Every time dancers ask me how to improve quickly, I give the same answer - form a partnership and practice. Then comes the inevitable flood of follow-up questions. How do I find a partner? Do they have to be at my level? How do we practice? What happens if we fight? Why are we not progressing?
Spoiler alert: your Lindy partnership is just like any other relationship. It takes emotional maturity, persistence, and good habits to succeed. Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers to these questions, but I have learned a few things worth sharing in my adventures in life and Lindy Hop.
Check out my tips below and leave a comment with your own advice on how to build a happy, healthy dance partnership!
Forming a Partnership
You’re voluntarily deciding to spend a significant amount of time with someone doing a hobby that you enjoy. Keep that in mind when looking for a partner. Find someone who you like and respect and who likes and respects you.
Discuss your big picture goals before committing to working with each other. For example, if you want to travel and compete, check in with each other to make sure you’re both capable of doing that financially, emotionally, and time-wise.
If you’re serious about improving your skills, it’s going to take time. There’s no getting around that, so plan for it! If you’re hoping to improve quickly, make sure you can both commit to enough hours a week. If you want to keep it casual, be up front about that to set proper expectations.
In my opinion, this is the least important category to align on. Skill is changeable. That’s the whole point of practicing. If you form a partnership solely based on matching skill level, it’s likely to crumble. I’ve seen this happen a lot at dance events - dancers partner up with someone at a similar level for a particular competition, there’s a lot of unspoken expectations, they generally don’t practice enough, they generally don’t win, and then you hear them talking smack about each other at the late night dance. Don’t fall into that trap.
Discuss Your Dance Philosophies
Why do you dance?
There are an infinite number of answers to this question. You don’t need to align perfectly with your partner, but watch out for clashing answers. For example, if one partner is in it to relax and the other is focused on being the best possible dancer, either you’ll need to compromise or someone’s going to end up frustrated.
What are your dance values?
It’s a true pleasure to dance and train with someone who values the same things in the dance as you. This may not be something you or your potential partner have thought much about yet, and that’s ok. It takes time and reflection to decide what matters to you in the dance. Some common values are conversational dancing, social dancing, athleticism and air steps, inventive choreography, learning the classics, etc.
If you’re not quite ready for that conversation, try sharing your favorite clips and dance couples with each other. This will reveal a lot about what inspires both of you and help deepen your relationship to each other and the dance.
How do you like to practice?
If you’re new to practicing dance, you may not know your style yet. Here are some (slightly) exaggerated dance practice archetypes to get you thinking --
The Rocky - Lives for the montage. Always sweating and saying “let’s run it again”.
The Talker - Thinks they want to practice but actually wants to chat. Takes a water break for 30 minutes.
The Artist - Has a vision. Thinks the routine could use a little more blue energy.
The Type A - Always writing notes. Remembers that thing the teacher said in class three years ago.
You don’t have to have the same practice style to form a great partnership, but you do need to keep each other’s preferences in mind when structuring your practices. That way, both of you can feel accomplished and satisfied after every session.
What are your ultimate dancing dreams? They may change. You may not share the same dream. You may not be able to accomplish all of them as a partnership. None of that has to be a deal breaker, but it’s good to be aware of each other’s long term goals. If they don’t align, you may need to have multiple partners or go solo to accomplish everything you desire.
It’s much more important to align on your short term goals. These goals will help you structure your practice sessions, measure success, and stay motivated. I recommend sticking to goals that you have control over. Examples include swinging out with ease to X BPM, choreographing a routine, or staying calm and present during a competition. If you set goals that are out of your control, like winning a particular competition, you are setting yourself up for very avoidable disappointment.
Structure Your Practice
Develop a warm up routine that gets your bodies and minds ready to practice, ideally something high intensity enough to get your endorphins flowing. If you do a similar warm up each time, you’ll find it easier and easier to get into practice mode quickly.
Come to practice with an already agreed upon plan. If you wait till you arrive to decide, you’ll end up wasting valuable studio time. If you’re not sure what to practice, take another look at your short term goals. If you’re really stuck, look at a recent video of your dancing and find something to improve or pull up a dance clip or class recap for inspiration. If you still don’t have any ideas, it might be time for an outside opinion or private lesson.
This may sound obvious, but so much of dancing is getting your body and your mind to sync. One of the fastest ways to do that is to watch yourself. You’ll quickly recognize any gaps between what you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing. It can be painful, but it’s free and extremely effective.
Leave a little time in each of your practice sessions to follow your curiosity, go down the rabbit hole on an arm styling, or try to remember a step you accidentally did on the social floor that one time. Fun is an important part of the creative process.
End on a High
You want to leave each practice session with a smile on your face. That’s what will keep you coming back to practice each week, so find a way to end that feels rewarding. Maybe that’s social dancing it out, maybe it’s making a short video for social media, or maybe it’s as simple as stretching. Whatever it is, make time for it.
Lift Each Other Up
Developing little rituals can help to deepen your bond as partners, especially if you’re doing something nerve wracking like competing or performing. Partners come up with all kinds of rituals before going on stage from sharing a drink to doing pushups. Anything that boosts your confidence and calms the nerves will do the trick.
