Recent innovations in social dance instruction have brought new, fresh ideas to the dance teaching methods that have been used since the early 20th century. These new methods concentrate on dance elements and the use of conceptual learning techniques. Conceptual learning methods are rapidly replacing the teaching systems used in the past. These systems are especially useful for teaching/learning social dancing rather than Dancesport or performance routines. I will start with a brief definition of social dancing then follow with an introduction to conceptual learning and the use of elements rather than patterns.


Here I refer to social dancing as a category of dance, specifically partner dancing, and the styles of dance that are lead/follow not for competition or performances. The emphasis is the social aspect rather than the aesthetics or sport of the dance. Some of the dance genres included in social dancing are Latin, ballroom, swing, nightclub dance, country western, tango, hustle and salsa.

In most dance circles a unit is defined as meaning two beats of music. The odd beats are upbeats and even beats are downbeats, sometimes the sound might be referred to as a boom, tick. Most dancers start a movement on the downbeat.

Patterns use six, eight or more beats of music used in combinations, for instance, an underarm turn in West Coast swing is usually done in six beats of music or a salsa basic uses eight beats. Sequences are an amalgamation of patterns strung together, usually for the purposes of teaching a routine, however, some dance teachers still teach sequences in social dance classes.

The elements of dance are the smaller parts of a pattern that compose the pattern, like a rock step is used twice in the salsa basic or two triples are used in a sugar push in West Coast swing. The general elements are used in most dance genres like breaking action, walking steps and turns. Some more specific elements are used for particular dances like rise and fall in waltz, Cuban motion in cha cha and rumba or contact through the ribcage in smooth dancing.

Conceptual learning means understanding movements like whips or tucking movements in West Coast swing rather than learning a series of patterns like a standard whip, inside pick up whip, whip with outside turn, etc. Learning the why and what  of a whip contributes more to a rapid learning of ways to combine movements to create a whip or to break it apart for more variety, spontaneity and musicality. In conceptual learning, one masters moving/leading from the core and applies it to all the different dance genres rather than learning a basic foxtrot or tango pattern in order to learn how to move from the core.

Conceptual dance lessons seem to produce better dancers. Learning the elements of dance and the specifics of a particular dance genre through concepts is an efficient, fast, comfortable, thorough way to learn to dance. The dancers produced through this method get better at dancing sooner and learn more. They become better social dancers than people who are pattern dancers. Many dancers that originally learned to dance through the pattern method are returning to lessons to become better leads/follows, add more freedom of expression and spontaneity, as well learning how to incorporate musicality into their dancing.  

Here is a few important concepts to learn for social dancing:

  • Connection – leverage, compression
  • Matching resistance
  • Foot/ankle action for lifting off and landing
  • Sending and receiving foot awareness
  • Hip/knee action (bending together or separately)
  • Timing & phrasing in the music
  • Rhythm units: singles, doubles and triples
  • Turn technique, spin technique
  • Contra Body Position (also CBMP)
  • Moving from the center, core movement
  • Head alignment
  • Ribcage movement
  • Hand grips, handholds
  • Engaging the lat muscles
  • Engaging the hip flexors

There are many benefits to learning to dance through this new system of dance instruction. It opens up an unlimited number of possibilities of movements and combinations of elements rather than only dancing a couple dozen or so limited patterns or sequences. Conceptual dancers are better at floor crafting because they use smaller units that can easily be adjusted when maneuvering around the dance floor. Pattern dancers usually have to stop because they are unable to break their pattern routine.

After learning to dance in dance classes, it is important to explore dancing with people outside of your class or studio to see if your leading and following work when dancing with  other people. Pattern dancers often look great when dancing with someone who learned the same routine they learned but suffer when they have to lead/follow anyone else. Dancing with lots of different people is a good test to see if what you are learning works generally. Dancers that aren’t pattern dependent are better leaders and followers because they depend on their connection skills when dancing rather than a series of pre-fabricated patterns.

This new method is spreading across the country with many experienced dance professionals adopting an approach that concentrates on the way someone dances rather than the fancy patterns they perform. This requires attention to the elements of dance, the concepts and guidelines of each dance genre, the learning of body mechanics and a lot of repetition. The good news is this will contribute to building a better dance community in our future!