I’ve met countless people who believe that they can learn a dance by only going out and social dancing. I used to be one of them. Luckily, I was never of the “I watch YouTube and now I get it!” school, but I was of the “Well, I’m mostly a follow and I think I can pick this well enough on the social floor!”
Truthfully, I really got away with it too. Or, I thought I did. I found out later that the only one I was fooling was myself – and other dancers with attitudes similar to my own. Dancers knew that I was missing many foundational building blocks.
Spoiler: if you ever want to truly learn a dance, you need lessons and/or training. It’s just the way it is.
Now, let me define ‘knowing a dance’. To me, knowing a dance means that a person understands and appreciates the technique and structure of the art form they are practicing. It does not mean a rough approximation of some of the fundamentals that allow a person to survive on a social floor. That – to me – is not ‘knowing’ a dance. That is a person who has a desire to go out, be social, and move their body. Maybe they are also doing it to feel sexy or attractive. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is important to recognize when you know a dance versus are going out to a dance club as a fun social activity.
As I’ve said in previous articles, I have no issues with any type of person at socials, as long as they do not behave dangerously. However, I’ve met lots of people who claim they are a ‘dancer’ when it is clear they have not invested in actually becoming one. These are the people I take issue with today.
I’ll use myself as an example here. I can survive on a Kizomba dance floor. Or even a Blues, Lindy, Tango, Hustle, etc. floor. I would never say that I truly ‘dance’ that style. I simply dabble in it. Why? Because I lack the training. If a strong dancer from that genre watches my feet or movement, they will look at me and inherently know that I don’t know that specific dance style’s technique or foundation.
But, to someone who just goes social dancing, I often appear as a ‘great’ dancer (or so I’ve been told) of that genre simply because I know how to move.
Therein lies the danger.
If I didn’t know my own limits, it would be easy to assume myself a ‘dancer’ of those styles simply because people who dance socially think I am great. I could think that I ‘learned socially’, and just have a natural gift that negates my need to take lessons. And you know what? In many circles, I may get away with it for a very long time. But, there are several risks associated with never taking lessons and ‘learning’ on the social dance floor.
This is the biggest one. Not taking good lessons makes you likely to hurt both yourself and others.
My primary dance is Brazilian Zouk, which to me is simultaneously one of the most fun, beautiful, and fulfilling dances – and one of the dances most likely to cause dance-prohibitive injury if not learned properly. Why? We have something that no other dance has: led and followed head/upper body movement.
I cringe every time a lead or follow comes into this dance, tells me it’s ‘easy’, and proceeds to make up head movement. I’ve met lots of ‘social dancers’ who have left us because they hurt their necks or backs by trying to copy movements without understanding mechanics. The biggest tragedy of this is that these injuries are at least 95% preventable if even one of the partners knew how to protect the dance (All dances have this same issue. Even West Coast Swing – one of the lowest-impact social dances – suffers from shoulder injury proliferation).
If only the follow knew not to dip themselves from the lower back.
If only they knew it wasn’t the neck, but the upper body, that executes the movement.
If only they knew that it was a led movement and not ‘styling.
If only they knew how to compensate for a rough lead.
If only the lead knew not to dip backwards, but straight down.
If only the lead knew not to interrupt the follow’s upper body movement.
If only the lead knew how to compensate for backleading.
If only the lead knew that it is a very gentle movement.
That is a lot of ‘if only’s.‘ Even if it’s only an occasional group class or private, or just a brief question to a teacher if something feels off, make an effort to learn properly before executing a movement. If it feels risky, don’t do it until you learn how. If something hurts, STOP, and ask before you do it again. No exceptions.
Also: that random guy who is telling you the ‘right’ way to do that crazy move likely isn’t a teacher. He doesn’t count as a ‘lesson’.
Learn it right the first time. It takes a lot more effort to undo something that is a habit than to learn from scratch. My favorite students are the ones who we get fresh-off-the-vine, so to speak. I don’t care if they have 2 left feet. I don’t care if they’ve never moved. Give me a fresh beginner, and I can make sure that their first habits are solid.
Give me someone who thinks they know it because they’ve been social dancing for 2 years, and my job gets much harder in many ways.
- A – Bad habits.
- B – They think they’ve got it, even if it’s wrong, and they don’t want to start from the beginning to fix it.
- C – When they go social dancing, it’s far more likely that they’ll default into their old ways.
Take it from someone who social danced for a year before starting to get training. The amount of time I spent undoing my bad habits was enormous. I honestly wish that I had the access and foresight to do lessons in that first year. It would have saved me so. much. trouble.
