Ballroom dance like Steve Martin

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.

Where to learn: how to hear the beat of music

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.

Ballroom dance class - Photo by University of Richmond Living-Learning Programs
Dance class (Photo by Univ. of Richmond Living-Learning Programs)

The only time you hear beats counted—counting the “sets of 8” is the best way to learn the beat—is when a teacher counts to start the class dancing. Even then you’ll probably only get four beats (with no explanation as to what’s being counted). The teacher will start the music and count a set of 8 over the music like this, “and a five six seven eight.” (Isn’t that how every dance teacher and professional dance choreographer you’ve ever heard started a group dancing?) You will take your first step on the next beat, which is the count 1 of the next set of 8 (waltz, the exception, is in sets of 6). Any other counting a teacher does is probably counting step patterns, not the music. (Although they’re related, there’s a difference between counting music and counting step patterns. I’ll eventually do some posts on this or you can check out Chapter 6, “Counting Step Patterns,” in my book.)

I wish teachers would spend a few minutes in beginners’ classes going over the beat. While counting music for an hour would be boring, educating students for five minutes on how to do it would be helpful. The beat is not like learning step patterns where you can pick up three or four patterns in an hour, which you could use this weekend at a dance. Learning to hear the beat is a more subtle process that’ll mostly be learned on you own, but teachers need to get their students started.

If you don’t have an ear for music or prior music training, which was my sorry situation, learning the beat could be a slow, sometimes frustrating, process (albeit fun—you just listen to music). There are levels. You want to be 100% sure of the beat with all kinds of music, from rumba to rock ‘n roll. And once you hear the beat you want to take it from hearing it in your head (intellectually) to feeling it in your body (visceral, intuitive).

In my book I commiserate a bit about my experience. I had a slow start, in part, because I was in denial about being rhythmically challenged. After a bunch of months, maybe six, I was okay at finding the beat, but I was not 100 percent sure. It was closer to two years before I reached maximum comfort and could stop thinking about it. During this time I also worked on phrasing, which is dancing to the bigger structure in the music; and music identification, which is how to tell the difference between, say, salsa and samba music.

I’m not sure if there’s a class any where in the world dedicated to hearing the beat. So here’s the message: you have to learn it on your own. I’ll go into it more in my next post. You can get a jump on it now by following this link to my free chapter, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8.”

If you’re a dance teacher who spends time teaching students how to hear the beat, what’s your experience?

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?

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.”

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)

Photo by Konstantinos Koukopoulos
Photo by Konstantinos Koukopoulos

I was rhythmically challenged. Even after seven years of ballroom dance classes, I still had trouble with the beat — yet I didn’t know it. You see, they don’t teach this stuff in school or in dance classes. Then I found an enlightened teacher, got educated and trained on my own. Now I’m very connected to the beat.

It took me a long time to realize that I had a problem with how to hear the beat in music. There’s not a test you take with a score. You’re friends don’t pull you aside and do an intervention. Dance partners will be less anxious to dance with you but that’s hard to detect because they’ll still dance with you. You can even learn choreography and give the appearance that you’re connected to the music. I believe that’s the state of many celebrities on Dancing with the Stars.

The difficulty in hearing the beat can vary a lot from song to song. You often get songs with beats that are easy, particularly with the teaching music used in ballroom dance classes, which helps you get on the beat and be rhythmic. You can get partners who have a good sense of rhythm and they will help you stay on the beat, yet you won’t know that they’re helping. And very often you step on the beat by guessing or by accident (think: even a broken clock is right twice a day). So it’s easy to be in denial about a lack of rhythm. Besides, you know dozens of intermediate level step patterns so you must be an intermediate level dancer, right?

