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. 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?

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


Photo by Jerry Daykin
Photo by Jerry Daykin

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.

  1. Get into the process. Learning to foxtrot, waltz or swing dance is not easy and it’ll take time. Being surrounded by a lot of beginners, who are as clueless as you, will give you comfort. Although it may not seem that way when you first walk in the door, a class will help to diffuse your fears.
  2. Dance with other partners. Everybody dances differently. Partnering is a basic dance skill and the only way to learn partnering is to mix it up with a variety of partners. If you only dance with your fiancé, then you will reinforce bad habits. Even if your fiancé likes the way you dance, others will find you difficult. (Need I remind you—you’ll be dancing with your new in-laws during the wedding reception.)
  3. Dance in the spotlight. It’s natural to feel like everybody is watching you, especially if you don’t like to dance. While it’s generally not true that you’re the center of attention—people watch the best dancers, not the worst—it’ll be true at your wedding. While dancing in the spotlight is awkward at first, the tension will lessen over time. Classes are a good way to ease into the spotlight by getting a bit of exposure. Heck, why not: maybe after class (see #5 below) slip on your wedding dance song and ask people to watch you do your first dance choreography.
  4. Time on the floor. You need practice, really. Classes count for time on the floor.
  5. Learn to dance spontaneously. Practice music is usually played at the end of class. This is an excellent environment for learning, especially to practice dancing spontaneously. Spontaneous dancing is what you want to do on a social dance floor—you’ll do a series of moves on the fly—which is how you’ll dance with your wife and guests during the reception. After class you’ll get: easy music, familiar partners, partners who are at about your level, partners who are more forgiving with mistakes, step patterns that are fresh in your mind, a supportive group that likes to experiment with new moves—this is a practice session so do-overs are allowed—and a teacher who is available for questions.
  6. Ask questions. Class is a good time to ask questions. After class can be an especially good time to grab your teacher. You might sneak in a wedding dance question like, “My wedding is next month. Could you quickly demonstrate an easy dip I can do?”
  7. Dance with your teacher. I believe that “dancing up”—dancing with partners better than you—is critical when learning how to dance. After class, go up to your teacher, say you didn’t understand the underarm turn from class, and ask to be shown the move. Don’t worry about your teacher’s gender, a teacher knows both lead and follow and can easily swap roles.
  8. See what you like. If you pick wedding dance choreography that appeals to you—i.e., if you do dance moves that are easy and that you like, which will give you a look on the floor that you think is cool—you might enjoy dancing more. A beginners’ class is a good place to learn a bunch of easy step patterns. Also, the practice music after class is a good time to check out other dancers. If you see something you like, approach and ask how to do it. Other dancers love to show off.

If you’re going to do serious first dance choreography, you’ll probably want private lessons. Still, classes are an easy way to start the process and I recommend them even if you’re going to do privates. If you fear taking a class, then start by watching one; at least you’ll know what to expect or, if the class is not for you, decide not to take it. For the severely reluctant dancer, consider a private lesson before the first class.

For more info on the first dance, check out “Surviving the Wedding Dance.”