Contribute to the dance learning process

A little boy was visiting his grandparents in Chicago over the summer. He did this every year for a week and he always looked forward to this time because they let him choose all of the activities and, in addition, they would give him one hundred dollars to spend how he saw fit. This summer he had a couple of requests: visit the Museum of Science and Industry, attend a baseball game and walk down Michigan Avenue to see all the shops and buy a new pair of shoes. When they arrived at Michigan Avenue, the boy was a little surprised to see people sitting along the length of Michigan Avenue with signs saying they needed shelter and that they were hungry. He was a little confused so he asked his grandfather what they were doing. “They’re homeless,” his grandfather said, “And they don’t have money to buy food or a place to stay.” They little boy cheered up and said, “I have money I can share.” So he reached into his pocket and and pulled out his twenty dollar bills and skipped from homeless person to homeless person handing them his twenty dollar bills until he ran out. To onlookers, it looked like the boy, so full of joy, was doing some sort of dance along the street. The boy was radiant because he liked helping. When he skipped back to his grandparents, his grandfather lightly mocked him: “there are homeless people all around the city of Chicago. What difference does giving a few of them twenty dollars to buy food possibly make? They’ll be hungry again tomorrow.” As he said this they passed another homeless man who had not received money and the boy asked for twenty more dollars. “But this one needs to eat today,” the boy said.

From our very earliest age, we are taught that life is something to be conquered and that we have landmarks ahead of us and many tasks to achieve and that there are obstacles that must be overcome along the way. The grandfather in the story above sees only obstacles when he speaks of feeding the homeless. He tells his grandson that his desire to feed a few homeless people is futile. There are too many homeless people and not enough time, not enough money, not enough resources, etc. But the story doesn’t reveal the success or failures of the little boy’s mission. All we know is that the young man was joyously passing out his money, dancing almost, from person to person contributing what he could. Absent from the boy’s mind are the measurements of competition and progress. The boy saw life as a place to contribute, not because he had done a measurable amount of good but because that is the story he told.  

Dance students, particularly those preparing themselves for their first wedding dance, often struggle with this idea of contributing, or seeing how this game of contribution fits into their wedding preparation. Most of them, while not always openly articulating it, have a need to be successful, to shine, to stand out, to be better than all the other wedding dances they witnessed in person or on Youtube. But most of them have no idea how to get there.

They come into their dance lessons with a “what are we going to achieve today” mentality. They want to be successful no matter the cost. They see that each lesson will either be a success or a failure. Did we learn new steps today? Yes. Success! Did we have to review steps? Yes. Failure. The problem with this drive to be successful (and this applies far beyond the dance world) is that fear of failure is inseparably linked to it. While this pushes people on to achieve “greater” things, the increasing success does little to relieve tension or anxiety. For dance students, particularly wedding couples dancing their first dance, successfully completing choreography or the footwork has very little to do with having a breathtaking and successful first dance. In order to dance well in front of the guests at their wedding, they have to have a discipline in spirit; in order to be great performers, they have to be free of stage fright and the habit of intellectually grasping at the dance - remembering what step is next. And the only way to do this is to, from   the very first dance lesson, move our students from a mentality of right and wrong and success and failure and get them to play the contribution game. To get them to say, “no matter what happens today, I’ve been a contribution.” This does a number of things. Mainly, it gets our dance students to not worry about the past or future and to focus on the task at hand. If our students make the assumption that they will be a contribution they will be less worried about assessing their progress and feeling pride and/or shame about it, which will allow them to focus on the moment, which, funny enough, makes them as successful as they can possibly be that day. By just focusing on being a contribution, our dance students become the best dancers they can be.

The truth is, we all are always contributing, whether good or bad. The question we strive to ask ourselves and to get our dance students to ask themselves is: how can I be a better contribution?

So, if our students have to see themselves as a contribution in order to be successful dance students, how do we help them develop this new mentality? Simply put, we help them redefine what it means to be successful in a dance lesson and as a dancer.

Let’s take a look at the mentality our students typically hold when they walk in the door:

  1. We are here to learn how to dance, therefore, if we’re not learning new steps and techniques, we are stagnant or perhaps even regressing.

  2. We are here to learn how to dance, therefore, as long as I’m making my best contribution to each hour we put into the process and so is my partner, we will get the most out of it.

