On Self-Related Motivations and Ballroom Dancing

Motivation in the conventional everyday sense refers to what drives people to do the things they do, which corresponds pretty well to the psychological study of motivation.  But motivation in the psychology sense not only refers to what underlies people’s behavior, but also how they seek out information, interpret information, and encode it in memory.  Specifically, self-related motivations underlie much of our everyday doings and thoughts, and there are a few that psychologists study in particular.  These scientists might even go so far to dub them the fundamental motives.  And, surprise surprise, these can all relate to dancing and how we learn how to dance!

Self-Enhancement

Basically, people like to do things and think things and find out information that makes them feel good about themselves.  They prefer to read positive feedback to negative feedback and remember it better.  Some argue that this motive overpowers all other ones and is the automatic one, the one that kicks in without us even trying (Sedikides).  Most people think they are better than average at any given thing (driving, social skills, and so on), which is statistically impossible (Svenson, 1970).  People are very accepting of positive feedback and more critical of negative feedback.  Self-serving bias makes us take credit for success and blame outside factors for failure.

How self-enhancement relates to ballroom: Well, who doesn’t like getting a compliment?  Whether it’s from our longtime coach or a complete stranger, getting complimented on our dancing is a fantastic feeling.  Getting a compliment on hair or makeup or an outfit will more than suffice as well.  Particularly when we have put ourselves out there in front of a bunch of strangers, getting confirmation that we don’t look like idiots is indeed a nice feeling.  I would say most people think they are better than the average person in their lesson/class, unless they are anxious and particularly clumsy-feeling.  In competition, most people probably think they danced better than the average person, and therefore deserve a callback – that’s why not getting a callback is so disappointing.  It’s probably easier to remember competition successes than to remember failures, for the most part…or at least we spend more time trying to think about the successes.  When we get negative feedback from a coach, we probably automatically think, “What? I don’t do that” and then have to override that impulse to fix whatever problem it is.  Also, self-serving bias can definitely play a role in how we understand competition results.  When we win, it’s because we danced great! When we didn’t do so well, it’s because the floor was slippery or our partner did something wrong or people kept bumping into us or the judges didn’t like our outfits.  Also, even if we do badly, we socially compare downwards to make ourselves feel better, finding a standard of comparison to whom we can feel superior. “At least we were on time, unlike couple X.”

Self-Consistency

We like to find out things that confirm what we already know about ourselves.  We like to think we have a good sense of who we are and seek out information that supports that idea, because we like consistency and predictability (Swann, 1985).

How self-consistency relates to ballroom:  This might sound directly counter to self-enhancement, but if someone thinks they are an awful dancer, they (at least on a conscious controlled level) would prefer to hear negative feedback to positive feedback.  “I’m terrible, and these people agree.”  People with low self-esteem prefer negative feedback, because then they have a consistent view of themselves and get confirmation from others about their view.  What’s interesting is the cognitive-affective crossfire situation – people with a negative self-view emotionally (affect = emotion) prefer positive feedback, but cognitively prefer negative feedback (Swann et al., 1987).  I know, it’s twisted, but it makes sense – they have both the self-enhancement and self-consistency motives going on at the same time. Haven’t you encountered this social exchange before? “You did a great job dancing out there!” “Ugh no, I did horribly!”  I’m not saying that dancers who are self-critical (which might just mean they have high standards for themselves) necessarily have low self-esteem, but perhaps they had a low evaluation of their dancing at the time, and at the time would like a compliment on one level but prefer criticism on another.

Self-Appraisal

Basically this just means that we want more information about ourselves, to see where we stand.  An accuracy motivation, to see if what information we have about ourselves seems to be correct.  Often this ties in with the motivation of self-improvement, which I think is pretty self-explanatory.  You have to know what you’re good and bad at before you can take steps to improve.

This motive I think plays the most into the learning process – we take lessons, seek feedback from more advanced dancers, and pay professionals lots of $$ to tell us how we are doing now and how we can get better.  Looking at judges’ scores and scouring YouTube videos of our performance help to fulfill this motivation, to see where we stand.  Practicing and staring at ourselves in the mirror for hours on end definitely help to fulfill this drive (though staring at the mirror and convincing ourselves of our innate, undeniable hotness is more in the lines of self-enhancement ;) ).

Overall, I think the most interesting motive is self-enhancement.  There are so many ways that people make themselves feel better, even if they are deluding themselves just a little bit (or sometimes a lot!).  As someone studying psychology, it’s interesting when I catch myself or someone else using one of these self-enhancement strategies.  Hell, it feels really good to have my dancing or my dress complimented by a rando.  Didn’t get a callback? Judges didn’t see us.  Or the music was weird.  Or my shoes were super slippery. Obviously.

