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10 Lessons I Learned by Having the Time of my Life May 12, 2011

Posted by craftlass in dance, education, life lessons.

There’s a lot of talk these days about, “How NASA Tweetup changed my life,” and I have a lot of ways I could talk about, but perhaps the oddest is that it unintentionally introduced me to ballroom and Latin dancing. See, I’ve been taking advantage of my trips to Florida to spend time with my parents who live on the west coast of the state between various events and my second trip to see STS-133 launch gave me a chance to visit quite a lot. My stepmother has been dancing for awhile now but started taking it really seriously over the past year or so. She’s studying at a competitive dancesport school run by a world champion dancer, not just some cheesy chain joint but one that can take you however far you want to go. Every Thursday night they have a guest party and she invited me to join her. Thinking this would be a good way for us to bond more I figured I’d go, check out what she’s been doing, and enjoy it however much I could. Well, it turns out I could enjoy it a lot! It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done yet it just seems to come naturally, like I’d been waiting all my life to find it.

Apparently I am the only person surprised by this. Oh, well. Guess I don’t know myself quite as much as I’d thought…

When I started taking lessons I thought I was just learning how to do a style of dance I hadn’t done before. After all, that’s what they’re for, right? However, being a struggling musician, just that wouldn’t justify the expense, so a major reason I continue is the larger value. Here are a few lessons that apply well beyond the dance floor that I’ve gotten out of my first 10 sessions:

  1. You have to put faith in someone else if you are going to get anywhere.

    I’m a bit of a control freak and I like to lead, to the point where it is detrimental and borders on sheer stubbornness if I’m not careful. I suspect I was either born that way or learned it early from my very Type-A mother. Regardless, while it is good to have some inherent leadership qualities you will drive yourself mad if you try to do everything yourself or micromanage. Even worse, this can lead to complete burnout. As a woman, in dancing with a partner I must give up that control impulse and not only follow a leader but believe in him 100%. For example, when dancing in a crowded room, especially in a progressive (as in moving around the room) dance like the waltz, I’m generally moving backwards so it’s up to my partner to steer me out of trouble. If I don’t trust him to do that I will look behind me and that is just plain wrong and very ugly. That’s just the most basic part, of course. I have to let him give me the cues or we won’t do anything complimentary. The best way for me to stumble or even fall is to lose that faith rather than throwing myself into the movement completely. Nor can I be fighting my instincts at every turn, my instincts must adapt to this faith or the dance will never be elegant as the struggle comes out quite visibly. The same is true in romantic relationships, where trust matters far more than even love if you are to be happy together in the long term, and in a working team, where people usually perform better if left to do the jobs they are supposed to do without feeling like someone is staring over their shoulder at all times. Mistakes will happen, of course, none of us are perfect, but

  2. You have to have faith in yourself.

    Seems obvious, right? After all, if you have no faith in yourself you will just stand still, scared of everything. It goes deeper, though. My instructor says my biggest challenge is my own brain, which likes to overanalyze everything. This can be helpful when first learning something new but becomes a detriment rapidly. Sure, I might get the steps right, but dance is not simply a series of steps, it’s the entire presentation and it ideally looks and feels very natural and easy. You have to let go and trust your training to pull you through. Deep down, you know what to do. Just do it! Life, like an uncertain leader, often throws confusing cues and no one can decide which way to move is right but yourself. You might make a decision that seems wrong in hindsight but as long as it was yours alone and you threw yourself into it completely you will get something out of it and maybe even manage to make it look intentional and elegant.

  3. Communication is everything.

    Communication is often confused with speaking and listening. Sure, these are forms of it, but they are far from the only ones. In dance, the main form of communication is in the hold. With the tiniest (imperceptible to onlookers) movements the leader can make sweeping changes in what you are both doing. When you first start learning that hold needs to be consistently firm or signals risk being missed but over time, the more you dance with the same person, it can soften without being any less effective and you can even split apart for a turn or similar move without losing your mental connection and come right back together. Communication becomes instinctual, almost like mind-reading, and that is a beautiful thing. Have you ever seen how long-term couples do tasks in perfect tandem without a word or heard them finish each other’s sentences? That’s the same effect. A new couple needs to talk everything out and that is often a far lesser form of communication. Working with collaborators is similar, the first project may require a million emails or meetings to get just right but over time you find yourself knowing what your partner(s) will think before you even share your part with them and you automatically correct for that. The partnership becomes more efficient and the results get finer.

