Learn to dance – partner dancing 101

I used to be rhythmically challenged. I used to finish ballroom dance classes more confused than when I started. I used to fear the dance floor. I was a mess.

Dance class
Dance class

Yet, my experience, especially among men, is common. Most dance classes are geared to people who have natural ability. If you have no talent, like me, read on…

What follows is both an intro to the stuff covered in the book (Every Man’s Survival Guide to Ballroom Dancing) as well as a lesson plan, which you can start…now.

While you obviously need a partner, there’s much you can do on your own. It’s odd, but it was the time I spent by myself working things out in my head and creating muscle memory—counting sets of 8, counting major phrases, learning musical genres, tapping out rhythm patterns and shadow dancing—which gave me the foundation I needed to excel in class. The stuff that I worked on at home, alone, is what elevated me to a level where I could finally make progress in class and when I practiced with a partner.

Ideally, what follows is material you should know before your first class. But even if you’ve been taking classes for a while and think you know how to dance, learn this stuff now—it’s the gateway to upper-level dancing. And away we go:

1) Learn to hear the beat of music.

This seems like a no-brainer but many people don’t hear the beat as well as they think. By listening for the “sets of 8” and the downbeat and upbeat, you can take your connection to the beat from intellectual (read: superficial, in your head) to intuitive (read: visceral, in your body):

  • The sets of 8 beats in a piece of music define the beat of the music. If you can count the sets of 8, you’ve found the beat. Partner dance classes won’t teach you how to count music. Since counting music is the salvation for anyone who is rhythmically challenged, I’ve put that chapter on the web for free. Cancel your trainer and let the dog go hungry, head directly to Chapter 2, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8.” Then click on the Freebie Video tab for the free video clips that go with the book; scroll down to “Page 35 – Counting Sets of 8” and check out the two video clips for this chapter. I’ll get more videos up eventually, but this is it for now.
  • The downbeat and upbeat structure in music is like an autopilot that’ll keep you on the beat. First, on the Freebie Video page, scroll down and check out the video clip, “Page 41 – Hear the Downbeat and Upbeat.” Then, if you trade me your email address, I’ll give you that chapter from the book for free, Chapter 3, “Downbeat and Upbeat.” (I hate junk email so I ain’t gonna spam you or give your email to anyone. Period.)
  • I know, you can’t get enough. Go to the category page for “Hear the Beat,” which lists, on the bottom half of the page, all the blog posts I’ve done on the subject. And check out my new book (2018) just on counting music and hearing the beat, Hear the Beat, Feel the Music.

2) Understand the importance of weight changes.

The pattern of weight changes is the most important element to know when learning a new dance step. Practicing the pattern of weight changes, also known as the rhythm pattern, has nothing to do with moving around the floor. It’s more like marching in place. And it’s something you can do at home, alone, as you’ll see in Step 3 below.

I don’t have much content posted yet on “rhythm” (rhythm in dance refers to the pattern of weight changes), so here are the definitions of the terms I use in Chapter 4, “Rhythm Patterns,” to get you going. Pay attention to single rhythm, double rhythm and triple rhythm. In fact, read those three definitions now and then skip below the definitions to the paragraph, “Now, the revelation that crystallized my understanding of dance…,” where I reveal the key that unlocked the door to dance.

Note: In dance, the word “step” is synonymous with “weight change,” and a step can be done in place

verbal call – the language used to call a pattern as you dance; some common words used in verbal calls are STEP, HOLD, QUICK and SLOW; verbal calls can vary from teacher to teacher and the same pattern can have different verbal calls; for example, both of these verbal calls are for the common six-beat foxtrot pattern: STEP STEP—STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD and QUICK QUICK—SLOW—SLOW (a word in all caps is a verbal call; double-hyphens separate two beats of music); some language used in verbal calls can be confusing, for example, QUICKs and SLOWs (more below)

dance rhythm – always two beats of music (except waltz, which is three beats), it’s the number of weight changes in two beats of music; for example, single rhythm, double rhythm, triple rhythm, which are the basic dance rhythms

single rhythm – one weight change in two beats of music; common verbal calls are STEP TOUCH and STEP HOLD (another common call is SLOW, but note that SLOW does not account for the second beat of music, which has no weight change, and that might cause a problem in keeping track of the beat); looking at just the first two beats of music, the pattern count would be: 1 hold–2

double rhythm – two weight changes in two beats of music; a common verbal call is STEP STEP (another common call is QUICK QUICK; note that some people misuse QUICKs, see triple rhythm for more on that); looking at just the first two beats of music, the pattern count would be: 1 2

