In March 2009, MSN Health published a slideshow titled "Dance Like the Stars - Don't Get Hurt Like Them," by Jacqueline Stenson. The article included tips under the headings Realize the Risks; Warm Up First; Progress Gradually; Sport Smart Shoes; Focus; Do Some Footwork Beyond the Dance Floor; and Stretch Afterward.
These were all good tips for anyone who is just starting out in ballroom dancing, or is thinking about starting. I'm going to expand on the article a little bit from my perspective as an experienced dancer.
First, everyone looking at DWTS and thinking, sheesh, these people are getting wrecked!, needs to remember that the contestants are dancing as complete beginners to the sport AND are dancing many hours a week - sometimes many hours a day. The past couple of seasons, we have not really seen any contestants get called out for not putting in the practice time. Coincidentally, we have seen a spate of injuries.
But bear in mind: the professionals on DWTS typically are not the ones getting injured. That's because their bodies are trained for what they are doing. Ultimately, safety in dancing - as in any other sport - depends on preparation and practice.
Most beginning students will attend one, maybe two group classes per week, totaling up to three hours. They might attend a studio party every other week or so, where they will dance for maybe another two to three hours. True fanatics may dance more than this; anyone who does, should work with a personal trainer to develop good flexibility and body mechanics, as well as to learn how to relieve the stresses that might be caused by overwork.
Warming up first is definitely required. At the very least, if you have not been active in the 2-3 hours preceding your lesson, walk around the block before going in to the studio. Then do a couple of gentle bend-and-stretch maneuvers. You will need to gradually, over time, increase your flexibility in order to achieve beautiful movement. Note that about 40% of total flexibility derives from your muscles, meaning you can improve it!
Students who attend group classes in a studio environment will be invited to progress (or advised not to) by their teacher. Very few instructors will hold back a student who wants to advance quickly; conversely, very few instructors will allow students to attempt moves that are clearly beyond their proficiency. Two exceptions to this can be risky.
Ladies often want to do "drops," where the man holds the lady by the waist and the lady takes her upper body back while taking her weight on one leg, extending the other leg to create a "picture line." Ladies need to do exercises to strengthen their legs and abs in order to do drops safely. The man is not holding the lady up. So girls, work out.
The second very risky area comes when beginners try Viennese waltz. I have witnessed a couple of scary falls during Viennese waltzes that happened because the partners were unable to keep their balance during the continuous, rapid turns of the dance. General rule: if you cannot correctly execute a figure dancing alone, you should not attempt it with a partner.
When it comes to dance shoes, most beginners can get by with dress shoes. Ladies should choose a shoe with an ankle strap, attached at the instep, and a heel not over 2 inches. Preferably, the heel is centered under the ankle and not out at the very back edge of the shoe. That's because your weight needs to go down through the heel to the floor when you are standing still. If the heel is not centered under your leg bones, your weight is going into midair, or else is being canted completely forward onto the ball of your foot. It's always a bad idea to wear platform shoes, shoes with very pointed toes, or mules (of any heel height) for dancing. Ideally, invest in a pair of proper ballroom shoes.
Ballroom shoes for ladies (also salsa and tango shoes) are specially constructed to have the features described above. Additionally, ballroom and salsa shoes (for men and women) have a soft, suede sole which allows friction on the floor for better control, and a metal shank under the instep for added support. The soles are thin so that you can feel and grip the floor with your foot.
Focus is something that everyone needs to do! Mindfulness can make every activity more interesting and more fulfilling - and with regard to dancing, can result in achieving proficiency faster. Group classes can be very social, but when your instructor is speaking, you should be quiet and listen.
If an instructor describes an error or problem in general terms, always assume that *you* have made that error, and consciously try to create the correct movement that the instructor demonstrates. Look at your feet or body if you have to, but try to feel the correct movement. Once you feel it and know it, your body will remember it, and you can rehearse mentally as well as physically.
Instructors will very rarely call out a student and say YOU are doing this wrong. Don't assume just because you are not receiving correction personally, that you are doing everything right. Dancing well requires mastering physical techniques that are foreign to most athletes, never mind most ordinary people - as we have seen on DWTS. Even if you are repeating a beginner class, listen with all your senses. There is always something new to learn, and learning proper technique is essential to preventing injury - and achieving grace.
Footwork beyond the dance floor - another way of saying, train for this. Dancing well requires strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and agility - all of the attributes of any successful athlete. It is not likely to be achieved if attending a group class is all the training you do for your dancing.
Be mindful, when you exercise or when you are just walking down the street, that you are a dancer. Use your body as if you are a dancer, think of yourself as a dancer, and you will begin to move like a dancer.