Swing 101 — 8 Ways You Can Get Better At Swing Dancing

black-box-airplane saturatedThis is episode 4 in Swing 101, a series for dancers new to vintage swing dancing and its scene.

It can be easy to think that getting better at swing dancing is a simple two-step process: (1) learn new stuff in classes and (2) go out social dancing and do that stuff. After all, that’s what you see other people do. But there are many ways to get better at swing dancing, ways you might not have noticed before if you haven’t experienced them or seen others doing them. Here are eight great mediums one can use to improve at swing dancing.

Each medium has its own benefits, and each can offer new ways of having fun or getting fulfillment. And no, you don’t have to do them all — many dancers have gotten incredible by just sticking to a few. Also, because of your personal circumstances, one or two of these may become your primary way of working on dancing (for instance, if your schedule is too swamped for classes, social dancing might become your primary form of practice; if you don’t have a partner, then solo practice might be, etc.).

These are just a few tips of many on how each medium can be used.

1. Local Classes

The classroom is the most common place people learn how to dance and for good reason: It exposes you to lots of different viewpoints on dancing and new material and has the added benefit that you can meet fellow dancers. It’s also great for those who are nervous about dancing, as they are among fellow learners and can take comfort in just being another face in the crowd.

Most scenes have Lindy Hop classes, and most people have workshop weekends nearby. (More on those below.) As far as taking classes go, here are a few tips:

As we mentioned previously in this series, many Lindy Hop instructors have different ways of thinking about things and different ways of doing things. So, you might like some of your local scene’s teachers better than others, and it might take a little shopping to find your favorites (assuming you live in a scene with multiple teachers, that is).

Also, different teachers will sometimes give contradictory advice. Some advice is better than others. Some is equal but different. So, start from the beginning thinking for yourself. Take classes, take notes, try out what instructors are asking and decide for yourself what you like best of all, and if something doesn’t sound right, investigate.

Finally, use classes for all their benefits, not just instruction. Meet people, hang out with them between classes, ask your partners in the rotation for feedback on how your dancing is feeling, or ask one of your fellow students to help you practice the material if you have a few minutes free after class.

Though classes are a fantastic way to learn swing dancing or get better at it, they are not the only way. For instance, there’s…

2. Focused Practice

The beginning of your swing dancing life is one of the best times to build the habit of taking some time out of your week to do nothing but work on dance: you’re just getting into it, and you walk away from classes fresh with those fundamentals that are so important to the dance. Try to take some time a few nights a week (it doesn’t have to be for very long) and go over what you learned in class. Consider meeting with other people in the class to dance with. All you need is a little space you can use, such as a living room curiously devoid of furniture — or about to be.

If you have the ability to practice alone, practice doing your footwork with good rhythm, moving around with good posture, or watch some videos and think about what you’re watching — even try to replicate something you see, without a partner. Consider learning solo dancing, which is a great way to build body awareness.

If you have the ability to practice with a partner, I’d recommend a mix of simply dancing to music, repetition of good habits, reprogramming of undesirable ones, and, finally, videotaping yourselves, and watching it. If you watch the video and don’t know what to think, just try comparing what you’re doing to what other dancers you like are doing and see what the similarities and differences are. (Like, “Wow, she really turns her body more than I do in that move. Maybe I should try that and see what it’s like.” Or, “I’m finally getting that body position on the end of my swingout I was going for.”)

3. Social Dancing

Social dancing is actually a great way to work on your dancing, if you do it right. The key is to still social dance and have the fun that comes with social dancing while you do your practice session in the back of your mind.

You have several options for approaching this. One simple, but very effective, way is to simply keep track of how the dance is going. It’s like having the mental equivalent of an airplane’s black box recorder, which is strangely named, as they are bright orange. Anyway, for your personal social dancing black box, you social dance, and just note when the instruments start acting up. This will help build awareness as well as keep you up to date on what things might need improving. You can then take time later to analyze that data in more detail.

Other options for what to think about are just drilling one or two of the techniques you’ve been trying to get familiar with, or trying to match several techniques you’ve already become familiar with to their appropriate places in the dance. (You have to select what you’re working on carefully when you’re social dancing. Because social dancing does not offer the chance for lots of back-to-back repetition, or stopping to figure out problems. Thus, I recommend you stick to skills you are already getting familiar with, rather than brand new skills. Want to be able to work on a new skill? Easy: take a follower or leader into a corner, work on it for five or ten minutes…enough to familiarize yourself with it — and then hit the social dance floor where you can practice it while you social dance.)

Many dancers I’ve talked to about social dance practice have come up with their own unique ways they do it, especially regarding time. Some dancers spend the first half hour of a dance just dancing, and then start allocating some mental energy towards practicing. Others do the reverse: They start off the night with some mental energy towards practicing, and then switch focus fully to social dancing. Some “practice” during their social dancing intensely for 15 minutes only, some less intensely for the entire night.

