LIY: Learn It Yourself
As Linda noted on the Home Page, dancers at the Savoy Ballroom watched what the other dancers did then made up their own variations of what they saw. This process of riffing on others has driven the evolution of social dancing forward for centuries, even leading to the invention of entirely new dance forms.
Throughout those same centuries, professional dance masters have complained about dancers picking up dance steps and styles on their own, complaining that grass-roots social dancers were doing it all wrong.
We're not saying that either camp is right or wrong. We're not advocating against learning from dance teachers in classes. Instead we recommend developing both skills: the ability to learn via keen observation, while also finessing your dancing in classes.
Unfortunately, one of the two approaches has almost died out today. It's unfortunate because it's the one which has driven social dance forward from the very beginning.
Many of today's social and ballroom dancers have become dependent on teachers methodically breaking down all of the steps and figures, spoon-feeding them everything, so to speak. Some (not all) professional dance teachers encourage this dependency, and some furthermore insist that all steps, styling, figures, and even the sequence of figures, must come only from a certified instructor. Any dancer at the Savoy would strongly disagree.
Both approaches are valid, but one has been marginalized today. Therefore the Waltz Lab's secondary mission is reviving the almost lost art of learning – and innovating – by watching others.
Good news. We have one great advantage over the dancers at the Savoy who were trying to figure out what they saw. We have video. And we can share videos through YouTube. Back then, a dance move was over all too quickly, never to be repeated. "What did I just see?!" Now we can replay it until we understand it. This makes a huge difference.
Here are some tips on learning by observation.
A. If you've never seen this dance form before:
(If you already know the dance form, for instance cross-step waltz, skip to B below.)
Begin with the count. Is it in 4, 3, or something else? Make up your own counts until you discover what the "real" counts are.
Break down complex components of a dance into single elements, such as floor patterns, step timing, arms, etc. Focus on one element at a time.
Similarly, see if you can break a longer pattern down into sequential modules. A long and apparently complex movement may only be a chain of easy elements strung together.
Try to figure out if there is a basic step.
Relate new material to steps and movements that you already know.
Some details to notice:
Which foot does the dance begin on?
Is the basic step done exactly on the musical downbeat, shifted off of it, or done against it?
Notice any slow/quick patterns. Do they repeat?
If it's a couple dance, are the man's and woman's footwork the same, opposite or unrelated?
Notice where the weight is at each moment. Toe? Ball? Heel? Touch without weight? Make a note of how much energy is put into the dance or step.
Make a note on whether the lengths of steps are large, short or in place.
Is body weight centered, or shifted forward/back/side? Is the body erect? Slouched? Notice any body sways. Is there any counter-body twisting?
Notice hip and lower leg articulations. Are there any hip motions? If so, are they toward the step, away from it or circular? Are knees flexed or locked?
You began with the steps, the best place to start. Then once the footwork starts to make sense, notice all arm, hand, shoulder and head movements. Are arm movements angular or circular? Expansive or understated?
Does the partnering connection and frame seem to be firm or loose?
What seems to be the appeal of the dance? Is it fun? Flashy? Graceful? Aerobic? Done for relaxation? What qualities do the dancers seem to be focusing on or enjoying the most?
Make a mental note of what kind of music they're dancing to. Try to feel the dance's connection to the music. Give the music a genre label (what would you call that kind of music?) to help recall or identify it later. Make a note of the tempo. If you can't guess metronome tempos, compare the tempo to another dance that you know.
You're not done. Continue on to B and C below.
B. If you already know the dance form:
Make a mental note of whether turns are clockwise or counter-clockwise. This may be difficult to recall later unless you make a conscious note while you are watching.
Note precise degrees of turning where applicable.
Give step elements your own nicknames, based on whatever they remind you of. This will help you identify them when you see them again. But also ask the dancers what the dance, steps and figures are really called, if you can.
If the dance involves footwork patterns, try working it out with your dancing fingers, both while observing it and when recalling it later on.
As above, notice all arm, hand, shoulder and head movements. Are arm movements angular or circular? Expansive or understated?
Notice if either the Lead or Follow had to make a foot-fudge to pull off that figure.
You're not done yet. Continue on to C below.
C. Overall – whether you already knew the dance form or not:
Try to figure it out immediately after you've seen it, if you can. It will probably be gone the next day.
While observing, relax. Breathe. Your ability to process large amounts of simultaneous material is enhanced by alert tranquility.
Spend some time just absorbing the dance in a diffuse, unfocused, relaxed mode. Give your right brain a chance to absorb the complete, simultaneous entirety of the dance without your analytical left brain dominating the process, preventing direct experience.
Shift between learning modes when you begin to feel fatigued. Shift before you become fatigued. Try focused concentration for a while, then drop it and play with the general feel of the dance for a while. Then feel the connection to the music. Then shift back to the footwork.
Video the dance if you can. The replay will save hours of waiting for the dancers to do a particular move again. Watch for YouTube clips and televised dance programs and collect them. Try the Telemundo network for Hispanic forms.
Don't just watch. Move while observing.
If it's a couple dance, ask them to dance with you. Even if you're lousy at it, you will gain a much better kinesthetic sense of the dance than you will by only watching it.
Ask a somewhat new dancer to try it with you. They might give you a clearer idea of the basic structure than someone who knows too many variations. However, since newbies may possibly have it wrong, dance with several beginners, then work your way up to someone who has apparently mastered the dance.
Find written descriptions to compare with your observations. Look through how-to dance books and magazines. Check YouTube and elsewhere on the Web.
Once you learn the dance, keep practicing until you 'overlearn' it. Some movements will never feel right until you've done them a hundred times. We think that once we've learned to ride a bike, we'll never forget how. But that's true only if we keep at it for months or years, not if we take a few wobbly rides and quit.