Expectations killing you softly

Expectations: Killing you Softly

They’re here!”

Your pulse quickens and a tingle thrills down your spine as your favorite pro puts their dance bag down and casually gets out their shoes. You’re equal parts starstruck, mortified, and excited.

A plan quickly develops: First, you’ll grab a partner so that you can dance in their vicinity. You know, get on their radar. Then you’ll make your move.

You’re building it up in your mind, imagine how fantastic this dance is going to be. You’ve seen their videos. You’ve watched them live. It’s time. This is going to be MAGICAL, dammit!

An opportunity opens up and you pounce. The pro agrees and you prepare for the sweet, sweet bliss of the simultaneous realization of all of your dance dreams. The music starts, they give you a smile, and the magic begins…

Except it doesn’t. Not quite. The beginning is a little clunky, and you miss a cue once or twice in the first few measures. They do something you’ve never learned, and you both end up smiling it off and reconnecting. A few well-executed spins and a creative hit line have you feeling good, but a few bars later that last chorus wraps up and you’re rolling into your final pose. You give them a big smile, hug briefly, and the dance is over. As you head for the sidelines another dancer with stars in their eyes darts nervously forward to take your place.

Your friends tell you it looked great; objectively you know it was a good dance.

But something isn’t right. It felt off, like you missed the mark. It just wasn’t magical.


If you’re expecting to get a real, live unicorn for your birthday, you’re probably going to be disappointed if you’re given a pony. That’s because when you expect something to be magical, you’ve set yourself up for disappointment if anything other than magic happens. Expectations transform the extraordinary into the mundane.

The reality of dancing (and life) is that most of the time things are pretty average. That’s kinda the definition of the word.

The problem is, we live in an Instagram-ready world where everyone is trying to convince everyone else that their average experience is totally extraordinary. We see our friend zip-lining in Costa Rica and can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. Our other friend just gave a TED Talk. Someone else had a baby. Wrapped up in what we could be doing, we often fail to appreciate where we are.

Our expectations, often based on the lives of others, can let us down in a big way.

At the same time, expectations are also a necessary part of our lives. When I jump up I expect to come back down. When I eat, I expect my body to convert it to energy for me to use throughout the day. If I pay my electricity bill I expect the lights to stay on for the next month or so.

If you think about it for a minute, all of these things are utterly extraordinary in a microcosmic sense. The physics of a jump are beautiful to behold, and understanding the complex biology that allows the human digestive system to convert solid food into all of the things our body needs is a full-time occupation for thousands of people worldwide. Providing electricity to billions of people all over the world is a modern marvel with infinite depths to be explored.

But day-to-day, we ignore all of that. We expect things to work and down-sample the complexity of the world until the information is manageable.  This allows us to navigate the world without trembling in existential fear and wonder at all of the hundreds of thousands of tiny things that happen around us every moment of every day. We expect things to continue going on, and for our purposes, that’s not such a bad thing.

In fact, it’s pretty fantastic not to be paralyzed with awe by the existence of sidewalks every time I walk outside.

Expectations can be good, and they can be bad.

So how do we resolve this, and, more importantly, how does this apply to dance?

The Double-Edged Sword

When we apply expectation to dance, we tend to make two fundamental errors:

  1. We assume that advanced dancers always have great dances.
  2. We put responsibility for the quality of the dance on our partner.

Let me explain…

Edge #1: Remedial Dance Stats

Reality is generally pretty average. Some things are better, some are worse, and most are right in the middle. In statistics, there’s a concept used to describe this: the normal distribution, also known as the bell curve.

The Bell Curve, or Normal Distribution

That’s probably about as boring as you remember stats class being, isn’t it? Let’s make it a little sexier with some colors:

Ahhh, that’s a little better.

Most of the time (the gigantic green part in the middle) our dancing is in Goldilocks equilibrium: not too hot, not too cold, juuuuuusssst average. We’re at where we’re at, and we get some good dances with some good people and have a good time. some are ‘Whoah!’ worthy while others are just ‘Meh,’ but most fall in between.

Every now and then we have a dance where something doesn’t work. Maybe our partner isn’t connecting, or maybe the DJ plays an incomprehensible remix that infuriates your soul. Maybe you get accidentally stepped on and need to leave the floor. Events like this are usually pretty rare in a dancer’s night, but they do happen.

Once in a while a true unicorn comes along: the song is familiar but not overplayed, your partner is matching your groove and giving you all of the right opportunities and a great connection. You nail a few moves you’ve never even thought of before and get every hit in the music like you’d planned for each and every one. You’ll remember this dance for the rest of your life! Or at least until next week.

That’s the nature of our dancing, most of it happens in the middle, and every now and then we experience something extraordinarily bad or good. So what happens when we get better?

As we improve, so too do our average dances…

So, when someone improves their dancing, their average goes up, right?

Absolutely. But not, perhaps, in the way you expect.

We tend to assume that as a person improves their dances get better across the board. The rising tide of their skill brings up all of their dances so that they are immune from ever having a truly bad dance and mostly have incredible dances that the rest of us only dream of.

Let’s call that the ‘General Assumption’ model just for giggles.


This would suggest that what used to be an average dance for them is now an ‘Ouch’ dance. At the same time, their average dance is now totally orgasmic based on their old standards! Booyah!

