Chapter 2: Learning To Dance
[Note: book sections not presented on
this website are titled and summarized in italics.]
How To Learn Well
Learning to dance is much like learning a musical instrument,
only easier. This section offers some tips that may accelerate your dance
training and help you become a better dancer.
Pointers On Leading And Following
Your dance instructor should teach you not only the steps to each dance figure,
but also how to lead or follow your partner. Here's some advice on technique
for leading and following. If a point is unclear, please consult your teacher.
Leaders And Followers
- Don't clench your partner's hand, arm, or shoulder
in a grip of death--a very light hold will suffice. Most turns are led
with fingertip or palm contact. Execute push motions with your palm or
fingers, and execute pull motions with hooked fingers. Leaders: if you
need to pull your partner's hand toward you, just hook a few of your fingers
into the curled fingers of her hand. Followers: in dances that are led
hand-to-hand, keep your hands accessible.
- I'll repeat: don't squeeze your partner's hand with
your thumb or fingers.
- Dance with your body, not from your feet. Hold your
partner with your hand flat, L-shaped, or-- if holding a bony body part
like a shoulder blade or hipbone--very gently curved. Keep your fingers
together, and do not poke your partner or dig your fingers into your partner's
back or side.
- Since you will always find your feet at the bottom
of your legs, you're unlikely to learn anything useful by looking down.
Instead, watch your partner. This is especially important for followers,
since some leads have visual components.
- Maintain good frame. In some dances, particularly
the Latin ones, you signal motion to your partner solely through the frame
in your arms. Your arms should be held neither rigid nor limp--they are
springs. Gently use the muscles in your arms to communicate tension and
compression as needed. Pushing or pulling hard can make you feel uncomfortably
heavy to your partner.
- Lead and follow are greatly enhanced by proper body
shaping, rise and fall, and use of contra-body motion and contra-body
motion position. These are best learned from professional instructors.
- When dancing socially, accommodate your partner. If
your partner loses balance, arrives somewhere unexpected, or winds up
on the wrong foot, do your best to complete the figure gracefully by adapting
to your partner's actions. Sometimes this means gently bringing your partner
back into place; at other times, you should travel to catch up to your
- A special note about extemporaneous foot changes,
or "fakes." You may occasionally find that you are on the wrong
foot, or that your partner is on the wrong foot, and wish to fake a step
to get back into sync with your partner. When this happens, I suggest
that the follower give the leader at least one measure of music to adapt
his feet to hers. If he doesn't notice, then she can adapt her feet to
his. If you both "fake" at the same time, one of you will still
be on the wrong foot!
- Remember that one of your goals in social dancing
is to make your partner happy, and act accordingly.
Lead by moving your body and by gently signalling turns with palm or fingertip
- Do not push the follower around.
- Lead beginning followers with two hands rather than
one where possible and appropriate. It will make your lead much clearer.
- In closed frame, gently cup your right hand on the
bottom or middle of her left shoulder blade. Don't press your fingers
into her back!
- In open position (i.e., when connected with extended
arms, rather than in closed frame), joined hands should be held close
to the waist level of the shorter partner. Typically, the leader lowers
his hand to the follower's waist level. This makes the hold comfortable
for both partners--otherwise, the follower would have to elevate her extended
arm, which gets tiring.
- At the start of the dance, shift your weight right
or left to put the follower's weight over her appropriate foot. For example,
if you are starting a dance in which you first step with your left foot,
shift your weight over your right foot, leaving your left foot free. Your
connection with your partner will shift her weight over her left foot,
freeing her right foot to move.
- Do not lead your partner through figures that give
her great difficulty. If your partner misses a figure that you lead, it's
not a bad idea to try it again--the second time is often the charm-- but
don't keep leading her through it repeatedly unless she asks you to do
so. That is, adapt the complexity of your figures to the level that makes
- Follow the leader's weight changes and/or rise &
fall--these communicate his timing. When dancing socially, it won't matter
if the leader is out of sync with the music so long as you follow his
timing as conveyed by his motions.
- Wait for the leader to move before you do. The lead
and follow will break down if you get ahead of him.
- You are self-propelled. The leader indicates where
you are to go, but he doesn't put you there.
- A useful oversimplification of following is that you
go when his body goes and where his body goes. However, there are dance
figures in which you follow the motion of a part of the leader's body,
such as his arm, rather than the motion of his whole body, which may be
staying in place. One example would be the hockey stick in International
- Support your own weight at all times--your partner
is not a leaning post! It is particularly important to support yourself
fully during a dip, because any weight that you place on your partner
during this figure will be carried by his back. Remember that old adage:
lift with the legs, not with the back!
- Take care not to dance solo syncopations to the point
where your partner can no longer comfortably lead you. Ideally, your syncopations
should not affect your movement together as a couple. Unfortunately, an
imperfectly-performed syncopation can place you somewhere unexpected,
disturb your partner's balance, or break your connection. Even perfectly-executed
syncopations can be troublesome if you confuse your partner by performing
more of them than he can handle. (Remember that his lead will break down
if he winds up behind you in timing.) In dances like West Coast Swing
and Lindy Hop, some followers get syncopation-happy and reduce the leader's
role to that of a balance bar. This can be no fun at all for their partners.
Thus, it's wise to limit the extent of your syncopations to the comfort
level of your partner. If he looks unhappy, tone it down.
The Essence of Leading and Following
It takes instruction and practice to learn to how dance steps
well. However, the essence of leading and following the figures is simple.
To paraphrase the advice given by the King of Hearts to the White Rabbit--"begin
at the beginning; go on till you come to the end; then stop"--the follower
begins to move when led to move, and stops when led to stop. That is, the
follower neither starts nor stops on her own. The leader must signal the
motion of his body to the follower, while the follower feels and watches
the motion of the leader's body (not of his feet!) for direction.
You can find more information (and other people's opinions)
on leading and following in the extensive Lead
and Follow FAQ compiled from internet contributors.
(Or More) Dances For The Price Of One
You may have noticed that certain
steps are found in more than one dance. This section compares similar dances,
such as Waltz and Foxtrot, and explains how you can transplant the figures that
you've learned from one dance to another. It also answers the often-debated
question of whether salsa and mambo are the same dance.
Tips For Specific Figures And Dances
Learn how to make your corte (dip)
sexy and safe and make your Nightclub Two Step smooth and graceful. Includes
tips on stalling for time in Tango, leading and following in West Coast Swing,
improving your swingout in Lindy Hop, and dancing in time to the music in Cha
Cha and Rumba.
Growing As A Dancer
The American and International
styles of ballroom dancing are great, but there's much to be learned from other
partner and solo dances, such as Argentine Tango, Lindy Hop, Tap, and Jazz.
Discusses what these other dances have to offer, and how they can improve your
musicality, connection, balance, and/or body control.