Ballroom Dancing Classes – are group classes better than private dance lessons?

I find it fascinating that there are many dance students who really want to look good and feel good when dancing but have only taken ballroom dancing classes in groups only and have never taken private dance lessons.  Often, it is the mistaken impression that they cannot afford the privates because it is expensive.  Group classes range anywhere from $10-$15/class, private dance lessons can range from $65/45 mins – $250+/45 mins.  Note … when it comes to ballroom, do not take private lessons from anyone charging less than $65 per lesson.  You wil get what you pay for …. bad habits and bad technique.  Good ballroom instructors are somewhat rare and word of mouth keeps them busy so they are able charge the market rate.   Another myth is also that only competitors take private lessons.  Both are incorrect.

This is what you will learn in a typical group class.  They usually run in a 4-6 weeks series per dance and you will be taught 1-2 figures/patterns per class.  The mechanics of the figure is usually  taught ie. foot placement, timing, and sometimes depending on the teacher, some technique elements will be covered.  Here’s the thing about partner dancing, there are 2 people involved.  So it does not matter how well you dance by yourself or work on yourself, you need to work with a partner as the dynamics of 2 bodies moving together presents many new challenges.  Group classes are good because it exposes you to many partners.  That can be bad if you are not getting enough exposure to partners at your level or better.  The pacing of group classes are usually catered for the majority.  Therefore, if you are a slower learner you may feel lost or overwhelmed and if you are a fast learner you will be bored.   Because very little technique is taught in group classes and almost no individual corrections, students can spend many years learning lots of fancy steps but make very litte progress in the quality and look of their dancing and develop bad habits in how they lead or follow.

Not all ballroom instructors teach the same way in private lessons so I cannot speak for them.  From my experience, I have developed a teaching methodology that works and gets results.  My beginner students always get compliments on how good they look, for the leaders – their lead feels good and is clear (without hurting the followers) and for the followers, how responsive and light they are.

In a private dance lesson, with my beginner students, I cover the mechanics of 4-5 beginner figures with an average learner.  This would have taken them 4 weeks to get that same material in group classes.  With faster learners, I am able to cover the mechanics of 6-8 beginner figures.  With slower learners, about 2-3 figures.  So from an economic perspective, it works out to be about the same with definite time savings favoring private lessons 45 mins versus 3-4 1/2 hrs of group classes.  The additional benefit of 1:1 instruction in privates is that I can correct the movement and help my students calibrate to it and give them homework in the form of special exercises which will get it into their muscle memory faster.  I will also teach lead and follow technique elements which are critical to becoming popular social dancers or developing good habits from the start to allow them to become winning competitive dancers.   Then after the students have mechanics of the figures, I can then teach the techniques which characterises each dance which is what makes a dance student look good when they are dancing  eg: rise and fall, cuban motion, swing hip action, samba bounce action, jive leg action etc.

Then after they have practised on their own and have the mechanics in their muscle memory, I am able to teach technique in the next private lesson.  Here’s the important part – everybody has different body and movement challenges.  So I am able to fix my students with precision and laser like speed when I am working with them 1:1.  It’s more difficult when I only see them in group classes, there’s only so much my eye can adsorb and my memory can retain when there’s 20-30 bodies in one room all moving in radically different ways.   In a group class, I can only focus on what’s the biggest problem everyone is having and work on that.  And I am one of the few ballroom instructors who do focus on teaching technique in group classes.   I however cannot fully resolve technique issues for everyone in group classes as I don’t have the time to individually correct how they are interpreting the information I am conveying and demonstrating.  This is because even when your brain comprehends something, that does not necessarily mean your body is executing it.  You need someone to look at your movement as you cannot see it for yourself and then help you calibrate it to where it needs to be and that can only happen in a  1:1 setting of a private lesson.

I fall in the category of fast learner who gets bored in group classes.  I am also particular about technique as that’s the secret to looking good dancing and feeling good to your partner.  So I have always taken ballroom private dance lessons myself.

However, I didn’t start off that way.  I learned the hard way, wasting a lot of time and money and working with a lot of dance instructors and coaches before I discovered for myself what gave me the best and fastest results for my money.

I started as a street salsa dancer, and then added street swing and hustle to the mix.  I didn’t have any dance training and only took group classes in salsa.  A bad foot accident took me out of salsa dancing for about 6 months, and after a year, I was still limping.  I looked for ways to recuperate my foot as physical therapy was not doing it.  After I saw a ballroom competition on TV, I noticed the Latin ladies had really strong feet so I hired an instructor and thus began my first private dance lessons in International Latin.  I started in clumpy orthortic shoes, then progressed to jazz flats and slowly worked my way back to 3 inch heels.  In a year, I was competing.

