Words, words, words: “delayed weight transfer”

Words matter. The language we use to teach and talk about West Coast Swing influences the way we understand it and the way we dance it. This series will look at some of the terms we use in our community, with the aim of clarifying them for greater understanding and learning.

How we transfer our weight in dancing is everything. It affects our balance, our aesthetic, our timing, and our connection. And the more control we have over our weight transfers, the more we can do as dancers. After all, dance is movement, and movement is dependent on how we hold ourselves and transfer our weight through space.  (more…)

How good are you really?

It’s been my experience – as a teacher and just as an observer – that most dancers don’t have a truly accurate sense of their own abilities. A lot of people think they are either better than they are or worse than they are. And, not surprisingly, the truth is usually somewhere in between.  (more…)

Are you setting good goals for yourself?

I like New Year’s resolutions. I know some people say, “Why bother?” but I think there’s value in taking stock of where you’ve been and looking forward to where you want to be in another year from now. Resolutions can help create a vision and set a direction for getting there. They give a focus, push us to grow, and help us achieve our dreams.

For all these reasons, I’ve been working with my students to help them set goals for the year. But I think there are good goals and not-so-good ones. The difference is not in the substance of the goal, but rather in how the goal is defined.

Sure, goals are by definition a little broad, but I’m a believer in SMART goals – specific, measurable, aspirational, realistic, and time-bound. Yes, “aspirational” is different from “achievable” or “attainable” and that’s on purpose. I think good goals aren’t things that we are already equipped to achieve, but things that push us to grow, learn new competencies, and reach new limits. (Besides, doesn’t “realistic” imply that they are achievable?)

In that vein, I ask my students two questions:

  1. What is something that you’ve been struggling with this year that you’d like to overcome?
  2. What is something new that you’d like to learn?

I also ask them to think about two kinds of goals: finite achievements and systems or habits. Finite achievements are end results, clear measures of success, or defined indicators of competency. Systems or habits are the repeated actions or practices that we engage in on a regular basis. For instance, a finite achievement is being able to do two spins and remain balanced, whereas a system would be to spend 15 minutes each day practicing turns. Usually the systems are what help us succeed at the finite achievements, and they are just as important (if not more important) as finite achievements. (And how often and how well you practice is everything when learning to dance!)

When defining your goals, be careful about misguided ambitions. For instance, I’ve had several students tell me that one of their goals is to make a certain level of competition (e.g. “I want to be Intermediate by the end of the year”). What does this really mean? It means you got enough points to compete in a higher level. So what does it take to get there? It means attending more events, competing more often, spending more money on travel. But does it say anything about your dancing? If you say, “Well, I need to be better to be Intermediate,” then I would push you to define what it means to be “better.” If you start telling me that you want to be smoother or more musical, then I would say you’re on the right track to setting a good goal for yourself. Competition in and of itself does not say anything specific about our dancing; at best, it is merely an indicator of overall progress towards some other goal. Your goal should be more specific than a level of competition if you actually want to achieve something this year.

I encourage students to come up with 2-3 goals for the year. Some come up with 4 or 5 – a mixture of finite achievements and system goals – but I discourage setting more than that. It’s not about failure: I think it’s good to have an aspirational goal that will be so difficult to achieve (but still realistic) that you run the risk of not achieving it. These goals push us the most, and usually if we do not succeed, we still gain a lot in its pursuit. No, the reason I discourage too many goals is that it splits your focus. Goals are good because they can keep you focused, but if you have too many goals, it disperses your efforts so that you don’t make much progress on any one thing.

So pull out a piece of paper (or better yet, your dance notebook!) and jot down your goals for this year. Review them with your instructor, and think about how you can achieve your goals this year. And then, get practicing!

And happy New Year! May 2016 bring new levels of success and achievement in your dancing!

The rarity of amazing

It strikes me that these days there seems to be some pretty high expectations of dances and dance events. People want greatness from their dances – that incredible connection when everything aligns with a partner and the music – and greatness from their events – the amazing energy of an inspiring weekend experience. I don’t blame those with such expectations: who doesn’t want great dances with their partners? And with an increasing number of events to choose from, we want great value for our dollar – events that are fun and rewarding.

The problem arises when people are overly disappointed because reality doesn’t match their expectations. Just because a dance isn’t out-of-this-world amazing doesn’t mean it isn’t something to be enjoyed and appreciated. Just because a dance event isn’t mind-blowing doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining and worthwhile. Sometimes good is good enough, and we should be happy with that. Because you know what? “Amazing” is a rare thing.

