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.

How to Improve

First of all, I’ll start with a bit of personal history, so you can see things from my perspective for a second.  I’ve been dancing ballroom for about eight years.  I could have been super-crazy-awesome by now, but I’m just getting back into competing open standard and smooth (with my awesome current partner who’s just been dancing three years).  I’ve witnessed some people shooting up into the championship-level ranks after just a couple of years, yet I haven’t gotten to that exponential trajectory myself.  Which is okay by me.  When I started, I sucked.  There’s no denying that.  And now, I’d like to say I’m a pretty good dancer, if not awe-inspiring.

How did I get to this point?  I danced very casually my first couple of years.   Showed up to ballroom lessons a couple times a week, learned some steps, done.  Didn’t have a lick of technique and wasn’t even aware of how bad I really was, but I was still having lots of fun!  No one expects you to “get it” right away.  I did my first competition the spring of my first year in college and was hooked from that point on.  Even competing, it was still a casual thing – find a partner a few weeks before the comp, practice a couple times, and go.  No wonder I didn’t do all that well!

Fast forward a year or two – compete regularly with a partner, practice a little more regularly.  We started taking lessons with our school team’s coach and looking more respectable on the silver-level floor.  Graduated, moved back home to the DC area, and started taking lessons with another coach, one who really kick-started our improvement.  We took private lessons about once a week, attended practices weekly, and continued to take group lessons.  We also took lessons with other coaches as well.  We were dancing at least 3-4 times a week.  Boom, started getting placements in silver, eventually callbacks in gold and decided to take a leap into open material.  I wasn’t quite ready (or so I thought), but my partner was ambitious and our primary coach supported that goal.  Those two years led to a LOT of improvement.  Finally I could feel like I was actually a pretty good dancer, not just okay.

So, how do you get good fast?

1. Find a regular, committed partnership.  More on this in another post.

2. Practice a lot.  Probably obsessively, even.  Establish a regular practice schedule, go as often as you can stand, just do it. Also, practice efficiently, don’t just run through things and decide that they’re “good enough.”  Practice to improve.  Some people claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, so you probably have a long way to go, even if your goal is to be very good and stops short of expert.

3. Take private lessons.  Group lessons and figuring out stuff on your own can get you relatively far, even in gold if you are a talented natural dancer, but you need private lessons to get to that next level.  Lots of times coaches can correct some major issue you have that can transform all of your dancing.  Consider traveling to really excellent coaches, to find the best you can.  If you think the idea of taking private dance lessons is weird, what about taking private music lessons? Isn’t that the same thing?

4. Be dedicated.  Really enjoy what you’re doing, and practice will be fun, not exhausting.

5. Seek as much knowledge from as many resources as you can. Take classes with different people, watch lots of videos, read up on technique.  Find what works for you and use it!

6. To get really good really fast, specialize.  This entails focusing on one or two particular styles out of the four (Standard/Smooth/Latin/Rhythm), or even stop doing whatever is weakest or the one you like the least.  I would recommend learning and competing in all four styles at least through silver if possible, but this is really a personal decision.  The few championship-level people I know who got there in a couple of years only dance standard.

7. Always look ahead. Dance up a level and enjoy the challenge.  You might do better than you think and find that you should be competing at a higher level.  That being said, don’t feel pressure to dance up until you feel like you’re ready. Unless you’re winning every single competition, then just move up already! 😛

8. How to be competitive without suffering disappointment when things don’t go your way: Focus more on personal performance than competition placements.  You can only control how well you dance, you have no say in how everyone else dances.  So if you felt like you danced your best but got last place, don’t get discouraged! Be proud of how you danced!

9. Set realistic but ambitious goals for yourself.  What do you want to be doing in 6 months, a year?  How do you want to perform at the next competition?  How do you want to push yourself?

10. Go outside your comfort zone and consider taking some classes in different styles.  Whether that’s jazz, ballet, yoga, salsa, a ballroom style you don’t specialize in, doesn’t matter.  It might give you some ideas or help you work on things from a different perspective, which could help your main style of dancing improve.  It might also help keep you from burning out or getting bored.

Why ballroom is so addicting/awesome/fantastic

1. It’s so fun! There’s so many different dances to learn.  Learning one dance helps you pick up the next, but they all have different moves, quirks, personalities, and characters.

2. The people are awesome.  Most ballroom dancers are the nicest people you’ll meet. You make lots of new friends who share the same obsession with you. (And sometimes you’ll find that your ballroom friends…are all your friends, period. Whoops.)

3. You get to wear pretty clothes.  And sparklies. So many sparklies!

4. You can always get better. I think this is why dancesport appeals to competitive personalities – they strive for constant improvement, in pursuit of perfection.

5. On the flip side, even proclaimed non-dancers with two left feet can learn ballroom with some time and effort.  Most ballroomers I know didn’t even start dancing until college or later, yet can improve very quickly if they put the effort into it.

6. Ballroom originated as a social activity, so that aspect is always there, particularly if you enjoy social dancing.

7. Youtube. Can’t get enough ballroom in real life? It’s ALL OVER youtube. You can spend hours and hour watching dancing and becoming inspired.

8. It’s an expressive art. You get to express yourself and different aspects of your personality in ways that you don’t often get to do in everyday life.

9. (This probably only came up later in my thoughts because I’m not a heterosexual man…) You get to meet girls! Lots of professional male dancers admit that this is why they started ballroom dancing.  It’s true that joining a ballroom club or studio can get you dates with attractive women (so long as you’re a gentleman, of course), but over time, for a lot of these guys, it’s the dancing itself that keeps them coming back.  Besides, how else would you have women literally lining up to spend time (even if it’s just 2 minutes) with you?

10. It’s an escape from the stresses and worries of every day life. Have a ton of midterms and papers due right around a competition weekend? You run off to the competition and just forget about all that.


Hi, my name is Elise, and I am a ballroom dancer.

I’ve been ballroom dancing for about 8 years, competing seriously for about 4 or 5, and am currently dancing novice/pre-champ standard and smooth.  (I’d do gold Latin if I had a partner in it, but alas, that’s taken a hiatus for now.)

I love dancing!  I got started by doing some swing dance casually in high school (and a bit of jazz/hip hop, but trust me, that went absolutely nowhere).  I then got hooked on ballroom and dancesport in college, even serving as president of my undergrad school club.  From then on, there was no turning back.  As a grad student in a psychology PhD program, it’s pretty much the one hobby I afford to have right now (well, when it comes to time, anyway. Still not entirely sure I can afford it money-wise, heh).  I started this blog as an outlet for anything and everything ballroom (or tangentially ballroom) related and hopefully to share what I have learned from my experience in dancing and competing.  I hope to throw in some social psychology-ballroom connections, which are entirely nonscientific but might offer an interesting viewpoint.  I’d also like to use it to share other online resources that I have found to be helpful. 

So, as a disclaimer, I wouldn’t make any claims about being an expert, but I’ve been around the block and am very familiar with the collegiate and amateur competitive scene on the East Coast and now the Midwest.  Hopefully you’ll get something out of this!  Please feel free to comment or message me.