How to Dance: A Guide to Basic Steps and Building Your Skills

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Photo Source: “Wednesday” Courtesy Netflix

If you’ve stumbled upon this article, chances are you’re a singer, actor, or musical theater lover who wants to learn how to dance. Now, we can’t promise you’ll be crowned the next winner of “Dancing With the Stars,” but we can assure you that you’ll be one step (or rather, a few steps) closer to becoming a well-rounded performer. 

The following moves can be found in many different genres of dance including ballet, Broadway, ballroom, tap, jazz, hip-hop, breakdancing, Afro-Caribbean, flamenco, and East Indian.

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Basic dance steps for beginners

Plié

In French, “plié” means “to bend.” As an exercise, stand in ballet “first position”—this is where your heels are touching and your toes turn outward to make a wide V-shape. Keeping the position of your feet, bend your knees so that your legs create a diamond. When you keep your heels glued to the floor, this movement is called a “demi plié.” When you raise your heels and sink deeper into the movement, this is a “grand plié.” Pliés can be done in almost any position, on one foot or two. The plié is a critical movement at the start and end of jumps, leaps, and turns—but we’ll get to those later.

Jazz square

In a jazz square, you’re basically making a box (or “square”) with your feet. Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Facing front, cross your right foot over your left and step your weight onto it. 
  2. Next, step backward with your left foot. 
  3. Now, step your right foot out about 12 inches to the right of your left foot. 
  4. Finally, step forward with your left foot and repeat the sequence. 

The pattern goes: cross (R), back (L), side (R), front (L). Don’t forget to practice jazz squares to the left, too—crossing over with your left foot. 

Grapevine

The Grapevine is a standard ballroom dance step that was created in the early 20th century. The walking pattern resembles the intertwined vines of a grape plant. 

  1. To start, step with your right foot. 
  2. Now, step your left foot over your right foot (on the outside of your right foot). 
  3. Then, move your right foot back to meet your left foot in parallel position. 
  4. Repeat the sequence, but this time with your left foot crossing behind your right foot.

The pattern goes: step (R), cross front (L), step (R), cross back (L), and so on. Practice the Grapevine in both directions.

RELATED: How to Choreograph a Dance

Step-ball-change

The step-ball-change is a quintessential movement in many dance styles, from hip-hop to cha-cha. 

  1. Step forward with your right foot.
  2. Rock back onto the ball of your left foot (that is, your toes and toe pads, rather than the heel).
  3. Then, step forward again on the right foot because you’re about to “change” your lead foot. 
  4. Repeat, starting with the left foot: step (L), ball (R), “change” (L). 

Once you master the step-ball-change, you can practice it by walking forward, backward, sideways, or as a transitional step in choreography. To advance with the movement, you can attempt a “pas de bourrée,” where your right foot steps behind your left before you ball change to the side: back (R), side (L), front (R); repeat to the other side. 

Pivot turn

You probably already know the word pivot, meaning “to change direction.” A pivot turn is another transitional step in which a dancer physically changes direction. 

  • Facing front, step forward on your right foot. 
  • Now, look over your left shoulder and pivot 180 degrees on the balls of your feet. 
  • Complete the pivot by stepping forward on your left foot. 

You can repeat many pivot turns in a row on the same side, or link the movement with other steps such as a step-ball-change: step (R), pivot (L), step (R), ball (L), change (R), then repeat starting with the left foot.

Chaîne turn

In French, “chaîne” means “in a chain,” and that’s exactly what you’re doing in these three-step turns, spinning over and over again in a long chain. 

  1. Facing the front, step on your right foot as you begin to turn over your right shoulder. 
  2. Step with your left foot, facing the back, as you continue turning over your right shoulder to reface the front.
  3. Step again on your right foot. 

Keep stepping right, left, right, left as you face front, back, front, back. During these turns, you can place your hands on your hips or shoulders; or you can open your arms in a wide T when you face the front and close them in a circle at chest-height when you face the back. As you turn faster and faster, you may keep your arms in the closed-circle position. Don’t forget to also practice your chaîne turns to the left.

Spotting

Spotting is the technique dancers use to keep from getting dizzy as they turn. Keep your eyes glued to a specific spot as the rest of your body turns. When you reach the point where you must turn your head, do so rapidly and reconnect with the original spot. Give this a try as you practice your chaîne turns. Typically you’ll spot in front or in the direction you’re moving.

