One of my fave ballroom dance scenes is a bit from Saturday Night Live by Steve Martin and Gilda Radner called “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s a parody of a romantic Hollywood dance, like a foxtrot from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. Many elements help create a good dance, things like rhythm, timing, choreography, musicality, partnering and performance. This three-minute video is all about performance (UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2015: Unfortunately, the free version of the Steve Martin routine has been pulled from the web and I now think you have to buy an SNL video to see it. But you can get a worthy 10 second glimpse of it in this “Gilda Radner Montage” from 0:52 to 1:03 minutes):

Sometimes being good at one thing will cover or compensate for a weakness elsewhere. If you’ve ever watched Dancing with the Stars, you sometimes get a weak dancer who is a good performer. Head Judge Len Goodman will say something like, the dancing wasn’t much to look at but I loved the performance, and Len will proceed to give a good score. So a good performance can compensate for a lack of dance ability.

The problem is that if you fear dance, you probably fear performance. My solution is to do short bursts of performance and to do something that takes no skill: ham it up.

Ham it up: embellish your performance with 3-second bursts of dance ham

While ballroom dancing will take years to learn, hamming it up for the social dance floor is quick and natural. Find your inner comedian and just goof around in a charming way. Be a little ridiculous, a little over-the-top. Imagine you have a toggle switch and when you throw that switch you get a three-second burst of Steve Martin. That’s right, imagine channeling Steve Martin—three seconds of pure dance ham.

The next time you get lost on the dance floor, throw the switch. Put a Steve Martin grin on your face and goof off for three seconds. Try to tap into your natural sense of play—like how you acted every day when you were a kid. After three seconds, recompose yourself. I bet the energy of the partnership has changed for the better. I bet there will be a smile on your partner’s face. To survive a three-minute dance, add several three-second bursts of dance ham throughout the song.

Study Steve Martin. Learn to embellish your dancing with three-second bursts of Steve Martin. Become Steve Martin.

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You will not find a class on hearing the beat of music (if you teach a class in that, throw me an email, we should talk). It’s rarely touched upon in ballroom dance classes. You must learn the beat on your own. Don’t fret, it’s simple, just listen to music (like with an iPod or whatever). Ahem, make that actively listen to music.

If you don’t have natural ability in music seek help to both get started and for occasional feedback. This could be a musical friend, a dance partner who is musical, a dance teacher or even strangers at a social dance who look competent. After your music maven gets you started, it’s up to you to practice—a lot. It’s the training on your own that develops the skill, not something your teacher does. There’s not a switch that gets flipped from “no rhythm” to “rhythm”; it’s a process, which will take days, weeks or months depending upon your ability. Use your teacher, as well as other musical people you pass along the way, to occasionally test you and give feedback. Getting feedback from others can be a quick process, even just a minute or two, so you’re not asking much.

To learn the beat you could tap a foot or clap hands or march in place. These are all okay and if you have an ear for music or prior musical training that may be enough. But for the rest of us, the secret to hearing the beat is to count music, specifically, counting the sets of 8 (waltz, the exception, is in sets of 6). Why? Because sets of 8 define the beat of the music (technical info: musicians compose dance music in four-beat measures and two measures are naturally paired to create a set of 8). You can practice counting sets of 8 anytime you listen to music—commuting, working out, in the shower, drifting off to sleep at night. (I used to practice counting sets of 8 to the background music of movies.) As you count you can also tap your foot as it’s good to involve the full body. I used to gently shift my solar plexus left and right, back and forth, simulating taking steps. Or sometimes I’d just nod my head back and forth to the beat. Marching in place to the sets of 8—doing a weight change on every beat—is the best as it most resembles dancing, plus you can practice your timing, that is, the coordination necessary to make the weight change exactly on the beat.

To get started simply have your music friend count sets of 8. Starting on a count 1, have them count: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” and start over. Listen for the accent on the count 1 (count 5, the first beat of the second measure, has an accent too but to a lesser degree) and how a count 1 sounds like the beginning of a “sentence” of music. Use very easy music, stuff with a medium slow tempo and with sets of 8 that are easy to hear. For example, blues would be easy, salsa would be hard. It would also be helpful to use music with easy to hear downbeats and upbeats. This training exercise by Skippy Blair, which involves your hands, is an excellent way to start (scroll down to the one minute video, “Skippy Blair counting sets of 8 combined with a hand exercise”).

When I first started, I used to go up to my teachers after classes and ask them to count sets of 8 to the practice music—just to hear how it’s done—which could take as little as 30 seconds of the teachers’ time. After I had some competency, I’d ask my teachers after class to listen to me count sets of 8 and give feedback. I would also approach strangers at a dance, who looked musical, to observe me tap a foot or clap or march in place or count sets of 8 (it’s no biggie for them—people love to show off—especially if you compliment their dancing first). If you’re taking private lessons, start the lesson with a few minutes of counting sets of 8. Nobody to help you? Check out this free four minute video of me counting sets of 8 (scroll down to “Counting sets of 8 in easy music”).

Even if you’re an intermediate level dancer, spend a few minutes with someone musical and just listen to music. Let them test you to a variety of music with a range of difficulty, tempo and genre. Definitely throw in something hard like salsa—uptempo Latin with lots of percussion. In addition to the feedback you get, note your confidence—are you always 100% certain of the beat or do you guess a lot?

The good news is that you’re probably not rhythmically challenged. You’ve just never been taught how to hear the beat. It’s a lack of education, not a lack of ability. Granted, even after training you may not be the best, but it’s certain that you can get better.