triple rhythm – three weight changes in two beats of music; common verbal calls are STEP-THREE-TIMES and TRI-PLE-STEP (some people call a triple QUICK-QUICK-QUICK or QUICK-QUICK-SLOW—please don’t do that, let’s reserve QUICKs and SLOWs for use in single and double rhythms); looking at just the first two beats of music, the pattern count would be: 1&2

rhythm pattern – a combination of two or more dance rhythms; for example, salsa and rumba, which share the same eight-beat rhythm pattern, is double—single—double—single

step pattern – a combination of the rhythm pattern and the direction

direction – direction of movement, which includes foot positions (feet together, feet shoulder width apart, and so on)

counting step patterns – identifying the sequence of weight changes in a step pattern by counting only the beats that have weight changes (including weight changes between the beats, like the “& count”)

pattern count – counting a step pattern creates the pattern count, which is done by counting weight changes on the beat, not by counting total weight changes; also casually referred to as “the count” for short; for example, the count for East Coast swing and West Coast swing is, 1 2—3&4—5&6 (some count swing by counting weight changes like this, 1 2—123—123, which disregards the structure of the music and makes it hard to learn the beat)

Now, the revelation that crystallized my understanding of dance and made learning any new step pattern a cakewalk…you may have to meditate on this…take a deep breathe, exhale…here goes…The secret to understanding dance is this: Almost every basic step pattern of a dance is some combination of single, double and triple rhythm.

Tip: When you learn a new step pattern, first try to identify the rhythm pattern as this will help you to remember the move and to learn it. (Note: There are over 25 different dance rhythms; single, double and triple rhythm are just the basics, the ones to learn first.)

Alert: Let me clear something up because it isn’t always clear: Counting music and counting step patterns are not the same. Counting music is what you learned in Step 1 above—it’s counting sets of 8. So when teachers count you in to start, say, a swing dance, and they count, “and a five, six, seven, eight…[you start dancing]…one, two, three-and-four, five-and-six,” they just dealt you a switcharoo: they went from counting music to counting a step pattern (counting a step pattern is the pattern count). When I figured that out I did one of those comedic Louis-Black-head-shakes, which he does when he hears something that blows his mind. I urge you to learn the correct way to count step patterns (Chapter 6, “Counting Step Patterns”).

3) Burn the most common rhythm patterns into your brain.

You can practice rhythm patterns by “marking” them, which is doing weight changes while standing in place. (I got creative when marking rhythms, see Chapter 5, “Marking Rhythms.”) Click on the Freebie Video tab and scroll down to “Page 64 – Marking Single Rhythm” to see how to mark single rhythm. It’s set up as an eight-beat rhythm pattern that repeats single rhythm, which looks like this: single—single—single—single (verbal call: STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD—STEP HOLD).

Behold, ‘O Humble Rugcutter: Much of what is taught today in the dance world is hard. For folks who just want to learn partner dancing to casually make their way through a variety of social dance situations, here’s an easy dance step that will give you the most mileage: The most versatile rhythm pattern is the double—single—double—single (verbal call: STEP STEP—STEP HOLD–STEP STEP—STEP HOLD). This eight-beat pattern fits the broadest range of musical genres and the broadest range of tempos. It’s the best rhythm pattern to use for a survival dance. I demonstrate it in the basic side step, which is a drop-dead easy step pattern and, for a beginner, a good foundation for a survival dance. Click on the Freebie Video tab and scroll down to “Page 103 – The Side Step” to see the leader’s part for marking the floor pattern of a basic side step. Followers, do the mirror opposite (a good verbal call for both leader and follower: SIDE TOGETHER—SIDE TOUCH—SIDE TOGEHER—SIDE TOUCH, no weight change on the TOUCH). (More on survival dancing in Chapter 13, “Survival Dancing.”)

Remember: As mentioned above in the definition for rhythm pattern, the other neat thing about double—single—double—single is that it’s the rhythm pattern for the basic step pattern for both salsa and rumba. Yeah, yeah, some teachers rearrange the rhythms and teach rumba single—double—single—double. Don’t freak out, they’re essentially the same dance (I explain this in the box titled, “Rhythm Patterns for Common Social Dances,” in Chapter 4.)

To repeat: Whenever you learn a new step pattern in class, figure out the rhythm pattern immediately. When you get home that evening, mark it, over and over, which starts the process of baking it into your muscle and bones. Repeat in perpetuity until you can do it without thinking. As you work on marking the rhythm pattern, you can add direction of movement (where to step) to create the floor pattern. Then, when you get to class or a social dance, you’ll be free of those distractions and can focus on more tactical issues like adjusting to your partner, the lead and follow, what move to do next and, if you’re like me, keeping your cool.

