When you join a studio it’s common to be given a form that asks about your dance experience, what dances you’re interested in, and your goals. These are all important questions, but the best question I ever saw on one of those forms was one I only saw once: how would you describe a good dancer?
I like this question because while most people will admit they want to be better dancers, few people have put much thought into what that means. Oh, many people can say what their goals are – or at least they can after some prompting – but very few can identify a point at which they think of themselves, or someone else, as a good dancer.
Unfortunately, identifying a good dancer means we must start comparing ourselves to other dancers. I remember at one of my first ballroom dances back in college, my girlfriend danced with the instructor and came back to me afterwards talking about what a great dancer he was. “I didn’t need to think, he just naturally got me to dance, it just happened!” Now as a man, the last thing I wanted was for my girlfriend to compare me to another man, particularly one who’d been dancing for about twenty years’ more than my scant three weeks, but at last I had a baseline: a good dancer was someone who could keep my girlfriend happy on the dance floor!
Eventually we broke up and though I kept dancing, it seemed prudent to reconsider my definitions if I wasn’t to dance with her anymore. I decided that a good dancer wasn’t someone who could keep that one woman happy on the dance floor but who could keep any woman happy on the floor! After all, if I was going to be out there dancing with any number of women (I hoped!) it would behoove me to do right be them.
The nice thing about this definition is it was easy to live up to. If my partners had fun, they thought I was a great dancer and told me so! The closer I adhered to my definition, the closer I thought I was to my goal of being a better dancer. There weren’t any problems until I finally saw a video of my dancing which, while not terrible, lacked the qualities I’d always envisioned. Oh, and I was breaking on the wrong beat.
Wow, I’d forgotten how painful it was watching that.
So a good dancer, I decided was somebody who looked good while dancing. Then it was someone who could dance to every song. Then it was someone who knew – and could lead – a number of different moves. Then it was someone who could win competitions.
And the funny thing is, each time my concept of what made a good dancer changed and which dancers I admired changed, my goals changed too. My study methods changed. And most importantly, my dancing changed. I learned two things from this: 1) You will wind up dancing like the people you admire, and 2) There’s no such thing as a great dancer, but there are great dancers.
I don’t mean someone can’t be a phenomenal dancer but rather there is no single definition of what makes someone a phenomenal dancer. In many ways it’s contextual; a good dancer at a competition will be doing intricate steps that occupy a lot of the floor in order to impress the judges, but at a social dance such a dancer would be considered an irritating show off at best and dangerous at worst.
Think about the dancers you admire. Who do you consider to be a good dancer? Who do you wish you were more like? Does this match your stated goals?
Recognize that it’s unlikely you’ll ever reach a point where you are perfectly satisfied with your dancing. The fact that there’s always farther to go, always another level to reach towards, is one of the joys of dancing and is part of what makes it a lifelong pursuit. Furthermore, the natural fear of arrogance inherent within most of us makes it difficult for most people to admit even to themselves when they are good. Remember in the beginning when I warned about the dangers of comparison? This is why! You’re likely to always measure yourself by those above you.
The solution is to look at how far you’ve come. How did you define a good dancer a year ago? Being honest with yourself, how much close are you to embodying that definition? How has your definition changed? That’s where you’re heading.