How to Learn to Dance: The Beginner’s Guide to Bustin’ a Move

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If you dream of stepping up like Nora (Jenna Dewan) in “Step Up,” or getting down like Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) on “The Get Down,” it can be intimidating to figure out where to start. Ideally, you would have begun by taking dance lessons at 3 years old and then continued that instruction well into adulthood—though if you’re reading this article, that ship may have sailed. But fear not! It’s never too late to start, and you may find that the most difficult part is just learning how to jump in.

Why learn to dance?

But first of all, why dance at all? You may be interested in learning to dance for a variety of reasons, personal and professional, such as:

To dance professionally: Professional dancers generally follow one of three tracks: commercial dancer (as in commercials or music videos), company dancer (as in ballet), or dance teacher.  The opportunities will vary with each track, but all three will require extensive training and commitment.

To become a triple threat: It’s becoming more and more common for musical theater roles to demand that performers be triple threats. Gone are the days of separate dancing and singing ensembles (probably to the chagrin of dancers and singers alike), but as the landscape of the industry adapts, so must performers. 

To have fun. But even if you aren’t interested in pursuing dance as part of a professional endeavor, you may still want to learn to dance! It’s fun; it’s a stress reliever; it’s good exercise, and it can make you look really cool at a wedding or social event.

Can anyone learn to dance?

Let’s get this out of the way: Everyone can learn how to dance. But how quickly, how easily, and to what degree will vary from person to person, so be kind to yourself! Everyone learns at their own pace, so some people will find that dancing comes very naturally, and others will have to put in what can feel like an excessive amount of effort. If you’ve never started, you just don’t know.

 

How to learn dancing

Dance crew

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1. Prioritize flexibility and fitness.

Like any sport, dancing requires a certain level of athleticism. Focusing on your stamina outside of a dance setting will still garner results when you find yourself back in dance class. While any way of moving your body is helpful, fitness practices like yoga might be doubly helpful—it helps to build strength and flexibility, and anything that requires you to make sense of and move your body in a specific way will ultimately help you transfer that skill to the dance floor.

2. Watch other people dance.

Going to the ballet, attending musicals, or even studying music videos are all a great way to start to understand things like posture, sense of rhythm and tone, and just a general sense of the movement quality in different dance styles. And while it can’t necessarily help you to execute the moves, watching and being able to identify certain steps in context can be very helpful on your journey to becoming a dancer. And who better to watch perform than a professional?

3. Pick a style of dance that interests and excites you.

What really grabs you? Which style of dance would be the most helpful for achieving your goals? Consider the main types of dance:

  • Ballet
  • Jazz
  • Tap
  • Hip-hop
  • Contemporary
  • Ballroom
  • Latin
  • Folk
  • Modern
  • Street dance

Watch videos on YouTube of the different styles and see if there’s one that resonates. Many people consider ballet an ideal place to start because it is the basis for several other styles, but others may find ballet too difficult or rigid for a beginner. If this is your first foray into dancing, it’s most important to find something you like so that you’ll be motivated to stick with it. 

4. Learn the basic steps of your chosen style.

You’ll likely want to have at least some basic steps covered before stepping into a classroom. The internet can provide an introduction to the foundational steps of your chosen dance style, so get to googling and start learning. 

5. Practice in front of a mirror.

Or film yourself! Being able to watch yourself work is incredibly important, and noting where things are going wrong can really speed up your learning time. On a similar note, make sure to wear clothes that allow you to see the lines of your body—anything too oversized will make it difficult to see what’s really going on.

6. Work on your retention skills.

When you’re just starting out, you may spend six months learning a particular step, but eventually you’ll want to learn things more quickly. At professional auditions, dancers are often asked to memorize combinations of several eight counts in very little time—sometimes in under 20 minutes. While this level of muscle memory may feel aspirational, retention is a skill that will help you grow as a dancer. It usually comes with time and practice, but you can help yourself by:

  • Watching videos within your skill level and trying to replicate them after a few views. 
  • Learning combos from dancer and choreographer friends. This lets them practice their choreography skills and helps you work on remembering steps—win-win.
  • Practicing steps with different music and in different environments. Try a step-ball-change while waiting in line at the store, or do a two-step to your favorite pop song. This will help you de-compartmentalize the dance process and get used to remembering combos in alternative situations.  

7. Get into a class (one way or another).

While not necessarily a requirement when you’re beginning the learning process—many dancers are at least somewhat self-taught—unless you’re a true autodidact, you’ll likely eventually have to make your way to class. Having a knowledgeable teacher who can show you the ropes and offer adjustments is invaluable for gaining skills and confidence quickly. It’s also an easy way to commit to consistent practice if you’re someone who isn’t as self-motivated.

If you’re based in New York City, dance studios like Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center offer classes for a variety of skill levels, including beginners. And if you aren’t based in the city, both studios offer livestream classes you can follow from anywhere. This can also be helpful if you’d like to start by taking classes in the comfort of your own home before jumping into the full in-person class experience.

8. Enjoy yourself!

Learning a new skill can be tiring, frustrating, and maybe even a little embarrassing from time to time, but at the end of the day it’s part of the process. It is important that you remind yourself to have fun along your dancing journey. Remember why you started—and don’t be afraid to take more chances and dance more dances.