Perception & Learning to Dance

Perception is invented

A dance studio sends two instructors to Cuba to see if there is a market in the newly opened economy. One calls his boss after the first night saying, “This market is hopeless. Everyone already dances salsa.”

The other instructor calls later that afternoon. “We have an amazing business opportunity!” He says. “Everyone dances salsa, but no one dances waltz.”

To the dance instructor who sees everyone dancing salsa, everything points to deficiency. To the other instructor who saw no one dancing waltz, the same scenario points to opportunity. Both saw the same objective world, but their differing perceptions, created by their differing perspectives, told two different stories. In fact, all of life comes to us in this way. All of life is a story we tell and we have the opportunity to write the narrative.

The roots of this phenomenon run deep, but for the purposes of this post, we’re interested in how perspective affects our relationship with our clients, both in our ability to teach them and their ability to learn.


Dance in the United States is not a pervasive pastime, yet everyone seems to have strong feelings about whether or not they are a “dancer.” Many clients who walk in the door at Ballroom Dance Chicago for the first time say things like “I’m not a good dancer” or “I don’t like to dance,” yet they have next to no experience dancing. And when we ask why they feel that way, we often hear, “I don’t know. I’m just not good at it.”

So why is this?

Mainly, we don’t value dance as a culture and, therefore, children are not taught to value dance. Actually, children, at least the so called “smart ones,” are told to avoid the arts or to give them minimal attention. As Sir Ken Robinson puts it in the most popular TED talk of all time: we’re educating people out of their creative capacities. At the top of the hierarchy of  learning are mathematics, sciences and language and at the bottom are the arts (and in the hierarchy of arts, dance is at the bottom). Essentially, what we’re doing is educating children to be scientists. And, in doing so, we’re teaching them that mistakes are the worst thing they can make. A mistake, after all, leads to a wrong answer. A mistake means you are wrong. In the arts, “mistake” isn’t part of the vernacular.  That’s not to say that making mistakes is creativity, but mistakes (or unexpected outcomes, as we like to call them) are an essential part of the creative processes - and any learning process as well. Learning to dance requires people to refrain from concepts of right and wrong, which isn’t a skill most people learn.

As dance instructors, we regularly come up against this need for right and wrong. “Did I do it correctly?” is a common question, with an underlying hope for a positive answer. And all we can say is, “well, yes, that’s a version of correct.” Because in dancing, it’s impossible to do something “correctly.” Dance is about self-expression, not fitting to a norm - at least the way we teach it. Our goal as dance teachers is to remind our students of their initial acceptance of “failure” and curiosity; “Did I do it correctly?” doesn’t run through a child’s head when he/she is learning to walk! A child learning to walk is simply curious about exploring this new territory. Our job is to get our clients to shake off the dust of their educations and relearn the learning process - to rediscover what it means to be creative.

Not only do our culture and education system stress the necessity of correctness, they also stress the necessity of blending in with the crowd. We are taught the value of fitting in, of living up to society’s standards of success rather than expressing who we are as individuals and living our own idea of a fulfilling life. So not only are we terrified of getting it wrong, we’re also shamed away from going outside of our comfort zone and trying something new. We all limit our own potential, not because we have any reason to believe we’re incapable, but simply because we’re afraid of trying.

We all experienced this feeling of shame in grade school, high school and college time and time again. The scenario goes something like this: the teacher prompts the class that anyone can be chosen to answer the question on the board. Immediately, everyone sinks into their chair. “Don’t pick me. Please don’t pick me” is what we all say in our heads. We’re terrified that we’ll be singled out among the crowd, forced to get up there and be vulnerable because there’s a chance we might get it wrong. Then the teacher chooses someone - luckily not you. The chosen one walks up to the board and starts scribbling an answer and about ten seconds into their process, the teacher suddenly stops the chosen one. They’re wrong. She asks them to sit down and gives the next student a chance to answer the question. The chosen one feels ashamed, stupid and incapable and everyone in the classroom feels more afraid of being wrong.



It’s no surprise that when new students walk through our doors, they typically fear deep down that they are bad dancers and that they are incapable of learning to dance. Dancing, especially in front of people, is a vulnerable activity. It forces you to get out of your head, to express yourself freely, and be ok with being imperfect. Most people walking into the studio for the first time have never approached learning to dance because they’re too afraid of failing. As dance instructors, we realize that the problem is not that they believe they’re bad dancers; it’s that they allow this belief to paralyze the possibility of becoming good dancers or even trying to dance at all. Shame and fear are strong motivators. And they’re perceptions that hold back the learning process and keep people from being their best selves.

