Zen and the Art of Ballroom Dancing

Dan and Em competing in Smooth

As often happens when teaching, the teacher ends up learning. In the years that I’ve been teaching dance, I’ve learned a lot myself. The most significant thing I’ve learned is that ballroom dance is a rather zen activity, meaning the philosophy that pervades dance is generally applicable to living life, as well.

1. Don’t move your partner, move yourself.
When learning to lead in dancing, the most common mistake is for the leader to focus on trying to physically move his partner around the dance floor. This gets very little return other than sore arms and a partner who resents being pushed around. The best thing to do, the best way to be a good leader, is for the leader to use his own muscles to move himself in the direction he wants to go. His partner wants to dance with him. She wants to go where he leads. If the leader moves himself with conviction, then the follower uses her own muscles to move herself in the same direction. The follower can’t rely on being moved by her partner, either. She has to move herself as strongly and confidently as she expects her partner to move as a leader. That way both are working equally towards the same goal, rather than one shoving the other around. Focus less on what the other person is doing, and more on where you need to go yourself.

2. If what you’re doing feels awful, it’s probably wrong.
Attempting to dance correctly by imitating what you think you see other people doing is a quick way to hurt yourself, or to just learn to do something wrong. Taking an instruction too literally or following unclear advice can cause the same problem. If you do something that hurts, pulls, stresses something (physical or mental) it’s probably wrong. That which we find beautiful are those that are balanced, strong and structurally sound. Therefore, the ideals we strive for in dancing ought to be balance, strength and soundness. Things that cause pain take us further from the ideals we seek; they shorten strides, cause unbalanced steps and increase physical and psychological stress between the partners. Learning to dance is a matter of increasing our understanding of strength and balance, and we need to feel strong, balanced and comfortable to achieve them. That’s not to say that there won’t be work along the way. We can all improve our dancing by becoming stronger, fitter, more flexible. But when you get a feeling that what you’re doing is *wrong*, painful in an unproductive and non-temporary way, it’s not the right answer. Ask for clarification or alternatives until you’ve found the true solution. Structural integrity is more important than almost anything. If movement doesn’t have balance and support from our physical structure, it can’t be effective, and isn’t correct.

3. Nothing beats practice.
There are no shortcuts. The only way to get proven, lasting results is to practice, again and again. Hopefully, we practice the right things. Get exercises from your instructor to help you improve, and work at them. It takes work to get better. There are no substitutes for study and repetition.

4. Taking yourself too seriously only makes it harder to improve.
The biggest obstacle most people have to improvement is their own fear of making a mistake. People are so terrified of looking foolish, they’d rather not try. I had a choir teacher who used to say, “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it one I can hear.” No one was born knowing how to dance; everyone had to learn it all from zero. If you’re working with an instructor you trust, believe that they want to help you improve. Go ahead, make the mistake. Every effort we make, correct or not, gives us more information. It’s the only way to learn anything. Even if you aren’t sure you know what you’re doing, just try. Trying always beats standing still and being afraid of getting it wrong. As long as we refuse to try, we will never improve.

5. Learn how to ask clearly for what you want before you expect to get it.
A common fault in new dancers is moving different parts of their body in different directions. Everything you move has to be in the same direction; trying to move different parts of yourself in different directions only confuses your partner and frustrates you. Even slight inconsistencies in movement can be very difficult to interpret for a follower. Until we can learn how to move ourselves as a cohesive unit, we won’t be able to communicate clearly with our partner.

6. In any dispute, it is unlikely that one person is completely at fault.
Dancing is a cooperative activity between two people. Anytime something does not go as planned, the fault most likely lies in both parties. Assigning blame and getting “to the bottom” of the dispute does nothing to solve the problem. Looking at the situation from the perspective of “what is it that I can do to improve things” is significantly more functional.

7. Enjoying it is really the point.
There’s really no point in dancing if it isn’t enjoyable. We enjoy it because it feels good to move; it feels good to interact with a partner, to lead or follow. It’s art, it’s exercise, it’s a challenge. Keep in mind, frustration is a normal part of the process. Making mistakes is frustrating. Accept it, and don’t fear it. It’s a sign of progress. But if it doesn’t bring you a general feeling of peace, joy, fulfillment and exhilaration, change something. It’s supposed to be fun. Enjoy it.

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