Saturday, November 15, 2008

Line Dancing 101

My "How to Line Dance" Guide

I love all forms of C&W (Country & Western) dancing. When I lived in Texas, I learned the major couples dances: two-step, polka, waltz, and jitterbug (a fast form of East Coast Swing).

But after I moved to the East Coast I quickly realized that if I was going to enjoy myself I would also need to learn line dances, because the venues were a lot smaller and on some songs there wasn't really room to do anything else.

Since I didn't have any ethical or legal objections to line dancing (unlike others I know from Texas ☺) I've since learned -- or more likely, forgotten -- something like 200 line dances.

Here's a quick line dancing primer:

The Fundamentals
Since you don't need a partner for line dancing (ignoring circle dances for now), it removes the complication of having to learn how to lead and follow. So line dancing largely consists of memorizing a sequence of steps in a pattern that typically repeats after something like 32 or more counts (beats).

The patterns often end facing a different direction ("wall"), so the number of times when the dance starts facing a new direction makes it a 1-wall, 2-wall, or 4-wall dance. A dance that rotates 90 degrees each time would eventually face all four walls of a room.

It helps to view the line dance as made up of little blocks that are reused from one dance to another, and many of these blocks will be familiar if you've ever taken aerobics. For example, instead of having to remember a four-step sequence to the right:

step with right foot to the side
step left foot behind right
step right foot to the side
touch or hitch left foot next to right would simply remember this as a "grapevine right." (And there's a corresponding "grapevine left" that simply reverses direction.)

Most line dances (and the building blocks that make them up) change every four or eight counts. That's because that's where the music breaks for most country (and rock) songs, which are typically in 2/4 or 4/4 time. In musical terms that means the measures or bars are typically two or four beats long. From the Connexions web site:

In practical terms what you'll notice is that for many songs the music seems to change every eight beats, which is why you'll hear instructors start a dance by counting out, "five-six-seven-eight." By starting the dance where the music breaks naturally, the dance will feel like it's in sync with the song.

Step Sheets
When trying to learn line dances, step sheets are very helpful. As the name implies these are step-by-step instructions for line dances, usually with one step per count (beat). Fortunately, what was probably the most complete collection of line dance step sheets on the web, Patti Brown's Dancing Deep in the Heart of Texas, now seems to be back up, and KickIt seems to still be live.

The Beats
Tempo, or beats per minute (bpm), is pretty important in any kind of dancing. It's the number of beats per minute that usually dictates which dance to do to a given song. If the song is too slow or too fast it won't be fun, either because it's hard to keep up with the music or it feels like it's dragging.

This is fairly subjective and generally more important for couples dancing. I dance at Cancun Cantina, where line dances mostly range between 100-140 bpm, but this varies a lot from club to club. As a point of reference, here are some typical tempos for couples dancing:

70-100 bpm: Slow dancing (or if counted double-time, a Two-Step)
100-140 bpm: West Coast Swing
135-210 bpm: Two-Step (a comfortable range is about 160-170 bpm, but some of the most fun ones are faster, around 180-210 bpm)
135-200 bpm: East Coast Swing (faster ones are more of a jitterbug)
180-240 bpm: Polka

On the Dance Floor
Then there's the matter of floor etiquette. For everyone to dance on the same floor and have an enjoyable time, it helps to understand some conventions, especially in the Eastern US where floors are smaller and also shared between couples and line dancers.

A C&W dance floor is kind of like a race track or highway, with couples dancers moving in a counter-clockwise circle. If the floor is big enough, there will be concentric "lanes," with the fast lane on the outside and slower dancers in toward the center. So line dancers should try to stay in the center, as should more stationary couples dancers such as swing or ballroom.

When you run into someone on the floor during a dance -- as you inevitably will -- just smile and apologize.

Some Line Dances
So now that you're ready to get out on the dance floor, here are some dances to try. I don't know why, by the way, some of the dances have suggestive names. They're typically not nearly as salacious as the names might imply and it creates a dilemma if you're trying to teach them to kids.

Easy Beginner Dances:

Classics (performed coast to coast):

Beginner Dances (DC-MD-VA area):

Beginner/Intermediate Dances (DC-MD-VA area):

Advanced Dances (typically club specific):



  1. Great primer! Thanks for the tips. (-:

  2. Nice reminder of My Cancun Cantina Dancin Days ! No good dancing here in Denver. They do the same dance to almost every song ! Wish mary ellen and Herb would move to colorado and teach !

  3. Great read! Thanks for the listing of dances as well. I'm surprised at how many listed I don't know.... yet.


  5. I'm trying to bring as much of Cancun Cantina to Albuquerque as I can, and your blog has made it much easier for me to find favorite but poorly remembered dances - especially CC's version of Red High Heels. Also, the rest of your articles give me a taste of home, and keep me from becoming too homesick. Thanks so much!

  6. I'm going through Cantina withrawl!!! I'm now in NC and Coyote Joe's is just too far to drive and they have really limited hours, although an AWESOME dance club. Thanks for listing these!