Lack of Growth
Plateaus are hard enough without good foundations. They are so much harder if you skip training. Eventually, you reach a ceiling where no amount of natural talent will save you from lack of technique. Sometimes, I see super creative, amazing people who I just want to force into a beginner class to establish their foundations. They have so, so much talent. These are the types of people who could rise to the top of the scene so quickly – if only they were willing to go through the tough-slugging in the foundations of the dance. There are so many people who work really, really hard and end up far surpassing these ‘talented’ individuals by sheer power of will and investment in their dance education.
The other half is people who get legitimately frustrated that they aren’t able to do more – and sometimes end up quitting. Or, they attend a congress and assume that they’ll be able to keep pace with all the workshops, and end up frustrated because they’re missing the foundations that would allow them to master new material. So, feeling like they can’t do it or that they’ve reached their peak, they leave.
Never Knowing What They Are Missing
There’s a school of thought that says that the more you are able to do something, the more you’ll be able to appreciate when others do extraordinary things in the same field. Dance is no exception. If a dancer is just casually milling on the dance floor, the chances that they will be able to appreciate the great leads or follows and really be able to enjoy the full spectrum of dance is limited. The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to appreciate great dancing (as opposed to great-looking movers) on the social floor.
I’ll never forget when one of our more recent students (who by the way, is working their butt off on this dance) said to me “There are so many people who just are missing super-simple things that I take for granted now! I feel what’s going on, and I can feel when something is off, but they have no idea that they could just do one thing to make it so much better!”
Prior to taking lessons, that person would never have known that these little things were off. Even better, that dancer can rest easy and compensate for those partners having difficulties and has the knowledge that allows them to tell it is their partner who is having an off-moment rather than some deficiency in their own dancing.
What if there are no lessons near me?
That sucks. I know the feeling. Not having access or plenty of money was one of the main reasons that I did not invest in dance education for a long time.
If there are no lessons near you, then I would suggest investing in a trip to a major center to get your training. If you can’t afford that, then the next best thing is to connect with a strong teacher via the internet or Skype. It’s not ideal, but it definitely beats YouTube. These people can help guide you from afar, and can at least visually see when footwork, body positioning, etc. is off.
Many top schools and teachers also offer online instructional videos for a fee. Once again, these are not ideal, but they are far superior to going completely training-less and injuring yourself or someone else.
If you have access to a school but money is an issue, talk to the school you like about volunteering or getting involved in helping to run the school. Many have scholarship or work programs that can help really devoted, eager students access education programs without needing lots of money. 🙂
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Is there a way to know whether I spent enough time or money to learn a style/pattern of movement? Does it matter whether (a) I can feel the music; (b) it’s a street dance or a formal(ized) dance; (c) I understand why various instructors appear to contradict one another; (d) I can enjoy dances with pure novices; or (e) I am at a particular stage of learning (e.g. I recognize some areas–for me, mostly styling or ‘musicality’–where I am lacking and simultaneously feel that I have a fair foundation in basics, historical understanding, and such.)
The amount of time spent to learn a pattern of movement is very personal. I would hesitate to ever put a dollar amount, as there are ways to spend tons or very little money and still arrive at being sufficiently trained. It’s not about patterns or styling – it is about *technique*. With good technique, you can create your *own* styling and patterns.
a) Feeling the music comes with understanding the music. For most people, this requires training in music, or how the dance itself relates to the music (so it comes down to training again), or extreme familiarity with the type of music being played.
b) Street dances are often more ‘simple’ in terms of patterning. This allows people to get away with dancing it informally without injury. ‘Formalized’ street dances (Salsa, etc.) require training because they are adding more complex and risky movements. For example, when I went to the Dominican, most people danced Bachata… but not at all in the institutionalized sense as in North America. When just going back and forth, the risk of injury was very, very low. So, training was not a big thing and the movement was a cultural thing. However, unless you are sticking to these ‘cultural’ movements, you run the risk of injuring or being injured by not getting training.
c) Contradiction in instructors can happen for a number of reasons, and honestly deserves its own analysis. I’m planning on writing something about that in the future.
d) I never said dances with untrained dancers can’t be enjoyable. But, the more skilled a partner is, the better equipped they are to keep them and their novice partner safe. Have you ever seen two novices dance together? They often have a much more difficult time than if one of them dances with a trained dancer because they have yet to develop those skills. When one dancer is trained, it gives them the ability to compensate for both sides of the partnership and can lead to *more* enjoyable dances with the untrained, because they are better equipped to make it work.
e) The stage of your learning is personal. Getting training is what allows you to grow and add skills to your repertoire. All three of the points I made above highlight the risks of *not seeking training*, not about the time it takes to learn the skill. Time is needed to learn, but the point is that trying to learn solo rather than under guidance from an instructor who knows what they are doing can lead to bad habits and actually stunt growth and create dangerous situations. 🙂
I agree 100% on your article I enjoyed it every line of it.
