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Many of us watch others dance and wonder how they do it. We can't help but think, "I could never do that," and so we sit on the sidelines and watch. But dancing is not such a mysterious art-you may never become a professional ballet dancer, but there's no reason why you couldn't be swinging with the best of them at your local jazz club. Learning to swing dance can improve your balance and coordination, give you self-confidence, and help you to meet new and interesting people.


Work on your rhythm

There is one critical step in learning to swing dance. For some people, this step can be omitted (thanks to the grace of the gods or childhood piano lessons); but for most, it is vitally important that we develop a good sense of rhythm. I can hear the screams already. "I don't have any rhythm," you complain. Trust me, you do. That thing in your chest? It's called a heart. Those other things? They're lungs. All of these organs work rhythmically. Your body has rhythm, it just might take some effort to evoke that natural skill.

If you don't already have good rhythm (you should not always trust your own judgment on this one-ask a friend you trust), start listening to a lot of music. Hear the beat in the background and start tapping your hand or foot to that beat. Do this often. Whenever you are just sitting around or in your car-tap the beat. When you get pretty good at that, mix it up a little. Tap a double count-this is where you tap twice for every beat of the music. If you're really adventurous, try tapping three or four times for every beat. It might take you a little practice, but it will share huge dividends in your dancing.

Learn the basic step

The easiest dance step to start with is the jitterbug. I know you've heard of it. You might have even danced it when you where younger. It's a very easy step. In spite of what you might think, you can learn to do the basic pattern very quickly, then you can work on making it smooth and adding in some tricks. Let's learn the step, then we'll work on adding it to music.

If you are a man, step forward with your left food (right foot for women). Imagine that you're standing on a clock face and angle the step to about ten o' clock (two for women; from now on, women's steps will be left unmentioned), keeping your feet within eight to ten inches of one another. Now pick up your right foot and put it back down in the same place. These are the two slow steps of the jitterbug.

There are just two steps left in the basic pattern. Take a quick step backwards to about six o' clock with your left foot and follow that with an equally quick step up and down with your right foot. Rock back on your left heel while you are picking up your right foot. This is called a rock step. You have now learned the basic pattern of the jitterbug.

Put on some music

Practice the basic pattern for a while without music. Left…right…left, right…left…right…left, right…left…right…left, right. Now, without dancing to it, put on some music and think about the beat. Tap your foot to the beat for a while and start counting: one…two…three…four…one…two…three…four. When you feel very comfortable with this song (it's recommended that you just listen to the same one over and over again for the first few times, just to make the process a bit easier), change your count.

The count that you will now use is the one necessary for the jitterbug. Instead of counting to four, count to six instead: one…two…three…four…five…six…one…two…you get the idea. Now comes the tricky part, adding the step to your count. The first step (left foot for men, right foot for women) of the basic happens during counts one and two; the second step comes on counts three and four; the third step happens on count five; and the final step happens on count six. Then you repeat. This is how you keep your first two steps slow and your rock step combination fast.

Whatever you do, don't get discouraged if you get off of the beat. Everyone does this at first. Just stop, regain control of the beat by tapping your foot, and then start again. Pretty soon, you'll be doing it like a champ. Get solid command of the step before you add a partner.

Stop dancing alone

When you've got a partner, think about how to lead the step. Men, this is your job; you've got the easy end. Following is much more difficult, and it is the woman's job. They get it because they are smarter than us.

Men, put your hands out, palms up; women put your hands on top of his, palms down. Hold each other lightly, but keep some tension in your arm muscles. Your shoulders should hang comfortably and your elbows should be about four inches from your torso. Bend the elbows so that your forearms are parallel to the ground.

On the first step, the man is going to swing his left arm out to the side; on the second step, he swings it back in to shoulder width from his still unmoving right arm; during the rock step, both partners push lightly away from each other, not extending their arms all of the way out. Repeat. Try to swing your arm gracefully, rather than whipping it out and then back in. Practice this diligently before you start putting tricks in there. You are now a swing dancer.

Adding tricks

When you're ready for some more difficulty, try turning on steps one and two by bringing both arms out wide and swiveling at the hips. Then rock step as normal. In order to learn more complex tricks, all you need to do is ask anyone on a dance floor. You and your partner see someone do something cool? Ask her how it's done. Most anyone will be happy to teach you how to do whatever they do. Watch other dancers and try to figure some of it out on your own. You might also consider joining a dancing club, if there's one in your area.

Once you've mastered the basic step, you've learned all that you need to know to join in on the dance floor. With just a little practice you'll be amazing friends and strangers alike with your skills. Pretty soon, people will be asking you how it's done. Always remember, dancing is fun. If it ever becomes something else, it's time to take a break. Enjoy yourselves and the music.

Let's recap:

1) Work on your rhythm. Tap out the beat whenever you are listening to music.
2) Learn the basic step. This can be broken down to a left foot, right foot, left then right foot.
3) Add the music to the step. Count to six instead of to four so that you'll have equal time for your left, right, and rock steps.
4) Don't get discouraged! This takes a little bit of practice.
5) Practice with a partner. Work on the arm swing.
6) Add some new tricks. The best way to learn is to ask other dancers.
7) Have fun!