Sep 3

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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Aug 24

This posting provides tips to help us remember the ballroom dance steps we learn in ballroom dancing classes or in private dance lessons.

Have you been going to ballroom dancing classes and had this experience?  You think you are doing really well, you can follow the ballroom dance steps the instructor is teaching you and when you come back next week, you cannot remember a thing that you learned the week before?  Don’t worry, you are not alone.  I’m like that too so I developed many techniques to help me remember and have the information sink into my long term memory.

I have used all the tips below as I am notorious for forgetting ballroom dance steps as soon as I’m out of class!

Tip#1 – Take notes.

This has been very helpful to me.  The abbreviations I use are RF (right foot), LF (left foot), RH (right hand), LH (left hand),S (slow), Q (quick), H (heel), T (toe), B (ball).

Take notes on the timing if it’s different from the norm.  Eg: in American Tango, it is not always SS QQS.  The timing for Open Fan is SS& QQ&S SS& QQS.

Take notes on footwork if it’s tricky eg: American Foxtrot has an interesting lilt action in the Bronze figures on the QQ in steps 3 & 4 of the basic figures.  For the Basic figure, the leader’s footwork for step 3 is HT (heel toe) and step 4 is TH (toe heel).  The follower’s footwork is THT (toe heel toe), step 4 is TH (toe heel).

Take notes when the figure is long and has lots in it.  Just boil it down into the elements.  For example, in American Bolero, the Romantic Sways figure is long – 8 measures.  But it is made up of simple elements starting with  alternating side rocks and forward rocks until the 5th measure which has a strong swivel action into a check and UAT turn for the follower and UAT for the leader.

Tip#2 – relate the name of the figure to the main action

Try to relate the name of the figure to something that makes sense to you.  And remember either the key lead element or for followers, the key lead they should be responding to.

For example, if the figure is Outside Partner Breaks in American Rumba, outside partner means the leader and follower are stepping outside each other.  The lead into this figure is by the leader taking a side and slightly forward step with the LF (left foot).  The key to leading this is the LF “side and slightly forward” and turning the body 1/8 left.  If it was just a LF side step, the leader will still be in closed position with the follower and there would be no way for the leader to step outside the follower’s feet.

Or if it is the Slow Underarm Turn (UAT) in the Waltz or the Rumba, the “Slow” part reminds me that the follower is completing the turn over many steps insead of the usual 2 steps like in spot turns.  I call it the12 step program as this figure has 12 steps.  The lead is in steps 3 and 5.  Release RH on step 3, raise LH on step 5 like you are waving to a friend (this is the prep for an UAT).

Tip#3 – video the dance steps

This is so much easier nowadays as cell phones and digital cameras have video capability.  Just make sure you have a narrative with it describing the name of the figure and important lead and follow elements.  You can ask the instructor if you can tape during the class or you can tape yourself or your friend(s) after class repeating the dance steps.

Tip#4 – buy the DVIDA syllabus

This has worked really well for me but I know other students who got completely overwhelmed with the DVIDA syllabus manuals.  And it only works if your instructor is teaching from this syllabus.  If you are with Arthur Murray or Fred Astaire, they have their own syllabus.  When learning a new figure, I make notes in the syllabus on the different variations.

Not all teachers teach accurately to the syllabus.  There are many reasons for this – some are teaching the old version of the syllabus, some are teaching a more practical application of the figure or some just plain don’t know.  I teach the latest syllabus figures and then if there are variations, I will teach that too so my students who social dance can dance with anyone and not freak out when they are dancing with some one who is dancing the figure slightly differently.

Tip#5 – buy the DVIDA DVDs

This also works well for me but it is more expensive.  The DVDs do not cover as much technical elements as the manuals but is good for a quick refresher.

Tip#6 – review the ballroom dance steps immediately after the lesson or on the same day

If you don’t review it immediately or on the same day, you will most likely forget it unless you have super duper memory.  So immediately after class, stay behind if you can and walk through everything you have just learned.  Or as soon as you get home, go through the ballroom dance steps you just learned.

Tip#7 - find a way to use it when social dancing that week

This is easier for leaders as you get to lead what you want.  So keep practising that same figure you have just learned with every lady you dance with.  For followers, ask the leaders if they would mind leading you in the figure that you have just learned.  You will find the leaders to be very accomodating if you say you are learning, want to improve and would he mind leading you in that figure several times.

Tip#8 - teach it to somebody else

This is the best one for me!  Teaching it to someone else really solidifies it in my brains.  This is one of the reasons why I teach.  The other is because I love helping others grow and learn something new that’s going to make their lives better.

When I was still an amateur, after ballroom dancing classes, I would rush over to my close friend’s house and go over the choreography or figures I just learned and teach it to her.   We would practise until we got it and laugh ourselves silly.

I hope these tips will help you remember the ballroom dance steps you are learning in your ballroom dancing classes.  I would love to hear from you, please enter your feedback or questions in the comments box below.

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