Monday, March 19, 2012

How Long Before I Get Good?

When I was just a new pup in the dancing scene, I thought as soon as I lapped up a few more moves and took a few more classes, I would be a pretty good dancer. I tried to go to every class possible, thinking I was just a few classes away from everything working great.

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.


  1. What the heck is an average person? Would an average person commit 3-5 years to learning to dance Salsa? Would an average person even go far as to look for and find this blog? Is that 3-5 years meaning about 1 night of social dancing per week? Is five times a week for one year about the same as once a week for five years? What is upper 20%? Upper 20% in the world? Upper 20% among people who have been dancing for at least 1 year?

    It's pretty ridiculous trying to be scientific about it and give specific number or timeline, but I also think your argument hits the correct note - exactly for the kind of people who have actively looked for and found a resource like this blog and tried to digest and apply advices given here.

    Most people likely will be surprised to realize how incompetent they were after merely one year of learning when they get to their third year.

    Also I would suggest that how fast one improves depends first and foremost on level of self-motivation with distant second closely contested by mental and physical ability (not counting disabled people of course) as well as level of dancer partners available.

    Also I would suggest that amateur musicians (perhaps better to say people with rich musical background) will have substantial advantage over "average" people.

  2. Hmmm... I will defend my timelines, plus or minus a couple years.

    It's a big question for people. I wanted to know how long it would take when I started. I found it was longer than I'd hoped for me, but everybody is different.

    Nobody is "average" but in 3-5 years almost anybody can be an above average dancer in most scenes, local or otherwise.

    My 20% is a generalization and your mileage my vary. I still feel comfortable that in a room of 20 leads, most guys with 3-5 years experience will be in the top 4 or 5 leads, assuming they have worked at it over time.

    Fun can start way before that time, depending on your personality. I had fun playing drums when I was 15. Looking back I see I wasn't that good at it for 3-5 years after that time, and I was a very serious student of music as a young adult. The next five years is where the maturity comes in if you keep doing it.

    Being a musician makes the startup phase much harder because you understand how poorly you are reflecting the music with your body. Longer term (a couple years or so) it's a huge advantage, but most muscians don't dance partially because the startup phases can be much tougher.

    I'll write an article at some point explaining why musicians generally don't dance.

    Your insights are welcomed and appreciated.

  3. Thanks for this post. It's quite encouraging. I'm a raw beginner... never danced, very little sports in school. Basically, a desk-bound computer nerd. I've been taking Salsa 1 for 4 months now, and *just* am starting to feel as if I can once in a while find the beat, as well as put 2 moves together. Most guys have blown past me, but like you, I have to get the fundamentals hammered down before I can really relax enough to enjoy myself.

    Thanks again.

  4. John,

    I'm with you on that... and plenty of guys blew by me in the first year. Over time that has changed, as investing more time in the fundamentals pays off later.

    Everybody is different and in time you'll find those same guys will find some rougher patches and you'll be the fast grower. The real trick is to hang in there a while and keep getting incrementally better. There are ups and downs but those who stay in the game are the winners over time. Plus your social network grows and it's always more fun when you know more people.

    Please let us know how it goes over time!

  5. This article hit home. I've been at it since January of this year. Three coaches,(which just served to confuse the issue :-)over a thousand bucks, a dozen group classes, numerous privates, and have yet to step out on the dance floor at a club. I agree that a couple of moves and having to focus hard on "thinking forward" is not going to be enjoyable for the lead, or the target (follow). I DO know that this takes practice, and one of the things that have been surprising to me is how difficult it has been to find someone (female) to practice with. Few women in this area go beyond a basic class. I asked more than one coach about this phenomenon (25 people in a basic class and about an even balance, and 4 in the next level class with one lady). The answer was uniform from three coaches. The ladies feel that after a basic class, it's the leads job, and there is no need to learn more. I've even resorted to posting ads on Craigslist for a practice partner with dismal results. I'm curious Don. We seem to share similar views on wanting to make a decent showing, how did you get enough time in to do so?

  6. Loki,

    I think you replied on another article, mentioning all your coaches and hard work. I didn't answer that one because your comments really require an article (I have a draft so far).

    My summary is now you need to find a club in your area that has a class before the dance, take the class, and then dance with anybody from the class during social time(even if it's one lady) AND any ladies in the club.

    You will already be ahead of most of the people in the club class, and nothing beats doing it live in the clubs.

    The question is: Is there one club in your area that has classes before the official dance time?

    That is the perfect way to get started at the club. Socially you meet parterns during the class, and they will almost always dance with you during dance time.

    I wrote a series of articles on breaking into a club or event, and I suspect they will help.

    Your next step is to simply get into the clubs, it's where you practice. Nobody expects you to be a pro... They expect you to be nice and if they see you a few times, most (not all) will dance with you.

    Finding time: That frustrates me at points. I have days were I only get what I call "micro practices" that are a set of very small practices (1-5 minutes each). It's life for me as I own a business and have a large family. I do have some days where I get longer practices, but I can't count on that...

    I squeeze time to in to practice around everything else I do in life. Some days I get an hour, many I only get minutes and it varies wildly.

    If you look at my article dates, you'll notice holes in my publishing. I publish 3 articles in a week, then miss two weeks due to the rest of my life. Better to do what I can than say I'll only blog if I can do it X times per week.

    More details in a future article.

    Articles you might like:
    ** Micro Practices: Quickies Are OK!
    ** Power of Greetings

    Use the blog Search (on the bottom left column) to find those articles. Note the results from searching show up at the TOP of the page (don't ask me why...)

  7. As a follow, I am just like you -- I need to have a good foundation and know what I am doing before I can start having fun. I hate feeling incompetent! I do hope the rate of being good can be accelerated with intensive practice though -- I am doing a year long dance class challenge ( where I am taking as many dance classes as I can in a year, including repeating the fundamental classes again and again to hone my technique and become a great dancer. I'm up to level 7 in salsa now. Still awkward learning new moves, but I have improved so much in a few months!

    1. Hi Cathy,

      You can certainly accelerate it with the type of effort you're undertaking. More effort pays back sooner than less effort.

      Repeating the foundational materials is a huge win over time. Everything else builds on them and if they are weak, the rest will also be week.

      Please let us know how it's going!
      (I assume you're also checking out the "Music4Dancers" YouTube channel. That continues to expand and will provide the foundations for musicality.)


I love feedback. Your thoughts, feelings and comments are appreciated. Civil disagreements and other points of view are always welcomed!

Feel free to send me private mail if appropriate.

Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero