If you’ve ever watched Dancing With the Stars on TV and envied how celebrities seem to learn and perform new dances each week with ease, the good news is that you can do the same.
The other day, I visited Santa Barbara Dance Center in my hometown to talk with the instructor Nigel Clarke. I wanted the former British and U.S. ballroom dance champion’s opinion. “What do I need to do to learn ballroom dancing?” I asked him. “I’m hoping to look good on the dance floor, and I also want to have fun in the process.” To my delight, Clarke’s answer sounded easy and doable—and it echoed my long-held approach to success with most any physical activity, be it ballroom dancing or basketball.
Ballroom dancing is a skill-embracing activity, Clarke replied, and learning specific dance skills is the key to gaining mastery and enjoying yourself in the process. The first step toward those goals, he said, is to make the commitment to taking lessons. I couldn’t agree more. And don’t let the lack of a partner stop you from signing up for lessons. Instructors pair up single participants, and often have everyone change partners during class—which gives you an opportunity to dance with the best dancers!
A decade or so ago, I learned how to swing dance by taking a six-week series of recreation department classes. I started with a beginning-level series and really enjoyed myself. At the end of it, I could swing dance—or at least do the basics—and I could go to the recreation department’s Saturday night dance and have fun. Indeed, among the more affordable ways to explore dancing is to take group classes at city recreation departments.
My next step was an advanced beginning-level series and then the intermediate-level series. I could have moved on to advanced lessons, but decided to repeat the intermediate series a few times so that I could master those steps.
The point is to start with a small commitment. If you picture yourself “dancing like the stars,” you simply need to take that first step. Enroll in beginning-level lessons—just to see if you like dancing. If you enjoy the classes, you’re ready for the next series. Continue to take classes, and you’ll not only be on your way to dancing like a star, but you’ll also be building an exercise habit to last a lifetime.
Clarke’s ballroom program, for instance, covers sequential instruction in four popular dances—the waltz, fox-trot, tango, and quickstep—tailored to National Dance Council of America skill levels: “bronze” for beginner, “silver” for intermediate, and “gold” for advanced.During the first six weeks of his classes, you’ll learn a quarter of the skills required for bronze-level waltz. In a subsequent six-week series, you’ll learn a quarter of the skills for bronze-level fox-trot, then the tango, and finally the quickstep. At this point, if you were to attend a dance, you’d be adept at the basic steps of all four dances.
You then repeat the sequence, learning the next group of skills. At the end of a year, you’ll know half the skills for the bronze level; within two years, you’ll know the bronze skills for all four dances. You’ll also feel comfortable at dances—and you’ll look like you know what you’re doing!
Sound like fun? The time commitment for bronze-level classes is only one hour a week. Just keep showing up once a week and eventually you’ll progress to whatever level of dancing skill you desire. You can continue with lessons for silver-level skills; at gold-level, you may want to switch from group lessons to private instruction in order to work one-on-one with an instructor.
Your local recreation department may sponsor dances several times a month, and you can dance to your heart’s content—for three hours straight if you have the stamina! At these events, there are dancers of all skill levels, from beginning all the way up to gold and competitive. Be sure to sit out a dance or two just to watch the dazzling moves of the advanced dancers.
Best Practices for the Budding Ballroom Dancer
Learning to dance as your “lifetime sport” draws on the same best practices for achieving exercise success that athletes do, as I’ve outlined in my book, Stick with Exercise for a Lifetime. Look to these best practices as guidelines for learning the waltz, the fox-trot, the tango, and the quickstep—and enjoying every minute of it!
Have Fun. Long-term success with exercise depends on choosing enjoyable physical activities. When it comes to dancing, start out small. Take beginning-level classes. If you have fun and enjoy them, take the next series.
Find a Coach. When you join a dance class, you’ll automatically have a “coach,” a professional instructor who sets up the music, provides encouragement, and helps you learn new skills.
Join a Team. Being part of a team adds to the enjoyment of any phyiscal activity. With dance, your class members will serve as your “teammates,” sharing your interest and enthusiasm in learning new steps and skills.
Schedule Your Time. However busy your schedule, decide that you can find one hour a week for dance class. Once dancing becomes an exercise habit, you won’t even imagine scheduling anything else during dance time! If you really enjoy dancing, you may even find yourself taking a second class each week or a few individual lessons.
Make Continuous Improvements. By taking classes and progressing through the skill levels, you’ll get better at dancing; the pleasure that comes from improved performance will help you develop a passion for dancing.
Add Supplementary Fitness. Somewhere along the way, you may want to be in better physical condition to improve your dancing. You may participate in other activities that can improve you dancing, such as an aerobics class or strength training.
When you reach the advanced levels, you’ll be able to enter competitions, partnering with your instructor and competing against other student/instructor entrants—the very model for the participants in Dancing with the Stars!