Gender Roles and Ballroom Dance

One central part of traditional ballroom dancing is that of gender roles.  A couple consists of a male leader and a female follower.  For some organizations, this is an actual written rule; the rest of the time it is implied.  Dance teachers tend to refer to each person as the gentleman and the lady, or the man and the woman.

One view of ballroom: The man is strong and powerful.  He decides what steps the couple will take at what time, dictating direction and timing.  The woman responds to the man and does whatever he leads, and her job is to be beautiful and expressive.  Some people really appreciate this very traditional (others would consider it antiquated) aspect of ballroom – each gender has a particular role and they complement each other, and if everyone does what they’re supposed to do, then it works out beautifully.  Men are men and women are women.  Men act gentlemanly with chivalry towards graceful ladies, who follow what they are asked (told?) to do.

As an aside, gender is something we all learn at a very young age, and something that is instilled as part of our identity even before we are born – our parents refer to us by gendered pronouns and dress us in traditionally female (pink) or male (blue) colors, before babies even begin to act differently.  Girls are described as pretty and boys are described as strong and handsome.  Behaving in a sex-consistent way is reinforced, while behaving in a sex-inconsistent way might be punished.  Boys are supposed to play with trucks, not dolls, and so on.  Girls are supposed to be ladylike and nurturing, while boys are supposed to be rambunctious and tough.

However, the state of gender is not so black and white.  (Fortunately, in the past few years, we have seen more and more gender nonconforming individuals who may identify with the gender that is opposite of their sex or neither gender.) I’ll switch to my preferred terms here, leader and follower, which are inherently less gendered.  The leader does control direction and timing, but whatever the leader decides to lead is more of a suggestion than a command.  The follower needs to always be sensitive to these suggestions, taking a hint and turning it into a full expression of the figure, but does not always “have” to do what the leader intended.  The follower interprets whatever she or he believes the leader to have suggested, and if it happens to be different from the original intention, the leader needs to just go with it and adjust accordingly.  This relationship is an ongoing conversation that requires both parties to be sensitive to each other, it’s not a relationship between dictator and passive servant.  Usually, the leader provides the power for a movement, but many figures require the follower to take over and provide power as well.

Both roles also look out for each other – primarily, leaders do the steering and try to prevent the couple from hitting others, but followers also need to help out when the leader is going backward and cannot see where he or she is going.  Couples should develop a subtle signal for this situation, but also a quick verbal “Watch out behind you!” also works in a jiffy.

More recently, some standard couples, particular in the WDSF divisions, have changed up styling, such that leads create more dramatic shapes rather than staying relatively straight up and down.  This trend also blurs the line between gender roles of the woman being the “pretty picture” and the man providing the frame for her and showing her off.  (Personally, I like some shaping from both parties, but not so much shaping from leaders that it’s distracting.  But it comes down to a matter of personal taste)

In the past few years, with more marriage equality and openmindedness about gender roles overall, there have been more and more opportunities for same-sex ballroom dancing.  (Technically, sex refers to biology while gender refers to social identity, but we’ll just go with that conventional terminology.) USA Dance officially announced that they would offer same-sex events, to be run separately from the typical ones.  In the U.S., there have been such events as the Gay Games, the Boston Open Dancesport event, and the Glitz and Glitter Ball.

Same-sex partnerships really offer interesting interpretations of each person’s role, and people can approach them in dramatically different ways.  One person might fulfill a traditional masculine leader role while the other is a traditional feminine follower.  They could switch off leads.  Styling choices might be consistent with their conventional role or their actual gender.  There is actually a lot of debate about whether same-sex couples should compete against different-gender couples, because of certain perceived advantages that they might have in terms of athleticism, power, speed, or gracefulness.

Another variant of playing around with gender roles is reverse role dancing, with the female leading the male.  There are fewer avenues for this arrangement, at least competitively, but it’s a literal flip of the gender roles in traditional ballroom.  Naturally, you’ll have to deal with some height situations not being ideal, but it’s definitely a fun and educational way to get an idea of what challenges your partner has to deal with.

Social Exchange Theory and Partnerships

In today’s post, I’d like to talk about dance partnerships through the lens of social exchange theory.  Social exchange theory (Homans, 1958) and related concepts such as investment theory (Rusbult & Buunk, 1993) were developed to explain social relationships in general, in a sort of relationship-math way.  They can help us answer certain questions: What elements make relationships more satisfying?  Why do people stay in bad relationships?  What predicts how long relationships last?  When do people ditch their relationship partners to go look for other ones?  It’s probably easiest to understand this approach when you apply it to romantic relationships, but I’d say finding a solid dance partnership can be even harder to find than someone to date!  And this theory is just as applicable to dance relationships.