When I was a beginner, whether I was dancing at a dedicated dance with other beginners or at a venue where nobody knew how to dance (like a wedding reception), many of my partners liked my dancing because I was better than a lot of other guys. Funny thing, those guys were rhythmically challenged too so my musical arrhythmia didn’t stand out. Besides, many of my followers, also beginners, were challenged, so they were unable to judge my ability. To them, being charming, gentle and competently executing cool step patterns—albeit, off time—is better than: 1) being a dweeb or a creep; 2) dancing rough; 3) doing uncool patterns or doing cool choreography that’s poorly executed; 4) rocking back-and-forth like a dork. So even if you’re rhythmically challenged, you can have partners who will tell you, sincerely, you’re a good dancer, which further buries the truth.

In my experience this is not just a guy thing. Many women are rhythmically challenged. I suspect that a minority of people have the ability to really hear the beat—that is, to always be sure of the beat, not just occasionally (guessing doesn’t count). I suspect that not being sure of the beat is the average condition.

An intellectual (read: superficial) grasp of the beat can be easy to fake because it often works — by guessing, by accident and by dancing to music with beats that are easy to hear. But having rhythm in your flesh and bones (read: natural and intuitive) is where you want to be. It’s a thrill to be viscerally moved by music as it’ll not only make you a dancer but it’ll make listening to all music more enjoyable. I believe that most people can train themselves to always hear the beat, but first you need to be educated. I just wish they taught it in school and in dance classes.

What’s your story: Do you suspect you’re rhythmically challenged? Where you once rhythmically challenged and did you overcome it? How did you overcome it?

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.

5 reasons to take your wedding dance seriously

Photo by edenpictures
Photo by edenpictures

This is not an attempt to arm-twist you into ballroom dance classes. I’m just suggesting you weigh the costs and the benefits.

  1. 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 confident going into your wedding day. Plus, if you plan your wedding dance correctly, you can match the routine to your ability, which will prevent you from taking on more than you can handle, further easing the tension.
  2. It provides social proofing. Can we talk man to man? Throughout history and across cultures, men have danced. The most macho characters in American film have danced, from Arnold Schwarzenegger (True Lies) to Brad Pitt (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) to Harrison Ford (Witness) to Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro). Dancing, especially at your wedding, is the correct behavior for men—hence, it gives you social proof. You don’t have to like it but being able to ballroom dance and not show fear is alpha male behavior.
  3. It’ll make your fiancé happy. If your fiancé wants to do a credible wedding dance, whether it’s choreographed or just loosely put together, then your support and willing involvement will make her love you even more.
  4. It will be captured on video. Ouch. The YouTube era makes it open season on us klutzes. Let’s hope you don’t have friends who are disturbed or hold a grudge. But even if it’s never posted to the web, the videographer is going to nab some dance footage and it’ll end up on the official wedding video. Over the years, you’ll watch it again and again. Your children will watch it. Their children may watch it. Do you want to risk doing something you’ll regret?
  5. You’ll be expected to dance at events for the rest of your life. Learn an easy dance step or two now and it will not only get you through your wedding but through every other wedding reception, dinner dance, nightclub, concert, cruise, New Year’s Eve party and senior center social that you attend for the rest of your life.

Oh, one more thing: They say that how you dance is a metaphor for who you are. By learning to dance together, you may discover something new about the person you’re about to marry.

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

If you’re about to get married, what’s your biggest issue preparing for the first dance? If you’re already married, do you regret not taking it more seriously?

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

Photo by Branden Lally
Photo by Brendan Lally

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 would have been good places to start, but I couldn’t predict when they were coming. Something was missing, but it’s hard to know what you don’t know.

I now know that those spots occur on a regular basis: every eight beats of music. It’s best to start dancing on the first beat of a set of 8, called the count 1 or “the 1 of the music.” You can also start on a count 5, the beginning of the second four-beat measure. Women expect you to start on a 1 or 5 or it’ll be an awkward start.

