The Absolutely Most Important Tip for Effective Dance Practice

Well, the most important practice tip I can give you is... DO SOME!

Here's a little gem from a lesson a year or two ago with a couple I'd known for quite a long while :

Me [to leader]: Have you practiced this step?
Leader [thinks for a moment]: Ye-esss...
Follower: [shrieks with outrage]
Leader: I've been practising in my mind!
Follower: [more shrieks]

Our poor leader was terribly indignant at his partner's reaction, and let's face it, getting your body in on the action is likely to be significantly more beneficial than just practicing in your mind. But paying attention to your dancing between lessons in any way is helpful.

Make Lists and Notes

If you have a list of the steps you have met in each dance, then you have the tools you need to practice. That list might be in your head (which may not be entirely trustworthy), or it might be in a notebook or on your phone or something (which I would trust much better).

Bring your preferred note-taking equipment to your lessons. At the end of each lesson, write down the names of any new steps you learnt. Here's a good idea: make sure it's clear which dance they belong to!

Some people like to draw a diagram or write down the rhythm or the starting direction or something similar as a reminder. If you like, you can also make notes of any new improvements to older steps - whatever it is that you think you need to practice from that lesson.

By the way, other than maybe step names, it's disappointingly unhelpful to ask your teacher or someone else write it down or draw the diagrams for you – my notes won't make any sense to you, and yours won't make any sense to me. Sad but true! (If they did make sense, we could learn to dance out of a book... which, I might add, is virtually impossible.)

The thing to remember is that your notes don't need to be a complete recipe of how to perfectly do the step, or the technique, or the styling, or whatever it is you've been working on. Your notes are not for someone else to learn the thing you're working on from scratch. They're simply to remind you that the thing you're working on exists. If you try to practice something and find you're not sure of it, leave it and put it on a list of questions for next lesson. I can't tell you what a happy teacher you'll have if you do that!

Let's Say It Again: DO SOME!

I know time is tight. I know you can't get an hour or even 15 mins to practice in your busy week. And in the unlikely event that you do get some spare time devoid of urgency, I know it's sometimes more important just to be quiet and breathe for a moment. I know you don't have space. I know your lounge room isn't big, your floor is carpeted, your cat gets underfoot, and your kids laugh at you. I know.

But here's the thing: You don't need an hour (or 15 minutes) at a time to practice skills. You don't need a huge space to practice. Practice can take all sorts of forms. It doesn't need to look like what you do on a lesson.

Here's How

  • If you don't have much space, practice the stuff you can do in a small area.
  • If you don't have much time, spend two minutes here and there - you can do one step or drill one technique a lot of times in two minutes.
  • If you only think of it while you're in the car, say the step patterns out loud with the right rhythm. Or put some music on and practice counting the rhythms of your dances to it.
  • Walk from work to lunch with good posture. Try to walk smoothly. Be aware of how your feet interact with the ground. Feel your heel strike the footpath before the rest of your foot arrives and feel your toe be the last part of your foot to come off the ground. No need to look weird - just developing the awareness even when you're walking normally will make a difference to your dancing and learning.
  • Try the basic steps of a different dance each morning while you wait for your kettle or toaster (or children).
  • Give yourself little tests. Go through your list of steps and say out loud the direction of the first step, or the rhythm of the pattern, or the lead, or the move that starts the pattern off.
  • Stand as high as you can on your tiptoes while you wait for the lift.
  • Change weight using your knees and hips for a Cuban motion exercise while you wait for your shower to warm up. If you're waiting for your beloved offspring to get out of the shower first, chances are you may even be able to run through every single thing you've ever learnt.
  • Or, indeed, like the lovely leader we met earlier, practice your dancing in your mind. It might not be as good as practicing with your whole body (and there's a chance your partner will laugh very disbelievingly at you if you tell people about it), but you know what? It will make a difference.

Next time I'm going to tell you just why it's better to practice on your own than with a partner. But for now... Time for you to practice!

