Some of us are social dancers, looking to pick up a few new steps to surprise our partners on the dance floor. Others focus on the technical details that help them catch the judges eye at competitions. But no matter what you’re looking to get out of it, we all share one thing in common: We all want to learn ballroom dancing faster.

Most of us assume our learning speed is limited by our physical skill and experience. Yet, when we focus only on muscle repetitions and ignore the mental aspect of learning, we are essentially skiing on one foot. Half the equation is missing.

A multi-tasking world

Society has been training us to multi-task for years (cellphone use by car-drivers is a perfect example). To keep up, our overloaded brain does the best it can, bouncing back and forth between numerous jobs. This feels like we’re getting more done, but usually lowers our efficiency, reduces our memory retention, and stresses us out in the process.

Recent research supports this by indicating that our ability to multi-task is in fact an illusion: our brains can only focus on one thing at a time.

One thing at a time

The goal then, in dancing as well as any other activity, is to relearn to single-task. In dancing, that means if your footwork isn’t quite figured out yet, don’t even think about trying to lead or follow. Don’t think about anything else at all: If you can only focus on one thing at a time, that means absolutely everything else you think of is a distraction.

Easier said than done, right? Not necessarily. Like physical training, certain strategies can have you learning faster and retaining more in no time.

Layering your dancing

My grandfather used to carve figurines from wood. He showed me how he would carve layer after layer off a block of wood, each one adding a little more detail, until the final beautiful shape appeared. Likewise, we must layer our dancing by focusing first on footwork, then moving in time with music, and finally connecting with our partner. Other embellishments like hip action or longer strides can then be added.

Make sure you know each element well enough so you don’t need to consciously think about it before moving on to the next. Once it becomes automatic, your mind is now free to leave it and focus on the next thing.

Turn off the static

Many of us, including Yours Truly, have internal monologues that continually distract us from focusing with a constant stream of evaluations and judgements. There are many strategies to keeping this buzzing part of our brain occupied:

  1. Let your curiosity absorb your attention: What does the element you are focusing on feel like? How does the feeling change if you adjust it slightly? What works best?
  2. Use a mantra or word to help your focus. For example, if you’re connecting with your partner, think the word ‘connection’ while you dance. Let the word replace other thoughts that might pull you away. You can also use pictures, if you tend to be a visual thinker.
  3. No stress, no mess: If other thoughts do appear, acknowledge them and let them go. Forgive yourself these little blips and breathe deeply to relax yourself into the movement.

Next week, we’ll look at further strategies to get more from your your ballroom dance practice, including the most important strategy of all. Stay tuned!