It sounds almost too good to be true: There's a way to build grace and self-confidence, get a great workout, tastefully broadcast your charm and sex appeal, and have plenty of fun at the same time.
You don't have to invest in a lot of new gear, and instructors aren't too difficult to find. It's called dancing.
TV shows like "Dancing with Stars" and movies like Strictly Ballroom have no doubt inspired some curious wallflowers.
And upcoming social events -- those holiday parties aren't too far away -- can also be strong motivation to pick up some show-off moves.
The First Steps
Can't decide which dance style is right for you? The music you listen to is a good place to start.
Nondancers who find themselves moving their, uh, shoulders to Latin music, tapping their toes to swing, or chair dancing to a disco beat should follow their bliss to salsa, jitterbug or hustle classes.
"If you don't enjoy the music, you won't enjoy the dance," says L.A.-based
Laura Canellias, 52, who has been teaching ballroom and salsa dancing for more than 20 years.
Group classes in these types and other specialties are offered at dance studios, community colleges and continuing-education programs across the country -- even at some gyms and fitness clubs.
Private lessons and how-to videos are other instruction options, although these can't quite measure up to the energy of a real dance floor.
Violinist Susie Hansen, leader of the L.A.-based
Susie Hansen Latin Band, says many southern California nightclubs with dance floors offer free group lessons early in the evening.
"Latin music is such great dance music," Hansen explains. "Many of our dancers are accomplished
(salsa dancers), and are great at dancing merengue, cha-cha and cumbia, too. Dancers who aren't as accomplished just get up and dance rock 'n' roll style."
New York City bandleader
Kit McClure, 55, spends far more time onstage playing saxophone and watching people groove to the sounds than practicing her own footwork.
But she likes to check out the other side of the fun at the
Copacabana in Manhattan, where the cover charge for early birds includes dinner and group dance lessons.
Although the lesson entails a big crowd and just one teacher, "I felt like I learned something," McClure says. "Afterward you can try it out on the dance floor with people who know what they're doing. When they know how to lead, you don't even notice they're showing you what to do."
Join the Party
Instructors often recommend group classes for beginners.
Jacqueline Bouet, owner of
The Loft dance and fitness studio in Yonkers, N.Y., says groups are more fun and less intimidating than private lessons.
"You see other people in the same position that you're in," Bouet points out. "The class is stress-releasing. Life is hard out there: your workload, politics, there's so much going on. A dance class is about release, letting go, having fun."
Studios set up groups so that all dancers are at the same level.
You don't need to BYOP (bring your own partner), and even if you do, you'll often be encouraged to dance with others -- a variety of partners presents a greater challenge than always dancing with the same person.
Group members can learn from one another and build a broader mix of footwork skills. Plus, the group can be good for morale, as fledgling dancers encourage one another and take note of each other's progress.
Signing up for weekly lessons ensures that there won't be too much time in between sessions to forget what you've learned. And you'll be more motivated to attend class once you've anted up for classes.
Pas de Deux
Some people don't learn as well in a group setting, though, and may pick up the steps faster if they have an instructor to themselves.
In that case, private lessons may be the way to go, at least while getting comfortable with the basics.
But private lessons can have drawbacks. "The teachers are so good that the students can feel more unskilled in comparison," says Danielle Jolie, 34, a Westchester County, N.Y., instructor who has danced in Broadway shows and with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
However, it can be helpful to take a couple of private lessons after some group experience, to allow more focused instruction on anything you're having trouble with.
"You can tell your teacher where you're having problems," Canellias points out. "If you're having trouble with turns or with leading, you can focus on that in a private lesson and get more bang for the buck."
Those instructional recordings can be used for between-lesson practice sessions and are also a good starting point for those too shy to try their first steps in public. "If you're too embarrassed to be in a crowd, get a DVD and work on it in your living room till you're ready to be around people," says Jolie.
However, unlike studios, most living rooms don't have mirrors in which to check your technique and judge how you're doing. And since there are no teachers on hand to give pointers, it's possible to pick up bad habits that will have to be unlearned.
The quality of instruction on DVDs and videos varies widely. "If you're not familiar with the teacher, picking up a DVD can be a crapshoot," says Canellias, who recommends DVDs by salsa dancers
Josie Neglia or
For those eager to jumpstart their dance skills, say, in preparation for a wedding or other event, a weekly combination of private and group lessons, as well as dance club sessions, delivers big results. "If you dance three or four times a week, you're going to be doing great after three or four months," Canellias explains. "You don't learn overnight. The more you put into it, the more you learn, just like golf."
The Bottom Line
Even if you're not totally satisfied with your technique, don't let a lack of expertise keep you off the floor. Get up -- freestyle if you want -- groove to the music and have a good time. "It's all about fun, listening to music you enjoy, moving to it," says Jolie. "It's fantastic exercise -- you're getting a workout without even realizing you're working."
Though very few people have ever matched the skill of legendary film hoofers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the kids in the documentary
Mad Hot Ballroom
showed that practice can make close enough to perfect.
So maybe it's time for you to dust off those dancing shoes and join the fun.
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Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in The New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.