Ballroom dance practice - are you wasting your time?

Some people practise their dancing a lot, some practise a little, and some don't practise at all (but I like them anyway!). A colleague of mine once had a dance student who practised more than any other learner I've ever seen. He practised every single day, often for hours at a time. And do you know what? I hate to say this about anyone, but honestly... he was a horrible dancer. I don't mean he was mediocre – he was truly awful.

So what went wrong for this poor guy? We're all told that practice makes perfect – he should have been perfection personified! But I genuinely believe this particular person would have been a better dancer if he hadn't practised at all. Why? Because the way he practised rarely matched up with what he actually needed to work on. And that's what I want to talk about today.

There are heaps of useful ways to practise ballroom dancing, but the kind of practice that will help you depends on what kind of learning you're doing at the time.


From where I sit (which is the driving seat of hundreds of different learning-to-dance journeys), I see three main types of learning that we all go through.

New content
You're learning new steps, or perhaps a new routine if you're performing. At this stage your brain is full of a big swirly mish-mash of what-happens-next kind of questions. What foot do I use? Where do I place it? Do I turn left or right? When? How far? Where is my partner? When are we together and when are we apart? Sometimes, instead of helpful questions, your brain seems full of panicked moths: disconcerting but normal! You're trying to lock in the pattern and the basic mechanics of the step. It's big picture stuff - you're laying a broad foundation which you'll refine once it's established.

New technique
You're discovering cuban motion, driving steps, rise and fall, swivels, pivots, spot turns, anything that requires you to move and control your body in a very new way. Instead of working out where you're going, you're focussing on the process you use to get there. Learning technique shifts your focus from big picture to fine detail, and each part of your body starts to fragment into small divisions. Rather than thinking about stepping forward on the left foot, you think about whether you use the heel or toe, whether each knee is straight or bent or soft, whether your hips are square or rotating, whether your torso is straight or swaying or twisting, and so on.

You've learnt the step or sequence and now you're starting to build in technique and styling, you're starting to incorporate it into the flow of your freestyle dancing, you're ironing out the clunkiness of unfamiliarity, and you're making that new stuff feel and look great. Look out - you're starting to dance it! You understand both the big picture and the fine detail, and you're putting it all together.


These three different types of learning - content, technique, and synthesis - happen over and over again as you learn, but they work in very different ways.

Every time you meet new material you need to start with the content. You start by learning where you go, whether it's a basic step in your first few lessons, or something very complex a decade down the track. All of us (including your teacher!) go through it over and over, and, although we all learn differently when we first meet a new step, we nevertheless need to use pretty much the same process and the same tools to lock it in. Some people are quick at it, some are slow, but the process is the same.

Learning content is a "pay per use" kind of system. Every time you learn a new step in any dance you need to make that same small investment of going through the process and locking in the pattern.

Synthesis is the other half of learning content. It starts to happen just as your latest crop of new content stops feeling new. The good news is that as you go on, synthesis happens more and more quickly and easily. 

Learning technique is a different beast entirely. If learning content is a "pay per use" system, then learning technique is a big upfront investment for an ongoing payoff.

When you first meet a new technique, chances are it'll feel foreign and weird at best or, at worst, utterly unattainable. Don't despair! Persevere! It takes most people quite a bit of time to really master a new technique – and I don't mean several hours, I mean several months. Even once you understand it, it will still take a while to settle, to feel natural, and to become habit. When you hear yourself say “I know what I should be doing, but I just can't do it!”, soldier on – you're nearly there!

Usually it will click all of a sudden and then you'll be a Person Who Has It. You'll wonder what was so hard. You'll come in excitedly to your next lesson and you'll say to your teacher “Guess what? I was practicing and I tried thinking of such and such and it worked and... Oh. You've been telling me that every lesson haven't you?” And your teacher will be very charitable and very pleased. Not only that, but the technique will keep on paying you back every time you learn anything that uses it.