  4. Get out of your comfort zone.

    Some dances just feel right from the very first moment. Some dances feel awkward at first. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other or that you should avoid the ones that don’t instantly appeal. Sometimes you have to learn or even just watch others do more advanced steps and really listen to the music to fall in love with what you once were “meh” about. In my case, this is the foxtrot. In my introductory lessons I simply wasn’t inspired by it and found it awkward. My instructor and I talked about the music it’s appropriate for and I realized that includes a lot of music I absolutely adore, but was still a bit apathetic. When I went home to NJ and decided to watch a lot of ballroom competitions on YouTube I saw what it becomes when you know how to do it and found a passion that surprised me. I still haven’t gotten back to learning it, as I’d already chosen other dances to focus on for the time being, but I’m looking forward to throwing myself into it when the time is right. It’s graceful and elegant and reminds me of an era that I really would have liked to experience. In a similar but different vein, Latin dances seriously intimidated me at first. I spent years studying ballet as a kid and Latin dancing is the antithesis of that, with hip swinging and straight-up sexiness I just couldn’t imagine pulling off. I instantly loved doing them but was still worried it just wasn’t something I could be any good at. With hard work, exercises to loosen up the muscles needed, and a whole lot of just listening to the music as I go a about my life to internalize the rhythms, it’s starting to feel natural and makes me feel like a whole new person! There are few greater highs that succeeding at something you never expected to even be competent in. What do you want to do but haven’t tried for fear of failure? We all have something that fits into that category and you never know, it might turn out to be your greatest talent if you just give it a shot. There is nothing to lose by trying, nothing.

  5. Relax into the rhythm.

    When you start a new dance or jump up a level your brain is filled with steps, counts, body positions, and lots of terminology, leaving little room for listening to the music. This is dangerous. After all, dancing is, first and foremost, a physical expression of music. Even though I am a musician myself and have a deeper understanding of it than the average beginning dancer I fall into this trap very easily. To compound matters, I am extremely hyper and I get so into dancing that I get ahead of the beat pretty easily if I’m letting my mind do the talking. You have to relax and let the music take over every part of you (which is also part of the giving-up-control lesson), even if the dance is one that is far from relaxing. Life itself has a rhythm, too, and it’s very easy to try and fight it in order to get ahead, but that’s always counter-productive. You have to listen to what everything from the universe to your own body is telling you, get in touch with your inner soundtrack and move with the flow. V.C. Andrews wrote, “A branch that does not bend with the wind breaks,” a poignant thought from a fairly schlocky writer (that might be a paraphrase, it’s been about two decades since I read that line, but the point is correct).

  6. Your greatest competitor is you.

    Okay, I’ll admit, this is a lesson I first learned from riding dressage, where the judges give you a scorecard that includes a percentage of how well you accomplish each move, allowing you to focus on improving those scores more than on winning ribbons. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a horse, though, and it was well beyond time to re-learn this important lesson. If you look to how others are at everything you will always feel inadequate. For example, Janis Joplin was a very talented painter before she became a singer and the story of why she didn’t stick with it is a cautionary tale: She looked at how good other people were at painting and decided she could never measure up. While I’m selfishly pleased she went with the singing route I’ve always found this depressing, especially after seeing some of her artwork in-person. For me, singing is what I can never measure up to many others in, which held me back for many years. Some people love my voice, though, so the wise thing to do is work hard to make myself the best I can possibly be rather than compare myself to those more talented than I. Still, I sometime lapse and fall into that old trap again. I’m highly competitive by nature and want to be the best at everything I do. Starting something as physical as dance at age 34 is a challenge and I may never get to the point where I’d like to simply because I started now, but that’s okay. I can’t look to the dancers who started in elementary school and compare myself to them or I will never be at all satisfied with my progress. Nor can I look to people of any age who have the ability to take more lessons than I ever could without major life changes. All I can do is my own best and strive to improve every single day. From what feedback I’ve gotten so far I’m improving pretty rapidly and the work I’m doing outside the studio, like exercises to improve my strength and flexibility, are paying off in ways that knowledgeable people are noticing and commenting on. By focusing on competing with myself I am winning the only battle that matters.

  7. Fitness is not about looks, better looks are only a bonus, and getting fit only sticks if you enjoy what you do to get there.

