I vividly remember the first time I ever tried to do a body roll: Positioning myself in front of the mirror at a 45 degree angle I put on my best cool face and prepared to unleash a sexy, fluid motion that would blow everyone’s mind. Totally prepared, I executed it perfectly!
Except that I looked like an undercooked noodle blindly trying to hump something. Not sexy. Not even close.
I did a discreet 360º and confirmed that nobody else was put through the misery of awkward I had just created. Whew. I turned back to the mirror. As I made eye contact with myself, I couldn’t help but laugh a little. It was that bad.
At this point I really wanted to stop; to go straight back to doing the nice basic exercises I’d been working on for years. I was good at basics. “Maybe body rolls just aren’t my thing,” I thought.
Suddenly I remembered a sign that was posted next to the climbing wall I frequented my freshman year:
“Fair enough,” I thought.
So I did it again.
I watched a video of a pro doing it and tried to emulate them. Then I tried to do it in slow motion. I tried to do it with only the top part of my body, then the bottom. It was all bad.
It did not look like what the pros were doing. But,–and here’s the important part–by the end, I was more al-dente than undercooked.
And that was an accomplishment.
The Road to Awesome goes Straight Through Awkward
I’ll say it straight out: cultivating your willingness to look like a total buffoon will make you more successful at learning to dance. It will help you in learning anything, actually. Being comfortable with being (and looking) uncomfortable is a fundamental skill to learning.
Sometime between kindergarten and graduation, most of us seem to lose this fundamental skill. Something about being an adult causes us to unconsciously lose our capacity to do awkward stuff and forgive ourselves for it.
To tell you the truth, I totally get it. The adult world seems fraught with opportunities to make yourself look like an idiot, and since adults know how to do everything perfectly by nature (or so we have all secretly agreed), any departure from this must be a fundamental failing on our part.
Better avoid that!
The downsides of being awkward or, even worse, wrong, if even for a moment, are usually enough to turn us away from trying in the first place. It’s much easier to stay seated on the couch than to get up and face the risk that whatever we attempt may turn out to be a failure.
There’s a solution here: train your vulnerability muscle. If you can train yourself to be comfortable with pushing through awkward situations, you will be well-equipped to deal with the difficulties that are involved with improving your dancing.
The Difference Between Pain and Discomfort.
There’s an important distinction to be made when we do any activity that we hope will lead to growth: Pain vs. Discomfort. In general, maximum growth happens when we do things that are uncomfortable. Injury and bad habits form when we do things that are painful.
Think about stretching as an example. If you only ever stretch to the extent you feel totally comfortable in your flexibility, gains will be meager at best. By pushing past your zone of comfort into the realm of discomfort you’re pushing yourself into new territory. Eventually what was uncomfortable will become comfortable and we start the process over again. This is how growth happens.
If we go beyond discomfort, however, we usually get to pain. Pain, in most cases, is not a good thing. It’s a handy little trick our bodies and minds have developed over millions of years of evolution to tell us when something is threatening to harm us. If you are stretching your hamstring and go past the discomfort zone and push too far into pain you may very well tear muscle fibers. Now not only will you be subject to more pain next time, but you’ll also have to deal with a decrease in flexibility while the body works to repair itself. Not cool.
Pain can also be psychological as well. If you’re mortified of performing in front of people, perhaps getting on stage in front of a large crowd is not the way to have you start overcoming this fear. The pain of such an experience could conceivably turn you away from ever performing or dancing again, and that’s no good for anyone involved.
The trick is in differentiating the two.
Modern life makes the distinction difficult
As I write this, I’m sitting in a beanbag chair that conforms to my body. Ten feet in front of me lies the refrigerator, stocked with food that I can eat whenever I want. My car takes me to work, and my bed comforts me when I sleep. Life is pretty easy.
And that’s the problem.
Modern life is designed to keep us in our comfort zones. Across the board, we have more comfort and convenience than at any other time in human history. Entire industries (most of them, in fact) are built around providing this kind of comfort to willing and eager consumers.
