How I would learn to dance (if I were to start over)

Adel Wu
7 min readJan 28, 2023

There are only a few things that I have consistently done throughout my whole life, and one of those things is dance. Ever since I was in elementary school, I cycled through Chinese traditional dance, ballet, ice skating, jazz, lyrical/contemporary, K-pop, urban, and hip-hop classes in my spare time, getting a taste of many types of dance. Since my time was pretty limited in each style, I never achieved a great depth or mastery of any specific style, but instead formed a decently solid foundation to where I can be comfortable taking on any style. I am by no means a professional dancer, more-so a hobbyist!

After graduation, I started to take dance classes from more experienced dancers more consistently and noticed how differently they approached teaching dance. They all had their own understanding of movement, style, and what dance meant to them that influenced their pieces. This inspired me to challenge myself to think more systematically about how I’d potentially teach someone to dance, or how I’d frame dancing to a beginner with no experience as someone who’s spent their life dancing. Every single dancer probably has a different version of this, depending on their preferences and background; dance is an extremely subjective topic, and “how to be a good dancer” has no correct answer. This also varies depending on your goals; do you want to focus on one style? Do them all?

Thus, I present to you my personal pyramid of dance.

1 | Rhythm

This might seem extremely easy and obvious, who can’t tap to a beat? One of the most common mistakes I see beginners make is skipping straight to doing intricate choreography, when the core rhythm is off (mostly rushing). While it seems silly, doing some simple warm-up drills like bouncing, rocking, or stepping to the beat of a song help you become more aware of listening to the music and slowing down. Starting off with simple, large movements lets you also feel your body’s boundaries and practices extension.

Rhythm also has complexity. One beat doesn’t just last a millisecond; you can hit the downbeat, upbeat, or anywhere in between. There can be beats inside of other beats, and overlapping layers of different rhythms within a song.

You can practice this by:

  • Practicing basic movement drills, involving steps, chest, arms
  • Using a mirror or film yourself, to monitor your body extension or rhythmic accuracy
  • Dancing with a friend! You can compare and discuss to check each other

2 | Techniques + Style Foundations

Once you have a good grasp of rhythm, you can begin to explore some basic movements which normally are the building blocks to a lot of different styles. A combination of basic moves can create routines easily. Think about what style of dance you want to try out; I think it’s fun to trying 2 opposing styles such as hip-hop and lyrical to see what you find fun, and it makes you a well-rounded dancer. For beginners, I think urban and K-pop are good starting points, since the style doesn’t require difficult technique that would need more training compared to something like ballet.

Every style has an origin, such as House coming from underground club culture in NYC/Chicago, or Waacking from gay-disco bars in 1970s LA. It’s important to educate yourself as a dancer on the history of styles to respect and preserve authenticity; they also help in understanding the movements! Some styles might include:

  • Hip-hop, Urban, Lite Feet, House
  • Jazz, Lyrical, Contemporary, Ballet
  • Popping, Locking, Tutting, Krumping
  • Waacking, Voguing
  • K-pop, cultural/traditional dance

What a lot of people see these days on social media and want to do covers of is most likely considered “urban”, which can pull from a variety of styles.

You can practice this by:

  • Finding dancers, choreographers, and videos you admire and like
  • Reading up about styles and trying some drills
  • Taking beginner dance classes in a specific style, taught by an expert

3 | Movement Accuracy/Cleanliness

Some might disagree, but I believe that before you can venture into your own style, every dancer should have grasp of how to dance accurately and cleanly. I think this foundation is essential for building on top of for the next levels, where then you can play around and add your own style.

This basically means: Are your limbs in the right place? Are you in control of your body? Are you doing the moves to their full potential and with correct timing? Where are your hands, head, arms, legs, chest, hips, etc? There are so many body parts to keep track of, so this is hard!

This is especially important if you intend to dance in a team or group setting, if “being together” and looking clean is a priority. Another applicable scenario is if you want to “cover” dances you see, which means to copy and do your own version of a dance; most beginner dancers learn in this way, by either learning dances at home or attending workshops/lessons. Feedback is very essential in this level, as you won’t always be able to identify your own habits.

