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.


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.

I Want to Sparkle: Advice on Ballroom Costuming

By Javier Chacón

Congratulations on leaving the Syllabus world! You’ve now entered the open ranks, which means it’s time for new choreography, more technical drills, and of course… BLING. Perhaps you’ve been wearing some sparkles up to this point, but now that you’re in Open, you probably want something a little more serious for when you get on that floor and can finally do the fancy moves you’ve been going over in your head for the past six months. If this is the case, you’re probably also asking yourself: “How do I get a grown-up costume without destroying my life’s savings or selling a limb?” If your partner isn’t a costume designer, fear not! Here are some tips from dancers in the open ranks.


You probably already know that you can rent gowns for specific competitions. While it is not advised that you lead the rest of your dancing life simply renting gowns as it can get very costly, it is a great way to get better acquainted with the different designers out there so you begin to have a better understanding of how they work and what styles you like best. It’s also a great way to get to wear a very expensive gown for a fraction of the price.

Buying Used

Perhaps the most popular practice for dancers first going into the open ranks. Why buy used as opposed to buying from a China site you ask? For starters, you don’t risk wearing the same gown as three other people as they are usually custom-made for the original purchaser. They also tend to be better quality than mass-produced gowns. With the amount of “dresses for sale” groups on Facebook, it’s easy to find something you really want to wear and can also afford. Don’t forget to talk to the Open dancers that you cheer on at competitions. Often times, they are also selling theirs (which means you don’t have to pay shipping from Europe).


This is a tricky scenario. Technically anyone can buy some practice wear or an un-stoned gown, buy the stones, and then use an ironing board in order to stretch said gown over and begin to apply rhinestones or other embellishments. However, if you factor the amount of time it will take to do this, and the potential for something to go very wrong, you’re better off getting something already made and ready to go. If you are a skilled seamstress or are currently in the process of making clothes, then go for it. Just know, it is time consuming and can take a few tries to get it to look the way you want it to.

Consignment and Sales Racks

This is usually a tricky thing to navigate. Sometimes you luck out, and sometimes… it’s not always magical. Look out for vendors with resale/consignment/sale racks at major competitions. This is a great way to get a designer gown at a fraction of the original price. Note that often times, the gowns on these racks need a little TLC. However, they become investments that you can wear time and time again. These will be more expensive than the used gowns you can find on Facebook, but will more often than not be better quality.

Buying New

The final option in the process of purchasing Open-level costumes is to buy a new, or even better, custom-made, gown. This will most likely involve saving some money in order to have a predetermined budget with which to shop. If this is the route you’re going, a few things to remember are:

  • More expensive does not mean better. I’ve seen plenty a designer gown malfunction on the floor.
  • Just because it’s designer does not mean it’s perfect for you. Don’t buy something because of the tag alone; make sure it’s actually what you want and feel comfortable in.
  • Designers have gowns in many price ranges. Don’t be discouraged because the ones on the mannequins happen to be the 5K ones.
  • Not all custom-made gowns will leave you eating ramen for months. There are independent designers willing to work with you and help you stay within your budget.

I hope these tips have helped you out! Ballroom is a fantastic sport that you can continue to enjoy for years after you graduate (I should know). Make sure that you focus on the aspects of it that matter most to you. Sparkles are great, but they are definitely not a requirement. Some of the best dancers I’ve seen have worn the simplest of gowns and out-danced every other couple on the floor. Above all, ballroom is about the dancing: everything else is secondary.

Shoot for the Moon

By Kai Petersen

My Cross Country coach was very big on goal setting. At least once a week we’d have to get out our goal packets to write down goals for this week, this next race, and for the season as well. He’d love to go around and have some people share their goals with the rest of the team. People would say they‘d like to cut 30 seconds off their time, and he’d respond: why not a minute? He believed if we set our goal to be 30 seconds faster, we’d only get 30 seconds faster, but if we went for something a little harder to get, we might fall short, but still be farther along than we thought possible.

Goals aren’t just for runners, they’re for anyone, and as a newer dancer I’ve been asked what mine are. To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with dance when I started, so I went with the most generic answer I could: to have fun. Even though it was half-hearted response, I realize now that it’s probably the best goal to have. Dance isn’t something you do because you have to, you do it because you want to. Fun should be at the center of all our dancing, no matter what level you dance at.

What I like to imagine is growing a tree. First you have to plant the seed—this could be your first social dance, lesson, or even competition, as long as it’s a fun memory that made you want to dance again. These fun memories add up over time and become the roots and trunk of our tree. As you keep dancing and learn moves, technique, and gain experience, your tree grows, and as it grows it may begin to branch off. These branches of your tree could be wanting to learn a new move or style, or they could be competitive goals like wanting to final in something.

