Entering A Life of Possibility Through Dance

Dancing opens a world of possibilities!

In our last blog post, we talked about how our perceptions of dance, and what it means to be a good dancer, are negatively directed by many factors (to read more, click here). The most important idea to take away from the last blog post is that all of our perceptions - we specifically were talking about negative perceptions - about dance are made up. And it is our goal at Ballroom Dance Chicago to inspire our dance students (specifically couples learning for the first wedding dance) to take control of the learning process and create new perceptions about dance that are positive and that feed the learning process instead of hindering it.

Now that we understand that all of our negative perceptions are all invented, we’d like to discuss how to create a place, or mindset, where we fluidly invent new ways of thinking that do not confine us. Let’s call this place the “realm of possibility.” This realm is limitless and extends well beyond the borders we’ve created for our everyday reality.

In this blog post, we are most interested in examining our everyday reality and seeing how it creates unnecessary confines for the process of learning to dance. Our goal is to educate you and give you strategies for seeing past the walls measurement to vast fields of possibility.

At Ballroom Dance Chicago, our dance students live in this everyday world of measurement. Measurement holds a prominent position in their lives; assessments, scores, grades, comparisons and standards are part of the everyday experience. In this world of measurements (which is just a made up story, see our last blog post), we get to know each other and the world around us by comparing and contrasting with other people and things. We know a child by comparing him/her to other children. We know the ballet dancers at the local production of Swan Lake by comparing them to the cast of the American Ballet Theater. We know a business and whether it’s worth investing into by its financial projections and how well it lived up to them. We grow up in this world of measurement.

As dancers and dance teachers at Ballroom Dance Chicago, this world of measurement is something we’re all familiar with. We grew up dancing at various schools (preschool through graduate school), in a handful of cities, with countless teachers and all of them measured our success as compared to outside standards - syllabi or technique created by other people at another time in a different historical setting. The most obvious styles of dance that are run by traditions of technique and “right” and “wrong” are ballroom and Latin dance. The abridged history of these forms is that they started as social dances that were eventually standardized and put onto competitive floors. Most people forget this history and the competition standards unfortunately bleed into the teaching of inexperienced students who just want to move with their partner or who want to have an entertaining first dance at their wedding. For us, this type of standardized measurement tool usually makes no sense, unless of course we have a student interested in these conventions and competing at formal ballroom and Latin dance competitions. Unless you’re a dance judge, you’ll probably take in the general appearance and demeanor of the dancers and how they projected their skill. That’s it.  And, if you’re the dancer out on the floor, you’ll likely judge your performance by how you felt and the connection, both physical and emotional, you made with your partner. That means our main job as dance teachers is to get our dance students looking and feeling natural while either dancing social or at their wedding. And we founded Ballroom Dance Chicago because we couldn’t find any place that housed the experience and knowledge of competitive dancers with the teaching knowhow to get inexperienced dancers comfortable and confident expressing themselves, not a standard.

But this idea of a “standard of measurement” is a tough one to throw off, because most of our dance students come to us with their minds in the world of measurements. They tell us stories of their friends’ weddings and how wonderful or how awful the first dance was, already comparing what they hope to achieve against what others have done. They have created a definition of what it means to be successful by simply looking at others. They say “We want to be better than them,” or, “We could never be as good as them.” Often, this severely limits our students’ idea of success while also limiting their personal potential. “We just don’t want to trip on each other,” barely constitutes success in our minds as dancers and dance teachers, yet this is almost every student’s goal upon walking into the studio. So why don’t our new students walk in with higher expectations for themselves? It’s because of the comparisons they’ve made to everyone else and they’ve come to the conclusion, whether they realize it or not, that they can and will only achieve so much through this process. Of course this mentality hinders their learning.

Seeing an end-goal (be it high or low) for your potential is the easiest way to hold yourself back. So why do we set this limitation? Is it because we don’t want to let ourselves down? Is it because we want to be able to measure our success and test ourselves in the end to make sure we lived up to our initial goal? If so, it’s clear that we need to challenge the comforts of measurement of success so we can rise above these limitations.

At first, our students seem a little thrown off by the fact that we can’t promise them that they’ll learn exactly five dance moves in ten lessons or that they’ll be able to accomplish a choreographed first dance in forty. But the truth is that if we place an end goal on our students’ learning, all we’re doing is limiting their possibility. Similarly, if we buy into the limitations they’ve set - of just not tripping on each other - all we’d do is limit their possibility. So we treat all of our students, regardless of their initial expectations and goals, as individuals who are fully capable of being great dancers. We help them see past their limitations that they’ve created and through the process of learning, help them see their personal goals outside of the realm of comparison and measurement. We help them measure their success our way - by engaging in the moment - by seeing a world of possibility.

All of this is not to say that a world of measurements is inherently bad; it’s the way we value the results of such measurements that damages our outlook. By being constantly tested and scored, we’re conditioned to believe that we live for end goals. We live to be another number in an average. We contribute by being acceptable, rather than exceptional. This number that displays our worth in relationship to everyone else’s worth immediately tells us whether we are “passable” by being inside the norm or “different” by falling outside the norm. Even in the realm of dance, we are measured by a standard either created by our teachers and dance academies. Through continuous measurement and comparison from a young age, we are taught to strive for fitting in. There is little value placed on “other-ness,” if otherness is displayed at all. And when we see our wedding couples learning to dance for their first dance (which is meant to be a true expression of their relationship!), we get a lot of questions about correctness, as if some standard of perfection exists for them dancing at their wedding. The world of measurement has stranded these fresh dance students in a desolated place where perfection cannot be achieved but where perfection is sought.