Realistically, you will probably have to try a few methods out and see what works best for you.

There are many more specific and involved ways you can practice while out social dancing, but I will hold onto those for now until a near-future date. Just remember that one of the most important goals of practicing swing dancing in general is to have better social dances, not so that your social dances can turn into practices. That’s why I recommend your priority in social dancing be to enjoy social dancing, and if practicing ever takes away from that, you probably want to revisit your practice method.

And, social dancing is not the only way you can get better when out for a night of dancing. This next medium is one of my personal favorite ways to get better and have a ton of fun doing it. In fact, a dance night is almost not complete for me without at least a little bit of it. It’s called…

4. Playtime

While at dances, find some time to play with friends in corners. Work on the moves you’re being taught in classes, try to steal steps you see people do, or even try to make up new ones. (This is also a great way for leaders to meet other leaders, and followers to meet other followers.) It’s that simple. And pretty damn fun.

I also want to mention one other thing that is a possibility at social dances that will help you get better. It really belongs in the basic social dancing category, but I thought I’d throw it out on its own:

5. Social Dancing With More Advanced Dancers

If you’re a beginner dancer who has never danced with an advanced dancer, you’re missing a very educational experience. You don’t have to do it often, but occasionally ask a more advanced dancer to dance and pay attention to the experience. Because, remember, in order to get better at something, you need to be aware of the difference between what you are doing and what you want to do. Dancing with more advanced dancers gives you ideas on what you want to do.

6. Private Lessons

Private instruction gives you one-on-one help for an hour or half-hour with an instructor. This can be incredibly helpful, especially if one remembers that the point of a private lesson is to give you things to work on after the private — not to fix your dancing then and there for forever. So, here’s what we’d recommend:

First off, choose your private lesson instructor for a reason, especially avoiding the one “because they are cheapest.” For instance, you may value teachers who are approachable, who have dancing strengths you wish to have, or who have teaching styles that work well with your learning personality.

As a beginner dancer, if you come with specific questions, that’s great, but also don’t worry about it if you don’t. A good instructor will be able to simply look at or feel your dancing and come up with ways to improve what you’re doing.

Try to not only understand what the instructor is talking about, but to also feel pretty comfortable with it, before moving on. This may require you to ask follow up questions, to do it a bunch of times, and to spend perhaps a good portion of your private lesson on one aspect of the dance.

You will also probably want to take notes, and maybe also ask your instructor if you can film them dancing with you and explaining some the things you covered at the end, for your own future private reference.

Finally, after the private, try to find some time as soon as possible to go over the material while it’s still fresh, and try to do so several times over the next few weeks. Even waiting a few days after a private before working on the material could greatly diminish your ability to retain it.

7. Group Practice

Get together with a group of other beginner dancers that are dedicated to learning how to get better (even as few as two couples or two solo dancers can have a productive session). Meet at a studio, or in someone’s living room if they have a big one, and just work on the things everyone is working on. Or just take some time to play music and social dance.

It may take a little bit of planning, but a practice group can provide a huge boost to everyone’s dance education and enjoyment. Group practices help give dancers of all levels a regular practice schedule, help build community, and give everyone involved multiple sources of feedback on their dancing. If you start this when you are a beginner yourself, you take advantage of that for as long as possible.

8. Workshops & Camps

Workshops and camps are simply a combination of classes and dances. They are great places to work on dancing because you can usually get everything above in one focused event. They also offer great inspiration in the form of new people; new, often world-class, instructors; and new dancers to dance with and play with.

A few tips on workshops: Often the things you learn in class will not be ready for the social dance floor immediately. That’s because complex movements usually take some practice and repetition to get familiar with, which isn’t always allowed for in a one-hour class. And in workshops you may have four or more classes per day — so I recommend… (1) Take notes (and video notes, perhaps), (2) practice the class material you like between classes to better cement it, and (3) perhaps find someone to spend some time going over all the day’s material with at some point before going to the night’s dance.

Oh, and…this is not a method, but something that applies to all previous ones mentioned.

Don’t Forget To Have Fun

A very important thing I once read about life was “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” It certainly applies to dancing. You do not start swing dancing because you desire to feel frustrated and annoyed at the process. You start because it’s very fun. Getting better at it can, and should be, fun too. We just occasionally have to remind ourselves of that.

If you start feeling frustrated with learning swing dancing, try the following…
First, as mentioned in the previous episode of Swing 101: Beginning Your Dance Education, make sure you’re concentrating on the journey, not worrying about the destination.

Practice will quickly become frustrating if you keep thinking to yourself “I’m not near as good at this as I want to be” or “I’m not getting this as quickly as I would like.” Instead, try to keep your focus simply on understanding and executing the skill you are trying to master at that moment.