You can practice this by:

  • Filming and watching yourself. Compare yourself to whatever reference you’re using, and see where you should adjust or correct.
  • Don’t spend too long stuck on one dance. Keep trying new things and identifying potential patterns (“I tend to under-extend my arms, I only stare at myself in the mirror, I’m a little late overall”)
  • If you’re dancing with a teacher or friend, have them critique you and point out things you wouldn’t personally see.

4 | Playing with Power and Speed (texture)

This is where it gets good. You’ve passed the basics and can now dance pretty well, but what can set you apart now? Texture.

Textures in dancing refers to “how the move feels on your body (when you do it) or how the move feels on the eyes (when you watch it)” (ref).

With texture, you have an endless amount of ways ONE move can feel. Textures are how you can express music with dance, and each dancer might have a different interpretation of the music. Being able to vary the power and speed in your dancing is very skillful, so this comes with a lot of practice and time. With good grasp of texture, you’ll be able to enhance your musicality and play around with it.

I’ve noticed that really strong choreography always plays on the juxtaposition of opposite textures or speeds. Sometimes NOT moving can be even more powerful than moving constantly.

You can practice this by:

  • Doing drills of the same move, but with different textures
  • Analyze videos of dancers to see the way they use textures
  • Picking songs you like in various genres to dance to
  • At this point, trying to master one dance a little better might be a good idea, as you can really improve with adding texture
  • Working on your power with strength and cardio training
  • Once again, watching yourself and getting feedback

5 | SWAG (groove, facials, confidence, emotion)

Swag is like the cherry on top for an amazing dancer. Without it, great texture and musicality can look cool, but with it, the dance becomes a performance that can entertain and draw out great emotion in the viewer. This swag also comes with a level of comfort and inherent self-confidence that comes from within you: “I’m the best” vibes.

Not all swag has to be high energy and showy; some of the coolest dancers are the most subtle in their confidence, but it still really shows when they dance. Having that groove and making it look easy definitely comes with time as well, so be patient with yourself and improvement.

This comes to some more naturally than others; I personally had and still have a hard time with facials and confidence, but I find that dancing to have fun rather being pressured by perfection helps a lot.

You can practice this by:

  • Finding a community or place where you feel safe and comfortable dancing and practicing facials
  • Doing over the top facials in a dimly lit space while you practice; this is less intimidating
  • Dancing to music you actually like, and want to convey the emotion of
  • Performing in front of a crowd, if that’s your cup of tea
  • Sometimes lip-syncing is appropriate
  • And once again, filming and watching yourself!

6 | Creating your own style

Being able to take generic choreography and changing it into your own style is something very few dancers can achieve. At this point in the pyramid you can already master learning any choreography and killing it. Now comes adding your own interpretation of things and feeling the freedom to make the moves your own.

I’ve noticed in the professional workshops I’ve taken, the choreographers always watch those who not only pick up the choreo well, but those who transform it into something with their own flair. If you’re in a group situation where you need to be in sync, this might not be the best place to stand out, but normally putting your own creative spin on a dance is encouraged and makes it fun!

This eventually evolves into being able to freestyle, or choreograph your own dances the more you figure out your style and preferences. The most iconic choreographers all have very recognizable styles that they’ve spent years crafting and iterating on.

My biggest tip here is to not put artificial limits on yourself of what you can and can’t do in dance. Creativity is endless and has no bounds. My other advice is non-existent because I myself have not even gotten to this stage!

That being said, no amount of theory and knowledge can ever replace real experience. Go out there, try it out, and see how you feel! Practice, practice, practice! Dance has been one of my favorite supportive communities, so I always encourage my friends to try out a class (we don’t bite)!

Dance is an amazing creative outlet, a cardio workout, a form of self-expression, a memory trainer, fun activity with friends, and honestly just so much fun. Keep in mind that the main goal isn’t to be the world’s best dancer, but ultimately to enjoy yourself! Good luck :)

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