Leap

A leap (also called a “jeté”) is when you jump from one foot to the other. It can be a small jump (like over a small puddle) or a larger movement (like over a hurdle). For practice, kick your right leg straight out to the front with a pointed toe. Now spring “over a puddle” to land on the right foot with your left leg, straight and pointed, extended behind you. 

For grander leaps, you can use a step-ball-change step as preparation into the bigger jump. Your final step and the end of your leap should both be in a deep plié with your heel on the ground.

Passé

To perform a passé, stand on your right foot and lift your left pointed foot to lightly touch the inside of your right knee. When your left knee is facing forward, this is considered a parallel passé. When your knee is facing the left, this is called a turned-out passé. Passés are great for practicing single-leg balance in preparation for more advanced pirouettes (or turns in passé). 

Isolations

These occur when you “isolate” one part of your body from the rest. This can be your head, torso, hips, shoulders, hands, arms, fingers…basically any body part from your head to your toes. Let’s start with head isolations. 

  1. Standing with your feet hip distance apart and knees slightly bent, turn your head from right to left, making sure to not let the rest of your body move with it. 
  2. Now try looking up and down, tilting your head from shoulder to shoulder, and doing gentle head circles. Remember only your head should be moving and nothing below the shoulders. 
  3. Now, try isolating your hips. In the same position with feet hip distance and knees bent, stick out your hip to the right and then the left, being sure to maintain stillness in your torso and upper body. 
  4. Next, try isolating your pelvis forward and back and then in circles both to the right and to the left.

Isolations are so important in many styles of dance such as hip-hop, jazz, East Indian, and Broadway choreography like that of Bob Fosse. The next time you watch any of these styles, pay attention to how the dancers isolate their bodies. And be patient—mastering isolations takes practice.

Why dance is a useful skill for all performers

Dancing with the Stars

“Dancing with the Stars” Credit: Disney/Eric McCandless

Dance is part of the trifecta of musical theater along with singing and acting. While dance isn’t central to every theatrical production, it’s a talent that will make you more versatile as a performer and afford you more opportunities within this uber-competitive industry. As an actor with “dance” in the special skills section of your résumé, you’re more likely to be considered for the ensemble, in understudy roles, as a swing, or even as dance captain. Like in any niche art form, the more breadth (experience in many styles of dance) and depth (dancing skill) you have will only help you both in your career and in your personal journey as a performing artist.

Even if you’re not interested in musical theater, dance gets you in touch with your body, which is invaluable for all aspects of being an actor. “Learning to dance will put you at ease with your body and physicality, which will, in turn, help you be more comfortable in auditions,” says casting director Lisa London. “To be able to freely express yourself in an audition and to convey emotions through your body with ease is a gift.”

Acting isn’t all about dialogue; the ability to convey character through physicality alone is the foundation of acting onstage and in front of a camera. Dance can teach you how to “speak” through movement. 

“It's all about storytelling and communicating with your audience. How can you touch someone without a sense of communication?” says dance instructor and choreographer Charles Klapow. “The bridge between the dance and the audience is the acting. And if it truly comes from your soul, like the best actors in the world, then your audience will feel what you feel.”

You may not think of yourself as a dancer yet, but you’ve already got the basics in your bones. If you’re a singer or musician, you probably have a strong sense of rhythm and can count the traditional eight bars of a song. If you’re an actor, you already have a knack for storytelling, conveying emotion in your face and body language, and perhaps even pantomiming. And if you’re “just” a theater lover, you’re blessed with the passion and patience it takes to practice the art that brings you so much joy. 

What’s the next steps?

Now that you’ve got some of the basics under your belt, you are more than ready to step into your first basic or beginner-level dance class. Some studios provide drop-in classes while others have consistent weekly class offerings. Both are wonderful options depending on your schedule and preference. Additionally, a number of renowned dance studios such as New York City’s Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway continue to offer virtual dance programming via Zoom. This can be a great way to try out different dance classes from the comfort of your own home if you’re feeling nervous or don’t live near a dance studio with beginner classes. 

Whatever route you take, you’re one step closer to becoming the dancer you’ve always dreamed of. Learning a new performing art takes time and dedication. Give yourself a little grace (literally and figuratively) and remember that showing up is often the hardest part.

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