Tip for the timid: Afraid to take a dance class? Find out the rhythm pattern of the first couple of step patterns that will be taught. Burn those rhythm patterns into your brain before the first class.

What about the waltz?

Real quick…waltz is the exception to all the rules. A dance rhythm in waltz is three beats of music, which is structured: downbeat upbeat upbeat (and the feeling as you dance should be: down up up). In waltz music, two three-beat measures are naturally paired to create a set of 6 (versus a set of 8, which is the structure of all other dance music).

What next?

You need time on the dance floor. This can be lessons, practice and social dancing. It also includes shadow dancing, dancing by yourself (more on shadow dancing in Chapters 5 and 13). I recommend you take classes, which is also an easy way to find dance partners. And I suggest that you keep your expectations low—outside of social contact, there may not be a lot of instant gratification. Plan to do more than just one six-week series of lessons. Think about sticking with lessons for a year or two if you want to get comfortable on the dance floor.

Everything you should have learned in dance class, but didn’t

There are many elements that must come together to make a good dancer. There’s so much more to it than just learning an encyclopedia of step patterns. I cover many of these things in my book, stuff like lead and follow, ballroom posture and frame, movement and timing, ballroom technique, improvising choreography, partnering and etiquette. I also reveal the psychology and strategy I use for approaching a social dance floor, which was learned the hard way—through frustration and embarrassment.

One more thing. There are two more free chapters posted, “Slow Dancing” and “Surviving the Wedding Dance.”

Buy the book on Amazon

Copyright © 2019  James Joseph. All rights reserved.

8 Replies to “Learn to dance – partner dancing 101”

  1. I just started to learn Argentina Tango and was at wits end to figure out how to count the beat. I am so glad I came across your webpage. I would love to hear more about upbeat and down beat.

    One question, I tried the 8 beats with most tango music which was so clear now after what you said until the very last phrase or 8 beats. Does something different happen when a song came to an end?

    1. Holly, glad to hear you’re learning how to count music and hear the beat. Regarding the downbeat and upbeat, I’ll have new content out within the next year (and you’re welcome to ask a question now). For now, practice clapping to music, which is done on the upbeats (counts 2, 4, 6 and 8). See if you can clap correctly to a new song without counting. Then count the sets of 8 to confirm it. (I believe that Argentine tango music is not music that makes you want to clap, so try something else, like blues, swing and a lot of rock.)

      I’m never surprised when music does something “different.” But music used for partner dancing is generally simple music so it’s less likely to do something “different.” Unfortunately, I don’t know what you mean by “different,” nor do I know what you’re listening to, so it’s impossible for me to comment. Can you post the youtube link of the song and identify the segment (eg, 0:53 – 1:12) that’s giving you a problem? Or at least post the name of the song and I’ll try to find it.

  2. The rhythm patterns of Rumba and Salsa is Double-single Double-Single. Rhythm of Samba Triple-Triple. Jive is Double-Triple-Triple. Like wise what is the Rhythm Pattern of Waltz.

    1. Theekshana, the rhythm pattern for the basic step pattern in waltz is this: triple—triple. But this triple is a “waltz triple,” which is different than the triple rhythm used in samba and swing (jive).

      Waltz is the exception to the rule. Waltz music is counted in sets of 6 (all other dance music is in sets of 8). Waltz uses three-beat dance rhythms, which are structured: downbeat upbeat upbeat (all other dance music uses two-beat dance rhythms, which are structured: downbeat upbeat). The pattern count for the waltz triple is: 1 2 3. The pattern count for the basic step pattern in waltz (triple–triple), is this: 1 2 3–4 5 6

  3. Thanks, Jim. Some truly practical information and it is true that a huge amount of what you posted are simply not taught in ballroom dances! The practical information and tips about body contact in dancing are especially useful. Well done. Maybe you should also include more tips, about what ladies should know and do, like what you have already done teaching ladies how to put their hand if they do no wish a closer contact. Things like what to wear (very soft bras), for a tall lady to avoid such contact and even keep some distance when the man is shorter than you (so as not to hit him in the sensitve area when lowering), etc.

