How to get started with partner dancing
Partner dancing is a language; if you want to be able to communicate with a partner – i.e. dance together – you have to learn the language. Focusing on the 3-way connection is a very effective way of connecting with another would-be dancer, lead or follow, and avoiding some of the bad habits beginning partner dancers develop.
The 3-way connection
Partner dancing is a 3-way connection: you, your partner & the music. Connecting with your partner is what partner dancing’s all about; the music’s job is to help you connect and stay connected. Fancy moves aren’t worth diddly if you don’t have a good connection.
You & your partner: the dance embrace
They call this ballroom position, or closed position, and they refer to it as your frame, but let’s cut the crap: this is an embrace. You’re holding someone in your arms. The traditional way to get into the embrace is for the man to hold out his left hand, open and palm up, with an inviting sort of vibe, as if to say “May I have this dance?” You can say that verbally too, but it’s more important to do it with your body & attitude. This is dance, after all; everything’s primarily nonverbal. The woman says yes by putting her right hand onto the lead’s left, and nobody does any grabbing. This is the first bad habit you can avoid ever developing: there’s never any grabbing in partner dancing, by either partner. That’s worth repeating: never any grabbing, ever, unless you’re in a rescue operation, like saving your partner from falling down, in which case you’re rescuing, not dancing. There’s never any grabbing in partner dancing.
So the man’s hand stays open, and the woman’s hand rests lightly on it; both hands are very relaxed. That means you don’t pull your partner to you, guys; you step forward to her or wait for her to come to you. Women, don’t grab that hand; just let your hand rest there lightly, and step forward and put your left arm around him, and he’ll put his right arm around you. Aim a bit high with your arm, follows; whoever has their arm on the bottom is the lead. These arms are very relaxed also, not grabby or tense; no squeezing or digging in with your fingers (no grabbing, remember?). Neither of you pulls your partner in; instead, you adjust your embrace, making it really comfortable for both of you. There’s a zillion variations of where the hands & arms go; it mostly depends on how close you want to dance and what the height difference is (also on what kind of dance you’re doing, once you learn some different dances). For now, just find something physically & psychologically comfortable, so that nobody feels strained, cramped or crowded.
A few specific details about the embrace:
• Women: put your left hand on the back of his shoulder or the back of his upper arm, wherever it reaches with you standing comfortably with your feet on the ground, without straining or reaching uncomfortably upwards. Don’t put your hand on the front of his shoulder or arm, as if you were pushing him away; you’re embracing him, so don’t push him away. If you feel like pushing him away, find someone else to dance with that you feel like embracing. Dancing is embracing.
• Men: don’t put your right hand in the small of her back where it “breaks” (bends backward easily); it’s uncomfortable to be led from there. Move it a bit higher, onto her shoulder blade or ribcage. Some women will be uncomfortable with your hand on her waist, which can feel a bit intimate and is not a good place to lead from. Back of the shoulder is a good spot, very versatile for leading, and it’s where most good leads put their hand.
Now you’re in a dance embrace; take a deep breath & relax (at least physically) if you feel uptight. Loosen your shoulders, relax your arms & hands. Embrace each other gently, with just a little bit of firmness, just enough to say yes, we’re dancing together, I can feel you in my arms. Don’t lean or hang on your partner; each of you holds your own weight and maintains your own center of gravity, standing on your own 2 feet. Nobody “gets danced” in partner dancing; you dance on your own, but with a partner.
Get in sync with the music…
Now start listening to the music, or at least the beat of the music, if you’ve been ignoring it in a fit of mild panic, because it’s time to include the music in your connection. Without moving off the spot you’re on, start moving very gently to the beat, pulsing gently in place. By pulsing I mean sinking very slightly with the beat (pulsing downward is much easier than pulsing up), letting your knees absorb the downward pulse and rising back up very smoothly. Keep the pulses small; keep your knees very loose & relaxed. You can also shift your weight from foot to foot if the music’s slow enough for you to do that in a very easygoing, relaxed way, and you can even combine weight shifts with pulses in a simple pattern, e.g. shift, pulse, shift, pulse. Keep your feet on the floor for both pulses and weight shifts; these are not pick-up-your-feet steps. If you keep your feet on the floor and dance by shuffling along and shifting weight, nobody can step on anybody’s feet but their own. Picking up your feet is another bad habit you can avoid from the beginning. Almost all partner dance steps happen by sliding your feet on the floor. Do what your mama told you not to: shuffle, don’t walk.
…but it’s more important to stay in sync with your partner
Here’s the tricky part of getting in sync: while you want to sync with the music if you can, it’s much more important to sync with your partner. Your partner may not hear the beat quite the same as you do; if that’s the case, DO NOT try to “correct” your partner by showing him or her what you think the beat really is; that’s arrogant. Use the music to connect with your partner; watch how your partner wants to move and see if you can hear the beat the way your partner’s hearing it. If that doesn’t work, try moving with your partner instead of the beat the way you hear it; that may help you hear the beat the way your partner does. There are several different ways to hear any particular beat, and there’s never any one way that’s best. What’s best is dancing with your partner. If both of you try to sync primarily with each other, and only secondarily with the music, you’ll find your way to the 3-way connection. Make sure you’re in sync with each other, just pulsing to the beat, before you try anything else. Dancing to the beat of a different drummer you hear in your head only works if you’re dancing with that drummer; it’s not at all pleasant for partners who happen to be on the outside of your head, and tho’ they may politely go along with you & your auditory hallucination for the time being, they’ll find ways to avoid you in the future.
Now you’re dancing
If you can move gently in place with your partner, to the music – if you got a 3-way connection going – you’re dancing. A lot of dances are mostly floating & pulsing with your partner to the music, right on the spot you’re on. Connecting and moving gently to the music will keep plenty of partners happy, happier than they would be dancing with someone who tries fancy moves but doesn’t know how to do ’em right & ends up being unintentionally brutal or otherwise clueless. Dance together, keep it simple, no one’s in charge. If you want to get into leading & following, you need to go to dance classes and learn how to do it right. Don’t try some fancy move you saw on TV; you can hurt people that way.
Go to dance classes if you want to learn moves; you won’t be able to pick up the fine points just by watching other dancers. Even a simple turn, where the lead lifts his arm and the follow goes under, has all kinds of dynamics to learn when it comes to doing that move so your partner will like it and be comfortable doing it, and so it won’t result in injury, even if the music speeds up. Learning all those fine points is what dance classes are for. Until you get some real education in partner dance, it’s best to stick with gently moving in place with your partner, or floating slowly across the floor together.