    I’m naturally what many people not-so-kindly refer to as a “skinny bitch.” I don’t share the battle with weight that many do, my naturally hyper state, awareness of getting full from eating, and general lifestyle take care of that. However, as is so easy to do when your life is largely spent sitting in front of a computer, I have slacked and gotten terribly out of shape. This is detrimental to everything I do, especially my top priority, singing. Being fit has little to do with any numbers, whether inches around your waist, dress size, or those on a scale. Being fit is about the ability to physically do anything you want or need to without hurting yourself in the process. A big problem many of us share is that a lot of exercise types are or become boring and we look at it as a chore rather than a pleasure. How many of you have fallen into the cycle of beginning an exercise routine with enthusiasm only to find it fading into just another line on an overwhelming to-do list? Then come the excuses: I don’t have the time or energy, it cuts into the things I would rather or must be doing, or I just have a lack of motivation. One day of not bothering extends to two, then a week, and then a few months have gone by and your gear is collecting dust or your gym card is simply taking up space in your wallet. You feel guilty, but guilt is a terrible motivator as it comes from a negative place. I didn’t get into dancing to get in shape, I truly love doing it and refuse to let more than a day go by without at least practicing on my own because it feels good and brings joy to my life. One day I looked at myself naked in a full-length mirror (I don’t care what you look like, that is always a frightening thing to do since we all have flaws and zero right in on our own) and was shocked and gratified to see that my body had completely changed. Areas that I had never been able to get control of, like my side abs, have mutated into something I thought was out of reach. In the past I often started working out with that as the goal but this time it was different and I am seeing the best results of my life because my focus is far larger than body parts. More importantly, just going about daily life, like bounding up the steep stairs to my apartment or carrying piles of groceries home without a car, has become easier. I’m happier overall because my body and I have a better relationship than we have in years. I give it exercise in a fun way and it in turn listens to what I want it to do.

  8. Good posture matters.

    I used to have great posture, thanks to my ballet lessons and riding. I’ve always placed importance on it but again, spending much of my life typing on a computer and wrapping my tiny body around a full-sized acoustic guitar has degraded it to the point where it has probably contributed to my back pain and certainly makes me look less attractive. I had never noticed that I lost it, though, until several instructors pointed it out to me. Highly embarrassed but grateful, I’ve become a bit of a posture nut again, not just while dancing. Posture is key to dance, of course, you must stretch up tall and proud into the required frames, and it’s especially critical when you’re all of 5’0″ and are dancing with even average-sized men. However, even if you’re very tall and embarrassed about your height you need good posture. It helps your whole body fall into a healthy position and commands attention when you enter a room. Want to seem more confident even when you’re not feeling it? Throw those shoulders back, lift your chest, raise your head up high and show yourself off. Not only does it change the impression you give to others but it can influence how you think about yourself. Such a simple tweak to improve your life in every way, huh?

  9. Hard work, patience, and persistence are the only things that pay off in the long run.

    This seems so obvious but our culture is one of speed and hard work often takes a long time to get results. Just like get-rich-quick schemes rarely pay off, cutting corners might satisfy a short-term goal but it will fail you in the end. When I took my first lessons I bounded into mimicking what I’ve seen in movies and musicals. It’s far from surprising that a lot of it was just plain wrong. As my lessons get more advanced and we get more into the minutiae of what every little part of me must do to make the dance beautiful I may need to do a single part of a step millions of times to nail it but it’s all worth it. No amount of natural talent can replace dedication and attention to detail. Often you must tear what you are doing apart and build it back up to make it better. It’s important to have both short- and long-term goals that fit together, too. The short-term goals let you mark the progress towards your long-term ones and keep you from feeling discouraged. Learn the steps, internalize them, focus on details, internalize those, add the layers that make the cake of results both taste good and look beautiful. After all, what good is a gorgeous cake that tastes like sawdust? That’s the best you can get if you rush things.

  10. Constructive criticism is the highest of compliments.

    Criticism sucks when you are getting it. It’s easy to take it as a personal attack and feel terribly hurt. However, the vast majority of criticism actually means that someone cares enough to pay attention to you and wants you to improve. Few people like to criticize anyone, especially to their faces, it’s uncomfortable no matter which end of it you are on. The important thing to look for is whether it is destructive or constructive before you let your emotions take over. Whether you are paying or asking someone to be critical or it’s offered unsolicited, if you can look at what is given objectively and know it to be true you will improve more because of it than you ever could without. Going back to posture, I was rather upset when I heard mine was lacking. Instead of letting myself wallow in the hurt, though, I force myself to repeat that criticism, look into a reflective surface, and shove my body into the right position as well as I could. Every day I get a little bit better, have to correct myself a little bit less, and it’s becoming something I don’t have to think about. This would never have happened if I wasn’t criticized openly and honestly or if I stubbornly negated the notion in a fit of ego. Humility is the only path to improvement, so the next time someone gives you advice that doesn’t feel so pleasant, just say, “Thank you,” and use it if it applies.

It will be a long road to become the dancer (or person) I want to be, but by embracing life’s surprises and throwing myself into everything I do my life has improved dramatically. Being a wallflower will only bring you greater disappointment so get out there and proudly dance the dance of life, whatever that might mean for you! Who knows what you might learn along the way…



1. CraftLass - May 12, 2011

P.S.: I know this is a very long post, so thank you for just reading it all the way to the bottom. There was no way to edit it down further, all of the points are important to the whole. If you have ever had similar experiences with anything you’ve done I would love to see your stories in the comments. 🙂

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