This brings up one of the more difficult subjects in ballroom dancing: phrasing. Technically, you can be on the beat but, if you start dancing on the wrong beat, you will be “off phrase.” In a dance with an eight count basic step pattern, like salsa or cha-cha or Lindy Hop, it’s more important to start on a count 1. A dance with a six count basic, like West Coast swing or East Coast swing or foxtrot, it’s less important (that is, it’s easier to get away with starting on a count 5).

What’s your experience when trying to start a dance?

What you need to know about asking her to dance

Photo by Alexander Zabara
Photo by Alexander Zabara

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; after you ask her to dance you don’t have to talk again. Just dance. (Correction: it’s good etiquette to say “thank you” at the end of a dance.)

Identify someone to approach

Some good choices for potential partners include: someone who you know; someone about your dance ability; someone who dances a lot and with different partners; someone close to the dance floor; anyone on the edge of the dance floor, tapping her foot and smiling.

What to say

The opener is straight out of a playbook: “Would you like to dance?” “Shall we dance?” Or a simple “Dance?” Don’t think too hard, just follow the script. A nonverbal request is not uncommon: you offer your hand, smile and maybe nod. I’m somewhat okay with that, although I think a nonverbal request with a stranger is a bit distant (I’d at least throw in the word “Dance?”). What I often do is offer my hand, as a minor nonverbal gesture, as I’m asking her to dance. For a related tangent, Argentine tango dancers have a whole nonverbal ritual, which includes a nod of the head called a Cabeceo.

Rejection is rare

The etiquette in ballroom dance is to always accept an offer to dance. So your requests will almost always be accepted. (Note: that doesn’t mean she’ll be happy about dancing with you, which is a different topic). And you should accept virtually all requests when you’re asked to dance.

If she declines

If she declines, to save a little face, you can respond, “okay, maybe later.” If she declines, it usually comes with a reason, which is the polite way to decline a dance. If you decline, give a reason like you’re tired, or you’re sitting this one out, or you don’t know how to do the jitterbug. The proper etiquette is to sit the entire dance out and not accept a dance from someone else until the next song.

Offer your hand

After she accepts I either offer my hand or, if my hand is already out, I leave it out for her to grasp. The hand thing is a little corny but it shows confidence. I escort her onto the floor still holding her hand, which I find to be a manly gesture. At that point I’ve also established, to some degree, a dance connection before we’ve started dancing. This helps me evaluate what we’re going to do a moment later when we start dancing.

Be a desirable partner

The more dance-oriented the venue, the more it matters how well you can dance. Generally, the better you can dance, the easier it is to attract a partner. If you’re at a dedicated dance venue, the sure way to be the guy that followers seek is to be a good dancer. If you can’t dance, check out this post on how to be the ballroom dance partner women love.

So, are you going to be an arms-folded-hiding-in-the-corner wallflower or are you going to join the group? After years of being the loner on the sidelines, I came to the conclusion that it takes more effort to avoid the dance floor than it does to follow the playbook and ask someone to dance. Don’t think, don’t hesitate–just do it. Action cures fear.

Do you have a favorite way to ask someone to dance?

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

Photo by Brendan Lally
Photo by Brendan Lally

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, sensitive and fun. Here are some specific things to do:

