Thursday, November 24, 2011

How to Get Better at Dancing

If you've seen Space Jam (first of all, you're awesome), you know that Michael Jordan didn't have some "secret stuff" that made him an incredible basketball player. However, his skill and success certainly didn't come from a bottle of water and untapped self-confidence - although I'm sure that never hurt. Dance is just like any other sport - in order to improve, you need to practice.

But practice alone can only get you so far - it also takes guidance. A soccer coach of mine one said, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." And how right he was. I only wish I could count and identify all the bad habits I have solidified in my dancing by practicing ineffectively and inefficiently. So, here are a few friendly tips on how to improve your dancing instead of locking-in bad habits:

1. Get a coach
 Yeah, this one can hit the wallet pretty hard. But, quite frankly, there's nothing that really beats it. Getting "expert help" from people who have paid their dues will really accelerate your learning curve. Rather than just learning "new stuff," a coach can identify which improvements will be most effective at any point in time. Do I work on shaping? Is my foot placement correct? Is my lead/follow a little rough? The answer to all 3 may be "yes" - a coach can help you determine which one to fix first.

2. Get the right partner
 Easier said than done. I have been fortunate to land a few partners who were VASTLY superior to myself. This has been the single biggest factor in my progress. But having a "better partner" is not always the same thing as the "right partner" - otherwise, nobody would ever have one. The "right partner" is the right mix of:

  • Talent  - Nobody wants to be feel slowed down by their partner. If you're the less talented of the two, catch up. Bring something else to the table in the meantime.
  • Commitment level - Set goals. Set expectations. "I want to be world champion - YOU want to have fun" doesn't work. "I want to win in Silver Latin - YOU want to win in Gold Standard" only works if you're both willing to give and take a bit. "I want to continue dancing Novice this year - YOU want to jump from Bronze to Open" works when the commitment aligns as well. Check to make sure you're on the same page.
  • Patience - No, really. This is huge. Understand that you are BOTH improving, and NEITHER of you is a world champion. There's a lot of common sense and courtesy to be applied here, which can be hard when you're under pressure. For instance, notice the relatively subtle differences here. Declare "semantics" all you want, but you can see how the same correction goes from picking a fight to being productive just by simple choice of words:
    • "I told you, stop pulling me with your arms. Lead with your hips."
    • "You're doing it again. Lead with your hips."
    • "Ouch - too much arm. Don't forget to lead with your hips, now."
    • "Hmm...that one felt a little...'arm-ish.' More hips?"
    • "Still could use more hips. I feel a little too much arm."
    • "Better - mind your hips though. It felt like your arms were doing the work.
  • Build - We all hate this one. And yes, sometimes you can get by while ignoring this (particularly if you're dancing something like West Coast or Salsa). But eventually, there comes a time that you and your partner need to be physically matched appropriately. It's different in almost every dance style. For competitive smooth and standard dancers, height is going to play a huge role. The same is true in latin, although your height becomes less of an issue and your physique plays a bigger role. In lindy hop and swing, leads are going to need a partner they can toss around, which can be a combination of height, weight and more. For the most part though, worry about this one later than the others.
  • Personality - You're hopefully ultimately dancing because it makes you happy. So you don't want a partner that will make you miserable. And yes, dancers can be prima donnas here and there, and you'll have to deal with it - but fighting on the dance floor is not productive. If you're serious about dancing, you and your partner will be spending a lot of time together. You that time to be something to look forward to rather than something to "deal with."

3. Youtube (and other video websites)
 USE SPARINGLY. USE APPROPRIATELY. This is NOT DESIGNED to replace a coach. If you have a question on footwork, look up an instructional video. If you want to learn the basic timing and alignment of a new step, this is great. If you want ideas for some "cool moves" to show off in an open routine or at a showcase, this is a great place for ideas. Probably the most useful purpose, however, is to find videos of professionals doing relatively basic steps and try to identify what they're doing that you are not. Getting a hold of legal DanceVision DVD's doesn't hurt either. But your technique will only go so far without somebody giving you constructive feedback.

4. Group lessons
 Don't knock it. There's always something for everyone, especially if the group is lead by a respectable instructor. This can also force you to practice your basics and keep you from handicapping yourself by only working with one partner.

5. Dance camps
 Few and far between, the only one I've ever even been to was the Independence Day Ball. But seriously, I've never had so much productive dance time in such a short span of time. Professional instructors, wonderful dancers, excellent practice space - what more could you want? Treat yourself to one of these sometime.

6. Go out and dance!
 Dance with new people. Get used to there being more people on the dance floor. Ask people who are better than you for advice/help. Teach some newcomers a thing or two. Dance for a full song without stopping to readjust. Try a new few new steps. See what other dancers are up to lately. And just hanging around other dancers will naturally inspire you. There are plenty of practical reasons for social dancing (meeting potential partners, checking your lead/follow against other people, etc), but really, every once if a while you need to remind yourself that you love dancing and that you're improving. It can be pretty easy to get tunnel vision and only focus on improving. But relax every once in a while and enjoy how much you've learned.

Also, congrats to all those who participated at this year's Ohio Star Ball!
And thank you to my lovely partner YanChen for all the work that went into our victory in Novice Smooth and Standard!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this! I'm only just getting into ballroom and it's nice to know what I should be doing and what path I should be going down to get better. Starting out at the swing society has only just given me a taste of it and I want to get better and learn more. Swing is fun but I would love to continue learning other dances as well. It's really great when more experienced dancers will take you out on the floor and give you a taste of what it is to be really led. I didn't know I was back leading so much until I did dance with someone with a bit more experience than me. Thanks for that by the way. -Meg