Can People with No Rhythm Learn to Dance?
Dancing is natural - ask almost any child to dance, and they will move to the music. So why do so many people find it hard to dance when they reach their teens or adulthood?
There are three things that hold us back, when we try to dance as adults - self-consciousness, learned muscle patterns and rhythm.
Most people have heard the saying that starts, "Dance like nobody's watching...". It's human nature to dislike looking foolish. When we're learning something new, we hate having an audience watching our silly mistakes. Dancing feels so public - we're standing up in the middle of a crowd of other people, making big movements - surely everyone is watching us?
The standard teacher's answer for this is, "don't be silly, everyone else in the class is too busy worrying about their own mistakes." I've been guilty of saying that myself - but of course, it's nonsense!
Of course there will be times when other students are watching you - it's up to you to take your opportunities to watch them. Chances are, you'll find you're not the only one struggling with the steps!
If the thought of embarrassment is holding you back from starting a dance course, a good solution is to buy a beginners' dance DVD and use it to learn the basics before enrolling for your first class. That will help you get over the first hurdle.
My brain understands but my feet won't work!
The other thing that holds adults back is muscle memory - the patterns of movement that we've learned growing up.
Your body likes doing repetitive movements - stuff it already knows and doesn't have to think about. Dance requires you to move your arms and legs in strange and unusual ways. Your eyes may watch and your brain may comprehend, but it can take a while for it to direct your limbs to interpret these new and unfamiliar movements.
Be patient with yourself and understand it's the way your body works. Eventually, these new movements will become part of your muscle memory, too, and you'll be able to do them almost without thinking.
The Wrong Teacher - or the Wrong Dance
It's not you, it's me
If you've tried to learn dancing and failed miserably, don't be too quick to give up.
In dancing as in any other skill, there are good teachers and bad teachers. Someone can be a fantastic dancer but a hopeless teacher, and vice versa. For instance, Margot Fonteyn was one of the greatest dancers in the world, but she couldn't teach. Whereas Dame Ninette de Valois was never a great dancer herself, but her ballet classes were among the best I've ever seen.
So if you joined a school and didn't learn very much, ask yourself - could it have been the teacher at fault, not me?
Different people have different ways of learning. A good teacher should take that into account. A good teacher should be able to explain steps, not just demonstrate them, and be able to correct students who are making mistakes, without making them feel picked-on.
The other possibility is that you picked a style of dance that doesn't suit you, or was too technical. If you've never danced before, the complex rhythms and fast footwork of flamenco would be too much of a challenge as a first dance style. If you're inflexible, I wouldn't recommend ballet or jazz to start with - do some yoga first, or pilates.
A good starting point for most people is social dancing like Ballroom, Latin or Street Latin, Swing or modern jive (Ceroc etc). You don't need to bring your own partner - most schools rotate partners so you won't feel left out if you're on your own.
For women, belly dancing is a good introduction because it's gentle, the environment is very supportive and the beginners' steps are simple.
I got rhythm...
The final - and unfortunately, the biggest - stumbling block is rhythm. Going back to those dancing children - they all dance when the music plays, but you'll notice that some dance in sync with the beat, whereas others bop around with no reference to the rhythm.
Those children who keep time without thinking are lucky. A lack of rhythm is by far the biggest obstacle to learning to dance - but it's not insurmountable. I used to think a sense of rhythm was inborn - you either had it or you didn't.
Then I started flamenco. All of a sudden I was in a different world - songs with 12 beats to the bar, routines that started on 12 instead of 1 - even melodies in 3/4 or 4/4 time seemed to cut across the rhythm in strange ways. I felt I'd lost my sense of rhythm completely! I noticed my Spanish colleagues, who'd grown up with the music, took the rhythms for granted - just the way I'd taken mine for granted. But eventually, I learned.
It made me realise my sense of rhythm had been learned, not inborn. I'd been surrounded by music all my life - starting with my mother singing lullabies, then the radio, then my teenage sisters' records, then my piano lessons, and I had just absorbed it.
So these days, I believe rhythm can be learned. However, trying to learn to keep time and master dance steps, all at the same time, is too much new information at once! If you have no rhythm, it's easier to fix that problem first - then graduate to dancing when you begin to feel the beat.
If you have a friend or family member with a good sense of rhythm, get them to sit with you and clap along to music - any music. If they can't spare the time, get yourself a metronome and ask them to set it to the right tempo at the start of each track, then clap along with the metronome.
Learning a musical instrument is a good way to learn rhythm. When you read music, you can see the rhythm on the page while you play, and many people find that helps.
If you don't have the patience for all that and want to start dancing straight away, then pick a style with easy steps and simple music. Rock'n'roll, swing or modern jive are the easiest, because the music usually has a 4/4 signature and a loud bass beat. Steer clear of Latin dances (Salsa, cha cha, rumba etc) because the steps are syncopated, and that's the hardest type of beat to follow if you're not rhythmic.
Swing dance is a good first choice of dance for the rhythm-challenged, because the beat is simple. You can learn the basics from this DVD and progress to classes - most swing classes rotate partners so you don't need to be a couple.
Dance can be a very rewarding and enjoyable hobby (or it can take over your life, but that's another story!). Be patient with yourself.
And remember - it's never too late to learn...
All text copyright Marisa Wright. Photos from Flickr - "Children dancing" courtesy of Acnatta. "Tango couple" courtesy of GiselaGiardino. "Dance lesson" courtesy of World Waif. "Ceroc" courtesy of m111er. "Old couple dancing" courtesy of J C Rojas. Belly dance class picture by Mike Lawrence.