In any case, here’s how it all works.  First equation:  satisfaction = benefits – costs.  Pretty simple.  Level of satisfaction is benefits minus costs – if there are more benefits than costs, then you are more satisfied.  Too many costs and not enough benefits means less satisfaction or even dissatisfaction.  Examples of benefits from a dance partner: he’s very talented, she is a hard worker, they have a good match in ability, they enjoy doing 10-dance together.  Costs: he is always late, they both have to travel over an hour to practice together, she has a limited budget so that he can’t take as many lessons as he’d like to,  she also wants to dance smooth but he doesn’t.  In short, the more good things about the relationship, the happier you are with it.  A lot of benefits can cancel out some negative aspects, but obviously the more benefits and the fewer costs, the happier the relationship partners are, overall.

Here’s a caveat though – some people expect more out of a relationship than others.  Two people might be equally satisfied overall, but one person might stay in that situation and another might not.  This is because of individuals’ different comparison levels (Thibault & Kelly, 1959).  What are your standards?  Do you expect to be really happy or just fine with your partnership situation?  Do you expect a really good partnership or a perfect one?

Another important aspect that you have to consider is perceived alternatives.  Are there lots of other potential partners out there or are the pickings really scarce?  The more possibilities out there, the less commitment you have towards your current partner because you have more opportunities to “play the field” and find someone better.   This idea might explain why there is often so much partner switching in a large college ballroom team.  Whereas on a small team or in a small studio, there’s not many options, so people are more likely to stick with their current partners.  This aspect also explains why people might stay in crappy, toxic partnerships that make them unhappy – they don’t really see any good alternatives out there, and this partnership is the best they can get.  Specific to ballroom, often men have more possible partners than women do, so they can afford to be more selective and choosy.

So, let’s take our satisfaction from earlier – satisfaction will then interact with comparison level and alternatives to factor into commitment level.   Higher satisfaction, lower comparison level, and few alternatives?  Super high commitment.  Low satisfaction, high comparison level, and lots of alternatives?  Small chance of that partnership lasting…good luck!

One more important thing to consider is investments into the partnership.  If you’ve been in the partnership for a long time, have spent a lot of money for coaching/routines/costumes, have moved a far distance for a serious partnership, and so on, then it’s a lot harder to end the relationship, even if you’re not super happy in it.  It’s similar to the idea of sunk costs – it’s hard to walk away from something into which you’ve put a lot of time, money, and energy.  If it’s a newer relationship and you haven’t put much into it, it’s much easier to dissolve it and part ways.

The ultimate overall formulas:

Benefits – costs – comparison level = satisfaction level.

Satisfaction level – alternatives + investments = commitment level.

In the end, these theories are more descriptive than anything when it comes to relationships.  If you’re in a dance partnership that is not going so great, maybe it’s time to reconsider all these aspects and if you need to reshuffle your relationship math a bit and seriously think about whether it’s worth the trouble.  If you’re really happy in your partnership, then great!  Don’t overthink it!🙂

The Power of Mindset

Success is all about your mindset.  The struggle is just in your head.  Mindset matters.   These are all variants on a cliché we’ve heard plenty of times, probably a lot in sports especially.  But this is one of those cases in which the cliché reflects the truth, at least when it comes to one particular distinction between two types of mindsets: fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets.  This distinction was found by Carol Dweck and her colleagues, and dozens and dozens of correlational studies and experiments have found evidence that mindset matters.

Dweck’s book. Haven’t read it personally, but I’ve heard it’s good.

Basically, a fixed mindset is the idea that each person has a fixed trait that determines their ability.  This most often applies to intelligence, but it can be about any skill – so this is the idea that we each have innate talents that determine how good we are at a given activity.  Most people think of IQ this way, as something we are born with that cannot be changed, no matter how hard we try.  On the flip side, growth mindsets are the idea that we can improve our abilities over time with practice, dedication, and hard work, and that we are not limited by innate talents but instead can nurture them over time.   Going with our IQ example, this would be the idea that we can change someone’s IQ with things like education, nutrition, or other environmental factors.

Interestingly, fixed mindsets are tied to performance goals, in other words, trying to demonstrate your ability either to yourself or others, while growth mindsets focus more on improvement and learning, honing that ability over time.  Growth mindsets tend to be better for people both in the short and long term, particularly when they are not very skilled at something to begin with.  Why?  Because if you have a fixed mindset and fail, you are more likely to give up because you think, “I’ll never be better at this.”  On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset and fail, you are more likely to think about how you can improve and do better next time.  Fixed mindsets for people who initially succeed are nice and all (probably ego-boosting, in fact), but the key difference lies in when people fail, which they inevitably will at some point.

