1. Listen to the rhythm. With most music that people dance to on a casual basis, you can pick up the beat by counting to four repeatedly (one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…). Do this out loud. Sometimes it’s very slow, sometimes it’s very fast, but the elements of the song usually repeat or change every time you start the count again. Practice listening to the music on the radio or, if possible, the music you’ll probably dance to. If the rhythm doesn’t fit, you may find yourself counting to three rather than four, but unless you’re dancing the waltz, it’s probably actually four counts with the last one silent (one, two, three, [pause], one, two, three, [pause]). Sometimes you’ll be tempted to listen to the drums, which in some kinds of music (such as salsa) will sound off in groups of three. Try to listen beyond this and find the count of four. If you can’t, go to another song.
2. Bob your head to the rhythm. If the beat is on the slower side, you can bob your head so that your chin is down at every count. If the beat is faster, your chin will be down on two of the counts and up on the other two. Do this gently, this isn’t headbanging. The idea is to start getting a part of your body physically moving with the rhythm. As your movements get more complicated, you might “lose” the rhythm, and you should always return to this step if that happens.
3. Shift your weight between your feet. You can continue bobbing your head, if it helps, but don’t stop counting yet. Shift all of your weight to one foot (you can lift the other foot slightly off the ground to make sure all your weight is off of it). At every other count (preferably 1 and 3) shift your weight completely to the other foot. You can also shift your weight at every single count, but starting out slow will help you get comfortable before you start dancing fast. Keep your legs “loose” and bend your knees slightly; there should be just a little bit of “bounce” to your weight shift, and a subtle bounce (in place) on the counts when you aren’t shifting your weight as well.
4. Move your feet. Once you’re shifting your weight to the rhythm, practice moving your feet. Right before you shift your weight to a foot, move it slightly, even just an inch or two from where it was before. When you dance with someone else, you’ll need to be more careful to move around in a way that accommodates your partner without stepping on them; but for now, just make very small movements. Keep the music on, keep counting, keep moving a little bit with each time you shift your weight (at every other count). When you move your foot, keep it close to the ground. You can kick your feet up in the air later, when you’re letting loose.
5. Move your hips. When you put your weight on a foot, move your hips (and your body) slightly in the direction of that foot. If you shift your weight onto your right foot, for example, move your hips to the right. You can twist your body slightly to add a little more movement: when you move to the right, put your right shoulder forward a little and left shoulder back, and vice versa for when you move to the left. Note that this range of movement (hip movement, twisting, swiveling) is usually exaggerated by women to emphasize the female form.
6. Throw your hands in the air. This is the part that indicates to people that you’re having fun. If you’re uncomfortable, the tendency is to keep your arms close, or let them hang limp. Instead, move your arms around. Keep your hands open or in very loose fists, but never stiff (unless you’re doing the robot). You can put your arms in the air for 8 or 12 counts, then hold them straight out in front of you for 8 or 12 counts, then at 90 degree angles at your sides (like when you’re running) for another 8 or 12 counts. Keep switching it up. If you’re dancing with someone, you can put your hands on their shoulders, waist, or hips.
7. Lose yourself in the music. Let your body move naturally to the rhythm. You want it to look smooth rather than jerky and stiff. As you relax and get into the music, you might find your feet moving a little further, your head swinging a little wider, and an involuntary clap shining through. And sometimes, you’ll lose the rhythm (especially when songs slow down right in the middle)–just go back to step one.
8. Practice dancing whenever you have the chance. Build your confidence by dancing in the kitchen, in the bedroom—anywhere you feel comfortable. Not only will this help to improve your general fitness, but you’ll start to feel more comfortable in your body. Watch yourself in a mirror to get an idea of what looks good and what doesn’t.