Next, check to see if you’re biting off more than you can chew in a single bite — If something is just not working, try to break it down into smaller, more easy-to-manage chunks. Even the most complex moves and ideas in swing dancing are just combinations of simpler skills. And if you concentrate on smaller pieces, fixing them is usually easier, and more rewarding.

If that doesn’t work, consider changing your medium and spend some time working on dance using some of the other methods mentioned above. Sometimes you just need a fresh way to look at the problem.

Finally, perhaps take a break from learning something new…always pushing yourself to learn new things sometimes means you forget to enjoy the things you’ve already learned. Besides, learning new things will often happen more easily — even automatically — as you get more familiar with the things you’ve already learned, and what it means to practice dance.

Special thanks to my editor, Chelsea Lee. Her insights are always very helpful, and greatly helped this article specifically.

21 responses to “Swing 101 — 8 Ways You Can Get Better At Swing Dancing”

  1. Lots of great advice here! I would say, though, that dancing with an imaginary partner is more appropriate for leaders than for followers. By practising guiding themselves around the floor, a follower risks getting used to “leading herself*” when partner dancing rather than putting their feet down “underneath her” and allowing the leader to determine where “underneath her” will be. In terms of individual practice, I think it’s better for followers to start by practising basic footwork rhythms – on the spot and then travelling around the floor in various “random directions” (ie not in shapes relating to particular moves). Later, footwork variations are good things to practise. Also, when practising it’s valuable for followers to dance with their eyes closed so they can focus on feeling where they’re being led and not try to anticipate based on what they can see. The leader may end up getting some useful feedback on what s/he is actually leading, too ;-)
    [* I used “she” for simplicity but of course all of this applies equally to male followers]

    • Yes, good feedback. Writing that sentence, I remembered thinking “that’s opening up a whole new can of discussion that I can’t go into in this “short” post.” But I forgot about updating that before I published.

      I have updated the sentence and will address solo practicing more specifically in future writing.

      Old sentence read:

      If you have the ability to practice alone, practice doing your footwork with good rhythm, mime through the dance with an invisible partner, or watch some videos and think about what you’re watching — even try to replicate something you see, without a partner.

      New sentence reads:

      If you have the ability to practice alone, practice doing your footwork with good rhythm, moving around with good posture, or watch some videos and think about what you’re watching — even try to replicate something you see, without a partner.

  2. Great post! I plan on posting it today for our local scene, which is a very small one. I teach lessons with my dance partner, and rotate with another couple for instruction each month. Would you have any suggestions to tailor these tips for dancers who may be the more experienced dancers of their scene(whatever size it may be), and how they can improve without having to travel all the time? Say, using these tips on a broader scale between events?


    • Hey there!

      I actually tried to write the post so that it not only applies to beginner dancers, but to dancers of all levels. So, for the most part, this is all stuff I still do myself today after all my years of dancing.

      The only difference is Beginner dancers on focusing on mastering basic concepts of the dance; more advanced dancers are focusing on mastering basic + more advanced concepts of the dance. Otherwise, everything above applies, in my opinion. Also, see a comment below that gives advice to more advanced dancers about dancing with beginner dancers.)

      And the only one above that applies to traveling all the time is the “workshop” one. all others are done at home or local scene.

      thanks for reading!

  3. Is it possible for both partners to practice at the same time? And if so, is it desired?

    How do I best help those that dances with someone more advanced? Do I give them more repetitions?

    • Hey!

      I take your first question to mean, specifically, is it alright for both leader and follower to be working on something while they dance with each other. Yes, but you are right in being suspicious — because it has to be done productively, and it’s easy for it not to be done productively. Because, it you’re both working on something that could effect what the other person is working on, it’s like a scientist trying to work with two experiment groups rather than one experiment group and one control group.

      Yes, the leader and follower can each be working on something, but both need to make sure it’s not going to effect what the other is doing, or that both people are working on something specifically BECAUSE it is effecting it.

      A few examples:

      (1) Followers wants to work on swivels in a swing-out, which takes place during [7-8-1-2]. So, leader decides to work on something in the middle of the swing out that he’s pretty sure won’t trickle down and effect the [7-8-1-2] in a drastic way.

      (2) Follower wants to work on swivels in swing outs, leader decides to work on his tuck-turn technique. They practice by repeating swing outs a few times, then tuck-turns a few times, then swing outs, then tuck-turns…in practicing, not enough back-to-back repetition makes it hard to engrain new habits. But too much causes “weirdness” (like how a familiar word said over and over again will eventually start to sound strange.) This method allows each partner to work on something, but still have little breaks to help stop over-repetition.

