Secrets from a dance teacher: 6 things you need to know about wedding dance lessons

September 9 | Guest post by Lauren Harrison
Dancing pug art by Inkpug

Many, many (but not all) weddings feature dancing in some fashion. There's the first dance, the parent and child dance, and then there's the reception. That's a lot of dancing!

If there's going to be dancing at your wedding, it's a lot more fun if you have some idea of what you're doing. As someone who has professionally taught wedding couples how to dance, as well as simply gone through my own engagement process (and learning to dance with my fiancé), here are some tips for learning how to dance…

1. Start 6-8 months out

If you want to learn to dance, you want time to have fun learning without being under a time crunch. You want time to really learn how to lead and follow so that you're actually dancing with each other and not just repeating rehearsed steps. You want to be able to relax, laugh, talk, and enjoy it, and that comes with practice. So give yourself that time.

Wedding dance lessons become like date night for couples — it's an opportunity to put everything else aside and just focus on dancing together. Dancing takes teamwork, and I can honestly say from both learning to dance and teaching dance that it brings couples together and teaches them how to communicate better.

2. You can start before you know your song

You can practice dancing to any music — you don't need your specific song for that! There are lots of important things to learn in dancing, but one thing that you will need for every single dance is the ability to lead and to follow. So start taking lessons right away and bring in your song when you're ready.

3. Have an idea of what's going to be played at the reception

So you've got your first dance down. That's great. Now, what if you want to show off your dancing at the reception? Tell your instructor what kind of music you'll be playing at the reception, and they'll give you some basic steps that you can do to your music.

4. Go to private lessons and group classes

A lot of people don't like group classes for a number of reasons, but they can actually be really good for you. Think of private lessons like taking a class from a teacher in school. If private lessons are like classes, then group lessons are like homework: They reinforce your lessons, they help you practice, and they keep you sharp for your next private lesson. Most dance studios offer packages that include group classes with private lessons. If you're already paying for them, take advantage of them! Your dancing will greatly improve from it.

5. Even if one of you can dance already, take lessons together

When I started taking lessons with my fiancé, I'd already been dancing for six years. But he'd never danced before, and we'd never danced together. I had to learn how he led, what his quirks were, and how to tailor my dancing to match him. It became a fun thing we did together, and the studio taught me some moves that I'd never seen before.

6. Let the teacher teach

As someone with a lot of dance experience, it was really tempting to start telling my fiancé what he's doing wrong. Wrong foot, bad lead, messed up the pattern, something. But learn from my mistakes: don't do it! Your teacher will take care of all of that. If you must say something, form it in an "I Statement." Don't say, "Your lead is bad," say, "I can't feel your lead." That will clue your teacher in to check things out, and they'll adjust accordingly. Trust the professional.

And above all, have fun! Humans have been dancing since the day we could walk. There's no reason you can't laugh, make up a few steps, and have an amazing time with the person you love. Remember, it's only dancing. So enjoy it!

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  1. Any tips for finding dance instruction where lead/follow is fluid and not gender-based? That is what has always kept me from learning "proper" dance– I think the gender dynamics it reinforces are patently silly, not to mention constricting and unwelcoming to anyone who is not gender-typical. I actually really enjoy the act of dancing and would love to learn to dance with my partner in a more coherent way without stepping on each other; I just have yet to find a way to do that without all of the gendered nonsense.

    • Ooo, dancer here! It sounds like some words for what you're looking for are "ambidancestrous" (for dancers who do both roles), and "switch dancing," where who is leading and who is following changes within one song. See this example with the amazing Kelly Howard (she's the one with spiky hair) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A1DGo_e3Bc.

