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An approach to practice

October 12, 2009

When first getting exposed to dance, there is a steep learning curve.  Both leaders and followers are trying to figure out steps, how to work around the body in front of them and stay on time to the music.  When encountering all these things for the first time, it can certainly be overwhelming.  So what is the best way to approach practice when starting out?

First let me start by saying that practice is important for both those people intending to compete and those looking strictly to dance socially.  As with any skill, repetition is the key.  What you are building is muscle memory.  That is what will allow you to move smoothly, fast enough to the music, without having to over-exert brain cells while out on the dance floor.

For anyone without a background in music, learning to count the music will be the number one priority.  Without that, you will very quickly get lost.  Listen to music, which you clearly know is a particular style of dance, and practice counting out the beat.  Be sure you can hear half beat in cha cha (4-and-1), quarter beats in samba (1-uh-2) and 3/4 timing found in waltz.  Practice with different tempos such as foxtrot (slow) versus east coast swing and quickstep (fast).

Next practice the steps you have learned on your own.  Make sure you understand your own parts, where arms and legs should be.  The more you can execute movement independent of your partner, the less likely you are to be thrown off by your partner.  This is also true of technique practice.  Work the movement by yourself so that your understanding or execution isn’t dependent on someone else.

In particular for competitive dancers, I cannot say enough for technique drills.  Just like doing scales on a musical instrument, technique drills work to build muscle strength and muscle memory.  If you are particularly serious, consider checking out the book “Dancing to Your Maximum.” (  I have not purchased the book myself yet, but have had it highly recommended by several competitive dancers I know.   It discusses the physical, mental and emotional side of preparing for competitions.

If you have access to a regular dance partner, review both steps and technique together.  The dynamic created when working with another person is different than when working on your own.  I personally like to work technique slowly with my partner, to make sure I really understand how our weight and movement effect one another.  Having the follow close her eyes as much as possible is a very effective way to enforce the leader to actually lead using body cues, as it takes away the visual clues that followers may use.

As to how frequently one should practice, that depends a lot on what you want to accomplish.  Like learning a language, the more you can engage in it the quicker you will learn.  Once a week is a good minimum, more frequently is better if you want to progress more quickly.  When I first started out and was balancing the demands of college, I set my sights lower.  I took group classes as often as possible (usually 3-4 days a week) and practiced 1-2 days a week.  Because I was learning more steps than technique at the time, my focus was more on being able to execute steps well with my partner.   Once I was able to afford privates and shifted my focus to becoming a serious competitor, my practices also changed in focus and frequency.  I began practicing 4-6 days a week and infrequently taking group classes.  The length of practice should mainly depend on how long you can effectively remain focused.  For some people that will be an hour, for others 4 hours.

Most of all, just practice – whether once a week or every day, for 10 minutes or 3 hours, by yourself or with a partner.  It’s getting out there and doing it that counts, especially when you are new to dance.  That is the simplest route to success on the dance floor.

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