How to Improve

First of all, I’ll start with a bit of personal history, so you can see things from my perspective for a second.  I’ve been dancing ballroom for about eight years.  I could have been super-crazy-awesome by now, but I’m just getting back into competing open standard and smooth (with my awesome current partner who’s just been dancing three years).  I’ve witnessed some people shooting up into the championship-level ranks after just a couple of years, yet I haven’t gotten to that exponential trajectory myself.  Which is okay by me.  When I started, I sucked.  There’s no denying that.  And now, I’d like to say I’m a pretty good dancer, if not awe-inspiring.

How did I get to this point?  I danced very casually my first couple of years.   Showed up to ballroom lessons a couple times a week, learned some steps, done.  Didn’t have a lick of technique and wasn’t even aware of how bad I really was, but I was still having lots of fun!  No one expects you to “get it” right away.  I did my first competition the spring of my first year in college and was hooked from that point on.  Even competing, it was still a casual thing – find a partner a few weeks before the comp, practice a couple times, and go.  No wonder I didn’t do all that well!

Fast forward a year or two – compete regularly with a partner, practice a little more regularly.  We started taking lessons with our school team’s coach and looking more respectable on the silver-level floor.  Graduated, moved back home to the DC area, and started taking lessons with another coach, one who really kick-started our improvement.  We took private lessons about once a week, attended practices weekly, and continued to take group lessons.  We also took lessons with other coaches as well.  We were dancing at least 3-4 times a week.  Boom, started getting placements in silver, eventually callbacks in gold and decided to take a leap into open material.  I wasn’t quite ready (or so I thought), but my partner was ambitious and our primary coach supported that goal.  Those two years led to a LOT of improvement.  Finally I could feel like I was actually a pretty good dancer, not just okay.

So, how do you get good fast?

1. Find a regular, committed partnership.  More on this in another post.

2. Practice a lot.  Probably obsessively, even.  Establish a regular practice schedule, go as often as you can stand, just do it. Also, practice efficiently, don’t just run through things and decide that they’re “good enough.”  Practice to improve.  Some people claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, so you probably have a long way to go, even if your goal is to be very good and stops short of expert.

3. Take private lessons.  Group lessons and figuring out stuff on your own can get you relatively far, even in gold if you are a talented natural dancer, but you need private lessons to get to that next level.  Lots of times coaches can correct some major issue you have that can transform all of your dancing.  Consider traveling to really excellent coaches, to find the best you can.  If you think the idea of taking private dance lessons is weird, what about taking private music lessons? Isn’t that the same thing?

4. Be dedicated.  Really enjoy what you’re doing, and practice will be fun, not exhausting.

5. Seek as much knowledge from as many resources as you can. Take classes with different people, watch lots of videos, read up on technique.  Find what works for you and use it!

6. To get really good really fast, specialize.  This entails focusing on one or two particular styles out of the four (Standard/Smooth/Latin/Rhythm), or even stop doing whatever is weakest or the one you like the least.  I would recommend learning and competing in all four styles at least through silver if possible, but this is really a personal decision.  The few championship-level people I know who got there in a couple of years only dance standard.

7. Always look ahead. Dance up a level and enjoy the challenge.  You might do better than you think and find that you should be competing at a higher level.  That being said, don’t feel pressure to dance up until you feel like you’re ready. Unless you’re winning every single competition, then just move up already! 😛

8. How to be competitive without suffering disappointment when things don’t go your way: Focus more on personal performance than competition placements.  You can only control how well you dance, you have no say in how everyone else dances.  So if you felt like you danced your best but got last place, don’t get discouraged! Be proud of how you danced!

9. Set realistic but ambitious goals for yourself.  What do you want to be doing in 6 months, a year?  How do you want to perform at the next competition?  How do you want to push yourself?

10. Go outside your comfort zone and consider taking some classes in different styles.  Whether that’s jazz, ballet, yoga, salsa, a ballroom style you don’t specialize in, doesn’t matter.  It might give you some ideas or help you work on things from a different perspective, which could help your main style of dancing improve.  It might also help keep you from burning out or getting bored.