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 How Can I Dance Better? 
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Post How Can I Dance Better?
How Can I Dance Better?
by: Robin Chee

By: Robin Chee, AISTD (Ballroom; HC); ANATD (Ballroom & Latin; HC),

One of the most common questions that we are asked is “How can I dance better?” or “How come I don’t look like that dancer?”. To give a proper answer to that needs a bit more time to explain properly, which we hope this article will address to some degree.

To get into the correct frame of mind, let’s start with some examples and stories. My first example is that of a kid learning how to write. They are first taught how to write the alphabet, and then learn simple words, and then learn sentences, and then learn paragraphs. Eventually they can write a short composition. They could have spent decades writing but most never get to be excellent writers.

My second example is that of a L plate driver learning to drive. When we first learnt to drive a car, we made steady progress till we passed our driving test. After passing, we improved a bit by learning to drive on real roads, but after 2-3 years or so, probably there may not be much difference between them and a 10 year veteran. Even after driving for 20 years daily, the skill level probably won’t match the Hollywood stunt drivers.

What’s my point? When you are a new dancer, progress will be steady, as you learn more dances and more steps. From having two left feet and not dancing to music, you begin to dance the steps and follow the music quite well. The number of dances you can dance will increase and you will feel more confident and can dance with many different partners. But a time will come when your dancing will hit a plateau. But clearly there are others who continue to improve, so what is the difference between you and them?

Let me tell you about the movie “The Karate Kid”. In this old movie, the hero, Daniel LaRusso was constantly bullied by members of a big karate school. He tried practicing karate himself by imitating the karate school kids, but he was always picked on and beaten up. One day, he met his eventual master, Mr Miyagi who agreed to teach him after much pitiful begging. When his training started, he was just asked to paint fences with an up down action and polish floors in a circular action. After a month, Daniel was feeling frustrated and he felt Mr Miyagi was making use of him and he wanted to leave. Then Mr Miyagi asked him to show him the actions he was doing for the past month. To Daniel surprise, these were actually the fundamental steps of karate and he had developed a very strong base in it. From there, Mr Miyagi taught him good balance by standing in a boat and standing for hours on a leg. Only then was he taught to fight. On his first karate competition, he won, despite only knowing a few basic movements, compared to his opponents who knew tons of fancy steps.

Another very clear memory I have was when Pele and I were in London taking dance lessons. During our dance lessons with Martin Lamb (Ex World Ten Dance Professional Champion), a couple who were World Professional Standard Finalists were taking lessons with Bill Irving at the same time as us. For the whole lesson, they were doing nothing but just 3 steps of the Waltz natural turn. The couple were shouting at each other during the whole lesson. We were indeed very surprised that top couples like them are still learning how to do the Waltz natural turn better and how important they consider the fundamentals.

When Pele and I were in competition, we also eventually hit a plateau and progress was slow or sometimes non-existent. Only when we started training under a very wise coach, did things begin to change. During that initial few months under this wise coach, we were made to do walks, walks and more walks, with only very simple variations. Once we mastered the basic techniques, our progress really started to accelerate. It was very tedious work but it was well worth it. Our coach told us that many dancers did not survive under him and many gave up after a few lessons. He was proud that we stuck to his training and showed great improvement.

Good fundamentals. The morale of the stories is that good fundamentals will get you continued progress even though initial progress seems slow. Learning more and more variations without good fundamentals will result in a plateau in your progress eventually, even though initial progress seems fast. Learning to do anything well is like making a layered cake (qua lapis). You ensure each layer is done properly before putting on the next layer, otherwise the whole cake will end up a mess. The same applies to dancing, each level must be mastered before going on to the next. Good fundamentals require good understanding of basic technique and a lot of hard, intelligent work.

Learning Technique. A good way to start learning good basic technique is to attend a technique class or exam class, where things like footwork, movement, posture, connection, timing etc are taught. While waiting for a technique class to start, ask the instructors questions on how things should be done properly. Another option is to take some private lessons. We don’t recommend new dancers to try to learn technique from technique books meant for professionals. Technique books are meant to be used as a study guide in conjunction with a professional trainer. Attempting to do learn from a book without guidance will invariably lead to misunderstanding of the technique and result in many wrong movements, which will be difficult to correct later.

Active Learning. Many people are taught something in class, but they do not learn it. To learn something well requires you to be active. This means you need to think about what was taught and try to understand it. Do not just blindly memorise it. Ask questions if you do not understand. Try paraphrasing what you learnt to your instructor to see whether your understanding is correct. Take notes so that you can refer to them later if you forget. Visualize yourself practicing the movements as clearly as possible. This is how many of the top athletes who require a high level of skill practice when they are not physically practicing. You can do this anywhere, anytime eg. waiting for transport, boring meetings, before sleep etc.

Perfect Practice. To improve, most people would tell you to practice harder as everyone ‘knows’ that “Practice makes perfect”. While this definitely helps, we need to qualify this by saying “Perfect practice makes perfect”. This means you need to be practicing the correct things, otherwise, you will just end up being very good at executing the wrong movements, which will be very hard to correct later on. The worst thing a dancer can develop are bad habits, which can sometimes be so bad, that it may well be easier to train a new dancer to be good, rather than train an experienced dancer with bad habits to be good.

Proper Practice Program. One of the best things a dancer can do to improve is to have a proper practice program. Many dancers just start to dance their routines to music once their practice session starts and just do that the whole night. Many dancers practice and practice their routines non stop but without much progress, even after years of practice. Some even get worse. A proper practice program aims to condition your muscular memory so that good dancing becomes second nature without thinking. A possible practice program could be like this:

• Warm up and loosen muscles, stretching
• Practice alone walks e.g. ballroom walk, rumba walk
• Practice alone dance basic movements e.g. hip action, swing action
• Practice alone basic routines in parts without music, with emphasis on getting the correct action properly
• Practice with partner walks, basic movements, some simple movements to get the correct movement without music
• Practice with partner parts of a routine with emphasis on different aspects without or with music
• Practice with partner whole routine trying to put in all necessary elements

It’s important that practice be taken with a positive and open attitude, taking feedback from your partner positively. If things can’t be resolved, check with your instructor. Work out a clear objective and things to practice for each practice e.g. improve swing action, correct wrong footwork etc. Getting someone qualified to check you occasionally during practice also helps a lot. Take advantage of practice nites when your instructor is around.

Perseverance. Perseverance is another key thing. The journey to excellent is a long and never ending one. Even top professional are constantly learning. What seems impossible today will eventually become easy. In dancing, there are many instances of “the tortoise and the hare”. Many talented dancers may seem to have initial good progress, but they may expect too much too fast and give up quickly. Some slower learners don’t give up and eventually surpass most of the more talented dancers. Having been around the dance scene since 1980, I’ve seen many dance champions dance before they became champions. At that time, many people even laughed at their dancing, but they did not give up and eventually they had the last laugh and gained respect. When I first started, I was considered the slowest in the whole school (not class), but I did not give up and eventually won competitions and became a professional.

To summarize here are some tips to help you dance better. Its not easy to do everything, but even if you just put in practice a bit of the tips, you will see much greater progress:

- Work on the fundamentals
- Learn actively and visualise yourself dancing perfectly
- Have plenty of perfect practice
- Persevere and don’t give up

© RpMerleon Studios; 2005

About The Author
Robin Chee has been dancing ballroom, latin and social since 1980. He has gone through all the stages of being a social dancer, taking dance exams, competing in dancesport competitions and teaching dance. Robin is from Singapore and runs RpMerleon Studios.


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Fri Mar 04, 2011 4:00 pm
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