But hey, on the plus side, having these slightly positive illusions about yourself is good for happiness, mental health, and well-being in the long run, so they can’t be all that bad (Taylor & Brown, 1988).  Being ever-so-slightly arrogant (or confident, self-assured, positive, whichever word you’d like to use) about yourself seems to work out well for people in the ballroom world and everywhere else.

Things I’m Good At vs. Things I Want/Need to Improve

This could very well be phrased as things I can do and all the things I wish I could do (or things I can’t do), but I’m trying to frame it positively.  It might be a good exercise for you to do for yourself and/or your partnership. Or just an interesting way to sit down and evaluate yourself and your goals and priorities for dancing. Looking at strengths and weakness, and what weaknesses you want to turn into strengths in the future.

Let’s start with the good.  Some of this has been directly commented on by others, or things I’ve guessed/observed myself.

  1. Spinning
  2. Being powerful in standard
  3. Having decent posture
  4. Being a generally good follow
  5. Helping with floorcraft when my partner is going backwards
  6. Looking elegant (haha, they haven’t seen me in my everyday klutzy mode, but I’ll take it I guess)
  7. Having a flexible back
  8. Recuperating after screwing up in action (aka wiping out then getting back up)
  9. Focusing on the upsides in competition, particularly if the results were not as good as we’d hoped
  10. Hearing the music

Things to Improve:

  1. (Not) straightening my right elbow in frame
  2. Stamina
  3. Feeling more comfortable doing side-by-side stuff (aka, dancing by myself)
  4. Remembering choreography
  5. My Latin, all of it
  6. Hiding my face expression when I/we screw up
  7. Using my ankles more
  8. Making bigger shapes
  9. Bowing not-awkwardly at the end of a dance
  10. Waiting before going

It was much easier to come up with things to improve than things I liked. I could’ve kept going for quite a while on the list of things to improve… I feel like this is typical for any aspiring dancer – focusing on what you can fix/be better at, rather than what you can already do.  Once you have a decent skill set behind you, it’s easy to perform, get in the mood, and kind of hide those insecurities, I think.  Maybe that typical uber-confident “I am sexy/super-classy/awesome” ballroom dancer persona comes out partially for this reason.  Trying to fake it ‘til you make it? Or fake it until your technique catches up?

I find a sort of inner discussion happening every time I watch a video of myself, and it’s easier for me to focus on what mistakes I made rather than acknowledging everything I did well.  Sample thoughts: “Uuuugh what was that?! What am I doing?!” “Huh, that wasn’t so bad,” “Wow, awkward.” “Oh hey, decent picture line!” “Ew, arms…” But we are often our worst critics, right? And occasionally, what felt like a horrible screw-up barely shows up in the video.  Other times, what felt awesome looked….not so awesome.  Alright, I’m starting to get a little off-topic here, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that improvement is a constant journey.  Sometimes it’s really good to look back and acknowledge what you’ve gotten better at, and at the same time it’s also good to look forward at what you want to achieve.  And really healthy to zoom out and take a good look at both, because if you focus on one, you think you’re great and have little drive to get better, and if you focus on the other, it’s easy to think you’re awful and feel dejected by the whole endeavor. Keeping the balance is probably what’s best in the long run, I’m guessing.

Also, how you frame things matters, to bring in some psychology stuff.  “I’m bad at this” vs. “I want to improve at this” have very different effects on how we approach things, even if objectively it’s the same.  For example, say you are not so great at posture.  Thinking “I have bad posture” vs. “I want to improve my posture” can lead to very different outcomes. The former lends itself to thinking that you’re bad at something and it’ll stay that way, while the latter acknowledges you’re not so great at something but that you can work at it and make it better, and that it’s not something you’re stuck with in the long run.

Overall Things I Want to Be Awesome At:

  1. Portraying the unique character of each dance (especially being sexy/sultry/seductive/some-other-adjective-starting-with-”S”…I just feel awkward doing that at the moment, haha)
  2. Having purpose and intent behind everything I do (telling a story? maybe?)
  3. Being a supportive and responsive partner, in both interpersonal and dance-y senses
  4. Marrying performance and technique (quite elusive, but sometimes it happens!)
  5. Having fun every time!

Identity and Dance

A popular measure about the self and identity that social psychologists use is the”Who am I?” or “I am…” list.  People fill out 10 to 20 blanks, answering “I am __________”, however way they want to.  I am a graduate student. I am a woman.  I am a mother.  I am an athlete.  I am a husband.  I am a dancer.  I am hardworking.  I am lazy.  I am uncoordinated.  I am young.  I am old.  I am American.   People can use roles, titles, descriptive adjectives, just about anything they like.  How does this relate to ballroom?  A post on Dance Forums reminded me about the power of identity.  What does it mean to be a dancer?  Knowing a few steps?  Having some certain level of expertise?  Dancing often?  It can mean whatever you want it to mean, but claiming the identity of “dancer” can be powerful.  Perhaps it is integral to the transition between a novice who struggles through a few basic steps to someone who exudes confidence and ease on the floor.  Maybe two people can be equally skilled, but one confidently claims the identity of “dancer,” giving them this extra spark or power or “that special something”.  It could be that someone’s deeply-felt anxiety while on the floor prevents him or her from claiming the identity of dancer.  What is the core difference among “I know some dance steps” to “I dance” to “I am a dancer”?  Depends on whom you ask, but it can be very meaningful no matter how you define it.

