6 steps to learning ballroom dancing without a partner–really

Photo by Garry Wilmore
Shadow Dancing - Photo by Garry Wilmore

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 the beginner to the intermediate level. And away we go:

  1. Hear the beat. Anytime you listen to music—working out, commuting, goofing off, whatever—practice counting sets of 8, which define the beat of the music. (Also check out this post of mine, “7 ways to practice ballroom dancing using an iPod, etc.”) You occasionally need someone to test you, such as a music-maven friend; or you can even try asking your teacher after class. Have them listen to you count sets of 8 and give you feedback. Once you can hear the sets of 8, also known as mini-phrases, listen for the major phrases, the bigger structure in the music (see Intro to Phrasing here).
  2. Mark rhythms. Stand, play music with a slow tempo and mark rhythms by doing weight changes in place. Mark the two basic dance rhythms you’ll use for survival, single rhythm, which is one weight change for every two beats of music (STEP HOLD), and double rhythm, which is two weight changes for every two beats of music (STEP STEP). A dance rhythm, which is always two beats of music (except waltz, which is three beats), is a unit of rhythm; dance rhythms are strung together to create a rhythm pattern. Start on a count 1 of the music and practice these eight-beat rhythm patterns (words in capital letters are the verbal call, which is what you say out loud as you do a pattern): single—single—single—single (STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD), which is stepping on every other beat of music; double—double—double—double (STEP STEP—STEP STEP—STEP STEP—STEP STEP), which is stepping on every beat of music. Then mix singles and doubles to create the mother of all rhythm patterns (used in salsa, rumba, foxtrot and survival dancing): double—single—double—single (STEP STEP—STEP HOLD—STEP STEP—STEP HOLD)
  3. Mark rhythm patterns from class. Still standing in place, practice marking the rhythm of the footwork you learned in class. For example, if you’re learning salsa, play some salsa music and practice the eight-beat basic rhythm pattern for salsa, double—single—double—single (that’s the third pattern from Step #2 above). Burn the rhythm patterns from class into your brain through endless repetition. Work with a variety of tempos (to practice salsa start with some cha cha music, which has a slower tempo).
  4. Improvise rhythms. Still standing in place, play music and create your own rhythm patterns by mixing single and double rhythms. Improvise. Try, for example, using more double rhythm as the music or vocals speed up; and using more single rhythm as the music or vocals slow down. I don’t mean that the tempo speeds up, I mean that some thematic element in the music speeds up, like the melody or vocals or even just an instrument you want to follow. Blank rhythm is very handy too when the music slows down—it’s a HOLD HOLD, which is no weight changes for every two beats of music. It’s used in dips and I often use it to do a simple dramatic pause to finish a phrase of music. The ability to improvise will help your slow dancing and survival dancing, like when you have to dance to unfamiliar music.
  5. Do step patterns. Now, taking teeny tiny steps—dance is never a contest for distance—mark the step patterns you learned in class (the terminology might be a little confusing: rhythm pattern is just weight changes, step pattern adds direction of movement—click here for definitions). For example, the 8-beat salsa step pattern would be (for the leader): FORWARD BACK—TOGETHER HOLD—BACK FORWARD—TOGETHER HOLD (that’s only six weight changes—remember, no weight change on the HOLD). Also, try improvising footwork: still taking teeny tiny steps, move forward, back, side-to-side, rotate left and rotate right. Do whatever seems to fit the music. Get whimsical. Just relax, don’t think and fool around. Become the music.
  6. Shadow dance. Throw up your arms as if you had a partner and were in the standard ballroom embrace, called the closed position. Play a variety of music, both in tempo and in genres. Practice your step patterns as well as improvise stuff and see what works to what kind of music. Visualize a partner in your arms and practice choreography—string moves together to create a routine. Phrase the choreography to the music. Try to capture the mood of the music. Now you’re shadow dancing! Learn this well.

Yeah, sure, you obviously need a partner to learn to dance. But you also need lots of floor time and practicing on your own—especially shadow dancing—counts. Repetition will set you free.

What things do you do to practice on your own? How’s it working out?

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

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.

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 that’ll save you from embarrassment. And there’s stuff you can do after class, away from the dance floor—at home, alone—to build a foundation that’ll make learning dance easy.”

Then, as if he were Moses mamboing down the mountain, if only he had presented me with the tablets of dance containing the three things beginners and pre-beginners need to work on:

1. Connect to the music and, especially, the beat of the music.
If you want to do just one thing right on the dance floor, find the beat of the music (Chapter 1, “The Beat of the Music”). Nothing will tick your partner off more–short of injuring her–than being off-time. You don’t have to step on every beat of music but, when you do step, you must step precisely on a beat of music. The key to finding the beat is counting the sets of 8 in the music (Chapter 2, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8“). The key to staying on the beat is feeling the downbeat and the upbeat (Chapter 3, “Downbeat and Upbeat“).

2. Learn the basic dance rhythms: single rhythm, double rhythm and triple rhythm.
A dance rhythm, a phrase coined by Skippy Blair, is the number of weight changes in two beats of music (Chapter 4, “Rhythm Patterns”). Beginners should start with the three basic dance rhythms:

  • Single rhythm is one step in two beats of music, which, if you were marking the rhythm in place, is a STEP HOLD (a hold or a touch are words commonly used for a beat of music with no weight change). I deplore the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a SLOW.
  • Double rhythm is two steps in two beats of music, a STEP STEP. I cringe at the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a QUICK QUICK.
  • Triple rhythm is three steps in two beats of music, which is tricky because your feet must move quickly to step between two beats of music to create a STEP-STEP-STEP.

Skippy has made the simple but brilliant discovery that virtually all of the basic step patterns (the dance figures used to move around the floor) for every dance, usually six or eight beats in length, are just some combination of single, double and triple rhythm. For a wealth of information, check out Skippy Blair’s Dance Dictionary.

3. Burn the most common rhythm patterns onto your brain, especially the 8-beat pattern, double—single—double—single.

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This is the mother of all patterns. Not only is it the basic rhythm pattern (a combination of two or more dance rhythms) for salsa and rumba, it’s common in foxtrot. It’s the easiest, most versatile pattern and will get you through most situations. Skippy says it’s the best pattern to use for a wedding dance or a survival dance. Surf your iPod and, standing in place, practice (at home, alone) marking (Chapter 5, “Marking Rhythms”) this rhythm pattern to a variety of music until you can do it without thinking.

Repetition will set you free.