Well here's the good, bad and ugly. You can have fun salsa dancing in the first 4 to 12 weeks, plus or minus 6-18 months, depending on your personality and previous dance experience. If you want to be an elite dancer, the average person is a 3-5 year work in progress to get to the upper 20%, then another 3-5 years to get into the top few percent. (BTW - Those are exact scientific time lines, with no room for variations.)
Even though it had taken me many, many years to become a decent musician, I thought dancing had to be easier. While I had never danced, I've watched hundreds and hundreds of dances as a musician, and I knew the music. I mean, look at all those other guys doing it. Some were much heavier, smarter, dumber, less coordinated, uglier, older, younger, less athletic, less coordinated, unable to rub their tummy and pat their head at the same time, and a few looked like they needed medication to calm down a bit. It seemed if they could do it, I should be able to make short work of this. (New guys look at me that way today.)
If you can already dance anything, including the macarena, robot, a little Michael Jackson moon-walking, jazz, ballet and/or pole, river or country line dancing, and you would do it in public in front of a group of people, you'll probably be having fun in the weeks range. If you did gymnastics, martial arts, cheer-leading or other sports requiring balance and body control, your time line will be significantly shorter than some others.
If you are like me, someone who NEVER danced once in a club until his mid 40's, it may be a little toward the longer end of that scale. Fun doesn't take long but real competence does take some time.
Here's the funny thing: It really doesn't matter except to you! Nobody looks at me and says "What a loser, he took two years to do things others were doing in a few months." In some areas I started much slower than others, but I've also blown past many of my peers who started before or with me because I worked on fundamentals longer then most, which allowed me to accelerate my learning AFTER a certain tipping point. There are always a bunch of new people starting to dance (and hopefully next year some of your friends will start), and they don't know I was a slow starter.
I remember people saying "just have fun." Well guess what? I'm that type of person who doesn't find my personal incompetence fun. For me, I needed a baseline of skills and THEN I started to have fun with it. I see other guys having fun the first few weeks they are dancing. But I hated asking someone to dance with this type of line: "Would you like to dance? Oh... by the way, I only know about 2.3 moves, and I'm not sure how they really fit together yet, so be patient with me..."
There are some people who have looked like me during their start-up period, but their personality is such that they didn't care (or they consumed some liquid courage at the bar.) I wish I were that type of personality sometimes, but that is just not within my comfort zone. I always knew once I passed a certain point, I would also be having fun and I wanted to be in that above average group.
Today, most of the time I have a great time, but I always look forward to being a stronger dancer. It's certainly like all the other arts, you never truly master dancing, you simply learn how to enjoy the ride and look forward to the next step in the journey.
Now, even as a more mature pup, I still drool sometimes, watching the more mature dancers and wanting to be at that level. But we all get to a point where the ride is fun, even if we get a few bugs in our mouth along the way.
If you are wondering when you'll be good, realize that "good" is a sliding scale that changes as you become more mature. Instead of shooting for being "good" by date XX, you might consider getting better regularly, picking up new skills every week or month. What is fascinating is if you just don't stop, and you continue to learn over a year or two, you'll look back and be amazed at your progress.
Keep taking lessons and classes, dance as much as you can, find a few other people at your level, and keep refining what you know. You may do it faster or slower than me, but don't stop learning.
Enjoy your ride and stick your head out the window, enjoying the music blowing by: it's worth the effort.
If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing slowly... very slowly.
-Gypsy Rose Lee
This article was originally published the summer of 2007. Of course it includes some minor edits, tweaks and updates.