So you think you can dance? You’re right! The only question is: Where to start?
“Good dance training has a meditative quality,” regardless of which style you try, says classically trained ballet dancer and instructor Elizabeth Ann West. “They can all be playful; they can all be dramatic; they can all be powerful. That's the best thing about dance — it can communicate so many emotions. You might find a facet of your personality you didn't even know about.”
Read on for an overview of some of the most popular dance disciplines. Then pick your passion and see how far you can take it (or it takes you!).
What it’s all about: Ballet is the mother sauce of the dance world, the discipline from which all the other Western variations derive. What started as a form of entertainment for the royal court in 15th-century Italy was later co-opted and fine-tuned by France and Russia. Thank choreographer George Balanchine and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov for bringing the art form stateside acclaim. Anyone who’s ever seen The Nutcracker or Swan Lake has an inkling of the athleticism it takes to make so much leaping, prancing, and fancy footwork look effortless. Based on five main positions of the arms and feet, ballet has a precise yet romantic air about it. Poses call for balance, endurance, focus, flexibility, and a graceful agility, all resulting in enviably long, lean muscles.
Who it’s great for: If you’ve ever been called serious, studious, reserved, elegant, or poised, you could be a ballet natural. Do you thrive on structure, the pursuit of perfection, and knowing what’s expected of you? Ballet is sure to speak to your Type-A side. And ballet today is inclusive — no matter your age or figure, if you had prima ballerina dreams as a kid, get to the barre.
What it’s all about: Contemporary dance is ballet unleashed. It’s an expressive, evocative style of dance that takes the rules of ballet under advisement before going ahead and breaking them. As with modern art, contemporary dance — developed in the post-war 1950s — challenges conventional constructs and replaces them with more languid, unpredictable, syncopated motion. In performances, the plot of a contemporary piece is likely to be more abstract and emotional than story-driven. Contemporary dance visionaries like Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham codified contemporary dance into what we see now.
Who it’s great for: If you tend toward the emotional, the fiery, and the rebellious, then contemporary could be your jam. It’s experimental and less about nailing certain positions than conveying a mood. So if you’ve got an anti-authoritarian streak, love busting out The Elaine at weddings, or tutus make you want to puke, check it out.
What it’s all about: Jazz is a hip, cool cousin of classical dance. With African-American, urban roots going back to slave celebrations in the 18th-century South, it sets the improvisational, loose counts of jazz music into motion. It’s a rich, layered gumbo of vaudeville, burlesque, swing, and tap. Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins are synonymous with the style, bringing to the Great White Way jazz hands and shimmying; Michael Jackson’s moonwalk is considered jazz dance, too. Today, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is among the leading stewards of this form.
Who it’s great for: If you consider yourself always on the leading edge; if you could watch West Side Story and Footloose a thousand times; if you’ve ever imagined yourself starring in Chicago; then jazz is your bag. Grab your spats, then the spotlight.
What it’s all about: It takes two to tango. Also to foxtrot, waltz, and polka. Ballroom typically involves a duo — a leader and a follower — who keep their bodies connected in a firmly upright posture as they glide together across the floor. Similar to ballet, Ballroom began as a form of courtly entertainment for French royals, which explains the formality of the styles. As ballroom dancing became more popular with the masses (thanks, Arthur Murray and So You Think You Can Dance), competitions emerged to “safeguard” the genre. Today, ballroom is open to anyone who wants to put on a fun, fancy getup and cha cha the night away.
Who it’s great for: If you’re a quick study, cerebral, deliberate, have a little rhythm, and want to wow at the next wedding you attend, sign up for lessons. Overall mobility and flexibility are less of a consideration here, making ballroom a wonderfully accessible dance style. If you’ve got a partner who’s up to the challenge, too, all the more reason to give it a whirl.