night—any place and any time you hear music. Here are some things to play around with:

  1. Practice counting sets of 8. Sets of 8 define the beat of the music and learning to count sets of 8 is the primary way to train your ear to hear the beat (ahem, some people naturally hear the beat, counting sets of 8 is for the rest of us). Listen for a count 1 in the music (not to be confused with a count 5, the first beat of the second measure), count to 8, start over.
  2. Practice music identification. That is, practice identifying musical genres. Learn to distinguish between, say, blues and swing. If you’re taking salsa lessons, listen to salsa music and learn how to identify it. While you can learn some easy salsa step patterns in an evening, it could take you a while—I don’t know how long, but it’ll take more than a day—to distinguish between salsa, samba and merengue music. A website to check out is pandora.com—just search for a genre (last.fm is a good site too, search for a genre and then click on “tags”). Swing, big band, blues, rhythm and blues, foxtrot, Latin, mambo, salsa, samba, cha-cha, rumba, merengue, reggae, tango, waltz, soul, folk, pop, house, techno, hustle, rock and roll, country and western.
  3. Practice dance identification. Try to determine which dance fits a particular piece of music. Visualize, in your head, doing the basic step pattern for each dance you know that you think might fit the music. If something doesn’t work, try something else. If more than one dance seems to fit, decide which one feels best. I like to tap my feet–I tap the rhythm pattern (think of a rhythm pattern as the pattern of weight changes) of the basic step pattern for each dance I know. I use both feet as if I were dancing (a tap is equal to a weight change). I can do this standing, sitting or lying down (if I’m lying down, I tap the air). Dance identification is an important skill for the social dancer, often overlooked and not taught in dance classes.
  4. Practice footwork that you already know. Visualize yourself doing footwork. Go through, in your head, the step patterns and syncopations that you learned in class. Try using both feet to tap rhythms, as if you were dancing (a tap is equal to a weight change).
  5. Practice choreography. String step patterns together to create a routine. Pick moves that flow one into the next and that match the mood of the music. You can both improvise stuff on the fly as well go over planned routines like, say, wedding dance choreography. If you practice this all in your head now, it’ll make it easier to do on the floor.
  6. Practice improvising footwork. This will help your “spontaneous social dancing,” which is good for both survival dancing and sweeping a lady off her feet–especially, slow dancing. Visualize yourself mixing single rhythm (STEP HOLD – one weight change for every two beats of music), double rhythm (STEP STEP – two weight changes for every two beats of music) and blank rhythm (HOLD HOLD – no weight changes for every two beats of music). Listen to what’s going on in the music and let that suggest a rhythm for your feet. Let go and get lost in the music. Again, try using both feet to tap rhythms, as if you were dancing (a tap is equal to a weight change).
  7. Practice phrasing. Once you can identify sets of 8, listen how the sets of 8 are grouped together into major phrases. The most common major phrase (but certainly not the only) is four sets of 8, which is 32 beats (4×8=32 beats). If you want to do a dip, it often fits best during the last set of 8 of a major phrase, which is typically where some thematic element of the song momentarily winds down or resolves. Visualize yourself leading a dip and note, especially, the timing for coming out of the dip (time it so you’re upright and ready to start a new pattern on the count 1 of the first set of 8 of the next major phrase).

Most beginners ignore the music because they’re focused on remembering step patterns. But dance is a threesome: you, your partner and the music. One of the big differences between beginner and intermediate level dancing is that the intermediate dancer listens and dances to the music.

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