Partner dancing is all about muscle memory. Whatever you do the most is what your body will automatically do when you stop thinking about it. There are so many simultaneous things going on in our bodies and minds while partner dancing, that it is impossible to consciously be directing every one of them. This is why practicing is so important. Practicing, for the most part, is simply repeating the one thing you want to do- exactly the way you want to do it -until it sticks.
Here are some guidelines for the best kind of practice for partner dancing:
If you can't remember exactly how a move is supposed to go...don't practice it! In the beginning it's common to forget steps between lessons. If you find you've forgotten a move, it's probably best to postpone that element of your practice until your next lesson, to check in with your teacher. Mistakes stick too! So, part of good practicing is to only add to your muscle memory what you know to be correct.
(Generally, if you and your partner disagree on how a move is supposed to go, it's best to not practice it. Your odds are better for getting good practice in if you stick with moves that you both remember clearly.)
Most dancers practice their footwork without their partner until they've gotten the steps down. If you've sorted out your legs and feet and developed a bit of muscle memory, then it will be much easier to keep track of what your arms are supposed to be doing when you are connected to your partner. Leaders can also practice their arm-work alone by keeping their arms in frame position and pretending they are dancing with an invisible partner.
Go as slowly as you need to go to get it right every time. If you continually fall apart at the same place in the pattern, see how slowly you need to go to get that part right and then slow the whole move down to that slower speed. Practicing the speed of the music is unnecessary and not always productive. You can build muscle memory at any speed, and once you've got it, you will find it much easier to meet the speed of the music. The less you have to think about what you're doing, the faster you will go. So make it automatic first, and the speed will take care of itself.
Remember: Speed is not timing. The speed of what you are practicing can vary, but the timing must remain the same for it to become ingrained correctly. Stick with the correct count of the beats or 'slows and quicks'.
Since the key to good practice is to set the stage for you to get it right each time, it's best not to try to do everything at once. Only add as many elements as you can while still keeping things together. For instance, let's say and your partner are dancing and you feel like you have a good connection, your feet are in the right places, and you are keeping a relatively good rhythm. Everything is going swimmingly, so you decide to turn on the music....and it all falls apart! Sometimes adding in one more thing is too mentally distracting for us to be able focus on all the elements at once. So, in this example, eliminating music from the mix will take you back to a place where you could continue with your previous "correct" practice.
So, here are some examples of elements you might pair while practicing:
In the beginning, practice is a bit different then It will be later on. You aren't going to have a whole lot of dance moves to practice, so setting aside a big chunk of time for dance practice is probably unnecessary. Your goal is to think about your dancing frequently enough so that you remember what you've learned when you go in for your next lesson. A few minutes a day of thoughtful repetition and focus is the best.
Plus, human nature tells us that the more daunting we make the task, the more likely we are to put it off. So, commit to 5 or 10 minutes to start, and be happy with that. (You will be amazed at the improvement you will see in your dancing with even that little amount of practice.)