The difference between student A and student B is how each one measures his or her contribution to the process of learning. Student A believes that the instructor has all of the answers and will impart that knowledge so that he is able to regurgitate that information. When approaching the task of learning a new step or technique, this student feels that if he is unable to perform it perfectly, he has failed because he is trying to measure his contribution based on something that he actually shouldn’t be attempting to contribute. It’s not his job to contribute perfectly executed dance steps. Whereas student B is not measuring his successes upon anything other than the focus and attention given to each moment of learning. He measures from within how he feels about his contributions and he doesn’t need to use some sort of external rubric for measuring success. Student B comes into the lesson believing he will be a positive contribution to the process.

 

Most of our students come in to Ballroom Dance Chicago feeling much like student A from above; they have no basis of knowledge of what dance is and they figure that we will impart all of the wisdom, and they’ll soak it in. What they don’t realize is how big of a part they play in the process as individuals. If we allowed our students to continue believing that they don’t contribute to the process, it wouldn’t be very rewarding or interesting, and they also would not become the best dancers they can be. Treating our students as if their skills and qualities do not contribute to the process of learning would force them into someone else’s ideal of what it means to be a dancer, but it would not help them discover their unique inner-dancer. Instead of forcing our students into a mold of what the “ideal dancer” would do, we highlight their personal strengths and allow that to focus our direction for each lesson. This is a truly personalized learning process.  We empower our students to play a bigger role in the process and be contributors. We don’t just give them the answer, we guide them to their own realizations.

 

In order to help our students feel like a positive contribution, we let go of the human tendency to measure contribution.

They may not know how to do the dance steps, but that’s not what they need to contribute. Executing each step correctly isn’t their job. By empowering them to be part of the process, we inspire them to be a positive contribution, to be the best possible contribution given what they have and who they are. Maybe being a positive contribution for one student means looking in their partner’s eyes and smiling. For another, it might be keeping a positive attitude while learning new things. For another, it might be standing up tall and keeping their frame strong. There are many ways to be a positive contribution in dance, as there are many ways to be a positive contribution in friendships and romantic relationships and life, etc. The important thing is empowering those around you to be a positive contribution, helping them see how they do contribute positively. And part of that is seeing for them the ways that they can be better contributors.

In talking about the importance of contribution, we must acknowledge its close relative as well: significance. By contributing, we're not only creating positive feelings of accomplishment within ourselves, but we're also gaining recognition, importance, and therefore significance in the lives of others. While modern cultural trends lead us to believe that independence is the ultimate freedom, that we should be able to feel fulfilled individually, and that we shouldn’t depend on the thoughts and feelings of others to dictate our self worth, socialization is intrinsic to human nature. Not only socialization on a surface level of interactivity, but as humans, we have a need to form meaningful relationships that make us feel valued, loved, and necessary to the relationship. This combination of contribution and significance is the backbone of forming powerful connections. The most effective relationships are built on the ability to recognize and be confident in the fact that you are valued in a relationship and to tell the other person that they are uniquely important to the connection you’ve formed.  

 

Let’s examine for a moment Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs to get a better understanding of this idea of contribution and significance. At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs like food and sleep; in the middle, social relationships such as family and intimacy; and towards the top are the necessary ingredients for progress and growth:“self- esteem” and “self-actualization”. Both significance and contribution are contained in the category of self-esteem. The inclusion of these topics as basic human needs speaks to their importance and legitimacy as human desires. Contrary to this structure, our culture has fostered disconnectedness by popularizing an attitude of apathy and unaffectedness. In trying to deny these basic human needs by reasoning that independence is a stronger, more fruitful endeavor, we’re actually damaging our progress as an individual, and harming our connection to those around us.

 

Inherent to the nature of partner dancing are these ideas of contribution and significance. At the core of good partner dancing is the connection formed between two people in a physical moment, based on full engagement with the dance and a mutual acknowledgement of their interdependence; their success as a partnership relies on the contribution and confidence of each person as a valuable piece. In social dancing, there is a certain willingness to dance with everyone, regardless of their ability. Even the best dancers can have a meaningful experience with less advanced dancers. Believing that every person you come in contact with has something to offer the dance, that no one else can, is what makes a dance successful. As a beginning dancer, this can seem like an overwhelming concept, but once you accept that your set of abilities, no matter how novice or advanced, can offer something unique, you'll be able to enjoy the experience in a whole new light.

As dance teachers, we understand that we’re a necessary part of the dance lesson. But, some of the best moments as instructors come when our student recognize and acknowledge the work that we put into making their first dance great. It’s not that we design things with the intention of receiving a compliment, but we know that getting feedback, and even more than that, feeling as if you are a valuable part of the collaboration between student and teacher is what allows us to grow as teachers.

