Updated: Jan 10, 2018
If you are new to dancing, or if you are thinking about learning to dance, first things first - congratulations! Deciding to learn to dance is a daunting but incredible first step to cashing in on all of the amazing benefits of dance, from exercise and fitness, better moods and improved sleep, meeting and enjoying new friends, and all around higher confidence. But once you have resolved to start dancing that is where things can get a little overwhelming. It is hard to know how to move forward or continue. And if you are not clear about what you are doing or why you are doing it it chances are you won’t stick with it long enough to see any real benefit or advancement.
We were all beginners once too. So what sets some dancers apart from the rest? Speaking as someone who has not only made that journey myself, but also helped train dancers across the country, from amateur to professional, here are several things you can do to help speed your journey to being a proficient, if not great, dancer. Here are the habits, strategies, and mindset I swear by for people who want to Learn to Dance.
1: Identify “why and what” you want so you can be clear about your goals.
The first step is truly taking the time to figure out why and what. I often ask “Why did you decide to come in for dance lessons now? Are you here just to take a few dance lessons, or are you here to learn how to dance? How do you plan on integrating your dancing into your lifestyle?” If you are not clear about why you want to dance or what you are doing it can be easy to throw in the towel when things don’t go as planned. Once you consider these questions and come up with your answers the path becomes a little more clear.
2: Try starting with one group class or private lessons a week and pace yourself.
If you are new to dancing, don’t overcommit. Try starting with one group class or one private lesson a week and schedule it on your calendar like a doctor’s appointment. No need to take a class every night or even try to come to a dance party right away. Then after one month add one more class or private lesson, or try out the party on Friday night. I have seen students come in gung-ho and gobble up groups and privates only to burn out (and wreak havoc on my private lesson schedule) in a matter of 2 months.
3: Prioritize consistency over immediate advancement.
You are better off practicing the same patterns over and over, until they become second nature. It takes time and consistency to build the muscle skills and automatic memory to dance, lead or follow. If I show you one pattern and you pick it up right away don’t ask immediately for another pattern. Don’t think that just because you walked through a pattern once that you have mastered dancing! Just because you were “able to get through them” or you say “I understand it, I just need to go home and practice” I promise by next week, when you haven’t practiced at home like you thought you would, you won’t remember any of them. Instead take the one or two patterns in class and dance them over and over, to different music, in different combinations, in different parts of the room, with different partners. You don’t learn by practicing until you get it right. You learn when you practice until you cannot get it wrong.
4: Take time to talk to and make friends with the other dancers at the studio.
Motivation is what gets you started but habits are how you keep the longevity it takes to truly learn how to dance. Making friends with those around you with similar goals helps to engrain your own good habits about coming to class. It also makes taking the leap to coming to dance party less scary when you know the people you are sitting with are just like you.
5: Shoes are IMPORTANT! Invest in a quality pair of dance shoes.
Wearing sneakers that stick to the floor will negatively impact your joints and ligaments, especially when you need to spin and slide. Wearing hard leather soled dress shoes also is risky because they can be slippery. Dance shoes are designed with chrome suede soles that can both grip and slide, depending on the pressure you put from your foot into the floor. The heel placement of dance shoes is also different from street shoes and better situated to help you roll through your foot for smooth dancing or to help you place your ball down first for rhythm and latin dancing. A great pair of running shoes might cost you easily $150. Proper dance shoes are no different or any less important. They are designed specifically to ease and enhance the movement you are trying to learn, as well as protect your joints!
When you come to studio try not to walk on the dance floor with street shoes. The grit you leave behind will wear away at the suede soles of the dance shoes others have invested in. (Winter is the worst when people track in salt and sand.) All of this dirt also wears ways the expensive professional dance floor the studio spent many many tens of thousands of dollars on. And please consider that some dancers actually lay on the floor for part of their choreography. Rolling in someone else’s shoe gunk and then getting up dirty is never pleasant. I always keep a shoe brush handy and available at the music station so you can clean your dance shoes should they pick up dirt and grime from street shoes. As soon as you walk in the studio the first thing you do is change into your dance shoes! Then when you are done and about to leave change out of those fabulous dance shoes, which should never be worn outside.
6: Think of learning to dance as an act of self care.
