For my next few posts, I’d like to explore some of the mantras (mental models, if you will) that I’ve been using to improve my performance as a Jack and Jill dancer over the past few months. This is not to say that I’m perfect at Jack and Jill’s – far from it! – but I’ve noticed a qualitative improvement in my performance, and I believe it is because of a few key stories I tell myself. The first, and I believe most important, is that every partner is the right partner.
There you are, standing in line across from a dancer who will be whisked a random number away. Its finals (you made it!) and your heartbeat is ticking along well above idle. After the obligatory joke about your division from the MC, (“it’s funny… because it’s true!”) the proverbial dice are rolled and your fate is sealed:
“Seven! Follows, rotate down seven leaders please.”
Who will it be? Who do you get to spend a minute and thirty seconds with in front of the audience? As other dancers pass, you quickly acknowledge them while sneaking glances down the line. You spot your friend a few down. They’re 7th! Yes! This is going to be AMAZI …
Just kidding, you were off by one. You’ve never danced with this particular human being before. Uh-oh. Your mind begins to race and you start to sweat.
Are they the right partner? Can you win with them? Forget winning, what about surviving? Does their style match yours? Is this going to work out?
Will they pick up what you’re about to lay down? Are they smellin’ what you’re steppin’ in?
Who did my friend draw? What song will we get?
Will I fall on my face?
WHY UNIVERSE, WHY?!?!
Of course, on the outside you remain cool as a cucumber:
I’ve experienced this myself, and the conversations I’ve had with west coast swing dancers from all over suggest that it’s a pretty common phenomenon. Jack and Jill angst is a theme. So how should you deal with it?
I am neither a champion nor a psychologist, but I’ll humbly submit what has been working better for me lately.
Every partner is the right partner.
In dance, much like in life, you only have control over a limited number of variables. Boom, I said it. You’re not in control of your own life! Feels kinda good to admit that no? Am I the only one? Ah. Well then.
As an aside, I’d suggest that in general, we have a lot less control than we’d like to think we do over life. Yes, you can choose which pants to wear today, but who chose that we all have to wear pants in the first place? We’re soothed by the illusion of choice at the micro-level (today I’ll eat Lucky Charms instead of Captain Crunch!) while generally not questioning the decisions that have been made at the habit-level (Why do we eat mountains of sugar for breakfast?). I’ll save the bigger philosophical debates for another day. Today is about Jack and Jills.
The question at hand: how much control do you get over who your partner will be?
Think about it.
Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Here’s the thing about stuff you can’t control: it’s not really worth getting upset over.
Don’t believe me? There’s plenty of work to back me up. One of the core tenants of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘ is to focus on things that are within your sphere of influence. That sphere is a subset of the things that you experience: some of it, most of it, you simply do not have control over.
And you know what? That’s okay. It really, truly is. You’re gonna survive. In fact, you’re going to thrive.
Another book that influenced my thinking about chance and it’s effect on our lives is ‘The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Everyday Lives’ by Leonard Mlodinow. If you’re an incorrigible nerd like me, check it out for a nice, accessible approach to the statistics of random events and how we, as humans, are generally terrible at understanding and applying them.
Get to the point, Joel!
Back to finals, you don’t have any control over who you’re going to end up dancing with. None! All of the hand-wringing, anticipating, worrying, and strategizing does you no good. Randomness is a strong force in our lives, whether our pattern-recognition-adapted brains want to believe it or not.
To tell the truth, I used to care about who I was about to dance with a lot. When finals were posted I’d go over the list and strategize about who would be my top picks to dance with, and who I thought I stood less of a chance with. I imagined the amazing dances me and my favorite dancers would have, the glory and inspiration that would flood through my body if only I were to draw that one specific person who could take me to the next level (depending on points, sometimes literally). I let my expectations run away with me.
I don’t think that way anymore, however.
Somewhere along my (continuing) journey to becoming a more caring, less egocentric dancer, I realized that worrying about who I would dance with or gnashing my teeth over who I had danced with was teaching me to neglect the most important one of all: The person I was dancing with right now. I’m still working on applying this fully.
A crucial thing for any dancer to do, social or otherwise, is to focus their attention on the person right in front of them, the person they are dancing in the present moment. What could be or might have been are irrelevant when you realize that one of the most valuable things you can do is to hone your skills at dancing with every partner in the moment.
That’s where the magic happens. That’s when every dance is something to enjoy.
And, if you think about it, the true greats look good dancing with someone no matter who it is. Robert Royston or Deborah Szekely would still look good dancing with a limp sack of potatoes. Do you? Do I?
And so it’s time to go back and hone the skills that make us good at dancing with every partner. It’s time to admit that, just like the partner we may be tempted to dread, our dancing looks more like hole-ridden swiss cheese than a smooth Provolone.
Yes, that was a terrible, weird analogy, but I’m from the Midwest dammit, so I’m going with it. And why, oh Joel of random thoughts, is it useful to think of ourselves as holey (and delicious) swiss cheese?
Because we do have control over our own dancing. We can shape it. We can mold it. We can work on it. We’re necessarily and unwaveringly responsible for it. We can fill in the gaps and make ourselves better dancers for everyone. We can become the dancer that other dancers wish they could draw. We can make ourselves great in our own right.
So let’s go out and do it!
Aside: Just to be clear, I love both swiss and provolone. Yes, it’s a terrible analogy. Deal with it!
The upshot of all of this is that you’ve got one less thing to worry about going into a Jack and Jill: who you might dance with! You simply don’t have any control over it, so wasting your energy worrying about it is fruitless. You’d be better off spending your time making sure your spine is in some semblance of alignment. Seriously, do that instead.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. That’s why I repeat the mantra to myself before I step foot onto the boards: Every partner is the right partner.
Every partner is the right partner.
Every partner is the right partner.
It’s as simple as that. A pithy reminder of what I shouldn’t be worried about and who I should be focused on: the amazing person I’ll be spending the next 90 seconds dancing with. Whether it is empirically true or not, it is useful.
Because, when the MC says ‘Let’s dance!’ and the audience turns it’s silent intensity on you, they’re the only person who can help you win that final. Why not give them the best chance you possibly can? They’re the right one, are you?
Remembering that every partner is the right partner helps to reframe me going into competitions, and reminds me how to be happy as a competitor in west coast swing.
See you on the floor!