It is usually the case that you learn a move, in a group class or a private instructor, your current partner will know exactly what you need to do and they will help you out by backleading. Leaving the class, you will feel very good about knowing that cool combination. Then, Friday night comes… and you get ready for the club, practice it a couple more times in your own apartment/house and you walk out the door…. feeling good about it. That's when you get to the club… and what happens? You end up doing the pattern, but for some reason you fail or don't do it right. And of course, you question your dance ability (and ego)…You did it well at the lesson? You had it in your head and you even practiced it a couple of minutes ago… so what happened?
It's the fact that when you are doing the pattern in a closed environment (lesson or by yourself), you have the ability to fully focus on the pattern – either combo or footwork. At the club however, you have more variables that affect your dance. The speed of the song will affect the speed of the pattern. The friction on the floor affects the grip on your shoes. The response time of your partner affects the ability to follow. Examples: The dance floor – depending on how slippery or sticky it is it will affect how fast you can lift/move your feet in the slotted area. Your partner – depending on her ability to follow, move, flexibility and size – will affect how big/small steps you take when performing the combination.
There are numerous distractions at the club that can cause you not to focus. Why is it again? It goes back to muscle memory. At the very beginning on implementing a pattern into your regular social dance 'set', you are giving the process of executing that move a lot of focus. In reality – its your entire focus. As you slowly keep practicing the pattern, you add music, add different followers, different shoes..etc. You keep practicing the same combination until you do not have to give it as much focus as in the start. This way, when you perform the combination at the club, you can concentrate on all the other factors that affect your dance and compensate for those on the fly because you only require to give very little focus on that combination. How much focus/attention do you give yourself when leading a lady's right turn? It should probably be automatic if you are intermediate. How about a cross-body lead? Because you do not have to think about those moves anymore, you can use that 'brain' time or computing power in making the minor adjustments needed for different terrains, partners and song speeds.
The only way to get better is to do them, over and over again. Its a simple law of economics. The use of brain power in doing the pattern a first time is very high. However, as you keep performing the pattern, the amount of brain power (focus) used is slowly reduced, and of course you become more efficient (smoother) at performing it. The more we force ourselves to do that pattern, the easier it becomes. Note, the law of diminishing returns does not apply because once you have two or more pattern down, you can add more styling. Next, you can then put two patterns one right after the other with even more weird/fun styling.
So, next time you are at the club and feel frustrated with a move that you like but can't pull it off – remember, give it some more time, sooner or later it will come to you and something in your head will 'click'. And when you can do that move smoothly and perfectly with all the distractions at the club – you know you have it down!