Listen to the music.
Every social dance in the world was inspired by music that made people want to move, and most cite music as one of the aspects of dance they find so exciting. The most enjoyable dancers know the music so intimately that they are able to express it with their bodies. Even at the beginning level, it is crucial to become familiar with the rhythm. The rhythm is the common language that allows you and your partner to communicate and dance together.
The best way to feel the music when you dance is to listen to that type of music as often as you can. Get a danceable CD from your instructor, the bookstore, or online, and listen to it in your car, at home, and while you work out. A great way to get the music into your body is to practice the basic steps of the dance to music at home. Walk around the room to the beat without any patterns or moves. If you practice this often enough, you will be better able to feel the music when you dance and will catch on to more complex moves, syncopations, and concepts much quicker.
Don't look down.
It is natural to want to look at your feet when you are learning a new dance. However, this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to learning and developing muscle memory. Dancing is not about seeing, but about feeling and enjoying. It is important to be able to feel the movements in your body instead of relying on visual cues alone. In fact, advanced dancers in any social dance are able to lead and/or follow a great number of moves and patterns with their eyes closed.
So where do you place your focus, if not on your feet? First, focus on the dynamics of the steps: feel the shifting of weight that takes place, the changes of direction, the patterns that make up the dance. Second, pay attention to your relationship with your partner in the basic movements of the dance and how the man and the woman complement each other with their steps. Third, listen to the music and feel how it expresses itself in your body. And finally, it's your dance! Let your mind wander where it will during the dance. Notice everything about how you feel, how your partner feels, how the music feels. Everyone finds something different in the dance; the most important thing is to experience it fully in whatever form it may take.
Dance with different people.
If you are learning to dance with a spouse or friend, it is tempting to dance with just that person. There is a degree of safety in dancing with someone you know and feel comfortable with. However, it is best to dance with many different people, especially when you are just starting to learn the dance. Everyone leads and follows differently, and dancing with other people will show you different ways of communicating with a partner and interpreting the music. Oftentimes people get used to certain partners and begin to develop "signals" that tell the other person when to lead or follow a certain move. Dancing with different people will force you to truly feel the lead or follow and engage in a conversation.
Beginners are often concerned that they will end up dancing with someone who is either very unsure of their steps or the music, or someone who is much more advanced than they are. However, both of these situations are an opportunity for learning that you will not find if you dance with only one person. Dancing with someone that you may consider "boring" to dance with is a great opportunity to practice your technique, focus on the music, and learn how to be a sensitive leader or follower. Dancing with someone who is very advanced, on the other hand, offers a great opportunity for you to keep the rhythm regardless of the moves you are doing, focus on the technique and connection that will allow you to lead and/or follow well, and do moves that you might not be able to do with your regular partner. Focus on each dance as a conversation with your partner and the music, and make each dance an opportunity for learning.
Relax and enjoy!
I once read that there are two qualities that distinguish a truly enjoyable dancer from the rest of the pack: musicality and connection. It is encouraging to know that regardless of the number of moves you have in your repertoire, you can have an enjoyable dance with anyone if you are attentive and responsive to your partner and the music. And of course you will be enjoyable to your partner if you are in the moment and absorbed in that particular dance with that particular person to that particular music. So relax, and enjoy!
NOTE: This article was originally published in the February issue of Joy in Motion, a monthly e-newsletter devoted to the celebration and exploration of social dance. To receive this newsletter or visit the website, click on the links below.