People tend to lean towards having a more fixed or growth mindset as a default, at least when  it comes to specific domains such as intelligence or sports performance or just about anything.  However, research has also shown that mindsets can be manipulated – if we learn about benefits of growth versus fixed mindsets, then people can shift their perspectives and benefit from the good things that come with growth mindsets.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I think it’s inherently really interesting and challenges a lot of people’s naïve theories on how people work, but it’s also super relevant to ballroom dancing.  Some people have the idea that they’ll wander in to a class, take a lesson or two, and immediately be able to dance, but us ballroom dancers know it’s not remotely that easy.  I would say it takes a year of regular instruction for most people to feel really comfortable with a full repertoire of ballroom styles, and of course many, many more to master them.

For some people, particularly those with a lot of previous dancers (you know who you are, having danced ballet/jazz/tap/etc. basically since being able to walk), ballroom comes very naturally and without much effort or struggle.  Sure, you have to correct a few habits, but learning steps is extremely easy.  For others, ballroom is fun but much more of a challenge!  The pesky alignment thing in standard, learning the difference between all the subtypes of styles, simply remembering what foot goes where.  Feeling like a total clod and thinking that it’s near impossible.  I was there, back in the day.  I had no idea what was happening half of the time, but it was still fun and after a while of mucking around, I realized I would have to put effort, money, and a lot of practice time into learning these skills.  Having a growth mindset is really much more conducive to learning and improving, compared to a fixed mindset.  Yes, _______ is hard, but once you get it, it’s all that much more rewarding.   I do have one caveat – I do think most of us have some innate ability to learn particular skills.  There’s no denying that some people are more “natural” at things than others.   In dance, some people are more flexible or have a more ideal body shape for a particular style or learn steps faster than others do.  However, each of us can make the most of what we have, and sometimes being not so natural at something can produce passion and drive to improve that many of the “naturals” lack.

Anecdotally, one of my friends was better at standard than Latin when he started, placing quite well at competitions in standard.  But he decided, I want to be a Latin dancer.  That’s what he really enjoyed and aspired to be, so he worked hard at it over time, practiced a lot, and got to be a pretty good Latin dancer.   If he had had more of a fixed mindset, thinking he couldn’t get much better at Latin, he might have just stuck to standard or maybe even given up dancing at all.

Every time we advertise the club in effort to recruit new members, I inevitably encounter the same sorts of reasons to not join.  “I have two left feet,” “I don’t know how to dance,” “I could never dance like that,” and so on.  Very fixed mindset, wouldn’t you say?  Hey, that’s where I and 95% of the people in the club started!  People have this idea that ballroom dancing’s some magical power that we just have, but we all start as beginners.  For those who have been dancing some time and can’t imagine ever reaching some level, be patient with yourself.  People tell me, “I could never be as good as you!”  Not true.  A few years ago, I never would’ve imagined myself competing at pre-champ or champ levels, but here I am (at least, in some styles).  It took quite a few years, but it happened.  So, if you ever feel like “ugh, I could never do that,” check yourself and remember that with enough hard work and dedication, you totally could.  Just keep chugging along.

Teaching Psychology and Teaching Dance

This past year or so, I’ve gotten a decent amount of experience in teaching, both in the area of social psychology and in dance.  In fact, it’s easy to mix up the two when people ask me, “How is teaching going?” and I have to clarify what they’re asking about.  I’m on my third semester of teaching introduction to social psychology (in various forms) and in my second semester of teaching dance at a beginner level (specifically the beginner class last spring and the intermediate class right now).

It’s really interesting to me, seeing the parallels between an academic course and a dance class.  Certainly many differences (hopefully no one is falling asleep during dance class, but you do see that happen now and again!), but also some common themes and similarities.  For one, attendance drops off after the first class.  The first day of the semester (also known as reading-the-syllabus day) is when you’ll actually see all of your students in one place, at least until exams roll around and suddenly students you don’t recognize at all show up to take the final.  “Hmmm, I’ve never seen you before.  I guess you’re in my class, or taking this exam for fun?” Similarly, the very first day of dance class tends to also be the biggest, as people are trying things out and seeing if this is something they want to do, seeing if they’re in the right level, etc.  After that, class size shrinks noticeably, which can be somewhat discouraging, but at least it means the people who are coming actually want to be there!  Another similarity is the lack of facial feedback you get from people.  So many blank stares.  Give me smiles, confusion, something to work with!

