I love to ballroom dance. Don’t know why. Could be a trait I inherited from my parents. My mother loves a good cha-cha. My father fondly remembers the ballroom dance lessons he took as an undergraduate at Annapolis—every officer has to know how to get around a dance floor.
It’s funny, too, because I never attended a junior high or high school dance. I was far too shy and—more importantly—never at ease doing any kind of freestyle dancing most teenagers seem to do naturally. And I wasn’t coordinated enough for drill team routines, let alone ballet. What did appeal to me was the style and fun of the ballroom dance. In college, I signed up for a ballroom dance class and never looked back.
I started with the basics: waltz, fox-trot and cha-cha. I remember being amazed how the instructor knew the lead and follower steps while I struggled just to follow. I even talked my college boyfriend into taking a class or two with me, and he seemed to enjoy it—even the disco class popular at the time. Most of all, I was delighted when I was lucky enough to dance with the instructor’s boyfriend, who could lead me to perform cha-cha steps I’d never even seen before.
Over the years, I talked my then-husband into taking a few samba classes, East Coast swing, West Coast swing, tango and lindy—most at local high schools offered through community education. One evening, our lindy class was moved from the usual wood-floor gym to an upstairs wrestling room, where the floor was covered with end-to-end padding, and we had to dance barefoot. The instructor turned this to our advantage: We were able to attempt an air step where the woman does a forward roll at her partner’s side. I was never coordinated enough to do a cartwheel, but with a padded floor, a spotter and my tall, strong husband, I actually found myself doing an effortless forward roll to music.
A few tips, then, for those who may want to take classes and master some hot little number such as salsa.
- Look for classes in a variety of places. The options for learning to dance include private lessons (which can be pricey, but are ultimately the most targeted to you), group lessons through studios or community education, or free lessons during the first hour of the evening included in a cover charge at nightclubs. A mix of options can potentially provide the best overall way to learn. I took group lessons through community education to learn the basics of salsa, tried a local nightclub, took some private lessons to focus attention on styling and difficult steps, but mostly took classes at a local studio. Don’t worry about signing up as a single—you don’t always have to bring a partner.
- On a related note, remember that ballroom dance is social and practiced with different partners. If you sign up as a couple, be aware any good instructor will ask you to dance with other students: The lead develops better cues as to what step he’s directing if he can’t be sure his partner will always respond the same way, and, it makes a follower pay closer attention to the lead and become a better follower as well. More than that, you can pick up different steps or tips from different dance partners.
- Wear proper attire. Your clothes should be comfortable without being sloppy, revealing, or unsecure. Nice jeans are okay, depending on the venue. Other studios have a no-jeans dress code. One woman described wearing a top that proved revealing and unsecure—it didn’t stay together well and came off on the dance floor. I’ve heard stories of women and men dancing with hairpieces and having them fall off in a particularly fast move or dip. By far the most important piece of attire is a good pair of dance shoes. I couldn’t believe how much more control I had once I started wearing shoes intended for ballroom dance. I noticed, too, that good dancers take care of their shoes, only putting them on for dancing, never wearing them on the street. A good pair of dance shoes helps protect dance floors as well.
- Learn dance etiquette. The Starlite Dance Club, the largest dance club in the San Jose and San Francisco area, has a great list of social dos and don’ts on their web site. For starters, it isn’t polite to give your partner dance advice unless asked, and it’s only good form to avoid monopolizing another dancer’s time. (Here’s a tip my sister gave me once when I complained about being monopolized and the instructor didn’t ask dancers to rotate: She laughed at how easy it would have been for me to excuse myself to go to the restroom.) And remember, ladies, it’s totally acceptable to ask men to dance.
- Have a positive attitude. Perhaps the most important trait to develop as a ballroom dancer is a positive attitude. Let’s say you show up for a community education class where the ratio of men to women is two to one. One solution I’ve seen is instructors will put couples in a circle, put a lone man between each couple and rotate the women so a man will get a new partner every other turn. The positive attitude lies in understanding it actually helps to practice your steps with a shadow partner. Or if the ratio leans the other way and you’re a woman open to learning to lead, learn the man’s part. Finally, some nights don’t go as well as others. You might not be as competent performing a new step as everyone else. Don’t worry. Simply enjoy what you can and come back again next week. The only way to get better is to take classes or dance consistently and practice as much as possible.
See you in the ballroom and on the dance floor!