New Year, Pre-MAC Thoughts

Literally just tanned in preparation for the Manhattan Amateur Classic happening this weekend! (Also treated myself to a gel French manicure this morning, cause why not.) I’m super pumped.  It’s a great competition, a USA Dance amateur one with way more open-level couples than we ever encounter elsewhere, and we have time to hang out in New York City afterwards!  My partner Jesse and I didn’t dance together at all over the holidays, since we were several hundred miles apart, so I was a bit worried about getting in enough practice in the week that we had back at school.  Over break, I did get a couple of rare solo practices in, which were useful and hopefully beneficial. So, once I got back, we practiced every day we could (three consecutive days), even with two sessions in one day, and ran a few sets of smooth and standard rounds.  It’s death, but so necessary for endurance, which is sometimes often our biggest problem at competitions.

But, good news, practice went pretty well and I feel good about dancing this weekend.  We’ll see how it all works out, but we are hoping to qualify for Nationals, which requires that you are in the top 65% of your event.  A good heuristic (rule of thumb) is that if you make the first callback, you’re in.  Though because of the way the numbers work, you might even qualify for Nationals without even getting a callback.  Weird, right?  Last year, we qualified for prechamp standard but not novice standard, oddly enough.  We chose to just compete in novice and prechamp smooth, since entries at Nationals are pretty expensive, and it worked out pretty well and wasn’t too stressful physically nor mentally.  Hopefully we qualify for more events this year (novice/prechamp standard and prechamp/champ smooth), but we’ll see how it shakes out.  We’ll also be dancing Masters of Syllabus standard, which is a special event at MAC that is open to people of any level, from newcomer through championship.  The only stipulation is that you stick to the syllabus, meaning Bronze, Silver, and Gold figures.  It’s a fun challenge and you get to dance with people against whom you wouldn’t normally compete.  Also a good opportunity to brush up on your basics.

I’ll also be doing silver rhythm for fun with my boyfriend and former dance partner.  This should be…interesting.  I don’t compete rhythm anymore and he hadn’t really danced any rhythm in five or six years, so literally it’s just for fun and because we had an extra event.

Champ smooth is the biggest who-knows?! situation, because it’s the first time we’ll be competing in it for real, against legit champ smooth dancers.  It starts at a semi, so if we get called back into the final (which is a BIG if), I’ll freak out from joy and disbelief.  Either way, I’ll be happy to be in the final or get to watch really good dancers, if we don’t make it.

Really looking forward to seeing dance friends from all over the place!  Some of my ballroom teammates from the University of Virginia (where I went for undergrad, MBL!) will be there, as well as a healthy number from the Midwest, some Midwest people who have since relocated to the East Coast, and then random other dance friends whom I’ve met through competitions.  I’m also hopefully hanging out with my brother, who lives in Manhattan, aka far away.

In other unrelated news, grad school life has been super busy, but in a good way.  Currently working on my first real manuscript in grad school to be submitted for publication, with three studies that make sense together and worked (believe me, it can be very difficult to get this to happen).  Taking one class and teaching another one.  And supervising a senior thesis student and taking one three new research assistants.  Busy busy!  Getting re-inspired and motivated to do research.  It really comes and goes.

Oh, I almost forgot.  I volunteered at Yuletide Ball, a DC-area competition, and got to watch Mirko and Edita do some shows and as well as take a workshop with them.  World champions, man (at least according to WDSF).  Fantastic stuff!  I even got my picture taken with them, which I normally don’t do with celebrities.  Not sure when I would’ve gotten another opportunity, so of course I just had to go for it.  Also, social dancing with open standard dancers was great.  DC has a much bigger standard scene than does Columbus, or at least Ohio State, so I got my fix. Woot.

Lastly, go Bucks!  National Champions of the first college football playoffs and whatnot.  I’m not used to my sports teams being very good, so this was a nice refreshing change.

Looking forward to the rest of 2015!

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.

Life Updates

Quick life/dance/etc. update, in case you’re interested.  If not, too bad 😛

I’m currently last-minute preparing for the first competition of the season, Purdue, with a different partner (!).  My normal partner couldn’t make it to this competition, so I asked a good friend if he was willing to dance with me, and it’s been pretty fun so far! Some last-minute choreography, some quick re-learning of old choreography, and good amount of oh-well-let’s-just-do-lead-follow.  Fortunately, he’s good at picking up new choreography (unlike me), so that helps a lot.  But because I’m not amazing at remembering choreography, I often depend on my partner to help me out on the floor in case I have a brain spasm.  The tables have turned a bit and now I’m the one who might need to help him out on the floor, since I’m more familiar with the routines.  We’ll see how it turns out!  As I told him, when in doubt (during smooth), just do an explosion!