For me, even as I become more competitive and my personal goals shift more towards competitions, I always want to have that rooted desired to come back to the floor and dance again. It’s because of this that I enjoy working hard and doing the “boring stuff,” like drills, that then lets me become more competitive.  

So for the newcomers, and for the people who are just entering competitive dance, if this is your first competition, have fun! Create that want to dance again. For the people who have been around for awhile, don’t forget what got you dancing. There’s a limit to have many firsts a judge can give, but not on how much fun you can have. I hope to see you all on the floor!

Ten Ways to Kick Butt in Bronze

By Kaylee Anderson and Joel Torgeson

Looking to climb the ranks a little while competing? Do we have a list for you! Here are ten things that will help you kick some serious butt in Bronze, and maybe even get you to a final or two.

  1. Smile. Do you want free points on the dance floor, no matter what level you are dancing at? Great; then smile! Ballroom is all about performance, and smiling shows you are relaxed, having fun, and engaged in the music. If you’re dancing Rhythm or Latin, smiling at your partner is a great way to show you’re excited to be at the other end of their arm. If a judge sees two couples dancing at the same skill level, but one is smiling and the other is not, you can bet your biscuits they’ll mark the smiling dancers over the sour ones. Even smiling at members of the audience makes your performance all the more convincing.
  2. Stand Up Straight. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a movie, not a life mandate. Hunching over your partner looks much creepier than sticking your chin in the air, and good posture will help you look put-together. Remember to stand up straight when you’re walking onto the floor as well! It’s an easy thing to do that can bring your dancing to the next level.
  3. *Shine in your Basics.* Showing the audience polished technique is much more important than knowing a bunch of flashy, trashy moves. Trying something you only learned the other day doesn’t usually go well, so stick to what you know. Keep your invites clean and simple, and avoid trying to sneak higher level moves into Bronze. Advanced moves require advanced technique, so changing something to make it Bronze-legal won’t always give the desired effect. Simple, clean moves and good technique are your best bet for making a callback in Bronze.
  4. Achieve Great Feets. Footwork is critical to proper technique and it’s an easily-assessed red flag for the judges. Make sure you are closing your feet and articulating them when necessary. Building a house on a bad foundation usually results in a shaky building, and the same logic applies to your feet and the dancing you build on top of them. Accurate footwork helps you finish your bodylines and makes your dancing look that much cleaner to the appraising eye.
  5. Fake it ‘Till you Make it. Confidence is key when it comes to dancing, even if you don’t feel confident at all. Ballroom dancing is performance bordering on acting, so even if you feel down about your dancing, don’t show it! Envisioning yourself as your dance idol while you’re on the floor is an easy way to boost your self-esteem and show the confidence necessary to get marked.
  6. Floorcraft is Fundamental. Getting around the floor in one piece is an essential part of showing good sportsmanship. Being aware of your surroundings, warning your partner if they are about to run into someone, and being polite if you get into a traffic jam are all important elements to floorcraft. Keeping your partnership from plowing into another couple shows you have control, and that can go a long way in a heat where no one is respectful of other dancers on the floor. Practicing good floorcraft also helps strengthen your partnership. Nothing says respect like saving your partner from a bump on the noggin!
  7. Pay Attention to Your Partner. Showing your partner courtesy, both on the dance floor and off, is a great way to improve your dancing. Never let negativity cross from one partner to another, especially during a competition! Lead your follow gracefully onto the floor when it’s your turn, and be sure to thank them for the dance, even if all you do is smile at them! Follows, make sure you support you leads and the hard work they are doing navigating across the floor. Remember, you’re dancing with another person, not by yourself! Maintaining a healthy relationship off the dance floor can also make your dancing that much better. Bringing your partner little snacks or thoughtful gifts on the big day can brighten their mood and help your performance glow.
  8. Every Moment Counts. In the first few rounds of Bronze, judges only have a few seconds to look at each couple before they have to move onto the next. We’ll say that again: a few seconds. You have to stay on your A-game at all times, because if the judges only see you for that one time you looked at your feet, well, that’s life. Keep your smiles bright, your chins high, and your confidence dazzling, and you’ll always have your best foot forward with the judges.
  9. Know When to Let Go. Control all the variables you can—stay hydrated, well-fed, well-groomed, etc.—but don’t sweat the small stuff. You can’t control the judging panel, the music the DJ plays, or which flight you are in, so do your best to remember that some things are simply out of your sphere of influence. Do your best to hold up your end of the bargain, and if the rest of it goes to crap, so be it. You did your best, and that’s all that really matters.
  10. Have Fun. Yes, this is a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason—it’s true! If you aren’t having fun, it definitely shows. There’s a reason you’re dancing (and we’d guess it’s because you like doing it), so don’t be afraid to show it. Having fun and not caring too much about the rest is a guaranteed way to stay positive, have a great time, and maybe even final in Bronze. In any case, there’s nothing to lose by enjoying yourself!