The fact that “amazing” isn’t common is partly what makes it so amazing. If every dance were amazing, then the bar would simply get raised and we might start expecting more. The rarity of “amazing” is what makes it special, and what keeps us coming back for more, and what drives us to work harder to improve. It’s the possibility of having that amazing experience that makes this dance both exciting and rewarding. But the truth is that most of the time dances are not amazing.

Take competitions, for example. In any finals of a higher-level division, there may be a couple or even three truly outstanding dances. Then there will be a few good but not amazing dances. And the rest will be less than successful – missed connections, misaligned styles, conflicted partnerships, etc. So of say ten dances, only a couple are going to be amazing. Why should we expect any more from our own dancing experiences, whether competitive or social?

Honestly, I mostly blame social media. Let’s face it: No one posts videos of crappy dances on YouTube; they post the amazing dances. And no one writes post-event status updates on Facebook discussing why an event wasn’t enjoyable and how it could be improved; instead they write about the amazing dances!, the amazing competitions!, and the amazing people!

But the truth is: not everything is amazing. And that’s okay.

I’m fortunate to live in an incredible dance community – big, friendly, and talented – and I know I get spoiled with great dances. So when I go to a dance or weekend event, yeah, I’ve been the guy who has a run of bad dances and complains about it. But then I remind myself to have a little perspective: I’m so privileged to be able to do this thing we call partner dancing – to express my love of music through movement, and to get to do that with someone else. So maybe we didn’t create magic, or we had some missed connections, or I had to work a little harder. I’m still getting to do something I love, something not everyone can do or do well, and even if it wasn’t great for me, maybe I made someone else’s day a little better. It may not be amazing, but that’s pretty darn good, don’t you think?

So as the year ends, and the holiday season arrives, let’s be thankful for all our dancing, amazing or not. And may the coming year be one in which we find the amazing in all our dances.

A winning attitude

I don’t know about you, but no matter how many times I compete, I still get nervous. I may be fine right up until I start dancing, but that first dance – or worse, my only dance if it’s a spotlight – and I’m tense. The adrenaline rushes through my body and it’s like I’m not there. I’m not present or focused and I’m certainly not relaxed.

At this year’s Capital Swing, as I sat there waiting for my spotlight in the All Star Jack & Jill finals, I could feel a wave of panic rising up just under the surface. At times I felt like I just wasn’t in the room; at other times, I could feel my heart racing; and sometimes I would run through dance moves in my head, as if preparing somehow. I watched my peers get up and have amazing dances, some of them out of the park awesome, and I was awed and intimidated. I mean, how am I supposed to compete against dancing like that?

As more and more names got called, I started to get it together. Mentally. I sat there and had a chat with myself. I realized that I was trying too much – trying to plan, trying to prepare, trying to have an amazing dance. And that was what was freaking me out: all the pressure to have an amazing dance. My expectations for myself were huge and it stressed me out.

So I made a decision: just have a simple dance.

As Brandi Tobias said recently, “This is West Coast Swing. They’ve seen it all. You won’t surprise them, you won’t shock them, you won’t impress them. All you can do is make them feel something.” (She’s right, of course.) So I decided to adopt that mentality. My strategy shifted from trying to amaze to trying to just have a simple dance. Suddenly, I was relieved. A simple dance – I can do that.

And when my turn finally came around (I was last, so I had time to talk myself down), I went with my new strategy. And yes, I lucked out and drew an amazing partner, but all of those followers sitting up there were amazing. And yes, got a really fun song, but Beth Bellamy was DJing some great music for everyone in our division. At the end of the day, it was my mindset and attitude that allowed me to relax and stay present and have the most fun I’ve ever had in a competition. In case you missed it, here was our dance:

And the reward? Not my placement, honestly, though that was nice. No, the reward was the confidence I gained from having a great dance in front of a crowded room. The reward was the support from my peers, all of whom I have great respect for. The reward was finding a mental strategy that I intend to use over and over again. Most amazing dance ever? No. We didn’t even win the division. But for me, it was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. And isn’t that why we dance?

What’s your strategy and mindset for competing? Do you psych yourself out trying to win or trying to have an amazing dance? How do you fight the pressure and stress of competing? Teachers, how do you coach your students to compete? How do you help them adopt the right mindset for competition?