Whether it’s on the social floor or on stage, you succeed and fail as a team. Your job is to support each other and find solutions, not to place blame. As soon as partners start blaming each other for missing a move or whatever it may be, it’s game over. Feelings get hurt, people get discouraged, and many people end up quitting dance altogether. Don’t let your own expectations and insecurities get the better of you. Always remember, you’re doing this because you enjoy dancing and you enjoy your partner!
Real talk time - if you base your self-worth or your partner’s worth off of Lindy Hop competitions, you’re going to have a bad time. Being the best at Lindy Hop won’t make you healthy, wealthy, or wise, so don’t let the glitz and glamour or any perceived or real social hierarchies get in the way of your relationship with yourself and your partner.
Like I said at the beginning, your dance partnership is just like any other relationship. If you approach each partnership with respect and honesty, you’ll set yourself up for a life full of enjoyable dancing. And when times get tough, like they did this past year, you’ll also be surrounded by friends.
Even after you’ve learned dozens of steps and a few routines, it can still be daunting to improvise. You may watch other dancers and wonder how they can come up with so many moves in a row all while smiling and hitting the music. Of course, practice is a huge part of improving your improv skills, but there’s one more crucial element - flow state.
You know that feeling when you’re so fully absorbed in an activity that the little voice in your head quiets down and hours pass in an instant? That’s flow state, and, yes, it feels amazing to achieve while dancing. Below are five exercises that have helped me find that sweet spot where I can both practice my dance skills in a concrete way and practice finding flow.
1.) Repeat a step
One of the fastest ways to unlock creative flow is through constraint. To start, pick one step and dance it for an entire song. This will get old fast, so then allow yourself to change things about the step when you feel inspired to do so. Experiment with changing the rhythm, shape, or arm styling of the step. Then do it all again with a new song. Most importantly, lean into what feels natural and interesting.
For more of a challenge, try doing the same exercise with two steps, then three. I even use this constraint when I’m solo dancing at a social or in a competition. It’s my trusty, go-to shortcut to get into flow state and enjoy myself no matter who might be watching.
2.) Follow an instrument
Pick one instrument in a song and dance only to that instrument. For example, only dance when you hear the piano and try to match your movement with how the piano sounds and feels. This is a very creatively open exercise, so don’t stress about dancing in any particular way. The goal is, first, to become more aware of the instrumentation in swing songs and, second, to once again find inspiration through constraint.
As you try this exercise with different instruments, notice how the same steps can be done in different ways to fit with the slide of a trombone or the strum of a guitar. As they say, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
3.) Focus on a body part
Dance to a full song while focusing on only one body part or area. This is a great way to connect with parts of your body you might forget about when you’re busy executing steps. I like to do this exercise while looking in a mirror to discover new lines and shapes.
After each song, take some of your favorite movement discoveries and integrate them into your dancing. For example, if you find an arm movement you like, pair it with a jazz step or two and repeat it until it feels natural. Remember, they body needs repetition to develop muscle memory!
4.) Choreograph 8x8s
Uh, this is the opposite of improvisation, right? Right! But what better way to discover your own creative voice than to create your own original choreography? And 8x8s is shorter than you think (that’s just 8 counts times 8).
Don’t stress about making something totally fresh or complex. After all, classics are classics for a reason. Start simple, like three and a break, then follow what sparks your interest. Relaxed, happy brains are creative brains.
5.) Film yourself improvising
This exercise is the most intimidating, so I recommend trying the other four first. Once you’re starting to feel comfortable improvising while looking in the mirror, then it’s time to break out the camera. I recommend only filming yourself for a minute at a time so you can easily watch, keep what you like, improve where you can, and repeat the process multiple times in a single practice session. Iteration is key!
Now, if you’re like me, you get nervous filming yourself even if you’re completely alone and no one will ever see it. Why? Who knows! But here are my work arounds. First, keep in mind that dancing will always look less impressive on film, especially if you don’t know how to work your angles. Your dancing will look more flat and slow than you’re expecting. Don’t let the illusion discourage you!
Next, if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety about this exercise, give yourself permission to delete takes without even watching them. Do that as many times as you need to get the jitters out before filming yourself for real.
Finally, always look for what you DO like before you look for what you don’t. You deserve a positive learning experience!
I hope this helps you on your solo improv journey. Happy dancing, friends!
It’s easy to get stuck focusing on your feet when learning jazz steps, but feet don’t have a monopoly on rhythm and groove. You can express to music with every part of your body from nose to toes and that’s right, the hips!
When we think about hips, moves like Mess Around and Boogie Forward may come to mind, but the well goes so much deeper than that. Some of the brightest stars of jazz dance, like Mabel Lee and Earl Tucker, were celebrated for their virtuosic hip movements. So if you’ve been waiting for permission to move your hips more or if you find yourself feeling a bit stiff in your dancing, take this as your sign to put a wiggle in your step.
Find inspiration in this compilation of vintage jazz dancers showing off their famous hip movements - some sexy, some silly, and all of them dazzling.