    I would however strongly suggest that the international terminology be used for measuring ballroom music to avoid confusion. Instead of beats per minute, most ballroom music are counted as Bars Per Minute (BPM), as is done by all the major ballroom music producers (Casa Musica, Prandi, etc) and by professional dancers. This is much easier than some excessively big numbers, and the standard dances all have very well defined standard tempo based on this BPM (not beats per minute), e.g. Waltz 29 BPM, Slow Foxtrot 29 BPM, Cha Cha Cha 31 BPM, Tango 32, etc although minor variations exist in non-competition music.


    1. Dan, you seem to have had a lot of training, and I presume it’s in the the International ballroom style, so I take your comments to heart. Thank you for acknowledging the shortcomings of typical ballroom dance classes (“shortcomings” is my word, not yours). 

      Thanks for your suggestion to give more tips, esp. for the follower. 99% of my time has been spent as a leader and I simply don’t know as much about following as I do about leading. I’ve interviewed many followers over the past 16 years, and I continue to interview them, so I hope to give followers more tips in the future. Feel free to add your tips, for leader or follower.

      Now, tempo. With all due respect, why use the International terminology for tempo? Counting in BARS per minute is not universal among dancers. For example, counting in BEATS per minute is the accepted format of the GSDTA and they have thousands of teachers worldwide. Moreover, I find counting in BARS per minute to be cumbersome and inaccurate. 

      My audience is beginners and I have to assume that they do not know music theory. This is why I talk about “sets of 8” (a dancer’s term) and not “bars” or “measures” (musician’s terms). You say that waltz and slow foxtrot are both 29 bars per minute. If I were a beginner and did not know music theory I might easily think they were the same “tempo,” that is, in both cases my feet were moving at the same rate (if I stepped on every beat). Not! To tell me why my feet are actually moving at different speeds you would have to explain time signatures, the difference between 3/4 time and 4/4 time, measures, and the fact that the word “bar” is a synonym for “measure.” Counting in bars per minute will also require that I do some math (multiply and divide by 3 or 4). And what happens when I get a foxtrot that’s 118 BEATS per minute–how many BARS per minute is that? I guess the answer is 29.5 (118/4 = 29.5), which is awkward. It’s also worth noting that using “bar” instead of “measure” makes the abbreviations of BARS per minute and BEATS per minute the same–BPM–which could be confusing to the unsuspecting newbie (at least the abbreviation for measures per minute is MPM).

      In contrast, when I count tempo, waltz and slow foxtrot would not be the same tempo. If I want to express your waltz tempo as a number, I would say it’s 87 beats per minute (29×3=87) and your slow foxtrot would be 116 (29×4=116). The numbers, 87 and 116, are not “excessively big numbers” as you state. They are simple and easy and they more accurately reflect what’s going on.

      Sorry for the rant but my mission is to help non-dancers, reluctant dancers and the rhythmically challenged. Maybe the International style and ballroom music producers should update their material to make it easier and more accessible to the bulk of people who just want to learn how to social dance.

  4. The shadow dancing and other ideas in the “Start Here” has been working well for me. I’m starting to get confident with the beats and some basic footwork. Your incremental progression is a formula for success. It is getting to be fun!

    1. Shadow dancing was a remarkable tool for me and I still use it. Without the distraction of trying to impress my partner, I was able to focus on the music and dance technique. I did this mostly in the 1990s, pre-internet music streaming, so I listened to a lot of random music on the radio. This helped my dance identification skill–identifying what dance to do to a particular piece of music—an important skill for the social dancer, which is not taught in dance classes. I didn’t know how to identify musical genres, like the difference between salsa and rumba, so I bought salsa albums and practiced. I was learning West Coast swing, which has a 6-count basic step pattern (remember, the music is in sets of 8); I’d shadow dance through step patterns and try to phrase a series of 6-count patterns, an occasional 8-count pattern and rhythm breaks to the major phrases (like the 32-beat phrase). I worked on dancing spontaneously by shadow dancing to unfamiliar music, visualizing a partner, spontaneously stringing step patterns together and improvising when I made a mistake. I figured out how to dance to music I couldn’t identify by doing simple footwork (just single and double rhythm), which is the survival dance that I talk about today. I had started training with Skippy Blair so I worked on motion study and movement technique, an element of training that she stresses. Not only does that correct the awkwardness of how to move and makes you look good, but it gets you in control of your center (solar plexus). I shadow danced using the rolling count (&a1&a2…) and I practiced the many different components of movement and dance (like rolling triples, swivels, turns, rhythm breaks, jazz moves, etc). I’m not saying that I looked good—heck, no–I was just a beginner with no natural ability—but I began to develop a connection to the music, muscle memory, spontaneity and confidence.

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