How to Learn Dancing

I’ve been thinking about this lately as we watch a new class slowly learn to dance. Some of the students will excel, coming back each week having mastered the material from the previous week and ready to learn more. Some of the students will founder, wanting more and more review as the weeks go on, never quite able to remember the steps from one week to the next. They will finish the class being able to competently peform the basics, but they won’t remember much more than that.

The same thing happens to more advanced learners, as well. I can remember very distinctly learning a complex (or at least it seemed at the time) jazz dance routine from Frankie Manning’s at-that-time teaching partner Debbie something. It took all day. It was fun. It was exhausting. I don’t remember any of it.

So what’s the secret? What’s the difference between those who grow and excel at their dancing and those who founder and ultimately fall short of their hopes to become comfortable and confident dancers?

After teaching people to dance for nearly 10 years now, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe, and here are my thoughts.

1) Taking notes. Not mental notes. Physical ones. The students who do well generally write little notes to themselves to help them remember what they learned. Many of our students have requested that we provide them with notes, but I have decided that this is not in their best interest. The best notes, that will be the most meaningful to you, are ones you take yourself. You can write down the things you need to remember in a way that makes sense to you.

Sometimes, my notes have consisted of little stick-figure drawings combined with arrows and notes. Sometimes, just count-by-count descriptions of what happens during a particular step. Sometimes I like to make comparisons. “Just like jump charleston except…” or “Starts like The Dream, but then…” What makes sense to me will not always make sense to you.

2) Practice. Of course the best notes in the world won’t do you any good without practice. I do still have my notes from the abovementioned jazz routine class. They make a little sense, but not enough sense to enable me to complete the routine. Practice helps develop muscle memory, which means that your muscles can do the step without you really having to consciously move your arms and legs to the right places.

Muscle memory is what enables me to sit down and play Fur Elise at the piano even today, though I haven’t seen the music for a good 12 or 13 years and I learned it when I was in junior high (in the 80s!!). I practiced the song to death, but my muscles still remember how it goes.

Practice can be as simple as walking through the steps you have learned a few times during the week between classes. Or you can set aside a few minutes each day to dance with a partner. Of course, our monthly dance Jive Junction provides a perfect practice opportunity. I’ll have more on practice next week!

3) Attitude. Don’t underestimate the power of attitude. Time and again, I have seen students with absolultely no sense of rhythm or coordination, but who come in thinking “this is going to be fun and it might be challenging, but I can do it!” generally leave class able to dance fairly well. They are not only determined to learn, but they have also determined that they CAN learn it.

I have also watched students with excellent rhythm and coordination come into a class thinking “this is stupid and I can’t do it.” They are the ones who, when we are demonstrating a move, say “oh, man, that’s HARD!” No matter what we say, their answer is “I can’t do this.” That attitude quickly become self-fulfilling. They have decided in advance that it is too hard, and so it is too hard. This is unfortunate, but there’s little I can do as a teacher to change the attitude of a student in four short weeks! I can do my best to help them see the fun in dancing, to make them laugh, to lighten their mood, and to encourage their learning process, but I cannot fundamentally change someone’s attitude – that’s up to them!

4) Dancing socially. Those students who dance socially – that is, with more than one partner – tend to learn faster and learn “better” than those who do not. Even if it is awkward at first to dance with strangers, it is ultimately much better for your dancing. Dancing with different partners really helps you to become a stronger leader or a better follower, not to mention affording you the opportunity to learn from those who are more experienced dancers.

And there you have it – the secrets to learning social dancing. Take notes, practice, have a good attitude, and dance socially. Of course, it helps to seek out instructors who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and to take classes that are appropriate for your level and goals, as well!

See you on the dance floor! (or in class?)

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