What took me by surprise was that I learned I didn’t know anything about dancing or partner dancing.  I never had to think about my feet or my arms or posture or frame when I was street dancing. Let alone the intricacies of International Latin technique.  None of the salsa instructors talked technique because they didn’t know it and they didn’t dance it either.  I had so many bad habits from my street dancing days that it took me years to eradicate them.

And yes, after I started ballroom private lessons, I really stood out  (in a good way) in the salsa, swing and hustle scenes.  I was invited to dance salsa on TV, photographed by various photographers, my dancing photo was published in a swing book and I was given a lifetime pass to the hottest club in the Bay area because they wanted to use my salsa dancing image on their promotional flyers.

Everyone knows that great musicians come from strong classical music training,  great dancers come from strong ballet training.  What is less known is that great partner dancers come from strong ballroom training.

By now, you would be expecting me to say that private dance lessons would be the best way to go for beginner dancers.  Well, I wouldn’t say that either.

I do not recommend only taking private lessons especially if you do not have a partner.  It will often get monotonous and boring unless you have an exceptional and entertaining teacher or you are working on a showcase or competition which will give you a focus and goal.

I also do not advocate doing group classes only … so easy to fall into bad habits.  When I look at my students who only take group classes, in the same amount of time, my private students have progressed much faster, learned more dances and look and feel better on the dance floor.

I also do not advocate dancing socials only …. even more bad habits and injuries from lack of training and dancing with other dancers with no training.  The only times I have been injured dancing was when I was social dancing in my early days.  Some of my students have suffered from foot injuries because they did not listen to my advice about being selective on who they should social dance with.   In other words, followers stay away from the leaders who have not been trained, who pull and push you with their lead and hurt your arms when turning or twist your body and try to force you into fast turns, dips, tricks, back flips and jumps without finesse.   Leaders, stay away from the followers who are not balanced, or who throw themselves into patterns and dips without paying attention to the lead, who do not have a frame so they are heavy and will create shoulder and back sprains for you or followers who grip your fingers when dancing.

It is in the right combination of private lessons, group classes and social dancing that I see the fastest progress in my beginner students.  Competitors are in a different category – group classes and socials are a waste of time because they will often have to compromise their alignments and technique when it’s still in development and this will lead to bad habits.  Private dancing lessons and lots of practices in between is what’s needed to get technique into muscle memory.  Then when their routines are ready, rounds with other competitive couples to develop floorcraft and stamina.

Here is the best combination I have found for beginners for the best results for looking good, feeling good when social dancing and becoming popular social dancers or allowing them to transition to competitions without bad habits getting in their way, based on my 15 years of dancing, 13 years of taking ballroom dance training and 7 years of teaching.  I have taught hundreds of ballroom group classes and private dance lessons to absolute beginners, intermediate and advanced dancers.

If you are an absolute beginner – you should start with a private dance lesson just to get the basics of posture, center, frame, direction of movements and how to relate to music, connection basics of leading and following.  This can be done in 1 lesson.  Very worthwhile because you are never going to get all this in group classes.  And you will get corrections on how to do it for your body and how you are moving.

From there, you can learn the mechanics (steps, patterns and figures) either in group classes or private lessons.  If you take group classes,  then you can tune what the teacher is teaching to how your body behaves.  After you get the mechanics in your muscle memory, then take private lessons to learn the techniques that are the characteristics of that particular dance.

Repetition is key to improving.  And that can be boring if you are by yourself or even if you have a partner.  So take group classes to practise and reinforce what you learn.  If you have limited time and can’t get to group classes every week, then select the group class at the end of the 4 or 6 week series because this is usually the review and you will get to practise all the figures they have been teaching over the 4-6 week period.  Practise your leading or following with others.  Apply the techniques you have learned in your private lessons while reviewing the steps.

Go to socials and use that as an opportunity to practise.  For leaders, you will hone your navigation skills, ability to focus with  the distractions of other dancers getting in your way, music to dance identification, leading the entire song without stopping and leading many different followers and learning how to adapt to each one.  For followers, it is learning how maintain your timing and connection, trust and reacting to different leaders and styling you will need to practise.  For both, the exercise and cardio work-out you will get from dancing all night will help with fitness and weight loss goals.

