8.7 On Learning To Lead More Figures

The number of steps you know is not important. Execution is everything. Good ballroom dancers create the illusion of effortless dancing. Most new dancers don’t realize that it is an illusion and that their first efforts at ballroom dance look horrible and feel horrible to their more experienced partners. As a beginner you don’t know how perfectly right it feels for two people to dance as one until it happens to you for the first time. You can’t help but say to yourself, “This must be it! This must be the great experience I’ve heard people talk about!”. Dancing is much more about moving in perfect harmony with your partner than it is about moving through a specific patterns of steps. When I get the opportunity to dance with an excellent partner I get my enjoyment out of the way we effortlessly “float” together across the dance floor (mostly doing basic steps) rather than out of the fact that she can follow some obscure steps of mine. I also much rather hear a lady compliment me on being smooth than her being dazzled by my step vocabulary.

Ballroom dancing requires complex and non-trivial skills. Given a limited amount of time one can learn a lot of steps poorly or a few steps well. To learn just 1 step at a national championship level could easily take more than a 100 hours of training, given a talented student and starting from scratch.

Each pattern in the syllabus shows a technique that is critical. As I recall my bronze ‘steps’ they covered: dance position, moving forward (progressive basic), promenade, side (side basic), changing directions (box basic, ad lib), dancing outside partner (park avenue), turns, pivots, timing (running step). Also footwork, partnership, lead-follow, timing, expression.

I appreciate bronze much more now that I dance silver (and up). In silver, I quickly realized that we had not covered moving backward, fallaway, pivots, CMBP, outside partner, shaping, control, light leading, body lead and many other things. Every silver movement brings up a technique which is anchored in basic bronze technique.

Each time I’ve progressed a level, my dancing has changed significantly enough that I had to go back and review (re-learn) prior material in order to apply the new level. Most significant are: balance, coordination, frame, control, and center.

Let’s try a course plan, realizing that group classes don’t usually work enough on style, footwork, partnership or expression: With ~10 steps in 10 dances to master the bronze syllabus, it would take some number of hours just to see the patterns, practice and perfect them (100hrs @ 1 hr per pattern). Add style, rhythm, timing and execution for 10 dances (40hrs @ 4 hrs per dance). Footwork, grounding, centering, legs for smooth/Latin (30 hours). Partnership, position, posture, frame, lead/follow, floorcraft (20 hours). Expression, arm styling (10 hours) Manners, courtesy, shyness, experience: (50 non class hours) Your teachers could probably show you all the silver and bronze patterns that they normally teach in a dozen hours or so. You would look pitifully bad doing most of them. At $45/hour the above would cost you $540. You could get yourself a copy of ‘Modern ballroom dancing’ by Victor Sylvestor (around $20) and just memorize hundreds of patterns therein, complete with foot charts. You will still look pitifully bad, but at a much lower cost! Be sure your partner memorizes them too, because you won’t be leading them!

About 80% of the silver and bronze patterns are of about the same difficulty. In fact, apart from the most basic steps (e.g., box), everything else is *hard*. Come to think of it, even the box step is *hard*. Come to think of it, even walking forward is *hard*. Come to think of it, just standing in dance position is *hard*. Ninety-five per cent of the time, you can spot the good dancers long before they start moving.

Good dancing is *hard*. If you are trying to do it well, that is. If you learn some of the patterns, you might as well learn them all. If you have learned some of them badly, you will probably learn all of them badly. Then you will then have more ways of looking bad and less time to learn to look good.

Hours aren’t everything. Quality counts, that’s why you get more from a private lesson, and more from a great instructor. Experience also counts. Ballroom dancing also well requires a certain amount of body awareness (kinesthesia) and muscle strength, which most people develop over time (although top competitors actually train like athletes.) Learning to dance well takes time. I have danced with new ‘instructors’ who took the ‘crash course’ and no doubt put in lots of hours in 3 months and qualify to teach the syllabus. However, they can’t dance. The body just can’t absorb the material. I have also danced with long time instructors who can’t dance. They have lots of hours on the floor, they just plateaued and stopped working at it.

I’ve been teaching for over 25 years. I have trained many teachers and students. Studios that I have worked for have taken up to 7 hour per variation. You are only as good as your basics. World class dancers practice walking around a room together in dance hold. In American style the only reason I teach bronze is to give the student a chance to learn partnershipping how to lead & follow. Silver level isn’t any harder to dance once you have learned partnershipping. But it is a bugger if you have not. The box is not an easy step to do right in any dance. Silver flows better. You may be ready for silver. Ask yourself:

  • Does the lady feel part of you when dancing or an extension of your own body?
  • Do you _let_ her follow rather than _make_ her follow?
  • Do you roll the lady into promenade position?
  • Do you push from the opposite foot on all traveling steps?
  • Are your toes always pointing in the same direction?
  • Do you know when to use CBMP, Shoulder Lead, Sway?

When I was training teachers in bronze Waltz and Foxtrot I told them they passed the bronze when they could go through it with their hands behind their backs. A really good Bronze dancer is better than a not-so-good Silver dancer. After 25 years I still go over my Bronze steps even if I do not use them often on the dance floor. It makes my silver and gold variations only better.