10 Tips For Ballroom Success

I’ll be the first one to admit that my approach to dancing is a bit different than a lot of people’s. When I started the program at ASU in the fall of my sophomore year I took the Level I Ballroom/Latin/Swing class and was hooked. However, unlike most of the others in the class I didn’t pursue one of the two chief choices: stopping there or moving on to Level II. Instead I re-took the Level I class. I continued to learn and laid down the foundation for what has become one of my favorite, educational and most rewarding pastimes. By my third semester in the dance program, I finally decided to move into the Level II B/L/S class. I learned a lot, improved my dancing exponentially and enjoyed the class, but still found myself attending the Level I classes. By the time my third semester in dance wound down to a close I did the unthinkable. Instead of repeating Level II or moving up to Level III, I returned exclusively to Level I and that’s where I stayed for the remainder of my 4 years at ASU.

To be clear, it wasn’t that I couldn’t go on. I could have quite easily and was pressured fairly heavily to do so. Which isn’t to say I started out as a good dancer. Quite the opposite. In fact, I take a certain level of pride in just how horrible I was when I started. Clumsy, petrified of the girls I was forced into close proximity with, unable to hear the beat, unable to count out the steps – I was a complete dance disaster. About the only thing I had going for me was an awkward sort of charm and perseverance.

Over the last 4 years my dancing has come a long way. In fact, as a person I have changed a lot – and in no small part due to dance. My confidence has skyrocketed. Girls are now relegated to only being marginally scary (downgraded from petrifying). I can hear the beat about 95% of the time. I still can’t count, but I’ve figured out the rhythms. I haven’t dropped a girl and, through it all – somehow – I’ve been accused of moving smoothly and gracefully. I still have a long way to go but the transition from ugly duckling to swan has been an interesting and enlightening one.

I’ve had the opportunity to dance with and to get to know a lot of the incredible dancers that have come out of ASU. In the 3 years I spent in the program, and the year I’ve spent on it’s fringes since I graduated, I’m constantly amazed at the talent and thrilled to see the program grow. It’s truly amazing how things have changed in the last 4 years. When I started Ballroom was still taboo – something for “girls and queers”. Somewhere between the 60s and 70s it had fallen out of favor. That dead period has finally come to an end. Our generation is once again embracing dance and that is a really fun and exciting thing.

For those of you just getting into it or considering picking it up, I’m offering these suggestions as food for thought based on my experiences, approach, and what I’ve seen.

  1. Dance is fundamentally about having fun. I’ve seen a lot of people get into it, push through the classes, and memorize routines with an all consuming focus on competing. For a lot of these people the drive to be the best comes at the cost of actually enjoying what they’re doing. Fundamentally, dance is about enjoying yourself and making sure your partner does the same. If you lose sight of this none of the medals or fancy moves mean squat.
  2. Men – beyond fancy turns or quick spins focus on your ability to lead. If the girl can’t follow you, you aren’t doing your job. On the flip side Girls – work on your ability to follow. Don’t cling to him, listen to his suggestions, and let his body lead you.
  3. Find the music. This one is more difficult for some of us than others. As someone who to this day fights with the beat in some dances, I can’t over emphasize the importance of listening to the music in your spare time and figuring out a system that works for you. Mix it up. The way they told you to count it may not be the best for you. I had major issues with salsa until I started matching up “Quick, Quick, Slow” to the music in my head. No numbers, no this on that beat. Just a simple rhythm I could match and follow. To this day it’s what I use and it’s allowed me to break away from the standard salsa formats and embrace a more South American/natural style.
  4. Be humble – it’s easy to get cocky. It’s also really easy to get frustrated when dancing with someone at a totally different skill level. The reality is, you sucked once. Not only did you suck once, but you’re probably a lot less skilled right now, at this moment, than you think you are. You just won’t realize it until you reach the next skill level. Always make time to dance with a beginner, take the time to be patient, teach them the basics, offer a tip, and be supportive. Guys – in the long run, I promise a smile and a little support will leave the girl feeling like you were a much better dancer than a horribly executed Level III move designed to show her how good you are.
  5. Be careful who you turn down. To this day there are girls I won’t dance with because they were rude. There are others that I won’t dance with because of the way they treated my friends. Also, girls – quite often the guys who have the roughest time at the start end up being some of the best and most prolific dancers. Likewise – guys, it takes a lot of courage for a girl to ask you to dance. If you have the energy, go for it. Even if they intimidate you or you really don’t have any desire to dance with the person. One of my biggest goofs was turning down a phenomenal dancer who approached me about partnering with her on ASU’s competition team. In my shyness, I was intimidated by her and felt severely outclassed skillwise. That combined with my policy at the time not to compete (and frankly my lack of interest in competing) led to a hasty no. That no wasn’t delivered with nearly enough grace or consideration and is something I’d take back in a heartbeat given the opportunity.
  6. Guys – just go for it. There’s a whole story behind it, but there was a line a few girls told me summer of my freshman year during a drunken night out on the town in Edinburgh, Scotland. To this day it’s stuck with me. I’d just finished flailing around at a club in a disastrous drunken version of dance-meets Big-Bird on rollerblades when the girls stopped me mid sentence, “Alex, it’s such a nice change to finally find a guy who dances. Anything is better than the stalker dance.” What is the stalker dance one might wonder? It’s when you stand on the side of the dance floor, bobbing your head to the beat, and stare at the girls like a basset hound eying dinner. So remember – just don’t do the stalker dance and you’ll be a hit.
  7. Try not to smell – I know this one should be common sense but a lot of people are not aware of the scent associated with them. For some it’s just bad breath, for others it might be tied to medicine, breath mints, your toothpaste or gum. Regardless, always be conscientious and pay attention to how you smell. If you smell, not only will it drastically harm the level of enjoyment your partner gets out of the dance, it will cost you future dances.
  8. Girls – don’t tolerate gropers. Accidents happen. Lord knows I’ve accidentally grabbed a boob or two, and on more than one occasion blown a move and ended up with my face nose deep in cleavage. It happens and it can’t be helped. Unfortunately, there are more than a few guys out there who intentionally grope, squeeze, pinch, and generally disrespect the women they’re dancing with. If a guy starts pulling this sort of crap don’t feel like you have to finish the dance with him. Just stop and walk away. Never dance with him again and feel free to intentionally stomp on his toes if you do decide to finish the dance with him. Warn your girlfriends, and let the guys you dance with regularly, know. My only word of caution would be to make sure it’s not legitimately part of the dance (eg: Bachata’s close grinding).
  9. If you’re just starting don’t let the skill of the dancers you see keep you off the dance floor. Anyone who’s going to judge you isn’t worth your time to begin with. Also, it took me about a year to figure it out – but the better dancers typically don’t tend to dance in the more visible locations. So, it’s probable that the dancers dancing along the edge of the dance floor right at the entrance etc. are probably some of the best dancers at the club. Just push on in to the middle or find a quiet corner where you’re comfortable and have fun.
  10. Don’t stop. Even if you totally blow it and get lost – just push through and have fun with it. Crack a joke, make a funny face, and keep going. Remember, you’re out there to dance. Not to be a robot carrying out pre-programmed moves. Besides, how do you think some of the best moves were created?

Tips, ideas, suggestions or questions of your own? Post a comment!