The other major parallel between the two is how when teaching, you have to boil down everything you know to the core ideas and essentials.  If I were to throw every nuance I know at people new to some concept, it would just go way over their heads and confuse them.  It’s tempting to just give a big ol’ information dump because we want people to know a lot right away, but it’s better for everyone to keep things simple.  I have all this knowledge and want to share it with you!  But I have to hold back consciously.  For example, for every dance, we just have to start with the basic steps, described in only basic terms.  We’re just working on getting people to have some semblance of a frame/connection and putting their feet in the approximately correct places.  Adding in nuances of posture, proper body contact/connection, hip action, rotation, swing, sway, and so on, would just be too much for someone just starting out.  Once they get the basic idea, then we can add these technical ideas on top, one layer at a time.

In social psychology, it would be lovely if I could discuss ideas on a higher level with my students, but they clearly do not have the knowledge base and understanding that I do, given that I have about 6 additional years of focused experience.  We instead just have to focus on essential concepts and theories.  We can’t get into advanced technical models with mediation and moderation, which would just make no sense to most students (I didn’t know what mediation was until grad school, and you probably don’t either, and that is fine!  In a nutshell, it means X caused Y through Z.  Like, making a powerful pose with your body leads to increased volume of speaking because it increased confidence. I just made that up, but it sounds plausible, right?)  What are the most important ideas for this topic, and how best can I convey them to my students?  How do I make some topic interesting, easy to digest, and personally relevant to them?  Real-life examples seem to be the best way to illustrate concepts, I’ve found.  Particularly in funny videos.  Students LOVE videos.  Cognitive dissonance is a fun topic, but since it’s been around for a long time, there have been more detailed breakdowns of when it does and doesn’t happen, and apparently some of the “classic” cognitive dissonance study effects aren’t so easy to achieve, as one of my colleagues has found.  But we can’t go into all these details yet.  We just have to communicate the basic theory and how people discovered it, first.

Another thing involved with all types of teaching is learning to be really patient. Really, really, really, really patient. Sometimes, even if you tell people the same things over and over, it will just take them a lot of time to listen, understand, and be able to use what you’ve told them from the beginning.  In the social psychology writing class, I give them what I perceive to be simple instructions about how to include citations.  But to those who are not used to in-text citations and APA (American Psychological Association) format/standards for scientific writing, they forget to cite, or try to cite but do it completely wrongly, and might continue to do so for multiple papers, despite multiple corrections.  Another writing example is passive voice.  We teach students to favor active voice over passive voice (for example, “I did this” rather than “something was done to me”), but it’s another concept that takes a while to sink in and become a habit.  Some students still mix up correlation and causation, even though it’s a basic, super essential idea in science.  Basically, just because one variable correlates with (or predicts) another variable, it does not mean that it causes it!  See here for some good examples.

In dancing, we might repeatedly tell newer dancers to turn their feet in/out, keep their elbows up, not look at their partners/their feet/the floor, stand up straight, straighten their legs (or keep them flexed) and so on and so forth, but everyone develops some bad habit of some kind (or ten, or twenty).  Or they incorporate it once, but then go back to whatever incorrect thing they were doing before.  But I have to keep in mind that dancing is really, really hard (well, at least for most people, superstars aside)!  Learning the basic change step/natural turn/change step/reverse turn pattern in international waltz made no sense to me whatsoever when I first started.  It took a while!  Similarly, the now-basic-seeming fan in international rumba and cha cha was totally confusing at first, but relatively easy now, with years of dance education and experience.  Given all these difficulties, it is all the more rewarding when students have that “Aha!” moment and really get some new move or concept.  Or correct some issue that they’ve been struggling with.  Or within a few months, take dance more seriously, practice a lot, educate themselves, and improve vastly.  That’s such a fantastic thing to witness, whether I had a small or bigger role to play in the improvement.

Probably the best aspect of teaching things I love is being able to share that love with others.  I love social psychology and I love dance, and it’s fantastic to help other people fall in love with them as well (or minimum, develop some level of appreciation for them).  One difficulty in that process for me is communicating that very thing – I am generally a very mellow person and it’s rare for me to convey outward excitement about things, even if I feel that way about them internally. (Exceptions: food when I’m hungry and getting to sleep more. Also shiny pretty things.)  Sometimes it feels forced to show that enthusiasm more on the outside, but it’s something I’d like to work on.

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!


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.”


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.


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.