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!