What is your opinion on creating a new Style, or what abaout those people that were Pioneers on originating that specific Dance Style. I mean they did not have guidance yet they stablished the basic patterns and tecchniques in regards of the Dance moves and their mechanics and their relationship with the specific Music Style they are linked to.
Taking that as Premise isn’t possible that someone could reach a level in any other dance withouth guidance just like the Originators of that specific Dance Style? And again this is just an hipothesis for a very specific scenario.
I am a believer of getting the proper training, I am always seeking for training myself eventhough I am instructor l, but then as intructor the responsability of getting training and innovate and get prepared and enhanace your skill is even higher than those that are seeking for your knowledge and teachings ….
I believe that there has been a process and people has alredy gone trhough that process to bring the complexity of each individual dance to the current level they have and therefore taking advantage of the accumulated experience of all these people seems just the logical and the best way to learn not only dance but mostly every other activity in which you want to be good at, artistic, or even academic.
Thank you for reading my comments and thank you for your article.
Thank you for your well thought out comment 🙂
In response to your theory on innovators and dance style creators:
There are absolutely pioneers in dance. For example, Renata and Adilio in Zouk. I think a key difference with these pioneers is that they have extensive background in dance and movement. In order to be able to create your own style and dance, you need to have attained a level of understanding body mechanics, movement, and music that enables you to do those things safely and create a process.
For example, I’m sure the originators of Contemporary dance were classically-trained Ballet dancers, and not someone off the street who just kind of fell into that movement. Rather, someone with the background created a new way of moving using similar repertoire to create something new and innovative.
There is obviously also a point where people become pioneers of their own movements – even within an established dance. The important thing is that those people understand what it is they are doing, and are consciously thinking about what they are doing and creating. But, I don’t think someone can come in with *no* training and mimic their way to the top of an existing dance style without making some serious (and potentially harmful) errors along the way.
Think of it this way: it is theoretically possible that a math genius would arise that has no background in science, and be able to think up a theorum on their own. Maybe rediscover the Pythagorean Theorum. But, it is highly doubtful that a single person would be able to stumble their way through thousands of years of established learning and theory. They may be a fast study, but someone has to show them the basics to get them started. They need a textbook. They can’t just sit down in front of an equation and just ‘figure it out’ if they’ve never conceptualized Math before.
However, if you have a brilliant, trained Mathematician operating at a PhD level, the chances of them finding the answer to a new problem is not absurd. Why? They have the background, knowledge, and training to problem-solve and find a new answer.
I agree that injury and growth can both be overcome by lessons, but as a tango dancer, I hate to see an entire industry based around keeping them your students perptetually. I’m one of thos ball busting beginners who really tried to grasp the foundations. After about six months, I became very sick, missed two huge events, was at home binge watching performances, and when I came back people noticed an immediate change. Afterwards I never learned a new technique or idea in a classroom.
There really us at some point, with a grasp of some fundamentals you can explore and discover the test of the dance. So long as you understand the methodology of a dance, you can discover all of the hidden parts, but teach are determined to keep students green to keep them just out of reach of being able to discover things on their own.
People like that are not who I would consider teachers or professionals in a dance. The true teachers want their students to grow to their maximum potential as quickly as possible.
But, in my opinion, at no level is it a ‘good’ idea to stop training and getting lessons. You may replace regular weekly progressive classes with privates or coaching, but there is still learning beyond self-discovery. This includes professionals. The difference is, they’re exchanging knowledge with their peers.
Think of Olympic athletes. They all have coaches – they don’t do it alone. They have training regimens. It’s how they master what they are doing.
After 6 months of dancing, no matter how devoted a student, I can guarantee there’s more to the dance than what you can discover on your own. You may be happy with where you are in the dance – and that’s perfect. If you don’t have a desire for going deeper down the rabbit hole, then keep doing exactly what you’re doing.
Good stuff! Thank you for taking the time to write this out and share! With your permission I’ll be sharing this within my own circle: http://www.facebook.com/spokanesalsa
Provided that it is directed to the original and not a re-post on a private note!
Thank you for this article! I agree 100%. I could provide a hundred personal stories supporting this argument.
I was wondering what you mean by “Even West Coast Swing – one of the lowest-impact social dances – suffers from shoulder injury proliferation)”. Perhaps I have to take 1% off of the agreement 🙂 Especially, after borrowing your Zouk moves and implementing it into West Coast Swing, I don’t know how this dance in the category “lowest-impact”. Are all these dips, and drops really that low-impact?
My I add two points which I think you mention implicitly:
(1) There are some “self-taught” dancers who always want to dance with the good dancers, because with them it feels so much better. Then, they are ranting about all these bad dancers. They don’t realize, that the good dancers are just compensating all the mistakes of the “self-taught” dancer, and probably it is not that much fun for the good dancer either. And how are they able to compensate? Because they have the proper training!