I don’t think this is actually how it works based on both personal experience and observation of others. I’d like to put forward this model instead:

Here we see that the better dancer’s average has, indeed increased, and their very best dances (in dark blue) are essentially just as good as what we see in the General Assumption model, but there is a much larger range of dances that the better dancer experiences (also see footnote).

When we think of great dancers we tend to focus on the times when we saw them in the light or dark blue, when they were really on top of their game and, in general, totally killing it. We assume that because their best dances are higher, all of their dancing must be better.

That difference actually comes from their best dancing getting further away from their worst dancing, which mostly stays the same. For my fellow stats nerds out there, their average has increased, but so too has their variance.

Assuming that advanced dancers always have incredible dances leads us to the more pernicious edge of the sword:

Edge #2: Responsibility Dumping

When we fall for the general assumption about how great dances it can lead us to believe the following:

“If they always have great dances, then my dance with them is going to be magical no matter what. It’s a sure thing, what could go wrong?”

Everything with that mindset, that’s what.

When we place the burden of responsibility on our partner, we set the partnership up for failure and unhappiness. Partner dancing is two people dancing as one. This generally means that both partners have an equal responsibility for creating the dance.

Here’s a crappy cartoon I made in paint to help illustrate the point:

Hey, I told you it was crappy.

Dancers, be they advanced or beginner, all want to be respected and valued. Nobody wants to feel like they are being asked to do more than their share of the work.

Skill has nothing to do with it

Before we go too far I want to make one thing clear: I am talking about responsibility here, not skill.

It is damaging to believe that you have nothing to offer a more advanced dancer simply because your skill is less than theirs. Too often we merge these two ideas into one. How many times have you had the following conversation in your head:

“Oh man, they’re so good. I’m nowhere near that good, they’ll just be giving me a pity dance. I don’t want to bum them out, I won’t even bother…”

Big mistake. Your expectations are limiting you!

The quality of a dance, in my experience, is almost entirely determined by whether my partner is willing to open themselves up and take responsibility for having fun with the dance, no matter their level of skill. I’ve had awesome dances with beginners where we did nothing but the basic. I’ve also had teeth-grindingly terrible dances with highly skilled dancers who were too concerned with their own thoughts to bring me in.

In short, it’s not about how well you dance, it’s about how well you can engage with a partner. Can you take responsibility for your part of partnership? Are you willing to be in the moment, creating something, no matter how basic, with that person? I hope you are.

So here’s a better model of dance interaction with those same terrible cartoons:


The best dances happen when both partners bring a sense of curiosity and openness to the partnership and find the joy in whatever they are able to create together. If we come into that brief partnership expecting something, we easily disappoint.

Find tools that allow you to come into dances without the burden of expectations. Try meditating, for example. I find a ketogenic diet to be a great tool for me to stay mentally alert and present when I’m dancing. To each their own, but find something that works for you and deploy it to have better dances!

Don’t dump the responsibility of making the dance great or not onto your partner. Actively engage with them to build something beautiful.

Don’t be Discouraged!

The last thing I want this article to do is to discourage you from dancing with your dance idols. Do it! Get out there and have some fun with them!

I just ask that you be careful what expectations you bring to the table when you do. Expecting a magical experience places a strain on the delicate and beautiful relationship that social dance partners must quickly establish between each other. Respecting our responsibility to ourselves and our partners makes the dancing all the better.

So get out there on the floor!

And the next time you see that pro put down their shoe bag, try to take a moment to check your expectations. You just may end up with a magical experience.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know! I read every single comment.


P.s. If you do get a unicorn for your birthday, please let me know as soon as possible. I gotta see that.
Footnote: For the purposes of this article, I’m conveniently ignoring the possibility of non-normal distributions of dances. Here in the footnotes, I will readily admit that there may be a skewed model that better suits an advanced dancer’s distribution of dances. As George Box once said: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

6 thoughts on “Expectations: Killing you Softly”

  1. Awesome article!

    I ended up reading it twice, because it occurred to me that this way of thinking is helpful in a lot of partner situations. (Specifically thinking about presentations, where you have a presenter/audience relationship.)

    Anyway, thanks for a new mental model!

  2. Barbara J Handy

    I like your thoughts on expectations brought to each dance. I am newer to dance but find I love it and will continue to improve my skills. I enjoy dancing with everyone and never refuse an invitation to dance. I also feel that each dance partner provides a different connection and brings joy to the dance. I appreciate you asking me to dance with you at the Michigan Classic on Thursday night, especially since I am just learning the West Coast. I love your attitude toward dancers of all skill levels! Good luck on your future competitions. 🙂

  3. I came to this article by accident, a long time after my “last dance”, and I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of dancing with you, Joel, but reading this makes me want to. I recognise so much of this. In general, I’m pretty good at managing my expectations, but after an early “unicorn” dance when I was wasaaaay deep in unconscious incompetence. I was deeply afraid of dancing with that champion dancer ever again (as I didn’t want to over-write the magical memory with the inevitably less wonderful next time).
    A decade later, I still remember that magical moment, but I rue all the missed opportunities for more magic with that one pro. Still, I did get over it eventually and dance with him again 🙂

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