I was talking to another student at my book signing at SM Dance Fashion yesterday. In about a year, she’s taken on learning three different styles of ballroom and has competed in two of them. She’s been able to do so much in so little time because she takes about eight lessons a day, five days a week! The one thing she hasn’t really done is practice on her own.
Then there’s me. Over my six-plus years of dancing ballroom, I’ve also learned three different styles and competed in two. I usually take two lessons a week, and I practice at least once a week for at least one hour.
The extreme differences in our dance training journeys got me thinking. I’ve said before that lessons with your teacher and your solo practice are like two sides of the same coin. But is one side more important than the other? If you’re struggling in your dancing, do you need more lessons or more practice on your own?
Fair warning, I probably won’t come to a tidy conclusion here because I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. But we can have some fun considering the possibilities!
I talked to another student during my solo practice today. She was in the studio for a lesson and complimented me on my practice, saying she never practices on her own, even though she knows she should and her teacher is constantly encouraging her.
Both students I chatted with this weekend acknowledged that they feel lost or awkward when their teachers do ask them to dance something by themselves during a lesson. They feel great with their partner, but as soon as he steps away, their confidence steps away with him.
I’ve experienced the same. Even just dancing together in shadow position was a bit of a mental hurdle at first because my teacher wasn’t right in front of me where I could see where he was. It’s weird to dance with someone who’s behind you!
Not having your partner at all is almost like having a security blanket taken away. There’s no one there to lead (or back lead) if you forget your steps, or steady you when you lose balance. There’s just you! I forget which competition it was last year, but for at least a month leading up to the event, Teacher started every lesson by having me dance a round by myself to music. By this time, I had been practicing consistently every weekend, but having to dance on my own with other lessons happening around me and Teacher watching was nerve-wracking. And discouraging whenever I lost balance. Some days, the demons would be loud and make me feel like I was making a fool of myself in front of everyone.
In reality, I was learning how to hold my own on the dance floor. Even on the rough days when I finished the round and walked back to Teacher to continue the lesson in a very sour mood, I was slowly building confidence. I was learning that I was indeed capable of dancing a round by myself. I didn’t need to depend on Teacher to lead me through the next step or keep me balanced. I could do those things on my own.
A professional dancer who was also at the book signing highlighted the important effect this solo practice has at performance time. She pointed out that when you don’t practice on your own, you’re always following your teacher when you dance. You don’t really know your steps on your own, and that lack of confidence shows on the competition floor because you’re always waiting or looking to your teacher to tell you what to do next. The judges can see the uncertainty in your eyes.
I got similar feedback after my disappointing placement at the 2017 Embassy Ball. I looked like I was in my head and thinking too much, and as a result, I didn’t finish my lines in my arm styling. There was an incompleteness to my dancing.
It takes two to tango though. Ballroom is partner dancing, so you need to spend time practicing with your partner. Without partner time, you can appear disconnected or awkward dancing together. You don’t get the feeling of being two people dancing as one. I experienced a bit of this leading up to the 2018 Ballroom Beach Bash, where I competed in Standard for the first time. Teacher and I had very limited time to practice the Standard routines together. I ended up having to learn the majority of our tango routine by myself while I was at a conference the week before the competition.
So when competition day came, our first round of Standard was rough. I had spent so much time practicing on my own and had so little time with Teacher in comparison, it was almost weird to dance the steps with someone in front of me! We danced three rounds total, and each round felt better than the one before. So the weird feeling didn’t stick around very long, but it definitely had an impact in the beginning.
So which is more important: the lessons or the solo practice?
I think they need to balance, but that doesn’t mean they always get equal weight (no tidy answer, remember?). If you just stepped into the studio for your first time last week, you will need more lessons and/or classes than solo practice. You can’t practice what you don’t know! You need to learn at least some fundamental concepts before you can work on anything on your own. If you’ve been dancing for awhile and follow your teacher like Mary Poppins (practically perfect), then it may be time to wrack up some solo practice points to make sure you know your steps on your own as well as you do when you’re with your teacher.
Solo practice can be awkward at first. Without the security of your teacher in front of you, you might feel like you’re not doing anything right or you don’t know what to do at all. Hate to break it to you but if you feel this way, you definitely need to make an effort to practice on your own. You’ll never find that true inner confidence if you’re always dependent on your partner. And it is there! You might not feel it, but that confidence is inside you, waiting for you to work through the layers of doubt to uncover it. Maybe that sounds a little cheesy, but I really do believe it.
I’m living it after all. How many times have I gone back and forth between feeling great about my dancing to feeling like a complete fool? How many lessons have I left feeling like crap because I got in my head and couldn’t stop punishing myself for not getting that one stupid step? How often have I pushed so far beyond my comfort zone that it triggered my anxiety?
I’ve lost count. But for as many times as I traveled down the dark path, I’ve come back again to the light. And every time I’ve come back, I’ve come back stronger and more confident.
Would I take more lessons if I could afford them? Hell yes! No doubt there. Now that I know how beneficial solo practice is to my dancing though, I would still want breaks in between lesson days when I could practice on my own. I like having the solo time to process what we worked on in my last lesson, so I can come to the next one with a clear head on what I understand and what I don’t. It gives me a sense of ownership and control over my dance journey too. My journey doesn’t start and stop according to when my lessons are scheduled. It’s ongoing with a mix of lessons and solo practice.
What’s your lesson to practice mix? Please share in the comments!
And don’t forget – the practice goals challenge starts on January 15! Sign up for the free email challenge to get support and guidance in creating practice goals that will set you up for dancing success in 2019.