I recently attended a wedding, and I was having a good time out on the dance floor at the reception, when a young women approached to ask if I could teach her how to dance. I was taken aback by her question because I have never really considered myself much of a dancer. In high school, I had no idea how to dance, but I was always impressed by the way my brother moved on the dance floor. When I asked him what to do, he told me to just start dancing when there was music, and over time it just seemed to work out.
I took his advice to heart, and it has served me well through homecomings, proms, and, now, weddings. I agree with my brother, and I offer the same advice to anybody wondering how to dance in group situations, but I think there is something missing. I found out in college that a little bit of formal dance training can go a long way. I believe in order to be a Renaissance Human who is ready to cut some rug in any dance situation, you can’t go wrong having a few classic social and ballroom dance steps up your sleeve. Here are the four dances I think are necessary to be ready shake your tailfeather:
When people think of the waltz, they tend to think of high society in hoop skirts and tails dancing languidly about an ornate ballroom. Though it is true the waltz is commonly thought of as a slower dance here in the U.S., it does not have to be so. The Viennese Waltz is actually an upbeat dance which requires only the basic box-step and change steps to alter the direction of rotation for the couple dancing. The English Waltz is the slower waltz I tend to think of any time the dance is mentioned. The Viennese is strictly the basic step and change steps, modern iterations of the waltz include things like rock-steps, under-arm turns, and side-sways to keep things interesting.
Lead Basic Follower Basic
The important thing to know about the waltz is it is in 3/4 time (3 beats form a measure of music). A lot of the music we hear and listen to is in 4/4 time, so having the steps for a song in 3/4 immediately gives you versatility as a dancer. An easy way to pick out 3/4 time is to listen to see if there is an accent (or emphasis) on the first beat of a measure. The accent happens naturally in 3/4 and is a simple way to pick out a waltz if it comes on over the dance floor.
If you have reservations about the waltz being only done to stuffy, old songs, take a look at this list from Paste Magazine to see you can even dance the waltz to a Jay-Z song!
First of all, if you can handle the waltz, you can definitely handle the foxtrot. They are similar dances, the big difference being the foxtrot is in 4/4 time (also known as common time), as opposed to the waltz’s 3/4. The foxtrot can be danced as a box-step (like the waltz), or it can be danced in a “slow-slow-quick-quick,” which lends itself to more traveling around the room. Here’s a quick hint: if you come across some music in 4/4 time which has a cuban feel to it, add a little hip movement to your box-step and voilá! You have the basic for the Rumba!
The foxtrot has enjoyed a tremendous amount of popularity since its creation in the early part of the 20th Century. Categorized as a smooth dance, the foxtrot is most often danced to big band music, and I tend to think that it goes nicely with some Sinatra. If you are at a wedding or a party and you don’t think the hosts are going to put on big band or Sinatra, keep your ears open for Michael Buble because this smooth dance is sure to go with his smooth voice. If you’re looking for some music to practice your newly learned quick-step, check out this spotify playlist which has all sorts of music with which you can practice your new steps!
West Coast Swing
Swing dancing is exciting! It may seem intimidating when we see it performed on TV shows and in movies, but the basic steps for the swing can make it a quick study for a dance that will keep you moving on any upbeat 4/4 song you come across.
An important thing to keep in mind when you are learning to swing dance is it requires resistance. Whereas the dances we have looked at so far all require good contact to direct (or be directed by) your partner, swing dancing requires you to push against each other to create the elasticity and energy that keeps dancers swinging! Most pop songs that get you moving are perfect for swing dancing, but if you’re looking for a list, this is a good place to start. My last tip for learning is swing is to remember all you need to do to keep things swinging when tempos change is to cut your out-steps into more pieces. You can try everything from step-tap, step-tap, ball-change to a triple-step, triple-step, ball-change. Do whatever feels comfortable because whatever your body wants to do is probably the right thing.
The Cha-cha is my favorite dance. It is easy to learn and easy to add on to, which makes you look like you’ve been doing it for a while. The Cha-cha is a latin slot dance, so it can add some spice to your dancing repertoire. It is called a slot dance because you should stay in a “slot” on the dance floor, if you keep your basic the same. You can change your direction on the dance floor by changing from a horizontal slot (where your basic step starts you) to a vertical slot.
Cha-cha starts off a little differently than our other dances. It is a good idea to start this one with the music so you can feel out the beat and your start. While you’re looking at the chart for the steps, say to yourself, “1, 2, cha-cha-cha.” Your cha-chas are going to be a little bit of a stutter step which give you that off-beat latin feel. Once you get the basic down, it is easy to replace the front (or back) step with turn or opens to add some flair to your steps. I like to start out in open position and transition to closed position by adding in turns or changing slots. As long as you keep your feet moving to the cha-cha beat, adding things in couldn’t be easier. Here’s a great list of Cha-cha music which has been nicely organized by speed and difficulty.
Now that you have a few steps to try out and some music to get you started, you have no excuse to not give it a try. Find yourself a local dance studio that has hour lessons, or invite people over, move the living room furniture to the walls and have yourself a ball figuring it out together!