This is a blog about the process of getting better. Most specifically, I’d like to talk about what I call “snap moments”…those times when a word, or a thought or a philosophy or a realization changes your dancing in mere seconds…the way that hours and hours of class just can’t seem to do…or maybe it was in a class, and your entire hour there came down to 15 seconds, wherein you had a lightbulb moment…this blog is about how to have more of these. In the end, I will share with you some moments of reality that shape my relationship to dancing, and some brutally honest thoughts that might help you to move to your next stage in dancing. Classes are good for building patterns but bad for self awareness (unless that is their focus). You need both to get better.
Since all things are naked, clear from obstruction, there is nothing to attain or realize. The everyday practice is simply to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and all emotions and all people, experiencing everything totally without reservations or blockages so that one never withdrawals or centralizes into oneself.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Why we take classes, why we don’t. How we improve. Why we stagnate. Every individual’s experience will vary. First off, I have no agenda. I don’t believe you should or should not do anything. You make the decision for you. But I do think that the more honest we are about where we get what we need, then we can find our own dancing magic more quickly. I also think that the power of our ideas about dancing is equally as important as the work that we do. Artists are paid for vision, not their labor, and that’s how we have to see ourselves…. as if the way we think about dancing is equally as important as the work we put in.
We all want to get better
In all my nearly two decades of dancing, I’ve only met one person who said that they weren’t actively interested in getting better. When he told me this, I paused for a moment. My eyes blinked a couple of times. I assumed he was joking and I let out a nervous laugh. I was reminded of an old episode of Star Trek, where Spock destroys an evil computer by telling it a paradox. My brain could only think “does not compute”. There was flashing lights, and smoke, and after a little processing, I finally tried to accept it. I had met the first person in many thousands of dancers who was perfectly happy with their skill level. I still think about that. Sometimes I want to call him, and ask if he’s still happy. I still can’t fathom that anyone doesn’t see room for improvement in themselves, especially given how beautiful and positively transcendent that a heartfelt and technically proficient dance can be to watch or participate in. For me, more skill equals higher moments of happiness, more pure expression externally of what I feel when I hear jazz.
There may be others like him, but for the most part I think that none of us see where we are, we see only where we want to be. Our concept of our own dancing is such that it oscillates between horrendous/awful, and amazing golden moments, going from 2 to 98 on a 100 point scale in our mind’s eye when in reality I think that it’s more of a 10% deviation either way. Bottom line is: you can’t trust your own sense of your own dancing. You have to trick yourself into getting better. Furthermore, our human psychology is built in a way to rationalize anything and everything about our world concept. Moving forward, even when we actively want to is very difficult.
Getting to move forward can happen in a lot of ways. Some of them are: 1) Seeing yourself on video or losing contests. AKA the heartbreak method. 2) Having wonderful dancers in your scene with whom you can watch, collectively work together, and constantly iterate your skill set. 3) By any number of success building philosophies, or spiritual practices which encourage humility, instill discipline, and give us a better picture of where we really are. 4) Having access to better information than you previously had. 5) Pure and abject boredom with what you are doing, which forces you to move forward.
At any rate, you have to want to move forward. There has to be some pain associated to your current skill level. You won’t find success until you NEED success. When your mind is ready to do whatever it takes to break past your current level of dance-understanding, your mind will be receptive to it. You have to find your own “why” for the moment you are in.
Someone once said, “success is a goal that is never sated”, and I think there’s a truth to that. As soon as we reach a place in our dancing that we had long ago wanted to be, then our sights are set even higher. It’s all perspective. Somewhere out there in the world, someone is at a wedding; they are rockin’ a bad 6 count and a pretzel, followed by the get-down-on-the-knees-and-fake-proposal-move, topped off with an off-balance dip, and someone watching that is thinking: “Those people are the greatest dancers on earth”. But exposure to a more thought-out way of doing things gives us a goal… a picture in the mind’s eye. I think most of us have gone through that, where we see someone dancing, perhaps even entirely differently than what we’ve thought of as our ideal, and it gives us a new idea of what we want to be, what we want to do. It’s all a matter of our perspective.