      (3) Follower wants to work on swivels, after discussion, partnership decides to work on the [7-8-1-2] of his swingouts in order to see how it effects swivels, to give partners a better understanding of the partnership mechanics involved in swivels.

      And I apologize, I don’t exactly understand your second question. Could you put it into different words?

      • Yes, that 2. question was rather short. Let me give the whole picture, which during the writing turned into a longer story.

        I started dancing 17 months ago, but quite often dance with followers who has not yet danced as much as me, not only because our scene is growing, but probably also because I often help out as an extra lead where it is needed, so they have seen me before and I probably seem more approachable. I also noticed that I prefer dancing with people who are new to me, people that I dont yet know. Finally I probably is more in my own comfort zone when I dance with less experienced dancers. All in all, I think that more than half my dancing is with less experienced follows.

        The short question is: How do I best help those that has less experience than me?

        When I dance with a follower that either is not as experienced as me or even if she is more experienced but simply doesnt know a variation that I know, then I have been thinking that if I see improvement in a few repetitions then I continue with a few more repetitions giving her the chance to really learn it. Ofc. I do have an eye on if it is because of my own leading that it came out differently than intended.

        I have had one new follow thanking me after the dance for giving her more repetitions so she could learn it. She also said that other dancers tended to try only a few times before giving up and doing something else.

        Some of the more experienced in my scene said that if a follow doesnt understand after 2 or perhaps 3 repetitions, then I should move on so I dont bore the follow and also because keep doing repetitions could be interpreted negatively as “I’m gonna keep doing this until you get it”.

        But my own thinking has been that since I myself need many repetitions to get something, why should I expect a follow to know it after only a few repetitions? I also dont think that anyone likes the negative interpreting of a whole dance of continued attempts that all failed, because it is like this: “you cant do a, b, c, d, …., what can you do?” where as the feeling I like to help give a follow is one of success: “when we started you didnt know a, but now you are good at it”

        But what do you guys think?

        • I appreciate your grasp on learning and the need for repetitions, and a desire to leave the learning process with success.

          For me personally, I try to keep social dancing as social dancing and not a time to practice a step repeatedly. If a step doesn’t work, I prefer a follower to ask me afterwards, or I to ask them — we may go off and practice some at that point, where we would get in those reps. But that keeps a divided line between social dancing and practice.

          But I definately am open to your take on it. I guess part of that is gauging the follower’s happiness when you start repeating the move.

  4. I understand that this may be targeted toward the beginner crown, but I’ve got one suggestion for an addition to the list that could be helpful for those who’ve moved past that stage.

    Dance with beginners.

    About a year ago, I moved from a large strong scene to a small scene with only one night of dancing. There are great dancers here, but it’s a small group, and the majority have been dancing for 2 years or less.

    In Seattle, I could be a much lazier lead because the learning curve was so high and my partners were so good. Now, I’m mosty dancing with people with little or no understanding of charleston, little or no grasp of leading/following, and who’ve mostly only seen the dance presented in one way.

    It’s probably led to the most significant improvements in my dancing for years.

    • Hey there! Good feedback.

      I realized after your post that it might not be clear that the series IS focused on beginner
      dancers, so I updated teh post:

      Old sentence:
      This is episode 4 in Swing 101.

      New wording:
      This is episode 4 in Swing 101, a series for dancers new to vintage swing dancing and its scene.

      You are correct, though, in assuming it actually applies to dancers of all levels. That’s my sneaky intent, anyway.


    • I love this reply post. I think this is good advice, too. I think leads do get “lazy” and for you to admit that is awesome. Kudos for you. I know what you mean about dancing with beginners, it can make you a better follow as well and really paying attention and letting them lead, not stealing the lead :)

    • Yes! I love this. I’ve found that my strongest nights of dancing are the ones when I can be a responsive, connected, and musical follow, no matter my lead’s level of experience. And for the nights when that doesn’t happen, I can take responsibility about considering what’s preventing me from creating connection and feeling centered.

  5. I’m a little late to respond to this post, but I really enjoyed reading it- I’m in the process of reevaluating what works for me right now in developing my lindy hop. I stepped away from lessons for a bit (needed to process and discover on my own), but I’m exploring more options for learning again.

    I’ll also add that cross-training has made a world of difference for me. I’ve found it’s really easy to get stuck in my head while working on one thing (like lindy hop). So, when I’ve been doing a lot of partner work, I’ll explore solo dancing. That might mean solo dancing at a social dance (to focus on musicality and improvisation), or dabbling in other styles of solo dance to condition, use muscles in different ways, and explore body mechanics. If I feel like I’m getting away from/over-thinking lead-follow connection, I’ll drop in on another style of partner dancing, like two-stepping or blues. And, mixing up my exercise habits has given me better endurance and agility for dancing to fast music.

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