Another fun thing to navigate is that for the first time in years, I’m competing with a partner who is about my height and the same size as me.  One of my first partners from like….6 or 7 years ago was about that build, but since then, I’ve been dancing with guys who are over 6 feet (I’m 5’5-ish and about 5’8 in heels).

One advantage of competing with someone you don’t normally compete with is the lack of expectations.  We’re just going for fun and if we place well, great! and if not, oh well.  No pressure of maintaining or bettering our placements from previous competitions.  Cause there isn’t anything with which to compare.  Also, I’m better than him at smooth/standard, but he’s better than me at rhythm/Latin.  So, with our powers combined…who knows what will happen.  We’re dancing gold standard, gold Latin, and novice/pre-champ smooth.  Cause I’m not about to do open rhythm.  The furthest I’ve ever gotten with rhythm is silver, and placed a handful of times in that.

In other news, I’ve been co-teaching the intermediate class for my college team, which has been pretty fun.  It’s a step up from the beginner class, so we review the basic steps they have learned, add in some technique details, and give them a couple more bronze-ish moves to learn.  I’m currently drafting a more detailed entry about teaching psychology and teaching dance, which will go up eventually.  While the class size has shrunken a bit as the semester goes on – midterms galore, colder weather, and finding other clubs/activities all contributing to this – we have a pretty consistent group who comes weekly and who seems to be having fun and improving steadily (at least, I hope they are!).  And a good number of our newbies will be going to their first competition this week.  Good luck, everyone!

In non-dance life, I’ve been teaching an intro social psych class, doing research, and indoor rock climbing.  That’s about it, I guess.  Research is a tumultuous relationship as usual – studies not working, or maybe-kind-of-working-but-what-does-this-really-mean???, but that just comes with the territory.  Rock climbing is going well.  It’s nice to see steady improvement – I’m working on 5.8/5.9-ish routes right now, if that means anything to you.  The accomplishment you feel after conquering a route that stymied you previously is fantastic. What else…I read Gone Girl a couple of weeks ago.  Still undecided on how I feel about it, but it’s worth checking out.

Edited to add: I cut off all my hair into a short pixie style this summer and now I’m in the stage of “WTF do I do with it for ballroom?”.  I’m incapable of doing finger waves and teasing does absolutely nothing.  So….I think the current solution is to put some gel and spray it in to make sure it doesn’t move around, and then either add a headband or rhinestones in some sort of pattern.  We’ll see what ends up happening.

Body Modification

Hadn’t really thought to write a post on the topic of body modifications in ballroom until I recently got the upper part of my left ear cartilage (more specifically, the helix) pierced with a ring.  (P.S. If you’re thinking of piercing anything, go to a reputable shop and get pierced under sterile conditions with a needle, NOT with a piercing gun at Claire’s and the like!) This is not extreme body modification by any means, since nowadays many women (and some men) are piercing parts of their ears other than their ear lobes, but it made me a little more conscious of such things.  So, I’ll be talking about tattoos and more unusual piercings and how they fit in (or don’t) with the ballroom culture.  First of all, ballroom is a very aesthetically-focused sport/endeavor, in which even having the wrong hair, makeup, or clothing can lead to disapproval.  Thus it makes sense that there are some strong opinions and norms regarding body modification as well.

