The Intermediate Plateau

When I started dancing (way back when), I remember being completely enraptured. I was in college and learning Lindy Hop, and I was obsessed. I couldn’t get enough of this dance that allowed me to move – with another person, no less – to jazz music. I wanted to get good and get good fast, and I seized any and every opportunity to dance, learn to dance, and watch the dance. I lived and breathed dancing, obsessed with it, consumed by it. I even hopped on a train from Philadelphia to New York City for a weekend of workshops to get more of it.

And then, at some point, my enthusiasm waned. I was less obsessed, I was less consumed, and I was less passionate. I was a little more critical – of the dance and myself – and I enjoyed it less. It was as if the rose-colored glasses had come off, the shiny veneer now a little stained.

I had a similar experience when I got into West Coast Swing. I was driven and passionate in an obsessive, all-consuming way, but then that obsession faded too. My relationship with WCS has since been off and on, hot and cold, sometimes more passionate and sometimes most distant. Even when I am more passionate, it’s usually about being more driven to improve, rather than sheer joy and an overwhelming love of the dance. It’s a cycle, a push and pull, often affected by other priorities in my life, and sometimes I have to find my way back to the dance and my passion for it.

Over the last few years, particularly as I’ve trained beginners and watched them grow over time, I’ve noticed the same pattern in others. They begin with exhilaration and passion, driven to work on their dancing all the time, watching videos nonstop, going to dances and conventions as often as they can… and then at some point it stops. Their passion, their joy, and their drive all fade. Some hang on and stick with it, even if with less commitment, while others move on and leave dance behind, focusing their energies elsewhere instead.

I’ve come to call this phenomenon, The Intermediate Plateau. I say “intermediate” because I tend to see it happen as students settle into the Intermediate level of competition, but it can happen at the Novice level and sometimes at the Advanced level – really, whenever students start to slow in their progress. After a lot of effort and a lot of progress, they lose steam, they lose momentum, and they get a little deflated.

I don’t think there’s necessarily any one reason for The Intermediate Plateau, but I suspect there are a few different factors at play:

  1. The learning curve. After making a lot of progress learning the fundamental aspects of the dance and getting a basic level of competency, students reach a point where the things they’re learning require significantly more effort to achieve. They move beyond simple steps to controlling weight transfers, beyond holding hands to engaging muscles of the body for frame, beyond just doing patterns to dancing to the music. Having had fun learning the relatively “easy” stuff, now they have to face the harder stuff, and it takes more effort and more time to learn it. This can cause people to become frustrated that they aren’t progressing as quickly as before or as quickly as they like, and as they work harder on things, it can detract from their enjoyment of the dance.
  2. The challenge of competition. As with learning the dance, slower progress or success in competition can deplete one’s enthusiasm and enjoyment of the dance. In the Novice division, dancers must demonstrate a grasp of the fundamentals, and while the division can be tough to get out of due to the sheer number of competitors, the level of competency required is relatively low. But when dancers move into Intermediate, they go from competing against newer dancers to competing against more experienced and competent dancers. The competition is tougher, and those who may have had an easier time in Novice may not always achieve the same level of success. We all rise to the level of our incompetence, and once people move into Intermediate, their progress is often slower (though for some this doesn’t happen until they reach Advanced).
  3. Level of awareness. Once you achieve a certain level of competence, you start to recognize two things: (1) what you don’t know yet, and (2) what others don’t know. When you start to realize what you yourself don’t know yet, it can degrade your confidence. I see students all the time look at what they have yet to learn rather than appreciating all that they have already learned. It’s a “glass half empty” mindset, and it makes them more self-critical. At the same time, when you reach a level of skill and understanding of the dance, you also start becoming more aware of those who lack the same level of skill and understanding. Dancing with beginners or “bad” dancers isn’t as fun once you realize all the things they aren’t doing right. So with an increasing level of awareness, you start feeling less good about your own dancing, and less good about dancing with others with less competency.

Along with this slowing of progress and greater self-awareness seems to come more frequent comparison of one’s own progress with others’. They look at others and wonder why they aren’t moving as quickly, or why their peers are having greater success than them (which may or may not be true, but it’s their perception of the truth). This appears to be born out of frustration with their own progress slowing, but at times it also seems to be related to fears of “falling behind” or not keeping up with friends – and fear of losing friends because you’re not as good. And of course, when this comparison to others occurs, it only serves to reinforce a dancer’s frustration, self-criticism, and decreased enjoyment of the dance.

I don’t think these factors are necessarily bad, nor do I think that The Intermediate Plateau is necessarily a bad thing either. It’s just something I’ve noticed as a sort of phase in many dancers’ journeys (though not all). The shift from insatiable obsession to a more measured passion, from pure joy and enthusiasm to more frustration and disappointment, and from drive and positivity to criticism of self and others is a sort of “natural” part of a dancer’s growth. At the same time, I think it’s important to help people weather the storm and sustain their commitment and a positive mindset.

In my experience, a big part of preparing dancers for this period is setting expectations early on. It’s not that I want to squelch someone’s joy and idealistic view of dancing, but I do my best to help students prepare for challenges by working with them to build a growth mindset, develop a work ethic and value practice, having them set goals that are not based on competition outcomes, showing them how to appreciate their progress, and teaching them how to work on themselves while dancing with difficult or less competent partners. Having been through some of these ups and downs myself, I’ve found these qualities most effective for pushing through and regulating my attitude towards dance, and I try to pass these along to my students.

The Intermediate Plateau can be challenging, and often is the first difficult period in a dancer’s journey, but it doesn’t have to be the last period in the journey. Recognizing that this is a common, natural part of the process and preparing to push through can help dancers weather the storm and sustain their enthusiasm for the dance in the long run.

But what do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon too? Have you been through it? If so, what do you think is causing it, and how have you pushed through? How do you teachers help your students prepare or push through this period?

4 comments

  1. This is a great post and an important topic! It reminds me a lot of the book “Mastery – The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment“ by George Leonard.

    “To attain mastery, you have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere”

    The book has some great advice on how to navigate plateaus towards mastery (like understanding homeostasis and our own resistance to change) and names a number of common obstacles (perfectionism, overcompetitiveness, obsessive goal orientation, etc.)

    I enjoyed reading both this post and the book because I think knowing that plateaus are expected and a normal part of the path to mastery is half the battle 🙂

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