Other than shame and fear, there are other factors that keep people from dancing or taking dance lessons. The most surprising one is empathy - yes, that all important thing we use to relate to each other and build bonds. Empathy, or the ability to imagine the experiences of another and recreate the repercussions of that experience in our own lives, allows us to create lasting bonds and feelings of support. Where this otherwise positive quality falls short is in our ability to grow beyond the bounds of others’ negative experiences. For example: your friend is telling you about a speech they recently gave at their new job. It was a horrible experience, filled with uncomfortable silence and unsupported punch lines. When you hear this story, you’re immediately filled with discomfort, and unless you have a pre-existing confidence in your ability to speak in front of crowds, you probably won’t agree to give a presentation anytime soon without your friend’s story coming to mind. While commiserating with your friend, this experience has unconsciously influenced your perspective of public speaking in a negative way.


So what are we up against? We are not only contending with an individual’s perception of dancing. We are trying to reshape the dancing experience of everyone that that person has interacted with: the cousin they watched waddle through their first dance on their wedding day, the girlfriend who told them about her embarrassing middle school dance, the uncle who sits out at family events, simply stating “I don’t dance.” By listening and participating in other people’s stories of dancing, we are unconsciously setting limits for ourselves and how we dance. We are cultivating small negative notions of dance and allowing them to grow, even if we have no evidence to support it.


In addition, studies have shown that when we feel empathy for another's situation, we have a tendency to mirror their physicality in order to look and feel as if we are on their level, providing an extra sense of comfort to that person. It is not that we feel sad for them and then take on the physicality of being sad. In fact we actually take on the physical nature of what we perceive to be a sad person which then sends signals to our brain registering feelings of stress and sadness.

We function from the body to the brain, not the other way around as most people would assume.


In a TedX talk in Jaffa in 2013, Tel Shafer tells a story of encountering a grizzly bear while jogging along a trail. She remembers feeling her heart start to race and her blood rushing to her muscles preparing her to run away. I'm sure we can all imagine this feeling of terror. Survival sets in and we immediately want to protect ourselves so we close ourselves off to avoid being hurt. It is this body language that actually sends signals to your brain that cause feelings of fear.

In a study co-authored by Dana Carney of UC Berkley in 2010, researchers further test this theory that body movement and posture can affect our emotion. Research found that postures reflecting confidence increased the level of testosterone in the brain and decreased levels of Cortisol. Testosterone is a hormone associated with self confidence, while Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress.


In her TedX talk, Shafer shares the results of a study she conducted in which she had subjects sit in a crouched and guarded position (similar to the position of typing in front of a computer screen) for two minutes. The study showed that these subjects' levels of Cortisol increased significantly after just two minutes of being in this position.

The struggle that we have as dance instructors is that many of our students walk in at the end of their work day having been in this sort of position for eight or more hours. By the time we see them, they are not only heavily influenced by their negative preconceptions of dance (and their empathy for their loved ones stories of dance), but they have subconsciously released increased levels of cortisol to their brain all day long, making the notion of learning a new skill even more stressful.

When we listen to our preconceived notions and our friends and families stories of failure in dance, we immediately have a physical reaction to protect ourselves. The problem is that we now have to fight the impact that physicality has on our emotions. When you allow yourself to close up to protect yourself from learning this new skill, you are only feeding your sense of fear. If we can learn to open up our body language and approach dancing with the physical signals of excitement and joy, then we will be much happier and more successful in the learning process.

We set out to change these perceptions for every individual we teach. But how do we reverse years of built up experiences and lead our students to believe that they’re capable of being great dancers?

We change their perception of what dance is and how it fits into their personality and lifestyle. We share our belief that dance is about expressing who you are, not about fitting into a mold.

And we realize that dancing, more specifically dancing in front of people, is a scary thing to approach. Our students are already pushing themselves hard just by walking in and giving this a try, so we applaud them for their effort. We give them a supportive environment and we watch them thrive. Tim Ferris, a productivity guru, states in his TED talk, Smash Fear, Learn Anything, that “the best results in life are often held back by false constructs and untested assumptions.” We help our students smash these false constructs that our culture has built surrounding dance, trying new things, and defining success, and we help them test out these untested assumptions, these expectations of failure. Helping our students change their perception of themselves and their potential is often the first step of the learning process.

At Ballroom Dance Chicago, we are trying to un-teach the negative experiences of our students’ loved ones by overpowering those feelings with positive experiences. We’re trying to counteract these negative impulses and spread a new perspective of dance that values trying without fear of failure. By changing individual perspectives, we are slowly influencing everyone in that person’s social circle.

If you are someone who fears dance or has anxiety about being in front of people, discover what assumptions you’re making, or perspective you’re holding, by asking a couple of simple questions:

What are the stories I’m telling myself that are causing these negative emotions?

What assumptions am I making about the people, places or things around me that cause me to see the world in this negative light?

How have the people around me influenced this negative perception?

How am I manifesting this perception physically?


And when you have an answer or two to either of these questions, ask yourself:

What story might I invent now that will give me the strength and confidence I need to live the life I want?

What assumptions can I make that will change the framework for how I see this situation?

Where can I find people who will promote a positive perspective of the situation?

How can I change my physicality to better project the way I want to feel?

And then you can begin the process of creating a framework that supports a life of possibility!