Be around those who will be honest with you
Part of getting better is setting yourself up to know what good is. I had someone from a small scene once ask me how they could become the best dancer in the world. “If I knew, I’d be there”, I said. They replied with a declaration that they would, in fact become the best dancer in the world. “You’re going to have to move to a big, happening scene”, I said. “Why?”, they asked… “because you don’t have any other people to learn from, bounce ideas off of, etc”. You can’t get good in a vacuum. This is such a critical piece for me. You need allies. This is why teams can be powerful vehicles for moving forward, though admittedly are also an environment where skills tend to equalize to the mean .
Simply asking people around you can be a real help. I like asking people “I’m working on my connection, any thoughts?” Or, even just asking a friend “what are you working on in your dancing right now?”. It can be really eye opening. Every time we check in with others, we get a clearer perspective of what “is”, not just what we want to be true.
Summoning the muses
In watching a great routine or exceptional social dance, I often find myself saying “Bam! why didn’t I think of that?” Good ideas can be so obvious, but in the same way totally fresh. There’s a quote by Albert Einstein where he calls genius the ability to correlate two seemingly unrelated ideas. In choreographing things, when I find interesting combos I often find it hard to place how I came up with it. My mind is a pond and all my favorite ideas and moves are little fish. I watch them swim by while I listen to the song, and sometimes I see the fish-ideas swim by in my view together and it makes sense. These two things need to go together, I think. We can only be as creative as our ideas. So, you need lots of ideas. Watch as many things as you can. Go to plays and see how professionals use a stage to present ideas. Look for the good ideas in dances that might not be presented that well: i.e. bad camera work, bad costumes, or with aspects that may have caused you to dismiss them initially. Re-watch old videos. Go back and re-watch the classics. Trust me, they are infinite sources of wisdom. Like a great book, you need a wide variety of vocabulary, a message, and the ability to combine things in inspired ways.
In the bar or in the ballroom
Some of the best “snap-moments” I’ve had in my dancing are talking casually with friends about dance. Perhaps it’s a late night gab session in a hotel room or over a quick pre or post-dance drink. I think it’s important to have those conversations. I’ve learned tons of little ideas just talking with pros over a beer. This is one of the best reasons to travel. You want to intersect with as many people that are on your path as possible. You don’t have to (and for me I can’t) dance 16 hours a day, but you can be around it, ponder it, watch it, tinker with it, etc for a fair amount of your day.
Watch classes and dances
Sometimes it’s a lot to take a day of classes, then go to a dance, compete, go to a late night. Then do it again. And again, and maybe again. One thing you can do is watch classes instead of taking them. You can learn other things than you might by taking the class. Observe, take notes, watch what does and doesn’t work.
Another thing I think is important is to watch people dancing. Really really watch. Look for the first thing that happens that touches you emotionally. Ask yourself why. Look for the first thing that you thought was awkward, and likewise, ask yourself why. Look for what you think is too common / overdone. Scan the floor and see what pops out at you. Watch how people’s clothes, body types, attitudes and interpersonal chemistry affect the dance. Allow that to soak in to your perspective.
If you dance long enough, you’ll hit low points. At one time, I used to drag my dance team out to perform randomly at “other” dance performances. Like the ballet, or in front of the local outdoor mall. We would busk lindy hop, we would throw aerials on concrete. At times we literally did jams in the foyer of other kinds of performances. I’m sure we annoyed some people. We also gathered new students by the dozens. I was as sure of every tuck turn, every aerial, every swing out as I was of gravity or the sun coming up. Over time my perspective of what I wanted to be changed. I gathered enough information to have conflicting philosophies.
The biggest thing I started dealing with is doubt…creeping into every choice, every movement. It can happen. It’s natural. It’s natural that if you love something for a long time, the way that you love it has to change. You have to let it, and you have to let go of the way you used to love it. That can be hard.
