When I started dancing, my goal was “to become an awesome social dancer”. This is still my goal, by the way, but, admittedly, this is not a very specific goal and the word awesome is subjective. So let me elaborate on what that means for me. Really, I’ve always wanted to be able to social dance with anybody to any type of music. Since I’ve started started dancing, I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I’ve learned about dancing technique. I’ve learned about music. I’ve learned about my body and how it moves. I’ve learned about myself. I’ve developed a new passion in my life. In dancing, I’ve found a discipline through which I can grow as a person in just about every conceivable way. Since I’ve been dancing, I’ve also monitored my own progress, thoughts and feelings, and the progress, thoughts and feelings of other dancers.
This is not an article about levels, since I don’t believe much in levels. This article is about how advancing (progressing) in dance can sometimes lead to outcomes you might not expect. What I’ve observed is that, as some dancers progress, they discover more joy, purpose, self-expression and fulfilment through their dancing. However, as other dancers progress, they experience more frustration, loss of focus, restriction, and dissatisfaction in their dancing. This seems counter-intuitive when you think about it. Shouldn’t progress correlate to more satisfaction as a dancer? This answer seems to be, “not necessarily”. I’ve recently been thinking about about why this is the case, and I’d like the share some ideas with you.
If you notice that, despite your increased progress as a dancer, you are experiencing a decrease in satisfaction, here are some things that might be happening.
Your technique has become a barrier rather than an enabler
So you’ve spent countless hours and dollars on group classes, private classes, workshops, congresses, and social dancing. You work on your footwork and body movement in your own time. Now when you go out dancing, you spend a lot of time standing around waiting for a “good dance”. You might even have left a social dance party early thinking to yourself, “there are no good leads/follows here”, or “everybody is off-time”, despite the fact that it was a full house, bursting with more than a hundred other dancers.
Sorry to say, but you’ve allowed your technique to become a barrier to your dancing, rather than an enabler. That is, rather than approach a dance as though you are now able to dance with anyone at a similar level of technique as you or below, you have convinced yourself that you can only dance with people whose technique matches or exceeds your own. If you’re only “dancing up”, then you’re really limiting your dancing options. I’m not saying that this is right or wrong. You can dance with whomever you wish. However, realize that you have a made, a choice, conscious or not, to perceive your dancing in this way. As you progress technically as a dancer, your technical ability to compensate for other dancers grows as well. As a contrived example, if you don’t know how to dance on time, you’re stuck with dancing off time, or occasionally dancing on-time out of sheer luck (the old, “even a broken clock is right twice a day” adage). However, if you know how to dance on-time, then you have the option to choose to dance on-time or off-time. You have more choices and possibilities available to you.
If you are willing to “dance down”, which might require you to compensate technically during your dances, then you vastly increase both your dancing options. and your enjoyment of those dances. Note, that I said willing, not begrudging. If you still feel like you’re tolerating your dance partner’s inferior technique, then this attitude probably won’t result in much joyful dancing for you. However, if you willingly compromise on technique for other aspects of the dance, such as musicality, self-expression and connection, then you will probably find your enjoyment increasing.
Your appreciation of music has become exclusive rather than inclusive
You’ve been dancing for years and listening to many different types and styles of music. You have some artists that you idolize and some that you wouldn’t be caught dead with on your iPod. You spend a lot of time waiting around at dance parties for a particularly song, or style. You pester the DJ to play faster/slower, or more/less (insert style here). You regularly despair that there are “never any good DJs” at such-and-such event.
Sorry to tell you this, but your taste in music has become exclusive rather than inclusive. That is, rather than tap into the “vibe” of the dance party, you’ve told yourself that you can’t be enjoy a dance unless the DJ is playing exclusively your preferred niche sub-genre of music. Once again, I’m not saying this is right or wrong. You have preferences for and against different types of music. However, realize that you’ve made a choice that your enjoyment is tied to your musical preference. The same thing goes for different sub-styles of dance. You might have a preference for on-1, on-2, linear, circular, and that is fine. You might tell yourself “I can’t dance on-1 to this song, it just feels ‘wrong’ to me”. That’s fine. That’s your preference. However, realize that you’ve made a choice to attach your enjoyment of the dance to a stylistic preference. That’s your choice, not necessarily the truth.
