I don’t think I chose dance as a portal for transformation, I think it chose me. I remember as a very young child, rolling around on the mats at TinyTot’s Dance Academy in my black leotard and baggy pink tights that wrinkled around my skinny ankles, and despite my exuberance and excitement, Miss Cathy insisting that I get in line with the others. Even then, the real lessons had begun.
As an adult, there have been times in my life when I didn’t dance, too busy or preoccupied with “responsibility.” But the need to dance continues to follow me around, like an uncertain puppy nipping at my heels, urging me to pay attention again, and I always do, eventually. One thing is certain with learning to dance—I hardly ever learn what I want to learn. Usually, the lesson offers a skill that is much more important.
When I wanted to learn how to do all the fancy and exciting moves I had seen others do, I was told to wait, to practice the basics. Learning the basics is difficult at first, not because the steps are difficult, but taking the necessary time to build a strong foundation is like holding back a race horse who wants to hit the track running. We all see dancers out there doing fantastic moves and we want to move that way too, but we never really see the years of hard work that go into making their moves look so amazing. Acquiring the diligence necessary to practice drills, to work on basics over and over, until they become muscle memory, is an integral part of attaining success at any endeavor, yet often times practice is the one step that many want to skip over. These dancers may find that their skill level plateaus at an unacceptable place and they will end up going back to rework the basics so they can move on and grow as a dancer. I know, because I was one of them.
I danced for a long time before I was really open to the kind of feedback that would make me a good dancer. I was so hung up on being good and I thought that kind of talent was either inherent or not. I wanted to think of myself as a good dancer and when I went to lessons, I didn’t want to hear that I sucked, or that I was doing things wrong, regardless of the fact that there were ways I could improve. I just wasn’t open to hearing any critique at all. I spent a few years doing it my way before I made the decision to listen. I don’t know what happened to change my mind, but I remember my first set of private lessons with a Latin coach and the feeling of devastation that dug at me when he reported all the ways he felt I needed to change. It was basic stuff and a challenge to go back to the beginning when I had been dancing for years. Focusing on essential technique was hard at first, painful even, but the more we worked together, the more I experienced results that I liked. Eventually, I became more open to not only hearing, but looking forward to the advice he gave me to make me a better dancer.
That is where willingness entered the picture. When I finally became excited to learn what I had to do to make myself a better dancer, I began asking anyone and everyone for advice. Slowly, I began to see that as dancers, we are all learning. Even the very best dancers—especially the best dancers—seek coaching and work hard to improve. I think back on those early days, about the embarrassment I felt with the learning process, and I have to laugh at the attitudes I had toward change. Today, I bring eagerness to the learning, because I figure the sooner I determine what I need to work on, the quicker I can get started making it better.
I must confess that I tend to be somewhat of a perfectionist. I want to be the best and I can’t help that. Once I grew to enjoy lessons for their real value, which is identifying correct movement, and changing or altering that which isn’t, I began to have some pretty high expectations of myself. It was common for me to get frustrated with the time it was taking to learn all I wanted to know. I was making myself crazy by expecting it all to happen overnight. I was probably making my instructors crazy as well. I can imagine that working with me might have been stressful, because I wanted so much, and even though I was willing to work hard, I didn’t have a sense of the time frame it takes to acquire new skills. I had to learn patience before I could move on.
That kind of patience (which I am still working on) comes in handy while learning to be a good dance partner. Early on, when taking group classes, I intended to get the moves right whether my partner did or not. I wasn’t much different than many females who are first learning to partner dance. I zealously took on the responsibility for the entire partnership because I didn’t trust my partner to lead the move correctly, nor my ability to follow/interpret what was being led. Part of my lack of trust was not having a very good understanding about what my responsibilities were so that I could put my attention there. In addition, I feared “getting it wrong,” enough that I was willing to do the work for both of us. But dancing alone together wasn’t very fun, and the outcome wasn’t ever what I anticipated. However, once I learned my responsibilities on the dance floor, I became a much better follower and dancing took on a whole new meaning that involved partnership, collaboration, cooperation, innovation, and connection, the aspects of dance that now make it so appealing.
When you simply like to think you are good at what you do, and you haven’t opened your mind to becoming the best that you can be, it is easy to feel a constant sense of uncertainty about what you are doing. I think that when you do put in the time and effort, no matter what skill level you are working at, you begin to feel a sense of accomplishment even when the simplest and most basic elements begin to take form. You learn that confidence grows out of that work. I don’t think I would be very confident about my dance ability if I hadn’t gone through the stages that helped break through my fears of being “wrong,” or not being good enough, so that I could be open and willing to work at becoming better. If I had held onto my false beliefs that good dancers are born with talent, and my need for validation rather than feedback, then I would probably still be watching my feet, wondering if they are going to do the right thing.
And even though I am not perfect, and I know that I have my struggles with posture and balance, I feel confident with where I am as a dancer. I still run my basic drills, knowing that improvement will come with time. It always does. Acceptance means knowing that you aren’t all you would like to be, but you are exactly at the stage where you need to be. I still watch videos of dancers I aspire to be like, and I may, or may not ever reach their level, but I never lose sight of where I have been, and how far I have come.
About the Author:
Tracy Martin contributing writer to CountryDancePros. She is an Author, Life Coach, Soul Searcher and former successful competitive ballroom, swing & country dancer. She has spend countless hours on the floor as a student as a teacher and even more time contemplating and writing about her journey.