In the same way, we try to make our students feel as though they are a significant part of the learning process, because we know they are. Our goal is to make them feel as if the dance concepts they are learning could only be performed by their unique selves. We hope to shift their mindsets to not only value dancing and what it can do for them, but what they are bringing to the dance.

 

The cool thing about what we do at Ballroom Dance Chicago is that regardless of the skill level of our students or their ability to connect to their partner, we know that they are constantly contributing to the work we’re accomplishing.

 

The reason the boy in our story was so willing and even happy to share his money was because he felt significantly satisfied to do so. He saw that in a moment, he could make a difference, and while the big picture of the issue doesn't see that shift, he knew that however small or big his gesture was, that is what he could provide, and he trusted that it made a difference to at least one person.

Whether we love the work we do or hate it, we all have some tasks that aren't as enjoyable as others. The difference between those who feel satisfied and proud to complete those tasks and those who feel annoyed and frustrated to spend their time and energy is that the former has found meaning, and a sense of self satisfaction in those tasks.

Often times, we make excuses for not being happy in the workplace. Our boss is nagging, our co-workers are difficult, our jobs are dreadful. These are all perceptions created by our individual experience of the actions surrounding us. What we need to do to feel happy is simply shift these perceptions. Your boss being tough on you won't change. Take this as an opportunity to learn perseverance. You will have difficult co-workers wherever you go. Take this as an opportunity to learn patience and cooperation. Your job is dreadful because you don't see your value. When you take a closer look at the big picture, understand that you are an integral and important part of the entire operation.

In order to find the value in less desirable tasks, we first have to ask ourselves, "What are my strengths and talents?" and "What do I value most?" Only then can we start to understand our role in this world, and find true meaning and happiness in what we do everyday.

For example, here at Ballroom Dance Chicago, we thoroughly enjoy what we do. We are all dancers and enjoy sharing our knowledge and insights with others, so it is no wonder that we find meaning and satisfaction from our work. However, we are not lucky enough to simply dance and teach dance all day without any other care in the world. We have to worry about keeping up with emails and paperwork, cleaning the studio, polishing glassware for service, and a number of other small, seemingly annoying tasks.

We are more than happy to tackle these things day in and day out because as a team, we value things like cleanliness, quality, and order. We know that it is important that our appearance and the studio's appearance reflects these values because we have a long standing reputation as Chicago's highest rated dance studio, and the last thing we ever want to do is compromise that reputation. Not only because we would be disappointing our clients, but because we would be selling ourselves and our talent short. The only way we are able to stay focused and content while polishing glass after glass is because we see how it benefits our own well-being. It's quite selfish when you think about it.

What we hope to accomplish with every student that walks through the door is to inspire them to understand how their individual strengths and talents add meaningful contributions to the process whether or not they have had any dance experience. Dance is about so much more than coordination and patterns of movement, and we hope to help our students see how they fit into the big picture whether they believe they are good dancers or not.

When thinking of building a city, it may seem like an enormous task that you couldn't even imagine taking on, but when you take a closer look, every small contribution you yourself makes is a building block for the entire system. Maybe you make the coffee for the construction manager of the tallest building

One way that we accomplish this is by getting to know our students (their personalities, their values, talents, and strengths) both as individuals and as a couple as best as we can. Then we are able to highlight those things both throughout the learning process, and within the dance we create together.

And especially for our wedding couples, it’s important to keep in mind that your soon-to-be spouse - your dance partner - is the one that you are going to be contributing to. Keep in mind that all of these moments you spend preparing your first dance add up to define and develop the relationship you’re starting together. Someone once said that the design is the details. And at Ballroom Dance Chicago, we believe that every moment we spend with our loved one builds the definition of our relationships. So make sure that what you add to your dance lessons is always positive. Be one time. Give your partner positive affirmations. Focus on the task at hand and believe you are a contribution to your first dance, even if at times it’s hard to see how.

Also, learning your first dance means committing to a temporary small team: you, your partner and your teacher. Everybody is on the same page. Everyone has the same goal - for you and your fiance to create a meaningful and memorable first dance. Remember, that you’re all sharing that experience together, for all the hours it takes to prepare your dance. So make the most of it and be the best team member you can be!

If you don’t know what you’re adding, have no worries. We all have different skills and talents and things to offer each other. Somebody has a better ear, another has a better eye, another is a master of movement and grace. There are so many things you can do to add awesome-ness to the process. Think creatively about what unique talents and gifts you can contribute to make this learning experience better!