I often get shocked looks when I tell people I used to teach ballroom dance for a living. At 6’4” and 210 lbs., I guess I just don’t fit the stereotype in most people’s minds about what a dancer looks like. I don’t look like the lead from Strictly Ballroom. I only taught for a couple years, but I think that the lessons I learned there went far beyond learning and teaching others to dance.
I was a vocal performance major in my freshman year at college. I had big dreams of being on Broadway. While I had the singing part down, and was taking acting classes, I had no experience with dance. I tried to sign up for a physical education credit for modern dance, but the course was cancelled for lack of interest. I went down to a ballet studio and signed up for adult lessons, but after a couple sessions of stretching and positions, I decided it wasn’t the route for me to learn to dance like the actors I’d seen in my favorite shows.
As with most things in life, the answer was pure happenstance. Or if you buy into the law of attraction, I put it out there and the universe delivered. I was flipping through the Sunday paper and saw an ad for ballroom dance instructors, no experience necessary. With visions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers running through my head, I called the place and went down for an interview. I got the job and had to now learn to dance, so I could learn to teach. My schedule was from 4pm to 10pm each day, but I would come in at 12pm each day and take my own lessons from one of the more experienced teachers.
I basically had 30 days to reach a point where I could teach basic three day classes to beginner students on the Foxtrot, Waltz, Swing, Rhumba, Cha-Cha, and Tango. Eventually I was expected to learn and teach Merengue, Mambo, Salsa, Viennese Waltz and more advanced variations of the swings. First things first, I knew absolutely nothing about how to dance beyond a little jitterbug variation I was taught at a church dance.
The secret to my learning and teaching was to take it step by step. No one just starts out knowing all the steps and variations and flashy moves. My waltz began with forward-side-together, back-side-together. Before too long, I was sweeping around the room to a 1-2-3 beat while throwing in turns and fancy direction swaps, but it wasn’t overnight. Never be afraid of learning the most basic version of something and then taking it from there. Musicians start out learning individual notes before they play masterpieces. Writers learn words and sentences before they ever create memorable characters.
The Human Connection
The other instructors deserve most of the credit in my progress. I knew nothing, but watching them and learning from them was a fantastic experience. If they had left me in a back room with some old paper foot-step charts, I would have never made it. I made most of my progress once the studio hired a new female instructor and we could learn and practice together. Learning is most fun and effective when it is a social affair.
Over the next two years, I had a wide range of students but the ones that went the farthest and improved the most were those that brought a friend or partner. Aside from the friendly competition, having someone who is learning with you just makes it that much more fun. In addition to the time at the studio, you have someone to work with outside of class. The same can be true for any activity not just dancing.
Despite your elementary school teacher’s preference to separate friends there is actual research which shows that learning with friends leads to better outcomes than learning alone. If your current circle of friends isn’t interested in your new found activity, expand your circle and find some more friends. Apps like Meetup.com allow for you to check your area for social groups that are getting together for everything from learning to playing games.
Dance like No One is Watching
Learning anything new is rough at first, especially when it is something performance oriented like ballroom dancing. I am far from a picture of grace, but eventually I moved out of that back room to put my newfound steps to the true test: Dancing with complete strangers. Many of the students were far better dancers than I, but most were good sports about me practicing my simple steps and moves on them.
I have always been a bit of a wallflower when it comes to dancing. Conditioned by several years of church dances where boys stood on one side and girls the other with only a few brave souls in between, and nursing a shy streak a mile-wide, it was hard for me initially to stick my hand out. But the dancer who won’t stick his or her hand out to a potential partner better get used to dancing alone.
One of the cooler things we did at the studio was regular exhibitions where students could invite their friends and family to see what they had learned. Costumes, fancy lighting, and professional sound systems turned the events into amazing shows where these accountants, homemakers, and teachers became the star of their own show for a few minutes. The spotlight was theirs and they always dazzled. Many were reluctant initially to agree to dance in front of people they knew, but I never had one student who wasn’t happy in the end to have just gotten on the floor and danced.
There’s nothing wrong with dancing in your living room or in a studio, but the world is full of music. Each week, the other instructors and I would go out to a local club that played music which we could dance to. Sometimes students would tag along and strut their stuff on the dance floor. For me it was a great chance for practice. After two years of teaching, I was no longer the awkward kid with glasses who started though I never would be confused with Fred Astaire.
If you had told me growing up, I’d be spending a couple years learning and teaching ballroom dancing, I’d probably have laughed at you, but it was one of the most fun periods of my life. 21 years have passed since I hung up my dance shoes, but I still think that those early lessons were important ones. Whatever you want to learn, take it step by step. Bring a friend or find a new community who love doing what you want to do. Remember at the end of the day you just have to forget about the naysayers and wall-hangers and just do the thing. Don’t let anyone keep you from trying something new. You never know where it might lead or what you might learn. You just might discover yourself!