Let’s start with standard/smooth.  Very classic, elegant, proper sorts of dances, since they have a more old school and traditional influence.  I think competitors in these dances in particular are less likely to have visible tattoos and unconventional piercings.  Perhaps in part because of personality (people who like the traditional dances more might also be more traditional themselves), but more often because it is generally frowned upon by judges and even other members of the ballroom community.  It’s hard to really say for men, since they are covered up from neck to wrist to feet, but you never see visible neck/hand tattoos on gentlemen doing these dances.  Who knows what they’re sporting underneath their tailsuits/smooth suits, though? (Ow ow!) I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male standard or smooth dancer with ear jewelry, either.  Of course, that may mean that they wear such subtle jewelry that it’s hardly noticeable.  Women, on the other hand, often wear dresses that reveal at least some part of their body – hands, arms, back, chest, legs for smooth dresses with high slits.  Torso if they’re wearing a two-piece dress in smooth.  Rarely do you see competitive dancers with visible tattoos in these revealed areas, right?  Those who do have visible tattoos are often advised to cover them up with makeup.  In fact, on a rather informal poll on Dance Forums, an overwhelming 81.7% of forum members who answered said that piercings and tattoos should not be seen on the competition floor.  Some thought they were trashy, which is very counter to the desired image in ballroom.  Many people mentioned that even if they don’t think of tattoos and such as a bad thing, they can be distracting, and make the audience pay more attention to that rather than someone’s dancing.  Others were concerned that judges might mark them worse for having such body modifications.

For Latin/rhythm, I think tattoos and piercings are a little more acceptable, but still uncommon, even when they might be revealed with skimpier shirts and dresses.  I know that Slavik Kryklyvyy has a visible chest tattoo that shows with low-cut Latin shirts, but it’s hard to think of many examples of professional dancers who have really noticeable tattoos.  Victor da Silva has a pretty large back tattoo, but does theatre arts/exhibition stuff, so a tattoo kind of fits with that I’m-so-manly-let-me-throw-a-woman-around-with-my-pinky vibe.  Multiple piercings and belly button rings are also not surprising to see on female Latin/rhythm dancers, I think.  Still, large visible tattoos on women aren’t really commonplace.  I’ve seen a couple of tattoos on collegiate competitors, and they can be distracting if they are larger/more noticeable.  I can also think of an example from Dancing with the Stars, in which makeup artists blinged up Melissa Rycroft’s lower back tattoo to match her costume and to make it a little more ballroom-appropriate.  But you never see full sleeve tattoos and the like.

I’ve entertained the idea of a tattoo casually, but have kept in mind this limitation.  I have to think, “Where could I even have one that wouldn’t show with ballroom dresses?”  It’s interesting that tattoos and piercings have become more accepted in mainstream culture, but the ballroom culture lags behind.  Then again, the ballroom culture does tend to trend older and more traditional, so maybe this isn’t a surprise at all.  Men are leaders and women are followers, and there is the traditional etiquette aspect of the whole endeavor, so perhaps old-fashioned notions of what is acceptable on bodies also tracks these ideals.

I haven’t seen any relatively more unusual or extreme body modifications at ballroom events in recent memory, such as ear stretching (or gauging), sleeve tattoos (though of course those can be covered up by long sleeves), scarification, or many prominent facial piercings.  Again, this could be due to the people ballroom attracts (probably not the most fringe-y, alternative types) or because they hesitate to do such things in fear that it will impact their dancing results in a negative way.  One of my coaches has a labret piercing (meaning, right below the center of her lower lip), which is a bit more unusual, but it’s very subtle and tasteful.

Naturally, this is all subjective and dependent on the perceiver (as we often talk about in social psychology).  Some coaches and judges might frown upon piercings and tattoos while others have no problem with it.  Until the overall culture changes, however, it seems prudent to take these norms into consideration when thinking about body modifications.  Do you value fitting in with ballroom culture more, or care more about self-expression using jewelry and adornment on your body?  Ultimately it’s a personal decision.

Internal Monologue During Competition

Days before:

Ugh, I have to tan. When do I have time to do that…after practicing, maybe?  Oh, and shave my legs, I guess.  And do my nails.  Why do I do this again? *spray tans self*  Hmm, am I even enough?  Nope, time to spray some more.  Damn it, now I have a huge dark blotch on my arm.  *blots with a tissue*  And now there’s a huge white spot.  Time to spray some more and hope that it all evens out.  I hope no one notices how oddly tan I look tomorrow in the middle of winter… *runs back and forth from bathroom to bedroom, hoping roommate does not pop out while I am mostly nude*

Night before:

Oh right, I guess I should pack.  That’ll be easy, right?  Oh shoot I have laundry to do.  *manages to forget something anyway, despite having been to dozens of competitions before*

Traveling/Arrival:

Woohoo Disney singalong time!  Or passing out time, depending on who else is carpooling.  Practice party time…good lord, it is sweaty in here.  Hmm, those dancers look really good, I wonder if I’ll be competing against them? I hope not.  Lots of cute beginners doing their thing.  Time to run through a few practice rounds and maybe even social dance!