More than a dancer, someone can also be a partner.  A lead. A follow.  A friend.  A classmate.  A teammate.  A student.  A teacher.  A spectator.  A fan.  All these identities can be active in the ballroom dancing world, and the majority of them have to do with the interpersonal connections you can make through dance, which highlights how social human beings are.  It’s an old cliché that human beings are social animals, but so many of our identities are tied to how we relate to other people.  As a dancesport athlete, you compete against other people, but also have friendly (or not-so-friendly) rivalries with those competitors.  As a teammate, you feel like part of a cohesive group that supports its members.  A teacher needs a student and a student needs a teacher, in order to even have those specific roles – they’re dependent on each other for these identities.  As a dancer, one needs an audience, right?  Not necessarily so; people can be beautiful dancers in the privacy of their own rooms, but dance is so often a performance art, one that is shared with others.  One that evokes emotions in others, through expression of music – a shared, collective experience.

Ballroom dancing has become part of my identity through the years.  I’m not sure when it happened exactly (probably sometime during my second year in undergrad), but I am so happy it did.  It’s become an integral part of my life and I think I will dance in some capacity for the rest of my life, as long as I can physically do it.  Ballroom is just about the only hobby I have time for now, and that’s fine by me.  Many of my closest friends are ballroom dancers, and so is my boyfriend.  Without dance, my social world be drastically different.  So, I’m happy and proud to assert that I am a ballroom dancer.  It’s one identity I embrace wholeheartedly.

The Power of Expectations

I received some good news this morning! I applied to the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship program back in November, and found out that I have received an Honorable Mention.  I hadn’t expected much of anything to come out of it, since I had applied last year and didn’t get anything.  The program is super competitive and nationwide, involving thousands of applicants. So, it was a very happy surprise this morning.

Anyway, this reminded me of the power of expectations on how we interpret events.  If I had thought I was a shoe-in for the fellowship, “only” getting an honorable mention would have been pretty disappointing.  This idea of expectations can be easily applied to ballroom dancing.  Expectations can produce sort of a contrast effect – if we performed better than we originally expected, we’re really happy about it! But if we performed equally well and had originally expected to perform even better, we feel pretty disappointed about ourselves.  Another way expectations can change how we view the world is confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is when you look for evidence that confirms your beliefs, ignoring evidence that discomfirms your beliefs (Klayman; Nickerson).  This can lead to people having beliefs that are not true.

Bringing this to a more concrete example: I like to come into a ballroom competition with relatively modest expectations.  So my goal for a pretty large and competitive event might be to get a callback or two.  Then, if my partner and I make the semifinal, that’s really awesome because we exceeded my expectations.  Once you start improving and placing better, however, this tends to raise your expectations.  So, making a semifinal might not be so great anymore because a final is what you expect.  Or you get even better and expect to win your event.  This would be fine and dandy if you do win everything, but if you fall short…then you might just feel disappointed, even though your objective achievement is pretty damn good, making it to a final in a competitive event.

On the flip side, sometimes expectations can lead to confirmation bias and even self-fulfilling prophecies (Diekmann, Tenbrunsel, & Galinsky).  If I think I am a bad dancer, when I watch a video of myself, I would only notice all the little mistakes I made and would conclude that I did a horrible job.  I might ignore all the things I did pretty well, and become discouraged when I didn’t have a real reason to be.  When it comes to self-fulfilling prophecies, if I expect to dance badly, I might feel more nervous and unsure, and then actually make more mistakes, which in turn causes me to perform worse.  If I expect to dance well, I might feel more confident, put more energy into my dancing, and perform really well.  Someone faced with the prospect of learning how to ballroom dance might shake their head and go, “Oh, I’m so uncoordinated, there’s no way I can learn how to do that.”  Because they hold this belief, they might not even try to learn, and would as a result continue to be a “bad dancer.”  To sum up, a pre-existing belief can bias how I interpret new information, or even change the situation itself to confirm that belief.

What might this mean for you?  I suppose it’s difficult to give any concrete advice, given the different ways expectations can work, but I think keeping in mind how your expectations might affect how you feel about your outcomes is a good practice.  Maybe changing your expectations can make you a happier person, or even a better dancer.  Maybe it could make you be a more patient partner, or even a more understanding, accessible teacher.  It could be that setting realistic and achievable expectations and goals is the best way to go, whether they are for yourself or others.

Edited: Added some citations for those of you who are particular psychology/empirical-research oriented, or merely curious.