A world famous choreographer is being interviewed by a New York Times reporter. Suddenly a prima ballerina comes bursting into the room, alive with fury, shouting about her costume and stamping and throwing her arms about. The choreographer warns her:
“Julie,” he says, “please remember Rule Number Two.”
Suddenly Julie is restored to complete calm, apologizes and leaves the room. The choreographer and reporter return to their conversations only to be interrupted by yet another hysterical dancer who’s crying and gesticulating wildly. Again, this dancer is greeted with the same stern words:
“Alice, please remember Rule Number Two.”
With those words, Alice comes to a complete calm and looks blankly at the choreographer. She fixes her disheveled hair, apologizes for her demeanor and exits the room. When the scene is repeated for the third time, the reporter puts his notes away and goes off topic.
“Sir,” he says, “I’ve seen many remarkable things in my life. I’ve traveled the world, been to all seven continents, and I have never seen anything as remarkable as this. Do you mind sharing with me the secret of Rule Number Two.”
“It’s quite straightforward,” says the choreographer. “Rule Number Two is the only thing I train my ballerinas on. Simply put: ‘don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.’”
“I see,” says the reporter. That is a great rule.” After a moment of quiet contemplation, he says, “So do tell me, if I may ask, what is Rule Number 1?”
“You know what Rule Number One is,” says the choreographer. “You, along with everyone else, were born with a crystal clear understanding of Rule Number One. And we don’t need any reminder of that.”
What the choreographer is getting at here is that you, or all of us, are concerned about ourselves, and that others recognize us, more than we are concerned about others, their welfare, their desires and wants. We see this in children who cry and wail as if to say, “Hey, take note of me.” And we see this with grown men buying expensive sports cars and women wearing ornate jewelry and clothing. We see this in the layers of opinion, entitlement, pride and inflated self-esteem we call our “self.”
The connection to dance might seem obvious with the story of the ballerinas, but the less obvious connection we will make for you is between self-absorbedness (like self-centeredness, but different in that it’s not just concerned with promoting the self. Self-absorbedness is self-centeredness unaware. Self-absorbedness does not necessarily promote the individual towards health and success. Imagine Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker, lost in his own thoughts and concerns, totally unaware of the world around him. Frozen in time and space, not conscious of other’s thoughts and opinions and emotions and how they might affect his future) and the issues it brings up while learning and teaching (and dancing, for that matter) ballroom and Latin or any type of partner dance.
A large part of lightening up during the learning process is keeping the big picture in mind and letting go of the small frustrations along the way.
During the learning process, mistakes and missteps are bound to happen. If we were perfect at everything, there would be no reason to learn. And, some would argue that experiencing the mistakes and overcoming the hurdles along the way not only help you to better understand the task at hand but also builds your personal character and ability to persevere. Often, we at the studio experience students who have created unrealistically high expectations for themselves in the learning process. Rather than being patient with themselves, they expect to get every step and correction perfectly on their first or second try. It’s hardly ever the case that this happens, and even if a student does successfully achieve what we asked of them, there are still likely ten other things that they still need to work on. Of course it’s easy to get hung up on these difficult moments. Our students are typically highly successful individuals who are used to being great at the things they do. They have also typically spent years focusing only on the activities and studies that they are naturally good at and haven’t tried something new in a long time. It’s naturally unsettling to not be great at this new task when they’re good at everything else in their lives.
However, most students don’t realize that their high expectations actually get in the way of learning the majority of the time. Expecting perfection and failing is far more frustrating than expecting to work hard and succeeding. Unfortunately, the former is the typical mentality when learning to dance as an adult, likely because they are just taking the process too seriously. Yes, we have a goal that we’re here to achieve, but if we get hung up on every small frustration along the way, it will only take us longer to get there. Instead, if we focus on keeping the process light and positive, we can sail smoothly through to achieving our goal regardless of the bumps along the way. When students have a moment of difficulty, we often remind them of the larger goal we have in learning to dance- to enjoy your partner, to have fun, to be in the moment, to enjoy the music, etc. Learning to dance is not about being perfect. It is about trying your best and being in the moment. So, just lighten up and enjoy it!
Another facet of “lightening up” is allowing yourself to disengage from goals for a moment and engage in playfulness. Think of children as they run around at recess, or play pretend; the children aren’t thinking about how their actions will contribute to their future, or really how their actions contribute to anything, which allows them to truly engage in the moment.
As we grow from children to adults, we get the idea that we should stop playing, that ‘adults’ don’t play around. In fact, scientific studies have shown the exact opposite: that play is an important part of development that should continue into adulthood. According to psychologist Stuart Brown, when we’re in a state of play, something happens within our brains that allows us to make connections that we wouldn’t have made before. All of a sudden, when we’re playing, when the stakes are low, creativity flourishes. We’re purely engaged in the moment and allowing the scenario to unfold, instead of trying to think 10 steps ahead.
In some ways, our habit of ‘future-thinking’ is perhaps connected to a fear of failure. When we’re thinking about end goals, and imagining how our present actions take us closer or further from those end goals, we’re limiting ourselves to trying to find the “right” action to take. In any given moment, there are thousands of possible actions, and spending our time trying to pinpoint the best one on the first try is exhausting, and oftentimes disappointing. Instead, we need to acknowledge that there are many different options and then spend our time exploring, expecting to find an answer that fits.
We see this all the time in our lessons. People come to us in ‘future-thinking’ mode, wanting to know how every single item we spend time on in their lesson will contribute to the end goal. What we hope to do is to reverse these habits so that our students will see our time together as an open ended journey of discovery, a time to explore and play together with their partner through the guidance of their instructor.
We often hear the question, “what will I look like after five lessons, ten lessons?” It’s our job to get our students to understand that kind of thinking only sets them up for failure. Everyone learns differently. There is no formula that guarantees a student will learn “x” amount of moves in “x” amount of time, and once you allow yourself to simply engage in the present moment of discovery, your rate of progression will continually increase, and the results of your hard work will become obvious.
The truth is that the answer to that question isn’t what most people want to hear. People like to know that if they invest “x,” they will see “y” result. Learning to dance simply isn’t a tangible or linear sort of activity. After 5 lessons or even 10 lessons with us, we can’t guarantee that you’ll know 3 box moves, 5 smooth swing moves, and 3 dips, but we can guarantee that you’ll gain insight into your body, your partner’s body, and have a fuller understanding of how to compromise and practice good communication skills with your partner.
The end result is, that if you’re focusing on the minimum to get by, you’ll cover far less distance.