Life is either a great adventure or nothing. Helen Keller
Recently I again became aware of how much my mental state impacts my dancing. I previously wrote about uncovering unconscious self-limiting beliefs – and I’m working on that.
Yet, as my dance coach and instructor patiently continually points out, I unconsciously tense up (even when I think I am relaxed) when learning something new – whether it be a new figure, a new routine, a new dance – especially if I think it’s going to be difficult. Geez, not only am I not aware of the tension in my body, I intellectually know that this physical tension is actually detrimental to achieving my goals.
Ah – another journey into self-reflection – what is at the root of this unconscious tensing up? For starters, I am a both a perfectionist and an over-achiever – despite my efforts to allow myself to enjoy the journey. I work really hard when I’ve identified specific goals and I definitely have some specific long-term goals for my dancing. Not to say that the journey isn’t fun – it definitely is!
The upside is that I am finding myself practicing in new and creative ways – both at the studio and at home. However, the downside of my drive to “succeed” gets in the way of better dancing because “working hard” has somehow become defined in my unconscious mind as physically bulldozing my way through. In the course of reflecting, I also have discovered that the “tensing up” – especially in my upper body, has been my way to get focused.
So my question is how do I “relax” my body through the physical learning process – and when I am participating in competitions? I don’t have any answers yet. Sports psychologists have long studied how top athletes approach their mental game. Thus, I have begun looking at what athletes in other fields do – and was reminded of the myriad ways they up their confidence and focus. Great athletes use myriad approaches to get the results they want such as: establishing specific pre-game routines or rituals, using positive self-talk, incorporating a lucky talisman, eating a specific food, visualization, or incorporating known relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.
Not sure which of these approaches will work for me, but I am excited about exploring all the options. Stay tuned!!!
One of the most important skills an amateur female ballroom dancer (at least in the Western world) needs to master is the art of following – a progressive journey of several stages. And a journey that I believe is never completed.
When female amateurs first begin ballroom dancing, we are told that our “job” is to follow. Especially in the U.S., that means learning to let go of control and let our partner “lead” us. The conundrum is that many of us women, when we first danced as teens, were the leaders, so many of us became masters at back-leading. Or, if in our youth, we studied any of the popular dance forms such as ballet, tap or jazz, we most often danced solo and the whole partnering dynamic is a new experience.
In the beginning, this ballroom dancing dynamic of leading and following can often be misinterpreted as waiting for our partner to “push” or “pull” us around. Early on, many of us also expect and/or prefer a “strong” lead so that we know where we’re supposed to go. This approach also lends itself to a lot of early instruction telling us (as the follower) to “wait” rather than jump the gun by anticipating what the move will be.
As we progress and the patterns or figures become more complex, we are supposed to also learn our specific part – which may be a bit different from our partners’ part. And again we are given instruction to not “help” our leader – translate – quit back-leading.
Thus, in addition to following, we are expected to learn how to distinguish between when to dance “independently” (understand and do what our part is) and when to follow. Part of the process is also how to “feel” the leads into our specific part of the figure or pattern. Put another way, this stage is the journey of learning what one’s job is in the dance partnership and learning when to “hesitate” and when to just move.
To further complicate this ongoing journey, every leader leads differently – some leaders are subtler and others prefer to be a bit stronger. Just learning how each partner leads is in itself a journey. As we learn to follow with different partners, we need to work out together how each partner leads.
While the journey never ends, I’ve discovered that the joy of this progressive “following” journey is found in both big and small improvements – like when you dance with a new leader and can follow immediately – at least most of the time. Or when you realize that you have become more conscious and aware of the subtler leads.
And it’s these “victories” that can be addictive, so I keep coming back for the joy in the journey.
When the Body Says No
It’s been a busy three months since I lasted posted. Lots of international and domestic business travel – Dallas, Poland, India, Singapore and Uruguay.
It’ a good thing I like to travel – and the business does pay for dance lessons and competitions. On the other hand, the travel wreaks havoc with my dance goals since practice becomes a challenge.
It’s been a while since I’ve traveled so extensively to international locations – and I totally underestimated the toll jetlag would have on dance practice. While I managed to get a few yoga sessions in, a tiny amount of dance prep exercises, plus some walking to and from the office or for meals, finding the additional energy to practice routines or improve on technique was nearly impossible. My body just said, “No”. I think I put my dance shoes on only once in the two week Asia trip.