Personal growth rarely comes from comfort. We need to push against the boundaries of what we are and what we can do to discover what we could be.
Training yourself to be comfortable with discomfort may well be one of the most crucial skills going forward in both dance and life. Your ability to weather things that do not go as expected, often called grit, is one of the most sought-after skills in the world today. It also separates the great dancers from the ones who are simply good. Good dancers stay in their comfort zone. Great dancers are constantly pushing at the edges, expanding the kind and quality of movement they can create.
This idea is nothing new. In fact, it’s one of the tenants of stoic philosophy, a school of thought championed by Roman emperors and taught on the front porches (in Latin, stoa) of Rome. Go watch Tim Ferriss’s Ted Talk (amazing) or listening to Seneca’s Letter No. 18: On Festivals and Fasting.
Push Through Awkward
How does this apply to dance?
It all starts with identifying the places where you already feel awkward in your dance life. A common one that I hear is that dancers have a hard time watching videos of themselves because it is difficult to accept the gap between where they are and where they could be. We know what our mental image of our dancing is, and it can be a hard pill to swallow when the imagination and reality don’t match up.
Dig into that discomfort!
Hidden behind the initial pain of watching yourself fail to live up to your expectations is the opportunity to understand where you are, accept it, and build a plan to bring yourself forward. Accepting the awkwardness that you see gives you the permission to push on towards awesome. If, on the other hand, you proceed blindly forward without first acknowledging where you are, your path will likely stray or go nowhere at all.
The same goes for practicing in front of a mirror; it may seem silly at first, and the awkwardness of it may urge you to turn away, but fight that urge! Dig into the discomfort and give yourself permission to fail repeatedly before getting something right. It will pay huge dividends.
The same can be said for both performing and competing. Many people shy away from both activities because of a vague sense of discomfort and a fear of rejection or failure. Indeed, both competing and performing have a heightened risk of both, but their rewards are disproportionate to those risks. Both performance and competition give you an opportunity to take your dancing into a new space and push you to apply what you’ve learned. Initially somewhat uncomfortable, they can be leveraged to produce wonderful results in your dancing.
Only by pushing the edges of your dance comfort zone will you find where your potential lies. If you only ever stay where things are comfortable, you will do just that: stay the same.
Most people I know want to improve, but maybe we’re the minority. You tell me.
Important Reminder: Awkward is Not the End Goal
So now you’ve fully embraced your awkwardness, right? Hooray! After a few days of careful effort your dancing now looks like this:
Let me restate my thesis: The road to awesome goes straight through awkward. It does not park itself comfortably in awkward and hang out there indefinitely.
Keep in mind that the goal here is to get to awesome. Yes, we will need to dip down into the valley of weird for a while before we summit the pinnacle of greatness, but we have to make sure that we start climbing up out of that valley as soon as is practical.
Another way to think about this:
Be wary of ruts.
The process of getting to awesome is iterative. This means that we need to work on something, get it into a better form, and then go back to the drawing board, deconstruct it, and build it up to something even better.
Here’s a crappy drawing to help out:
Clear as mud? I thought so.
Basically, focus on the process of getting better at dance (that improvement loop) and not the product (“I just want to be an All-Star”) and you’re likely to both go farther and have more fun doing it. Nobody gets good overnight–everyone grinds it out in their own time.
Conclusion – Go Dance!
So get out there and get after it! Go take a few group classes or work on some ankle drills. Practice arm styling in front of the mirror until you no longer look like a flightless bird attempting to get airborne. Dig into the places where you feel uncomfortable and make progress towards awesome.
Nobody is going to get out there and do the work for you. Only you can decide if you’re going to stay comfortable and progress slowly, or move quickly by making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. The tools are usually already in your hands. Will you take advantage of them, despite the small hit your pride may take? I hope so.
My body rolls sucked for a long time. They’re still not perfect. I’m working on getting them to be more awesome and less awkward. It’s a work in progress.
When all else fails, just remember:
The road to awesome leads straight through awkward.
I’ll see you out on the floor!