joreth: (Swing Dance)


I've been asked a lot recently about my dancing, so I thought I'd make a public post.  I get told that I'm a good dancer and people want to know how long I've been dancing and where I take lessons, so here's the story:

I've been dancing for 18 years, and yet I'm only considered a "beginning-intermediate" dancer.  See, I've only had 2 lessons and I only know a handful of steps and no "styling". When I was about 20, I took a class in college called "social dancing" - a 3-hour evening class once a week (I think it was 3 hours with a break, but it was a long time ago, so I'm not sure ... coulda been 2 hours).  The class introduced us to a new dance every week - we reviewed what we learned the previous week at the beginning of the time slot, then learned a new style (about 3 or 4 steps) for the rest of the time.  For each step that we learned, we practiced it a couple of times with a partner, and then we switched partners to try it again, and we did this multiple times throughout the class.

In this way, I learned, not only 8 or so different dances, but more importantly, I learned lead & follow techniques.  It's the lead & follow techniques that make it look like I know what I'm doing. Leading & following is all about communication.  The real trick to social dancing (as opposed to, say, competition or performance dancing), is A) keep your feet moving to the rhythm no matter what; and B) communication.  That's it.  This means that I can get out on a dance floor and, no matter what my dance partner throws at me, I keep my feet moving (and quickly go back to the correct rhythm if I happen to lose it) & I "listen" to what he's telling me to do through his body signals while I "tell" him through my own signals where I am and how I'm doing.

Then, about 2 or 3 years later, I changed schools and discovered that my new school also had a social dance class.  So I took that class, and I took a dedicated swing dance class, and a dedicated salsa class - all of which met 3 times per week for an hour each.  I ended up dropping the salsa class because dancing for 3 hours a day was too much, so I didn't really learn much salsa.  The social dance class covered more or less the same steps I had already learned in the class at the prior school.  The swing dance class covered more steps than I had previously learned when the social class taught swing, naturally, but it was still "beginner" level.

So, how did I get so "good" when I've only had two lessons?  I dance.  Really, that's it.  When I took the dedicated East Coast Swing class, my teacher convinced me to compete as a beginner, so in addition to dancing 3 times a week, I also had rehearsals for my competition every day.  I danced *every day* for half a semester. I also go to social dance events as often as I can.  It's nerve-wracking to attend a ballroom dance as a beginner - you don't know the steps, you don't know the people, you don't know the etiquette.  Plus, I'm an introvert, which means I have difficulty in social settings because they tire me out.  On top of that, I used to be painfully shy.  I still can't ask anyone to dance unless they're already a good friend of mine.  So, it's hard.  But I did it anyway.

Most of what I know, I learned at social ballroom dances.  I just kept going.  As I danced with more people, I got better at learning dance communication.  As I danced with more people, I learned more steps because new partners know steps that I don't, and vice versa, so we can teach each other out on the floor.  As I danced with more people and watched more dancers, I learned certain stylistic movements that seemed popular or flashy or neat and I tried to adopt them, eventually creating my own style.

Many social dances offer a free group lesson at the beginning of the event.  They will teach the same 3 or 4 beginning steps in a particular dance style appropriate for that event (so, a dedicated swing event will teach a swing dance, a social ballroom event will teach one of any number of dances that you can expect to be doing at that event like waltz, foxtrot, cha cha, or even swing).  Even though it's the same handful of steps that I learned 18 years ago in my first class, I attend as many of those pre-event group classes as I can.  I consider them "refresher" lessons.

And as a more seasoned dancer, I find myself "teaching" my newbie partners when they have difficulty getting the step.  The instructors are usually trying to teach 20 people at the same time, so there isn't a lot of time for personalized instruction.  I can explain something specific to my partner based on what he is doing or not doing, and I find that "teaching" in this way also helps me be a better dancer myself.  If the class is teaching something really basic or something that I'm already really familiar with, I'll switch sides and learn it as a lead (traditionally the guy's role) instead of as a follow.  Again, this helps me to be a better dancer and it also helps me to teach those same steps to my partners later.

There are things called "stylings", which are certain movements that make a dance look really sharp; really professional.  If you watch competition or performance dancers, or even just really good social dancers, you'll see things like the women raise their free hand in the air, or run their hands through their hair, or the men will break from the rhythm and kick or freeze and strike a pose.  I know nothing of these, and that's what keeps me from advancing past beginning-intermediate.  Most social dance classes - the kind I took that just try to introduce beginner dancers to a variety of dances in a short span of time - don't teach stylings because they have to focus on just getting the steps right.  They might occasionally throw in a styling here or there, but mostly we're just trying not to step on our partner's feet.  I'm hoping to take a styling class soon, it's just difficult with a freelancer's schedule because I can't dedicate the same day every week without potentially losing work.

So, if you've ever wanted to learn how to dance but felt intimidated, or you've seen my dance videos and were impressed but thought you couldn't do it or thought it would take too many years, hopefully I've inspired in you the possibility.  People are impressed with my dancing and it sounds impressive to hear that I've been dancing for 18 years, but I'm only a beginning-intermediate dancer who has only had 2 lessons, which means that anyone can learn to dance at least to my own level with a little dedication.  I attend the same beginning group classes over and over again, I dance socially as often as possible with as many different partners as possible, and I try to explain to anyone else interested in learning.  Repetition, practice, and exposure - and you too can dance well enough to impress your friends and family and have a good time doing it!

So inquire at your local colleges and community colleges to see if they offer dance as a P.E. class, do a google search for "social dance" in your area, check at your community halls like city parks and recreation departments or neighborhood community centers or even local churches, and just drop in at a dance studio if you happen to see one as you drive by it to ask if they offer lessons or know where you can take lessons.  It really doesn't take very long to learn how to dance socially, and to do it well enough to impress other folks.
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