It's been quite a while that I've been learning to dance. I'm not anywhere near done, although these days I'm learning mostly from the floor, the mirror, and my partners... but for anyone aspiring to be a good dancer, being a good student of dance is essential. It's always your choice whether to learn or stagnate, whether to become a better dancer or be OK with a plateau. I'm also a believer that so long as you're motivated to improve, there's no such thing as reaching a natural limit on how good you can get... some people learn more or less quickly, but we all continue to improve and eventually break through to new levels of skill.
The most important skill to have when you dance, in my opinion, is the Reset Button. This is a big red button that's wired directly to your dance ego. A few examples from my own dancing experience:
-I took a number of group classes when I was first learning. I was beginning to feel like I'd gotten the idea of dancing, and a teacher had even suggested that we take the time to work on a choreography. He invited me to take a private lesson with him for a reduced rate... when we got there, my head was full of the complex moves and ideas I'd seen on the dance floor, that I wanted to add to my repertoire. He had us dance a bit to see where we were at... and the first thirty minutes of my private instruction began with "let's work on triple steps for a bit."
Stop. Please reinstall ego and reboot.
-I was invited to substitute as a teacher at Cat's Corner... totally exciting! I'd made noises about learning to teach, had audited classes as a teaching assistant, and figured I'd mastered the movements we were supposed to be doing. It was a Swing 1 class... and, while demonstrating a pretty basic move, I misjudged my footing and lost my balance. Didn't quite fall on my ass, but demonstrated that even the moves we were teaching in Swing 1 had some tricky nuances.
Yech. That pride's been in the fridge too long. Good thing it's garbage day.
-The first time I saw a video of my dancing.
-Every competition I've ever entered. I tend to get nervous, worry about whether I'm placed appropriately to impress the judges, and sometimes neglect my partner because I'm thinking so intensely about looking like I'm taking care of my partner. I try things I don't know how to do, because I figure the things I do know how to do are boring - after all, I've seen them a hundred times before - and this leads to awkwardness. Basically, I become a pretty lame dancer when I'm in front of a crowd of my peers.
That feeling? That's how the evil queen in Snow White felt right before she told her magic mirror to go play in a diamond mine.
-The days when I dance with an unfamiliar partner and it doesn't go well, only to watch them dance the next song with someone else and it just looks completely epic.
Yeah, it's actually pretty clearly not you, it's me.
-And finally, the day when one of your students pulls off a move you spent weeks figuring out on the second try, before you've had a chance to explain the insights you felt you got from hours of reflection and figuring out.
We're none of us gods. Remember putting your pants on this morning? One leg at a time, right?
The fact is, it's easy to get carried away as a dancer. When we dance, any non-dancer who sees us is going to be awestruck. I remember how impressed I was with Swing Kids when I first saw it... and now I look at it and try to pick out actual dance steps, especially those danced by Robert Sean Leonard. Fact is there aren't many. A bunch of actors took a couple of lessons and then went back to working on their lines and such... but the fact is that nobody noticed because most people aren't looking with a technical eye!
Getting caught up in yourself can lead to some painful experiences. The most pervasive one comes when we try to insert ourselves into the perceived hierarchy of dance: maybe we want to join a troupe, or teach, or go to a camp in the advanced track. Maybe we just want to perform. I'm going to link to a video now, please don't watch it while eating or after a meal. Once it starts, put your cursor over the pause button. You might need someone to hug afterwards too. Here it is.
What often happens, if we're around kind people when we push beyond our reach, is that we get blocked. Organizers of classes, troupes or events are trying to base placements on overall skill level, in a fair and impartial way, and our self-perception doesn't factor into that. Some kindly person will take our hand and guide us to where we'll get the most out of our event experience, or invite us to take some private lessons to hone whatever's holding us back, or just be clear that we're not yet at the right level for whatever we think we should be doing.
I know it can feel like you're being gently escorted to the back of the class and handed some safety scissors, glue sticks and glitter. Sometimes even the reassuring comments on our strengths and progress sound like pats on the head. Still, the best response to this kind of happening is to hit the reset button. If your dancing isn't perfect, you aren't entitled to anything... and your dancing isn't perfect. Unless you're Frida Segerdahl. Hi Frida!
The worst reaction (apart from quitting dancing) is to throw a tantrum. Whether it's a sulk, tears, comments about the level of the people you've been grouped in with... that kind of negative energy is insulting to the decision makers, and to everyone they've suggested you work with. "OMG they put me in intermediate, I'm an advanced dancer and they put me with the intermediates, I'm not going to learn anything this trip and it sucks!" is childish. Having said that, I've done it. I think we all have. I just don't think it's the right thing to do.
What should we do in order to maintain the reset button?
-Dance with all levels of dancers. Honestly, if you can't dance with a beginner and have a good time, you're not very good. If you think they're getting you into bad habits, you need to develop some good habits on your own time. This isn't to say that you should dance exclusively with people you see as below your level, just that there's no real skill in dancing with the best partner around all the time.
-Use the mirror or, better yet, video. You need to see what you're doing right and wrong, and a lot of mistakes are the things we don't feel because we're concentrating on another body part or on what's happening next. When you watch yourself, compare yourself to a dancer you respect, not to yourself six months ago.
-Talk to teachers. Get direct feedback on your strengths and weaknesses in their eyes. You can take it with a grain of salt, but anything that comes back more than once probably has some truth to it. Don't ask them if you're good, you don't want pity-approval.
-If you feel you're not being recognized for your talents, ask yourself what might be obscuring that. If you have great connection but poor movement, or good rhythm but awful posture, you're probably going to rate lower than someone who's doing reasonably well in all dimensions of their dance. I personally don't rate my dance that highly because while I'm creative and connected, my movements tend to be sloppy and it makes my dance kind of ugly looking. There was a year where I boosted myself into a much higher level at a camp because my initial placement was based on a video... once I actually danced with an instructor they moved me up pretty quickly because my Lindy Hop is much prettier on the inside. Until I fix the look of my dance, I won't really feel like I'm an advanced dancer and I probably won't be taking home any medals in Lindy.
-Don't marry your self-worth to dancing, or anything else. If you're dependent on being a good dancer for feeling worthy of respect, that's not a good thing. I once heard a dancer talk about moving to a smaller scene in order to be a bigger fish. I don't think that's healthy at all.
The best dancer you can be is one who's OK with falling on his or her ass from time to time, who's as excited about finding stuff to change as about being awesome, and who is always interested to hear what might be the next step in his or her growth. Humility and comfort: be OK with where you are because you're THERE, like it or not; but also be ready to learn and aware that there's an immense amount of work to do.
Get out there and go for it, and don't let that reset button get rusty!