I read a Facebook discussion recently, and one particular teacher was saying that most dancers are dancing a particular style incorrectly, because the music emphasizes certain beats, but most dancers are not emphasizing those beats when they step. To emphasize her point, she said something like, “a waltz is a waltz and a merengue is a merengue, and they should be danced as such.” I’m not going to argue for or against this point of view, but I’ll ask you the same question that I asked her, “if it’s your wedding day, and your husband asks you for the first dance of the night, and it’s a traditional wedding waltz, and you know your husband can’t waltz (a lot of men can’t), do you refuse to dance with him?” There’s no right or wrong answer. Just something to think about.
You still haven’t owned your sh*t
This is where things start to get a little more interesting. Have you ever noticed that there are dancers who have both flawless technique, and an incredible grasp and ability to express music, but, when you dance with them, or you watch them perform, you are left feeling unmoved? It’s as though something is missing, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
At some point, if a dancer continues grow, dancing changes from being a passion into being a discipline. With any discipline, including dancing, once you have mastered the fundamentals, the biggest challenges become personal challenges. When a dancer has evolved their technique to the point that their body is capable of expressing their thoughts, feelings and emotions, and also evolved their understanding and ability to express music to a high level of sophistication, all that is left is the dancer. That is, adopting a discipline forces us to confront ourselves and learn about ourselves.
Finding out about ourselves can be a brutal experience. Many of us have been hurt in the past. Many of us are walking around feeling afraid, bitter, lonely, insecure, unloved, angry, and so on. The further you progress as a dancer, in terms of technique, the more obvious your inner emotions and struggles become. They might not have become obvious to you yet, because you’re stuck in some form of denial, but they are usually quite obvious to external observers. It does not matter how great you are technically, if you lack self confidence generally, then your dancing will lack self confidence. If you are constantly angry, you’ll dance in anger. If you are always afraid, you’ll dance in fear. People will be able to see, sense and feel these emotions in your dancing.
I like to think that their are 3 primary emotions: joy, sadness, and fear. All other emotions can really be thought of as sub-emotions, or secondary to these. For example, anger is really a secondary emotion that is rooted in fear. I don’t like to label emotions as good or bad, positive or negative. Emotions simply are what they are. They are your primal response to some sort of stimulus, as well as your belief system. These emotions give rise to feelings such as happiness, bitterness, worry or depression. Problems arise when their is a lack of balance between these emotions. It is not healthy to always be happy, worried, or depressed. Likewise, it is not healthy to never be happy, worried, or depressed. The discipline of dance can be used as a tool to create awareness of your own emotions and feelings. Then, perhaps, this awareness can be used to identify any underlying issues which are causing any imbalances.
When the dancer becomes aware of their issues, they have a fundamental choice:
- deny – keep dancing but refuse to confront their issues
- quit – really just another form of denial
- deal – confront their issues and deal with them
The third option is to deal with your issues. It’s about owning your shit. The dancer who lives in denial or quits, never grows as a human being. Denial stifles our emotions, and our dance will be stifled as a result of this. It’s a lot easier said then done, but owning your sh*t is vital in order to grow as both a dancer and a human being. It doesn’t mean you have to “fix” yourself. It doesn’t mean you can’t be angry, sad or afraid. Nobody is perfect, but we can strive to achieve emotional balance. As long as you are aware of your emotions, and authentic about your emotions, and you make yourself vulnerable, then other human beings will be able to connect with what you are feeling. However, if you deny and stifle your emotions, you’ll likely always have problems connecting with others, both on and off the dance floor.
I’m not writing this article as some sort of authority on dancing or self-development. This is something I’ve become aware of only quite recently, and it’s something that I’m currently grappling with and trying to put into practice. I recognize the struggle as difficult, but something that is absolutely vital to the human condition, in my opinion, but I only became aware of this through dancing. This is something for which I’m very grateful. So I thought I would share this, in the hope it resonates with some other people.
See you on the dance floor…