Here's the one big idea I want to give you in this post: practise according to how you're learning at the time.

If you're learning new content, then sure, work on it with good posture, eyes up, and any standard technique you're used to doing in that dance (if you're a new beginner, that might be none, and that's fine!). But don't worry about beautiful styling, don't worry about clever segues or variations, don't worry about subtle nuance – just focus on the big picture. Some useful questions are:

  • What foot do I use?
  • Where should I place it?
  • Where do I face?
  • When do I turn?
  • Where is my partner?
  • What comes next?

If you're learning new technique, stick to what you've worked on. If you've worked on exercises to break down the technique, practise those exercises. If your teacher hasn't yet built the technique into a full step pattern, don't try to make it up yourself! When technique is new, keep it slow and be aware of every bit of you. Here, the kind of questions you ask might be:

  • Toe or ball or heel?
  • Knee straight or bent?
  • Immediate or delayed weight transfer?
  • Feet straight or turned out or angled?
  • Torso square or swaying or rotating?
  • Posture forward or elevated?

On the other hand, if you're at the synthesis stage, you want to put everything into it. This isn't the time for marking out or doing steps in isolation or picking things to pieces. Practise the step in the context of the flow of the dance, with all the styling and technique. You could ask:

  • What step could I use into this?
  • Out of it?
  • What's my arm styling doing?
  • Where is my head?
  • Where is my eyeline?
  • How energetic can I make it?
  • How beautiful can I make it?
  • How crisp / staccato / smooth / sinuous can I make it?

Are you wondering about the poor diligent student we met earlier? He only did the kind of practice that works for new content. He drilled step patterns but never synthesised those patterns with technique and styling and continuity and great partnership. All those hours of practice were dedicated to nothing more than mechanical repetition, which pretty much guaranteed that his dancing would stay exactly the same rather than ever improving.

It's pretty simple: match the way you practise to the way you're learning at the time.

I have heaps of great practice tips for all sorts of different things, so next time I'll give you one or two of my favourites and tell you how to use them (and how not to!). Between now and then, see how relevant you can make your dance practice:

  1. Think about what you're working on right now in each dance you learn.
  2. For each, decide whether it counts as new content, new technique, or synthesis.
  3. Try using the questions above to help you practise.

What do you think? It'd be great to hear what you find useful, and of course I just love people asking questions, so knock yourself out in the comment box below!

Dance well. Dance often. Dance for joy!

Tips for Choosing Dance Shoes

Once you've progressed beyond the brand new beginner stage, having proper dance shoes will make your dancing easier and more enjoyable.  But there are dozens of brands and thousands of styles - how do you choose the shoe that's right for you?

Choosing a shoe is like choosing a suit.  Just as some brands of clothing will tend to produce clothes whose cuts suit your body, you'll find that some brands of shoes suit your feet and others just don't, no matter how much you love the look of the shoe.  Buying a shoe that isn't the right shape for your particular feet is an investment in nothing but pain.

Our best advice is to shop around by trying on several different brands.

Try on heaps of different pairs of shoes, different styles from different manufacturers, and have a bit of a wander around in them. Practice steps from a few different dances.  With luck, you'll find a shoe that your feet immediately love.  That's the shoe to buy, even if it's twice as dear as another shoe.  Like any well-made shoe, a pair of dance shoes will cost you between $60 and $300.  If you're lucky enough to find an inexpensive shoe that feels great, that's fantastic.  But if the shoe that feels wonderful is dearer, bite the bullet, spend the money, and get the shoe that fits best.

Here are some things to look out for.


No dancewear shop will be happy for you to put your sweaty feet directly in their nice brand new shoes, and fair enough.  Take a pair of socks or stockings or footlets with you.  Ladies, if you generally wear your dance shoes on a bare foot, take the thinnest pair of footlets or knee-high stockings you can find.  Cheap supermarket knee-highs are unattractive but perfect.  If you don't wear bare feet in your shoes, take whatever kind of socks or tights or footwear you usually dance in.  When you're looking for a snug fit, a slightly thicker or thinner sock can make a big difference.  And using the pre-loved ones that dancewear shops keep on hand is just kind of gross.  If you use insoles or orthotics, take them with you too.


