How to Get Better at Partner Dancing Without Your Partner

By Jackson Fossen

As the title of this article may suggest, improving your partner dancing without a partner is not impossible. Most of the time, obviously, I prefer dancing with my partner. Our partners, you may have noticed, are individuals with lives of their own and are not available every time we feel like practicing. You can improve on your own, however, and in fact some work is better done solo. The following are a few major components of my approach to improving my dancing without a partner. I’ve done my best to make it universally helpful, but be aware the majority if not the entirety of my dance experience has been as a lead.

Learning Steps & Routines

First off, if you’re learning the International Ballroom style, you’re in luck! The syllabus is well defined and readily accessible on the internet (double check your source and corroborate with one or two others to be sure). Most websites are copying more or less verbatim from The Ballroom Technique by Alex Moore, commonly referred to as “the book.” As for the other styles, there are still options. Often, organizations such as WDSF/USA Dance or NDCA will have some material available. YouTube can be your friend, but be cautious of what you’re consuming. Look for subtle indicators for quality of instruction like a professional setting or their mode of dress. Do they demonstrate proper technique and have good posture?

Once you’re ready to try something, do baby steps in your kitchen. Seriously. A kitchen (or other small space in your home) is not an ideal space to full-out practice, but stepping through a figure, sequence, or routine with application of minimal technique can help greatly with memorization. Spaced repetition is quite effective when it comes to memorization, but with dance you have the advantage of “muscle memory.” Muscles don’t actually have miniature brains with sets of memories, but if you can’t quite remember what to do next, you may find you are able to stumble through the motions because the sequence feels familiar. To help cement routines further, dance through them as you make your way to class or through your house. Keep in mind the core tenets of the dance when learning a new step and remember that you’re not learning different footwork to keep yourself entertained, you’re learning a new way to demonstrate you understand the core technique of the dance. Do incorporate rise and fall into that natural spin turn in Waltz, for example, or compression and staccato foot striking in a natural twist turn in Tango.

Three warnings that you should heed carefully when learning steps and routines by yourself:

  1. Have at least a vague idea of what your partner is supposed to be doing, or be able to point them towards a helpful resource when the time comes to trying something in partnership for the first time. Leads, make sure you know how to lead the step—it’s kind of your job. Speaking from experience, only dancing your part of a new step without attempting to connect with your partner (or worse yet, using your arms to drag them along for the ride) makes for an unhappy follow. Leads, if your first attempt at a new step doesn’t go well, it’s not because your follow doesn’t know her/his part. It’s because you didn’t lead.
  2. Beware of learning too many steps, especially if you’re just starting out. The rule I was taught and used to much success is that you only need to know three steps to compete in any dance, at least at the Bronze/Pre-Bronze level. A few well-executed steps show much better than an endless stream of poorly-done figures. One of the most memorable pieces of advice I’ve heard is that “no one knows what your choreography is.” You may think it’s readily obvious which steps you’re trying to perform, but quite often the audience’s perception is “oh, that person is moving” and the words “cross-body lead underarm turn crossover break,” for example, never enter their minds. Judges are less concerned with which steps you dance than how well you actually, you know, dance them.
  3. If it’s practical for you, I recommend not competing with a new step until you’ve had at least some in-person-with-a-real-live-human-being coaching. I’ve been lucky to have the resources I do and I understand this isn’t practical for everyone, but I recommend it as much as possible. Very rarely have I attempted to learn a new step by myself, brought it to someone more experienced for help, and not made several significant changes.

Polishing

Drill the little things that you want to perfect, but don’t waste your partner’s time by doing them  over and over while you’re together. For me, these have been things like working on my invite in a mirror, experimenting with different lines and poses at various points in my routines, working on Cuban motion with a mirror, and making my turns and free spins as sharp as they can be.* Video yourself as you practice to find other easy changes you can make.

Your Posture Can Always Be Better

Always practice posture. Any time you see your reflection—and I do mean any time, be it in a mirror, window, puddle, the lenses of someone else’s sunglasses—check to see if you’re standing up straight. Obviously you’re not always going to be pitched forward over the balls of your feet or stretched way out to the left, but frequent posture checks can get rid of universal  attributes of bad posture: hunched or uneven shoulders, head inclined too far forward (neck not straight), feet/knees not tracking straight, etc. Improving one’s posture is a never-ending endeavor, but working on it whenever possible and not only while dancing helped me enormously. I keep a sticky note on my laptop that simply reads: “Posture?” Every time I use my computer, I’ll notice the note, realize I’m hunched way over my keyboard, and straighten up. It’s a little bit ridiculous how many times I have to adjust, but each time represents a small step in the right direction.

Being On-Time & Improving Musicality

Listen to dance music in your free time. Obviously you can dance to just about any music, but be a little more deliberate and listen to playlists comprised exclusively of songs that you know you can dance a specific ballroom dance to. This helped me considerably when I started out, and it’s what I recommend whenever people ask how to be on time more consistently. Listen actively and practice finding important counts: 1 in Waltz/Viennese Waltz, 3/5/7 in Tango, 3 & 7 in Foxtrot, the ever-critical 2 in Cha Cha and Mambo, etc. Then test yourself. Watch competition footage, but turn up the volume and just listen first. Once you’ve gotten yourself mentally dancing on time, look at the video and see if you’re correct (the majority of dancers on the floor tend to be on time, especially at higher levels and in final rounds).

Beyond dancing on time, listening to ballroom music outside of dancing can help with musicality and other more nebulous things that come into play at higher levels. As you listen, visualize yourself dancing. Think about how to use specific moments to enhance a particular step or sequence, the most obvious example being hits or breaks in the music. Focusing on general musicality and the character of each dance is also something you can work on as you practice, including without a partner. Even if you’re not actively thinking about improvements to your dancing as you listen, the increased familiarity with the music still benefits you.

Dance with your partner as much as you can. But when you can’t, there’s a lot you can (and should) work on individually. Even when there’s no good practice space available, you can still do a lot to improve. Applying what I’ve outlined will not catapult you directly to Championship level, but it can get you there faster and give you quite an edge over your competitors on your way. I hope you find at least some of this useful, some things maybe more than others. If it doesn’t seem useful, don’t force it. A lot of this I’ve constructed myself and do not consider the best or only path; it’s merely what I’ve found to be useful along the way. Thanks for reading, and happy dancing.

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