I hope this helps you in your quest to learn ballroom dancing and hasn’t created more confusion.  Not all ballroom dancing classes are the same, and not all private dancing lessons are the same.  It depends on the instructor.  However, if you are educated on the process and know what you want, you can find it or ask for it.

I would love to get your feedback on this, please write to me in the comments box below.  Or if you have questions, please write them in the comments box below and I will answer them as soon as possible.

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3 Responses

  1. rbazsz Says:

    I am enjoying reading your blogs because you have lots of insight.

    I am a middle-aged guy that has taken about 10 group lessons at two different studios. I have never taken dance lessons in my life so I’m a total rookie. The teachers seem to be competent and their instruction is very similar for dances like the waltz and East Coast Swing.

    But, I am getting very discouraged.

    I struggle enough to learn the basic dancing steps and then I’m expected to lead the dance. It’s overwhelming to have to think about all of this at once.

    All the women at these lessons are good dancers and that is part of the problem. When they get me in the rotation they are understandably impatient as I stumble around trying to learn things they knew 20 years ago. Most of the women are nice and probably have sympathy towards my plight, but the reality is that I am no fun for them. By the time I almost have the new thing down the instructor is pushing us to the next thing.

    Keep in mind I don’t blame these women. I feel very bad every time I screw up because they paid for lessons also. The time they spend on me is wasted time, and of course that kind of pressure detracts from my concentration on the dance, which means I screw up even more.

    The guys that show up for these things are all experienced so usually I’m the only true beginner. I think the reason that happens is that most guys show up once or twice and get discouraged to go any more.

    The instructor can only slow down so much because it would be boring for the rest of the class to go at my pace.

    So, I’m not sure what to do but surely there must be a slower way to get into ballroom dancing.

    To compound the problems I totally forget how to do the dances by the time I get home. My wife doesn’t want to practice with me because she says I’m a klutz (of course she is right) so I’m on my own. I tried to look at youtube videos but the dances are always different enough to confuse me.

    I hear studios complaining that there aren’t enough men learning ballroom but when they get one like myself they really don’t know how to deal with us. They assume everyone has done some dancing in their lifetimes but I really haven’t. So why don’t they tailor a few classes so that regular guys can learn this stuff?

  2. admin Says:

    Hi Rob,
    Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I am sorry I was not able to respond earlier as I was out of the office and had limited access to email while I was travelling.

    What you are experiencing is common amongst men who have never danced before and start out by taking group classes. And it saddens me that you do not have a supportive environment for you to learn at your pace and enjoyment.
    This is what I have found in my teaching experience with beginners (I’ve taught hundreds of beginners). Everyone has their own pace of learning. Some faster than others. This also applies to movement.

    What makes a person a faster learner is related to their understanding and their body’s experience/familiarity with a particular type of movement in a step/figure/pattern. Therefore, if someone gets it quickly, it’s because they have done it before either in the context of dance or some other kind of movement oriented activity like martial arts, gymnastics, diving, running, acrobatics, boxing etc. However when a particular movement is brand new to your brain and your body, the process for learning that movement needs to be slowed down so that your brain has time to absorb it and then tell your limbs what to do. Only when you understand the basis of the movement so your brain gets it and then repeat the movements slowly and enough times for muscle memory to kick in, will this process hasten. Your brain can process it faster and when the body knows what to do via repetition so it gets into muscle memory, the brain does not have to be consulted. Therefore, when someone gets it very quickly, they have either danced that before or a very similar variation or they have muscle memory from some other activity.

    As I’ve trained in so many different dance styles and have been dancing for so many years, I appear to be a fast learner to others. That’s because my brain already knows it and more importantly, my body already knows how to move in that way without having to consult my brain – muscle memory. However, there has been a few times when I’ve encountered a completely new movement, and I’ve had to say to my coach …. “Hold the horses, slow it down … like really slow it down” so I can figure it out and break it down (many of my coaches cannot break down complex movements) just like what I do for my beginners and repeat it numerous times before it’s in my muscle memory.

    It is very common amongst absolute beginners who have had no history with movement oriented activities to experience the same struggles you are having. And it is more with the leaders (men) than women because men (leaders) have a lot more to do and think about. It’s difficult enough having to remember your limbs, let alone command them to move in a coordinated fashion and then to remember to tell your body not to freak out when a woman is placed in your arms??? That’s way too much for a regular human being. The women (followers) have an easier task in the beginning.
    I always explain this to the leaders and make sure followers hear this so that they appreciate how much harder the men have to work to be able to lead the ladies.