Sometimes I see people love dance in a certain way, and the music or values change around them, and it becomes nearly impossible for them to love the dance in that way anymore. Holding on can be very painful. Changing can be painful. Evolving your love can be very freeing, but takes time, and can be a really frustrating process. Being honest about your low points can give you the clarity to move past them. Don’t let yourself linger in frustration too long if you can help it. Maya Angelou said, “Trust in love one more time, and always one more time.”
Focusing your passion
Talent is a myth. At least for most of us. “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do,” Bob Ross said. Some people are great in the beginning and can see exactly how to get better. For most of us, however, developing great dancing is done by tons of repetition. There are methods for “creating talent” in young musicians where kids play a single note over and over. There are parables where Samurai’s draw their swords 10,000 times, and when they do that the sword will seemingly jump out of its scabbard. Singers must sing scales thousands of times before their own voice comes out. Point being that you need to put in lots of work before you can know something well enough to analyze it at the level that turns it from good to great.
I think it’s important to accept that it takes a long time before the impulses in your emotions, your body and your conscious mind will all come together to make beautiful things. There’s a strange irony in that you have to imitate others for years before you can let your personal authentic style shine. It won’t come through unless you can definitively say what is and what isn’t part of your personal vision.
Evolution is about big steps and small steps
If you look at how the process of evolution happens, you will see both small changes and mutations. When you hit plateaus, ask whether you need to work slowly and diligently through it, or if you need to completely rethink your base assumptions and just “be something different”. Some of my longest plateaus have come from trying to make something work that just didn’t jive for me. Then in a moment I tried something entirely different and my frustration vanished. Sometimes you need to just make up your mind to “be something different”. It can work.
Hype for the dance
One time I did a pretty mediocre job in a contest. I was standing in the hallway after the contest and I remarked to a friend that I respect a lot that the competition really felt bad to me. He said: “you dance too much, you’ve lost your hype for it”…he was spot on. Dancing too much can cloud your perspective. I have no idea what “too much” is for you, but I was dancing too much for me. If you don’t feel fired up every time you go out, you might be dancing too much.
Find good influences in everything
You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.
– Maya Angelou
I can’t think of a better way to say this than how Maya Angelou already did. To be a good dancer, I have to believe that eliminating things like trash TV, fast food, and non-supportive people is absolutely beneficial. Sorting your personal life is key to moving forward. You don’t have to do every gig, please everyone, or have anything in your life that you don’t want to have. Sometimes eliminating a couple things can enrich everything else in your life.
Sometimes it’s just the music
Every great dancer has had the experience of having an evening of horrible dances, or a mediocre evening that suddenly turned into a great evening. Great dancing comes from great music. Bottom line. Full stop. Don’t beat yourself up over dancing poorly to bad music. There will be another day, with better music. You aren’t suddenly terrible. All great dancers have had this experience. Don’t force what isn’t there.
Life is not happening to you, life is responding to you
I think an important thing to realize that you, and you alone are responsible for your dancing, the improvement thereof and the experience you have. Teachers can open the door, but you have to walk through it. We are all on our own path in this world, and it’s going to appear that some people have an easier or shorter path. That may or may not be true, but the comparison isn’t helpful. Only working hard and loving dancing with all your heart can do anything for you.
Fighting for your personal voice and authenticity is a lifelong pursuit. When you’re a dancer, the term “man in the mirror” takes on a second meaning. You not only have to see what’s going on physically, but emotionally as well.
If you need to have a “snap-moment”, here are some questions you can ask: What am I most proud of about my dancing? What makes me feel stuck? What parts of dancing am I passionate about? Is there anything I’m being closed-minded about? What happened the last time I felt most creatively inspired, and how can I recreate that moment? Have I let fear of failure or self-doubt hold me back? What things about my dancing would I like to leave behind? What parts would I like to cultivate? What am I good at without trying? What do I need to work on — a lot?
I wish you luck in your dancing pursuits – leave us a post below about your own snap moments and how you had them
See you on the dance floor!