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 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.
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.)
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.
Time on the floor. You need practice, really. Classes count for time on the floor.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
Practice etiquette. Follow the Golden Rule. Act civil and polite to the point of overdoing it.
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.
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.)
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.
Smile and look confident. Do not be bothered by your inability to ballroom dance. Pretend you’re having fun. Fake your confidence.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.