      The blues and fusion scenes in particular welcome nontraditional roles, and even have classes on how to switch mid-song. Many Argentine tango classes have everyone learn both roles (though they may have other stuffy conventions), and it's great for lead and follow technique. Some West Coast Swing (the dance, not the location) scenes welcome folks doing either/both roles. Lindy I think is also pretty welcoming. Many classes will ask that you choose a role and stick to it for the class, but you can always take the class again in the other role. I would interview local teachers/regulars in styles that appeal to you, and ask about switching. You could learn the basics in group classes and then take private lessons for switching to fine-tune your partnership and what works for you. Where are you located? For example, here's a class listing for MIT/Boston specifically for switching: http://web.mit.edu/swing/blurred-lines-2014/

      Also good to remember that while lead/follow may look very one-directional, a good leader is listening and taking ideas from the follow and the follow is contributing to the dance while still not disturbing the lead's direction. It can be much more like a conversation–in blues there's a concept of call and response, each dancer changing things a little bit and reflecting it back.

      2 agree
      • Thanks for sharing the video and for the tips on where to look and what types of dancing might be amenable to switching things up! I live in midwest, pretty much in the middle of the Bible belt, so needless to say most people around here are rather traditional and generally close-minded.

        I've looked into the Lindy scene here and unfortunately it has been pretty rigid, which is frustrating… I'll see if maybe another type of dance (or another group) might be more welcoming.

        As far as lead and follow being more of a give and take, the issue that I have isn't so much with the giving and taking, it's that people are stuffed into a particular part, whether they like it or not, based on arbitrary sex characteristics. I've done a little dancing here and there, and have realized that I am a pretty laughably terrible follow, but a reasonable lead. My partner kind of has two left feet when it comes to dances with actual steps. (I kind of do also actually… that's one reason I've sucked at following, because the steps have almost always been way more complicated.) Anyway, thanks for the tips! Perhaps some day we'll find an instructor in our area who's happy to teach switching…

        • Not to keep throwing info at you, but I love dancing, so if you want to learn, I hope you get the chance!

          Sounds like dances that don't have a lot formal steps would work best for you–fusion, blues, Argentine tango, and kizomba all involve simple walking or weight shifts as basic steps, not complicated patterns.
          If you want to lead and your partner will follow, it's likely much easier to find accepting classes than classes on dancing both roles or trading off (switching). You could try looking for Facebook groups in your area for those dances, or ask the closest one for info on your area. I'm in Maine myself, so it's a bit small, but I travel to Boston and other places to go to workshop weekends, which is a lot of fun. This map is a little sparse in the midwest, but might help… http://panadance.com/index.php/local

          This might be a little beyond basic, but it's absolutely the best video on partner communication that I've seen. Joe has also written an article about the PTED idea. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upAIYoPZxfw

          1 agrees
    • I met my boyfriend on the ballroom//latin dance team in college. Our coach would typically use the terms "lead" and "follow" because you could choose either role. If we didn't have enough men, ladies would lead, and there was one girl who only ever led; no one had a problem with it. Many of the guys learned that the best way to improve their dancing was to dance with other guys as a follow, so they could experience for themselves what a good lead feels like.

      Basically everyone would social dance with everyone and often switch leads within songs, or switch partners altogether. I know my experience is affected by where I live (Southern California) but this kind of gender and lead nonconformity is not uncommon in the dance world.

      I second the suggestion in the article about going to group classes because watching your significant other dance with other people is a great way to develop some trust in your relationship. Many of my friends have married people they met in the dance world because this environment forces you to let go of jealousy and communicate with each other. If you dance with everyone, how will that special someone know that you feel something more for them? You will have to TELL them!

      1 agrees
  2. As long as we're asking for tips, any ideas on convincing a reluctant groom to take dance lessons? We may not end up even having dancing at the wedding, but I love it and would love to at least take a class together. Unfortunately, my guy is very shy and not really into the idea…

    1 agrees
      • Private lessons can be a good place to start, but also keep your eyes open for low-commitment opportunities. Groupon will often run deals for three classes or one private and one group, that kind of thing. That lets your groom try it with a definite end so he doesn't feel threatened by forever-classes.

        Consider taking classes with friends who are also beginners and making it into a fun night for all.

        1 agrees
  3. I like your idea to get private lessons if possible. That way you can have more one on one time with the teacher. My wedding is coming up, so I will remember to look into private lessons.

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