(2) Adding to the awkward guy who teaches you on the dance floor: If you want to make a certain move on the social dance floor, a leader has to be able to lead it, and the follower has to be able to follow it. If either is not the case, the social dance floor ist the worst place to force the issue. It is peculiar, that usually those leaders who “teach” followers on the social dance floor are often the most uncomfortable (if not awkward) to dance with, hence the least qualified to teach others.
Thanks for your additions!
Re: WCS, I say it is the lowest impact because the nuts-and-bolts of the dance, as well as the shoes, are much more friendly to injuries than the nuts and bolts of other dances. Of course, if you add dips, drops, etc. you end up with a less low-impact dance- but it doesn’t change the fact that the ‘base’ of the dance is lower impact than most other styles.
Sorry but social dancing does NOT mean you can’t have lessons, private and workshop ! This title induce that all social dancers are not technical, musical or else….really ? i’m so sad peolple can believe that…that title should have been the Myth of ” Learning by oneself “…where i sthe point to compare that with social dancing ? Many social dancers take privates and workshop but do not compete or perform that’s all…
Nico,this article is about the absence of classes – not people who don’t perform or compete. This ‘myth’ is that social dancing is enough of a tool on its own to learn – which it isn’t.
It is not saying that social dancing is exclusive of lessons. 🙂
Laura, i totally agree with your point, but the title mention “social dancing” which is a wide range of people and not only people who do not take lessons, wich is not the same. I teach social west coast swing and i train my students, i train myself, i take private and worshops…just saying that its easy to put all king of people in a pack…as always.
Just to point out, social dancing in this situation does not apply to people who social dance, but to the act of learning solely by the act of social dancing. 🙂 I would never claim that people who social dance don’t take lessons, etc.
I started social dancing in order to keep all the training in my “bank” while I finished up my degree. One of the last times I did so, I had a lead actually criticize my formal training and the inability to “social dance” because I wasn’t staring him down the entire time.
I also saw someone mention the lead “teachers” on the social dance floor. As a follow, I often found myself “teaching” others so that I COULD follow, particularly when they would start doing things totally off-hand.
certainly just you own opinion. don’t make it a big deal and write a webpage. It does not apply to every single person. There exists genii in this world. Dances are created by people. The first person who dance zouk, did not even have youtube. And the dance was created. Do you know how many dances and dance moves are there in this world and they are INVENTED by people. Yes, INVENTED without youtube. Just by the natural feelings of the body. I had been dancing a few years and certainly can start commenting if I like someone’s dance or not. And there are people, whose are such a good dancer and they do not take classes. Amazing dancers who only started zouk in a few months or few weeks and can be better than most of the people. I know one person learn boneca in 5 minutes, she had never seen it before. I know another person could not do it after 2 years. But surely, there are not a lot of genii. Most of the people can not. So most people who only use youtube will have problem. But there are people who has no problem with youtube because youtube is just giving you the idea. whether you can come up with the correct lead or not depends on YOU, yourself. There are also instructors who don’t teach techiques properly, missing what are keys parts of the lead or even teach the leads wrongly. then you later find out, waste of my time. damn the instructions was wrong? hah?
Of course there are exceptions to every rule! There are dancers who learn extraordinarily fast and have great body awareness, and there’s teachers who do the wrong thing.
Personally, I don’t think any opinion websites desire to unpack every single exception. Just use your common sense about whether it applies. It’s simply my opinion on what I consider a general (not specific, all-encompassing) truth.
It certainly is “just my opinion”, but I don’t really think writing an article means I’m making it a “big deal” – just like you’re not making your opinion a “big deal” by writing a comment. If you don’t want to hear opinions, don’t read articles. Simple solution! 🙂
Examples: I’ve seen people break body parts when they attempt to ski down a hill without taking lessons, and these “unlearned” are a hazard to everyone in their path no matter they own level because an out-of-control skier can fly over a bump and kill you where you stand. I’ve also seen the untrained on a golf course, tearing it up and whacking balls that wiz by the unsuspecting people who aren’t paying attention all around them. Again these untrained unlearned individuals are dangerous. Guess what? On the dance floor it’s the same. The unlearned “social dancer” maybe even after adding alcohol to the mix will throw around his partner (in heels) crashing them, or leading the partner to step or crash into someone else. I avoid places with lots of unlearned thrashing about like a mosh pit. It’s not pleasant at all, and yet, if a person invests some time and a reasonable amount of resources, they can be trained in something much more intimate, personal and fun than golf or skiing. Making 2 people move as one is NOT like learning any other sport. Ice dancing and partner roller skate dancing would be 2 sports that are similar, and everyone ASSUMES they have to take lessons to learn those activities. Everyone should train when they learn a new activity. That’s how I was raised and my dad taught us kids how to do every sport so we wouldn’t kill ourselves or others, lol