“I can’t dance”

During and after last week’s open house I was approached by a few people who said they wish they could have as much fun as the folks who were dancing, but Feetthat they “can’t dance”. So I figured this would be a good week to give some basic dance tips:
If you can walk, you can dance. Trust me. Like most people, from an early age I could walk, skip, and hop without giving it a second thought. But then came my first introduction to dancing when someone told me to “walk”, “skip”, and “hop”. I completely stumbled. I was hunched over, embarrassed, felt awkward, and appeared very uncoordinated. It was one thing to do these moves naturally. It was something else for a different part of my brain to tell my body to move. However, with a little concentration and practice I was able to train my brain and body to work together. You can too.
Trust your feet. After several months of dancing I learned that my feet worked much better when I wasn’t watching them. And, as an added benefit, when I wasn’t watching them, it was much easier to stand up straight.
Stand up straight. Butt in, shoulders back, eyes front. You don’t need to be like this all the time, but dancing is much easier when this is your default posture.
Small steps. Learn to take small steps. Often people who are new to dancing will take large, lunging, and even unnatural steps. They then spend a lot of time unlearning this habit.
Comfortable shoes. Wear comfortable, soft soled shoes that can slide easy on the dance floor. I prefer worn down sneakers. If you feel so inclined, check out a dance shop for a nice pair of dance shoes. Flip flops and sandals are a no-no if you want to learn how to dance.
Learn to hear the beat. Often the hardest part of any introduction to dancing is to learn to hear the music: the rhythm, melody, and beat. This is not just the case for folk dancing. Go to any honky tonk in town and you’ll see new folks having a very hard time dancing to the beat. Tip: small steps and standing up straight will help you stay on the beat.
Consider dancing a participation sport, not a spectator sport. Unless you are performing or are on “Dancing with the Stars”, forget about impressing an audience as you learn to dance. Everyone on the dance floor is or has been where you are. So you don’t have to worry about other people judging you.
When you feel stuck, smile. Smiling lubricates the brain, making it easier to either grasp what your body is being asked to do or not worry about it if you are simply not there yet.
Learn to lead, not force. This really pertains to couples dancing. Several years ago a folk dancer mentioned that couples dancing is about openness and humility, not domination and control. Learn simple leads, leading with your whole body, not just your arms, and build on that. Think of a lead as a suggestion and not a command. Never use your partner as a prop, especially if you want people to dance with you in the future.
Dance lots. Dancing is a fun, cathartic activity and is worth doing lots. Austin is a great live music and dance town, so there is no shortage of dance venues. I know that I will almost always have a blast when I go out dancing, so even when I am feeling a little nervous about going to a dance event, I force myself up and out of the house.
Learn basic dance etiquette. Read Sketchy guys, a blunt but really great guide to dance etiquette written by Richard Powers, the social dance instructor at Stanford University.
Take classes. AIFD starts every Saturday evening with basic walkthroughs, often followed by more formal teaching. In addition, there are classes all over Austin for various types of dancing. They can really help you get comfortable with dancing.
How do you learn all those dances? AIFD has hundreds of dances in its repertoire. But one only needs to know the basics to have a great time at folk dancing. First off, many dances are easy and can be picked up just by joining the line. Second, over time many people don’t learn the dances, but learn how to learn dances: recognize the patterns and see how and where the dance repeats. So only a few people in the line really need to know the dance for everyone else to enjoy them. This leaves just a small group of truly “hard” dances that must be learned by everyone who joins the line. Most of these are learned at dance camps, which are always fun events in their own rights.

– Bill Ogilvie, October, 2012