  1. Show up. Most guys won’t even attempt to dance. Stepping onto a dance floor is taking a risk. Women like risk-takers—it’s alpha male behavior.
  2. Be gentle. Minor injuries are not uncommon, especially when doing an underarm turn. She probably won’t tell you that you tweaked out her shoulder when you turned her too rough. But she will dread the next time you ask her to dance. Warning: Do not let your ego exceed your ability. If you can’t dance and think you can, you will tend to be rough and insensitive.
  3. Practice etiquette. Follow the Golden Rule. Act civil and polite to the point of overdoing it.
  4. Look at her. Make good eye contact, short of giving her that stalker stare. Places not to look: at your feet and at other dancers. I’ve had partners who close their eyes when they dance. Bad move.
  5. Chitchat. While it’s not good form to talk and dance, a little chitchat while you dance is common, fun and suave—after all, if you can tell jokes while twirling through patterns, maybe you can do anything. If you can’t dance, exchanging some pleasant words as you do an awkward sway will look better than exchanging dirty looks as you do an awkward sway. (Note: never stop dancing in the middle of the floor and just talk—move off the floor.)
  6. Pretend you’re in love with her for three minutes. This was the advice of the late, great Frankie Manning, the grandfather of swing dancing. Learn it well.
  7. Smile and look confident. Do not be bothered by your inability to ballroom dance. Pretend you’re having fun. Fake your confidence.
  8. Ignore mistakes. It’s common to feel spotlighted when you dance; but it’s unlikely many people, if any, are watching. If a mistake is made, do not stop dancing–keep moving. Add a smile and it may look like you were improvising a new move. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  9. Laugh at yourself. Keep a light attitude; be able to laugh at yourself so when you make a mistake your reaction is to flash a genuine smile. Don’t have high expectations, have fun.
  10. Look at her face for fear, confusion or disgust. She’s not going to tell you that she’s unhappy so you’ll have to use your intuition. If she looks disturbed, stop what you’re doing and try something else.
  11. Relax. Granted, it’s hard to relax when you’re just a beginner and don’t know what you’re doing. Nonetheless, tension will make you look stiff; relaxation will make your movements look effortless. Would you rather be a stiff guy who can’t dance or a relaxed guy who can’t dance?

The only time you look embarrassingly bad is when you’re uptight and bothered by your inability to dance. So, if you flat out can’t dance, the solution is not so much faking the dance, which requires some skill. The secret, as noted in number 7 above, is faking your confidence.

If you can’t dance, what’s your biggest issue when you step onto the dance floor?

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 to do a basic side step:

  1. It uses the versatile double—single—double—single rhythm pattern (that’s eight beats of music: STEP STEP—STEP HOLD—STEP STEP—STEP HOLD), which is easy and fits a vast range of tempos and musical genres. This simple footwork creates a rhythm for the feet that anybody can groove on.
  2. If you don’t have a good dance connection with your partner—two newbies will not have a good dance connection—it will be easier to move your partner side-to-side than to move her forward-and-back.

Even if you know some dances, the plight of many beginners is that they can’t identify the music and what dance to do. If you get stuck on the dance floor not knowing what dance to do, start with a basic side step; then, see what develops and transition into something else if it’s appropriate. Watch other dancers on the floor for clues.

If you’re looking for minimal choreography, the basic side step is a good foundation step pattern for a wedding dance and a slow dance. Learn it well.

Note: The basic side step will not work for a waltz because waltz music is counted in sets of 6 (all other ballroom music is counted in sets of 8).

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 the rhythm pattern to use for a sway (single–single is the rhythm pattern, SIDE TOUCH—SIDE TOUCH is the verbal call, keep repeating), which is what to fall back on if you get stuck, lost or confused–or if you flat-out don’t know what you’re doing. If you neglected to take lessons before your wedding, use this to survive your wedding dance—but choose a wedding song with a beat you can hear. You still have to connect to the music or you’ll just get an awkward rocking back and forth. If you can’t hear the beat, I urge you to learn how to count sets of 8.

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 the beat in music. It’ll also make listening to all music more fun—even your rap and metal stuff—because it helps you predict where the music is going.

A major phrase is a “paragraph” of music (sets of 8 are the “sentences”). While sets of 8 will be consistent throughout a song (Geek Alert: that’s by virtue of the 4/4 time signature), major phrases vary so a song can have phrases of different lengths. Like other structural elements of music, sometimes hearing the major phrases is subtle and sometimes it’s in your face. The basic 32-beat phrase is common and they’re easy to hear in this music.

Is there music (name the title) where you can’t hear the major phrases?

