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.
- 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!