So I am now exploring ways to honor both my body’s needs and make at least some minor progress toward my dance goals without feeling overwhelmed. I stumbled upon a silly-sounding tip to work fitness into to a busy daily routine. The tip: every time you go to the bathroom, do a few targeted exercises – and before you know it, you’ll have done a half-decent workout. Boy howdy, the tip also works for dance technique exercises as well – even at home when my energy is lagging. The best news – after a few mini-practices, I’m actually more motivated to attack the longer practices.
Excuses and Self-Limiting Beliefs
This dance journey is so much bigger than just physically learning steps and I am continually amazed at how many life lessons are interwoven in my dance
I would guess that most of us who are amateur competitive dancers have to work as much on our mental state as our physical technique. Both excuses and self-limiting beliefs speak more to our mental state and often manifest when we’ve sidelined or forgotten our personal long-term goals.
Excuses often surface for me when I’m not doing all I can to move forward. For example, I make excuses for why I’m not practicing like I should. Excuses usually surface with the phrases “I can’t” or “I don’t”:
- My body can’t do that – I’m not flexible enough
- I don’t have enough time to learn that
- I can’t practice in hotel rooms
- Or even, I’m just too tired to…
Self-limiting beliefs, on the other hand, are generally how we hold ourselves back due to some kind of fear. Said beliefs can take many forms; they often begin with the phrases “I’m too….” or “I’m afraid…” (fill in the blank). An early self-limiting belief might be that “I’m afraid that I’ll look silly/ridiculous, etc.”. Some of mine are:
- I’m too chunky to look good on the dance floor
- I’m taking too long to master the technique
- I’m too old to… compete on a national level
- I’m too…to wear those costumes
So how do you overcome either excuses or self-limiting beliefs? Thoughts for another post!
Practice, Practice, Practice
Let’s begin with the question “Am I really serious about my dance goals?” If yes, than I need to practice regularly – preferably daily – right? Yet as many of us know, easier said than done – especially when we have busy lives, other commitments, and make our living outside the dance world.
So how do I motivate myself to practice? I’m learning to apply several “tricks” – some of which I picked up from my professional life and others that I’m learning as I go.
Motivational tricks right now:
- Remind myself of my numerous dance goals. This trick works for me because I can get bored easily. Since I have several different goals, on any given day, I can either practice a showcase routine, focus on technique for a particular dance or work on using my whole body for greater expressiveness.
- When I’m home (I travel extensively for business), schedule mini-practices throughout my workday – sort of bouncing back and forth between work and practicing.
- Sometimes schedule a larger block of time for practice, with built in mini-rewards like playing a video game.
- Watch dance videos – especially ones that focus on a particular technique I may be struggling with
- Since I have, like most of us, favorite dances, I might watch videos of professional dancers for inspiration – especially useful when I’m working on technique.
- When I do travel (and this is probably the biggest challenge to practicing), work in mini-practices that focus on technique I can do in a hotel room. For example, I might work on arm movements.
- Begin by doing some other physical activity to get me moving first – I’m finding that doing a little yoga or ballet barre technique gets me into the right headspace to practice.
And finally, just writing about dance – like this post – gets me excited and motivated.
The Power of Your Eyes
“Close your eyes, tune into your body. Notice what your body is telling you. What are you feeling in your body. “ These were the words with which our yoga instructor opened her class. Yogis know that to quiet the mind, one’s attention needs to be drawn into the body – and that one’s attention inward is facilitated by closing one’s eyes.
Of course, my eyes were already closed – I’ve discovered that if I want to be present to the “Now” or “in the moment” and my eyes are open, my brain doesn’t want to disengage.
So what’s the connection with dance?
Many of us who dance want use our own bodies to re-create what we see when we watch others dance exquisitely. The problem with trying to re-create what we think we see is that we often overdo or don’t understand the micro-movements that lead to such beautiful dancing.
And in ballroom dancing, that problem is compounded by the fact that we dance in partnership. So now there are two people attempting to re-create – and they often haven’t even discussed what they thought they saw – let alone how to lead or follow.
Which brings me back to the eyes. I have learned that my eyes are both useful and a hindrance to my dancing. Yes, my eyes help me to learn the patterns of the steps and exercises to improve my technique. My eyes also distract – I am less attuned to feeling a subtle lead in a new pattern when my eyes are open. I’ve also learned that if I want to “feel” the emotions that music evokes in me so that I can express those emotions through movement, I need to close my eyes.
So, in many instances, the act of closing my eyes in dance enables me to “feel” and “see” more deeply – thus enhancing my ability to move my body in dance. Weird, isn’t it?