I always want students to know that learning to dance well is a road less traveled. The mental battles are the hardest to deal with in the beginning. But stay with it, stay committed, and know that the benefits far outweigh any difficulties. Wake up every day and remind yourself that improving you, in all forms, is the best decision you can make! Learning a new skill is important for the longevity of brain function as we age. And engaging in regular exercise is the best thing we can do for our heart! As well the time spent dancing is time not spent worrying or stressed over home, work, and other commitments. Just giving yourself one hour of uninterrupted joy will do wonders for you.
7: Come early to warm up. Stay after to cool down. Come in anytime to practice. Dancing is not limited to lesson time.
Warming up before your lesson is important to get your body ready for injury-free movement. And the time you use to warm up helps with mental focus. Don’t be shy about getting on the floor even though there may be other lessons or classes going on. Part of dancing is learning to share the floor and music, building spacial awareness, mental focus, and overcoming anxiety of dancing when other may be watching you (although I guarantee they are too busy with their own dancing to watch you!) Use this time to focus on feeling your body. Become aware of the joints in your ankle or how flexible (or not) your hips are that day. Try to walk through previous patterns you learned, remind yourself of the techniques and learning points you heard in your last lesson.
Stretching or cooling down after class is important too. Your brain’s new neurological-connections are fragile. Engaging in other brain intensive activities right away will “overwrite” the dance information you just learned. Start a dance notebook and take notes after class. (Scientists and Doctors say shorthand into your iPhone doesn’t count) So spend some time after class gently walking through your patterns, stretching, and taking notes.
Plus a silent empty dance studio is a dead studio. It is imposing to new students and the environment is cold and sterile. I love the energy that a busy engaged studio provides. It helps to encourage everyone, including me. Working all day alone a big empty cold space is rough. Anytime I am at the studio my door is open for my students to come in. Practicing and engaging your fellow dancers helps to build a vibrant dance community.
8: Don’t compare yourself with others who are further along their dance journey.
Be willing to make mistakes without judging yourself. Be willing to look silly even. (I promise it only feels silly.) Keep trying and with every lesson you will get better and better. Remember the goal is progress not perfection. While others may dance better than you at that particular moment no one is perfect, and everyone was a beginner once. Anyone who sees a dancer starting their journey has nothing but the utmost respect for them.
9: Know that results do not happen right away.
Sometimes people come in just “to take dance lessons”. What they don’t realize is that is very different than “learning to dance”. Instead of just taking a lesson look at dancing as a big picture and make learning a part of your life routine as opposed to an occasional thing to do. Some people achieve immediate short term goals, like dancing in a wedding. But most dancers look at this as a journey, with ups and downs. They understand that results are not immediate but cumulative. A small step today will turn into beautiful dancing in the future if you stick with it long enough.
10: If you are into numbers and stats you can try wearing a heart rate monitor to see how your body is working in real time.
Dancing as a workout can be influenced by several factors like how much you enjoy it, the temperature and the humidity of the room you are working in, the style of dance you are engaged in, and more. You can wear a monitor, fitbit…etc so you can see how your body responds to the physical side of dancing. This gives you objective feedback about how hard your body is actually working. And it can be fun to track and realize that your body gets stronger and your heart works more efficiently with regular aerobic exercise. I have learned that placing a fitbit around your ankle will give you a more accurate tally of steps taken while dancing. While worn on your wrist the sideways steps in dancing often don't register when it is worn on your wrist.
11: Overcome excuses by making a commitment to yourself.
Put your dance lessons on the calendar. Set your dance shoes out the night before. Prepare mentally to come to your lesson or the party. Because we all know it is easy to get home and feel too tired after work to come in to dance. The stresses of the daily grind can build up and at the end of the evening we just give up. Even though I don’t require reservations for group classes you can sign up ahead of time. Use Me to help you be accountable for showing up! As for private lessons turn those into standing appointments. That way you can schedule conflicts around your dancing instead of letting them overshadow and cancel your dancing. By showing up at the studio, just setting that one small goal which you can easily achieve, will give you a feeling of accomplishment that will encourage you to become a better dancer.
12: Practice gratitude for what your body can do right now no matter what your future goals are.
Be grateful for where you are now with your dancing. Enjoy the process. It is a long and sometimes daunting process, for everyone. But don’t let wishing to be a better dancer than you are rob your of your opportunity to learn and the joys of learning now. Happiness is not reserved for some imagined future. Your body is an absolutely amazing thing. Take a few moments every day to appreciate that. Believe it or not that simple gratitude can help you be a better dancer for life.
I promise it will always be worth it. Not always easy. But ALWAYS worth it.