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?

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?