    As a matter of economics, and catering to the general majority, group classes will always address the medium pace learner. Unless you are in a demographic where there’s a large number of beginner men who want to dance – I haven’t run in that demographic yet  Group classes generally does not satisfy the fast or slower learner. As an instructor, I still make sure I don’t neglect the faster and slower learners. I give stretch goals and advanced material to fast learners. I also set the expectations upfront by telling everyone that it’s ok to honor their rate of learning – fast learners have already done it before, so if they are having difficulty and feel they are learning too slowly, they should not feel intimidated. They need to honor their rate of learning and go at their pace – ask questions so that their brain can understand it and if they need things slowed down, that it’s ok to say so. I’m observant too so if a beginner is really struggling, I may pair them off with a more experienced dancer or one of the teacher trainees so they can get some 1:1 help while I run the rest of the class. If the brain understands the movement and can self-correct, even if your body is not getting it in class, you can go home and practice it yourself until your body gets it.

    If I see that the beginner is still having problems after a couple of group classes, I will recommend that they take a couple of privates to get the key foundation material they are missing – usually it’s posture, center, frame, connection, lead or follow elements or issues of balance or strength.

    When I see negative attitudes or the men start to get discouraged, I remind my class that they are there to learn and need to forgive each other of mistakes and to support each other. Especially the women who may give off negative vibes or attitudes to the men who are still struggling with leadings. I remind the ladies how they are constantly complaining about the lack of men to dance with and so they need to do their part in supporting, nurturing and cheering the beginner men in their classes so that they feel welcomed, encouraged and continue to come to classes to improve their dancing. This has worked well for us. I also set the expectations for the ladies that they should strive to be the best follower they can be and that means being able to follow any man. In fact, they will become a stronger followers if they dance with leaders of different skills levels.

    Here’s my recommendation for you. Have you articulated your concerns to your instructor and see if they have enough students to have a beginner friendly class? If they don’t, when you need the pace of the group class to slow down, speak up and ask the instructor to repeat the instruction. Not all instructors are intuitive so they rely on feedback from their students and appreciate it. Before I move onto something else, I always ask if it’s ok to move on and will repeat the movement or explanation a few more times in different ways. The instructor has to be skilled at time management to be able to do this. Don’t feel bad about holding up the class, you also paid your money so you have a right to ask for what you need. It’s the instructor’s job to balance it out so that everyone leaves feeling happy. Having said that, make sure you are not at an advanced or intermediate class as that’s the wrong class for you. You should be at a Level I Bronze classes.

    I also recommend taking a few privates to get your foundation in place because it sounds that a lack of understanding of the general concepts and how things hang together is making it difficult for you to remember. It’s like learning the abc’s of a foreign language and how to form words and sentences versus learning a song in a foreign language and having no foundation to anchor it to (which is what happens when you learn things out of sequence or context).

    I practice on my own a lot as I don’t have a dance partner. I have to practice both leader and follower’s parts. When I practice the leader’s part, I hold my frame just like I have a lady with weight in my arms and when I practice the step or the figure, I move my center with enough tone to provide a strong signal to my imaginary dance partner. Therefore I have energy in my frame (arms) even when I am practicing on my own.

    You can also ask your instructor if you can video-tape the steps after the class or while they are teaching to help you remember. Cell phones or digital cameras have this capability nowadays. But make sure you go through the material immediately after your lesson or by that evening or you will have a great deal of difficulty with recall if you wait a few days.

    Read my other blog post – 8 tips to help you remember the dance steps you learned in class

    You can also focus on one dance first so it’s not so overwhelming – start with the Waltz. You will learn key important elements there – posture, frame, connection, balance, dance positions, transitions etc in a slower dance with a simple constant rhythm. From there, you can apply it to Foxtrot as the technique is the same and you will get practice in learning additional dance positions and adapting to a rhythm that’s not constant – SSQQ. Then learn Rumba so you will learn how to dance to latin music but slower. The same technique – Cuban motion and key lead elements can b be applied to Merengue, Cha-Cha, Salsa/Mambo. East Coast Swing should then be next as it forces you to move your feet fast and think faster in leading and transitions.

    Not sure what I can do to help you with your wife other than negotiating with her. Practice on your own so that you know the mechanics of the steps, then only use her to figure out the lead. This way it takes up less of her time. Ask for small segments of time to try out the lead – start with 15 minutes and if guilt does not work …. Don’t you want me to be a better dancer so I can take you dancing? … then bribe her with Hugs? Kisses? Chocolates? Flowers? Dinners? Vacation? Housework? – whatever she values.

    Hope this helps.

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