Your dance shoe should fit snugly but not tightly on your foot.  Look out for a few key points on your feet.  You don't want pressure on the ends of your toes.  Contact is okay, but pressure is a problem.  Check the pressure on the outside of your little toe and on the large knuckle below your big toe.  A slightly too narrow shoe feels fine for a few minutes but becomes excruciating after an hour or two, so be very judgemental about tightness across here.  Look for a snug fit on your heel.  If your shoe is loose around your heel, you're in for a whole lot of blisters.  And look for a suitable fit across the top of your instep.  If you have high arches, you want to ensure you won't have too much pressure.  On the other hand, if your feet are flatter, you need to make sure that you can tighten the shoes so you're not swimming around in them.  In particular, for ladies with low arches, be wary of open toe shoes with a high heel - flat feet have an irritating habit of sliding forward through the shoe so your toes dangle off the end and your heel gets a sloppy fit.  Dance shoes will invariably stretch and flex and adapt to your feet a little, fabric more so than leather, so they will soften, but they won't completely change size for you.


Both men's and women's shoes are available in a range of heel heights.  For both sexes, Latin shoes generally have higher heels than ballroom shoes.  (Why?  Because a higher heel gives you more hip movement.)  The most important thing is that you wear a heel that feels comfortable for you.  If you're going for higher heels, make sure you can stand on one straight leg and point the other toe out in front of you and still have the heel of the front foot well clear of the floor.  There's no rule about heel height - it depends on the flexibility of your ankles and the strength of your feet and the tolerance of your knees.  If a heel feels unstable, just don't go there.  Ladies' heels come not only in a range of heights, but also in a range of shapes and thicknesses.  If your ankles aren't particularly strong, a broader heel might work better for you than a very fine one.


Most dance shoes are very well made.  You should be able to take long and short steps, walking both heel first and toe first.  If you can't do these different kinds of walks feeling confident and absolutely sure of your balance, then the shoe isn't right for you.  If the heel feels wobbly, don't touch it.


Dance shoes generally come in satin, canvas, plain leather, or patent leather.  Plain leather is the least troublesome of these.  Fabric shoes wear out much faster, and get very dirty very quickly.  They'll also tend to soften and lose their shape more quickly than leather shoes, which means your feet get less support.  Patent leather shoes look fabulous, but they require constant attention - not in terms of care, as they wear very well, but the shiny surface tends to grab and stick when you brush your feet, so you will always need to apply vaseline or a similar lubricant to the surfaces before you dance.  Patent also tends to stay stiffer than any of the other materials, so they last well but don't mould so nicely to your feet.  Plain leather shoes are not as beautiful as satin or patent, but in all other respects they combine the best of both worlds.  They do soften and mould to your feet, but they generally stay robust and supportive for a reasonable length of time.  They are easy to care for and to clean.  The surface will wear (if you dance well!), but if appearance is important to you, they're very easy to keep looking reputable with paint or shoe polish.


Ballroom and Latin shoes generally come with a suede sole, although resin and leather soles are also available.  The suede is perfect in terms of resistance, slip, and its capacity to let you feel the floor.  If you are very naughty and wear your dance shoes out in the street and the rain, you might be better off with a resin sole, although these are stiffer and not so lovely to dance in.  Suede soles are not as fragile as many of the sellers would have you believe.  Remember that it's skin, and skin is pretty good at surviving the daily assaults of a paddock, so unless you're really silly with your shoes, they're pretty hard to destroy.


Dance shoes are a tool to be used and worn, not a beautiful object to be preserved.  Get the tool that does the job best for you.  Try on lots of shoes.  Make sure you can dance in them.  And choose the shoe that makes your feet the happiest.