If you struggle to hear the beat of music, describe your problem in the comments below. What have you tried to learn the beat?

(See also this related post, “Warning: Ballroom dance classes do not teach how to hear the beat of music”)

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Warning: Ballroom dance classes do not teach how to hear the beat of music

You will not learn “rhythm” in a ballroom class. The convenient explanation is that they’re dance classes and not music classes, but I’m not buying it. My guess is that dance instructors don’t really know how to teach you to count music and hear the beat. The only time you hear beats counted—counting the “sets […]

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6 steps to learning ballroom dancing without a partner–really

Some elements of dance, like lead and follow, require a partner when you practice. But some things you can do on your own. For me, it was not until I started training by myself—how to hear the beat, phrasing, musicality, music identification, dance identification, step patterns, syncopations, choreography, improvisation—that I was able to move from […]

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8 reasons to take ballroom dance classes to prepare for your wedding dance

  Being able to ballroom dance is just one of those things that identifies you as a guy who can do anything, like change a tire, carve a turkey and leap tall buildings. Your wedding is a good time to learn. Taking classes is the best way to start. Get into the process. Learning to […]

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Are you in denial about being rhythmically challenged?

rhythmically challenged: A phrase frequently used to describe someone who consistently dances off time. A better definition would be a person who lacks the education required to be able to rhythmically count beats of music. (reference: Skippy Blair’s Dance Terminology Notebook) I was rhythmically challenged. Even after seven years of ballroom dance classes, I still […]

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

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 […]

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5 reasons to take your wedding dance seriously

This is not an attempt to arm-twist you into ballroom dance classes. I’m just suggesting you weigh the costs and the benefits. It could make the whole day go better. You don’t need a big, splashy dance routine. But knowing what you’re going to do on the dance floor will make you more relaxed and […]

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What everybody needs to know about which beat of music to start a dance

I used to struggle with when to start a dance. I would stand stiff and motionless, like a statue, with my partner in hand, stressing over when to take the first step. I didn’t know when to break into the music. I didn’t know if it mattered. I could hear spots in the music that […]

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What you need to know about asking her to dance

While approaching the opposite sex often has its risks, asking someone to dance is routine. A request for a dance is the perfect cover: there’s a script, which both sides follow. You don’t have to be creative or cool about it; just follow the script. Even better, if you’re not a good conversationalist, that’s it; […]

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11 Ways to be the ballroom dance partner women love–even if you can’t dance

First, don’t worry if  you can’t dance. If you’re at a social event, like a wedding, she probably can’t dance either. Nor can any of the other guys she’s dancing with. Then, what you lack in skill you can make up for by impressing her with your character. Be confident, gentle, supportive, humble, generous, attentive, […]

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Fake a ballroom dance with a “basic side step” (video: 2 min., 15 sec.)

A basic side step will work with most kinds of dance music, from foxtrot and rumba, to salsa and swing, to unfamiliar music (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page): Here are two reasons why, if you need a crash course in ballroom dancing, you should learn […]

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Survive a ballroom dance with “single rhythm” (video: 2 min., 41 sec.)

Single rhythm, one weight change in two beats of music (e.g., a STEP HOLD or a SIDE TOUCH, no weight change on the HOLD or the TOUCH), can be a lifesaver when you’re ballroom dancing (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page): Doing all single rhythm is […]

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Counting 32-beat major phrases (video: 6 min, 40 sec.)

Phrasing in ballroom dancing is an intermediate-level concept but I beg you, O Humble Beginner, to begin actively listening for the major phrases in all music (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page): This will help you to hear the sets of 8, hence, how to hear […]

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New videos – how to count music and hear the beat

I’ve posted some new instructional video clips in recent weeks. (They’re the videos that go with the book so they’re also posted on the Freebie Video page.) The two below help with how to count music and hear the beat. First, there’s counting sets of 8: I’d guess that over 80% (probably over 90%–I don’t […]

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Ballroom book and blog

I relaunched my website/blog—the thing you’re reading—this week on a new platform. I know, it looks a little dreary at the moment. It’ll be under construction for a few months so I’ll try to spruce it up. Hang tight. My book is finally finished …[pop champagne corks]… Every Man’s Survival Guide to Ballroom Dancing: Ace […]

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Beware of tempo

I have an issue with tempo. I went through a long period where I could dance okay in class but I was terrible at a social dance. Some of that had to do with a lack of familiar partners (read: my leading sucked and partners at a dance were not familiar with the step patterns […]

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Not all music is dance music

Not all music is dance music, although most popular music is danceable. Dance music varies in difficulty so some music is better for dancing than other music, which is, in part, a personal preference. But some music is just not danceable. The jazz music of Count Basie, known as swing, is usually good dance music […]

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Sets of 8: test yourself on how to count music and hear the beat

Here’s a good test to see if you can count music and hear the beat by counting sets of 8. Flip the radio dial, stop on random songs and accurately count the sets of 8 and know you’re right. It took me about a year of dedicated practice before I could do that 90% of […]

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Lead and follow: "matching resistance" in closed ballroom position (video: 3 min., 23 sec.)

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3 Steps to Fred Astairedom

Instead of stumbling through seven years of beginner’s classes, if only I had stumbled upon a teacher who could relate to me, a guy with no talent in music or dance. If only this teacher had said to me, “Listen, man, there are things you can do before you step into your first dance class […]

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Every Man’s Mission

I don’t want to be the best dancer on the floor. I don’t want to compete in dance. When called to action, I just want to NOT be embarrassed. My mission, which I believe is every man’s mission: To be able to walk onto any dance floor, from a wedding to a nightclub to a […]

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