In addition, our dance students have a fear of failure that leaves them paralyzed to venture outside of where they feel safe, secure, and in essence, limited: their comfort zones. Our comfort zones have clear boundaries around what it is we’re capable of achieving, and how we go about achieving these things. While understanding our shortcomings and areas of weakness is a necessary step towards improvement and self-awareness, we must allow ourselves to think beyond what we deem possible in order to grow.

Venture outside your comfort zone

To truly feel successful during any kind of learning process, we must venture outside our comfort zone. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable to truly discover something new and continue progressing. In essence, that is what learning is: persisting through moments we call “failures” and gaining new insight in moments of vulnerability.

Imagine the learning process as going on a canoe trip: if the only goal we have is to be able to hold the paddle correctly, we’re not going to get very far. On the other hand, if all we can think of is paddling to a destination 200 miles away and we’ve never canoed before, we’re going to be sorely disappointed when we don’t achieve that. Instead, we must continuously take small risks and be open to the possibility of change. Perhaps it takes us longer than we thought to get the hang of paddling, but the extra practice allows us to learn patience and persistence. Perhaps we only travel 5 miles instead of 200, but we end up discovering a new destination that’s better than our original goal.

While our “world of measurements” might not see either of these experiences as completely valuable, we understand that either of these accomplishments is an enjoyable experience of life. And that’s exactly what we’re after.

While all goals are better than no goals at all, we must come to realize and be open to the possibility of discovering new territory, and getting lost along the way. As cliched as the quote “Life is a journey, not a destination.” 
― Ralph Waldo Emerson is, there’s truth to its sentiment: we can’t know where we’re going to end up, all we can do is be open to it.

Let’s continue with the canoe metaphor for a moment and imagine comparing our experience of canoeing to our friend’s experience. While we may have ended at the same place, our friend may have come by a different route, maybe their canoe was built better than ours, maybe they had prior experience canoeing. We can understand that this isn’t really a useful comparison because we had different experiences; yet, we continue to use similar comparative methods in other aspects of our life: our colleague got a better promotion, our sister got married earlier, our best friend is a better dancer. If we operate in a realm of possibility, we can recognize these differences, but we don’t let them influence our worth or ability to grow. We acknowledge others’ accomplishments and continue to strive for our own definition of success.

When we measure ourselves up against others, and live our lives within measured boundaries, we are not only limiting our potential, but we’re also limiting the potential of those with whom we are in competition, our community and the world around us.

Imagine a world where no one ever stepped outside of their own comfort zone. If nobody said "Hey you guys. I think the world might be round." Or if MLK Jr. said "I have dream," and everyone else was like, "Alright, keep your dreams to yourself, buddy.”

If no one ever pushed the envelope, or experimented with new things completely open to discovery, we would all probably still be wearing wooly mammoth hide and carrying clubs around.

The most successful individuals are those who work toward a goal that will not only benefit themselves, but benefit those around them as well. They are more open to different paths and suggestions from others and have a clear understanding of the most important aspect of all goals. Why it's important.

Let's go on that canoeing trip for a moment again. Imagine, now, that someone handed your team a couple of canoes and some paddles, but did not specify what they were used for, only that you must take the materials to get yourself and your team safely from point a to point b.

Your combined, skills, knowledge, and effort make for a much more seamless, fruitful and successful trip than if you were to fight for who understood the correct use of all the equipment. Maybe you aren't aware that a canoe is used for traveling via water. You grew up in the desert, how would you know? But your teammate grew up near a canal and is accustomed to using this equipment. They wouldn't keep this information to themselves the way they would if you were up against each other. Instead, your teammate is more than happy to share their knowledge with you as they know it will help you both succeed, and arrive safely at your destination. This shared knowledge allows each of you to grow as individuals, and gain insights that would not have otherwise come to fruition.

In this canoeing scenario, there is no "getting there first." Instead you are able to focus on discovering how to do what needs to be done and how to work together to accomplish it. And when your mind is focused on the process, and not the goal, so much more is possible.  It can be hard to even imagine what you'll end up discovering.

Our goal as teachers at Ballroom Dance Chicago is to get our students to approach the process of learning to dance with openness to discover who they are as dancers. We leave standards of measurement outside of our studio space and ask people to focus only on process. We ask our dance students, especially those who have a specific goal (like dancing their first wedding dance) to trust our abilities as navigators to keep this learning process focused and on track. Our students role is to step into the realm of possibility.

But how to do that? What is the practice that can get us to a place of possibility, outside and beyond the world of measurement?

The next time you feel pressured to perform or feel anxiety or stress related to anything, ask yourself, "What am I doing or thinking right now that is part of the world of measurement?"

Be open to the answers, ideas and feelings that come your way. And when you identify them, ask yourself, “how are these thoughts and actions of the world of measurement limiting the possibilities of this moment?”

And just by asking these questions over time, you will begin to fully appreciate how shaped your daily reality is by the world of measurement. And this awareness alone will let you relax and laugh and say “I’m not letting these perceptions limit me anymore!”