Are You Too Advanced For Your Own Good?

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…

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  1. says: Laura Hathway

    I find this article very interesting and it applies to my experience at a local club last Friday. I must admit I cannot devote to dancing the time it deserves as I have a very busy schedule but when I go dancing my main aim is to enjoy the music, the moves and the social aspect of it all. So I was at the club and after the introductory lesson I felt that certain dancers only ask the regulars they know they are at their level. Also I danced with a gentleman who seemed frustrated most of the time. Although I am not a performer I think I am pretty much in tune and also I was raised in a community where dancing is part of every day life and get togethers. After last weekend I felt pretty down and decided not to go again. I would like to be part of a community of dancers that is more welcoming in that respect. Thanks for reading!

  2. says: Ruud

    I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s actually no plus, because it’s (and I quote):
    – less predictable
    – pauses inbetween songs
    – “covering another band is bad”

    I completely disagree. A good band is just great. There’s more dynamics to the sound, connection with the room. Same goes for a good bachata band by the way, I just love it! 🙂

    But Fred is right: sometimes a DJ just has a singular taste in music and for example only plays mambo style salsa, without any salsa romantica which I so foolingly love. That kind of sets the tone and can make a night less enjoyable. However you choose if it becomes “less enjoyable” or “you hate it”… Just deal with it and go with the flow.

    However I try to enjoy every dance and sometimes try to lead complex patterns to dancers that obviously aren’t too advanced. This helps me improve my leading technique, without forcing anything. I might skip some really fast songs though.

    The main reason I don’t visit certain parties anymore is because they are waaaay to busy and it’s impossible not to let my dance partner bump into somebody during a dance. I hate that. It makes me feel seriously stressed because I can’t express myself during the dance and need 50% of my attention not to let my dance partner bump into other people.

    By the way: I think it’s possible to dance to a lot of different music styles using salsa moves. Accents will be different, and vibe and feel may be totally different. For instance I danced some salsa on a swing dance party down in Pacifica, CA and that was a lot of fun and very elastic compared to salsa. I noticed that I was doing a lot of breaks all the time and felt very much in touch with the music. Some turn patterns might be weird if you tried them on that type of music though but the basics: why not?

  3. says: trev

    Selfish? Haha- I don’t believe this one little bit, knowing what I know of Tango already 🙂
    I suspect you enjpy it more due to better balance on the humanity front -and that is not generated by selfishness.

  4. says: ethanrox

    To me it was quite natural to become an elitist, I think that’s the case for many people who dance every week, obsess about it by watching all kinds of youtube videos, go to congresses and work tirelessly on their technique. We have worked to acquire a taste and you have to literally play mind games with yourself to go against this taste and to convince yourself that dancing with everybody is OK, good for the community etc etc. At least this is my natural tendency, maybe others share it as well. But once I realized that you can improve by dancing “down” then things begun to change and now I mostly enjoy dancing with people of lesser skill level. However, this is for purely selfish reasons 🙂

  5. says: Just Keep Dancing

    There seems to be a correlation between the thoughts expressed here and in other articles like “Why experienced social dancers are quitting”.

    It all can be summarized in one word, “elitism”.

  6. says: trev

    I liked the direction of the article. Very pertinent to Arg. Tango at least. I find Salsa much more ‘Fun’ driven and less hindered by hard line dance theology. The teachers are quite switched in but I still prefer tango where the issue of who leads who mentally and emotionally is always a live one.
    Part of the reason I like it, actually.
    As to facing demons- I prefer to back out of a somewhat ragged established dance class structure where some gaming does go on with dancers- & not always according to the broader spirit of the dance. Mostly to do with partner sharing and fair balance of practice time through the class.
    I don’t see this as avoidance- as I seek out other classes with a different edge to them in order not to stall my progress.
    You’re quite right about the dance dynamics – and psychic status of either dancer pair is often watched intensely closely for this reason.

      1. says: trev

        It’s mostly the men leaders who tend to go against the flow ofswitching partners and tend to hold on to favoured followers. It was commented to me by a teacher [male] that this is ‘Tango’ and get on with it. I prefer not to add to the the mayhem 🙂
        This IS class, however- Milongas have much better behaviour wise as many dancers are experienced and can spot this stuff way off!
        On the Milonga front, the only gaming I’ve come across is from followers who don’t like absolutely perfect leads and play up accordingly. This doesn’t allow for less experienced leaders to gain confidence.
        The good men dancers are still ‘grabby’ – but to be expected. I do like to watch- so no wonder they get the dances 😉
        Some of the best dances I’ve had at class or dance is with relatively inexperienced followers who just like to dance and learn something new without too much judgementing going on. It helps to focus the leader on the needs of the follower too.
        Salsa has these elements too, of couse, but more easily covered in its more freestyle way -due to speed [sleight of leg? ]
        I hope this clarifies my opinion.

  7. says: Paolo

    “You still haven’t owned your sh*t” … most meaningful reading in a very long time. However, missing the other face of medal. That is, the use of the discipline itself as form of denial and life escape and compensation for personal frustrations and emotional unbalance. Which, in my opinion, is n.1 problem in advanced dance communities (or ANY community with a strong focus)

  8. says: Imaan Taghavi

    This is a very good article. I have had many similar thoughts recently and to see it put here into words so eloquently is very refreshing and enlightening. Thank you!

  9. says: Melissa West-Koistila

    Thanks for writing this article! It is super-interesting and very thought-provoking.

  10. says: Fred

    So, I dance somewhere where there isn’t much regular salsa. It’s definitely no where near a NYC or Chicago or even the other smaller cities with “reasonable” salsa scenes.
    I’ve danced in NYC, San Francisco, London, Melbourne and Sydney and I think they have nice scenes or even great ones. I can see how “waiting for a good dance” in those places starts to get a bit unreasonable. The music and dancers there, I think, are generally good for any reasonable dancer to have fun.
    However, where I usually dance, in a medium sized city in the south, quite honestly, I don’t think the music is good. And there’s few dancers as good as average folks in the cities i’ve mentioned above.
    I go dancing weekly and the band plays literally the same music every week, has done for a few years now, almost 10! And the dj hardly plays any actual “salsa.” Its “latin” music, but it’s not “salsa.” So, people are usually “forcing” salsa moves to non-salsa music, and it doesn’t work, in my opinion. The dancing is, I think, poor! Fun, perhaps, but poor, in my opinion, technically, aesthetically, sometimes even dangerous!
    To get reasonable salsa, one has to usually go out of town. And the level of dancing, too, as mentioned earlier is somewhat “low.” Really, I go cause I like salsa, but I get disappointed most of the time, yet I still go. There’s not too many people to do anything beyond a CBL or even the music to do any salsa moves, to start with.
    In such circumstances, I honestly can’t wait how it’s unreasonable to stand around and not dance quite honestly. It’s just really really poor salsa, if they even play any! Honestly, in this case I doubt I am being a “snob.” Sometimes it really is poor, and I think it is in my average sized town. The folks who go to congresses etc often feel the same way, and most just don’t often come any more! They just go to events out of town.
    So, sometimes, in some places, I think, the dancing and music really aren’t up to scratch and people should be forgiven for saying it’s not fun, or for standing aside.

    1. says: Laura

      What would happen if all the ‘advanced’ dancers who dance out of town created their own night, with their music, that they attended?

      If you don’t like the music and the scene, you can always decide to make a change. Start your own night, or work as a group to create a practice. Foster the beginners to try harder. There’s lots of pathways!