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 want to be too definitive in case some folks have an off-beat taste in music) of the popular music that you hear today is structured in sets of 8. If you do ballroom dancing, all music except waltz will be in sets of 8 (waltz is in sets of 6). In some music the sets of 8 are easy to hear, and in some music they’re bloody hard to hear. The music in this video is easy.

Second, downbeat and upbeat:

Again, the vast majority of all music you hear today will have the “downbeat upbeat” structure. Even if you can’t hear it, it’s there (waltz is “downbeat upbeat upbeat”). The music in this video has very pronounced upbeats. You have to hear the structure in the easy tunes before you can hear it in the harder stuff.

Is there music (name the title) where you can’t hear the sets of 8 or the downbeat/upbeat?

Ballroom book and blog

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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 Your Wedding Dance and Keep Cool on a Cruise, at a Formal, and in Dance Classes. It’ll be for sale on Amazon by the end of January 2010.

Clik here for the Table of Contents to see what’s in the book. And check out four free chapters here: “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8,” “Downbeat and Upbeat,” “Slow Dancing,” and “Surviving the Wedding Dance.” Then click over to the Freebie Video page to see the video clips that go with the book. I’m still working on a couple of the vids. Hang tight.

It’s not been easy putting music, rhythm and dance into words, but I think I did it. I’m going to take the rest of the afternoon off.

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 I learned in class) and some of it had to do with my poor memory (read: the half-life of a new pattern from class for me is as little as 10 minutes). But a lot of it had to do with tempo.

The tempo of a song is the number of beats per minute, e.g., 120 BPM. Every dance has a range of tempos that work for that dance. Teachers tend to teach at the slower range because it’s easier to learn a dance at a slower tempo. When you’re at a dance you’ll hear a range of tempos but my unscientific-Murphy’s-Law opinion is that very little will be at the slower tempos, the one you learned in class. I seemed to always get deejays and bands that played mostly uptempo (fast) music.

Other stuff being equal—same partner, same dance moves—I began to notice a pattern: what worked for me at, say, 120 BPM would be awkward at 130 BPM and might completely disintegrate at 140 BPM. This erosion of my dancing prowess was not necessarily a lack of physical ability and coordination. It was more the inability of my brain to keep up with the action at faster tempos. Mental confusion. Because my dancing was not yet automatic, at faster tempos my brain was not quick enough to remember everything I had to do: my foot goes here, my hand goes there, the lead is like this, stay on the beat, flirt with a clever line. Plus, I had to think about what move to try to impress her with next. Plus, I was always distracted with trying to look cool, not easy for a beginner.

It took me a while to realize that uptempo music was a problem because, when you can’t hear the beat, which was my problem for many years, you can’t hear the tempo. Being stuck at the beginner level for more than seven years gave me plenty of time to formulate and test this theory. Noble-Laureate I’m not, over-analytical dancer I am.

I’m still a bit picky with songs and, unless I have a partner of equal or better ability, I tend to avoid uptempo. Although it doesn’t always work nor is it always appropriate to even try, I attempt to manage the process with conversation. For example, if the song hasn’t yet started, I might use a line like this: “Let’s dance but we have to make sure it’s a good song.” If I’m already on the floor and dancing and it’s not going well, I might go with this line: “This is not a good dance song, way too uptempo—gosh, it’s probably over 160 BPM—let’s dance the next one.”

I asked Skippy Blair about tempo and she said, “People do have tempos. There are those who dance everything. There are those who cannot dance slow. Many people ‘own’ a tempo.” And she suggested this line: “I’d sure love to dance with you the next time they play my tempo.”

ADVANCED INFO ALERT: You dudes who count tempo in measures per minute (MPM), puh-lease, have mercy. In 4/4 time, you would say 120 BPM is equal to 30 MPM, but in ¾ time you would say 120 BPM is equal to 40 MPM. Are you telling me that even if my ear hears the same number of beats in the span of a minute I need to know time signatures (4/4-time, ¾-time) to identify tempo? Can you make tempo any more difficult for the beginner?