Arrival at hotel, or someone’s apartment or dorm.  No matter what… 3 a.m. rolls around. OMG WHY CAN’T I FALL ASLEEP.   This is a comfy bed yet I am rolling around anyway, even though I have to get up in a few hours.  Why is everyone else asleep but me.  This is the worst.

Morning of:

Freakishly early wakeup time.  Snooze, more sleep time.  Roommates, go back to sleep already.  *struggle to get up in the dark* Wow, I look like a zombie.  Thank god for all the pretty crap I’ll be putting on my face.  Hair first.  *struggle to get a nice ponytail for about 15 minutes while checking the back of my head in a double-mirror setup*  I hate my hair.  This is the worst.  Okay, that’s semi acceptable.  *sprays head with  noxious hairspray cloud*  Time to make it fancy.  *struggles with hairnets and pins and gel, wrestling hair into some sort of ornate sculpture*  Why do I do this instead of a simple bun again?  More hairspray!  Alright, makeup time.  *proceed to put on drag queen level makeup* Fake eyelashes, please cooperate today!  Well, at least I look awake now and ready to go clubbing or something.  At 6 am!  *grabs stuff and waits for everyone else*  Still waiting…some of you are dancing in like 15 minutes and really should have left by now!

At the comp:

Waiting. Waiting. How many freaking rounds of bronze are there?  Waiting.  Waiting.  Munch on breakfast.  Oh, they’re so cute!  Damn, she has better technique than I do.  Newcomer rounds. Huh, I have no idea what they’re doing and I’m pretty sure they don’t either.  Is that kid wearing jeans?  Why.  Oh well, newcomers are adorable anyway.  *cheers on random couples from my team*  Oh crap, we’re dancing soon?!  *runs off to change*  Partner, where are you?  Time to warm up very quickly.  Oh god, I’m going to slip and die on this floor.  Lining up after this event… and of course now my mouth decides to become super parched when there’s no water around.  Oh shoot, have to give my phone to someone who’s competent at recording and knows that you should hold the thing horizontally and use zoom.  Hmm, who haven’t I bothered lately?  *thrusts phone at them* Lining up…oh geez there’s a lot of couples in our event.  What are the chances that they’ll split us up into smaller heats?  Oh, no? I guess we’re all dancing at once. Time to go right now, okay.  Walk briskly and force a smile.  Yay I’m feeling pumped.  Or something.  Wait, you want us to go where now?  Oh, ok.  *music starts*  Alright, I hear the beat…now when are you starting?  Pose pose pose…and…go! Time to look pretty and stuff.  Ugh I always feel awkward during this intro part.  Please let me not fall over.  Whee, looking pretty and stuff.  Oh crap there’s someone in the way and I hope you saw.  Yay for floorcraft!  Now we’re dancing…. *collide* Oops, sorry, random couple.  And I guess we’re doing lead-follow now cause that’s not the routine at all.  Alright.

During jive and quickstep:  Yay, this is fun, right?  30 seconds later… Oh please just make it stop alright.  Why did someone invent this dance?!  This is the worst and I want to die and I never do that conditioning I’m supposed to do.  Look happy look happy ugh!

And now I’m super sweaty and my mouth is all dried out…WHERE IS WATER! Yay it’s over.  Time to catch my breath and wait around impatiently for callbacks.  Hmm, when was the last time I ate today?  Whoops.

Callbacks:  Woohoo we made it! (Alternatively, huh, guess we’re done! Or, oh crap, we have to dance again?!  How is that possible?)

Results:  Lining up, gotta find my team jacket.  Standing with the team…yay clapping for random people I don’t know.  Still clapping.  Time for our event.  Notlastnotlastnotlast.  Woohoo, not last!  (I know, finaling means you’re far from last, in reality.)  Sixth…fifth…still not us…what are we going to get?!  Fourth?  Not bad, yay!  Next event… seventh….sixth….fifth…fourth….third… holy crap!….second….first! No freaking way! Squee! *squish partner and try not to look like an idiot while getting ribbon/whatever from judge*  And… everyone whips out their phones to take pictures.  Selfie time thrown in there as well.  Time to take a team picture.  People keep being missing or not paying attention.  Rando, please be decent at taking pictures.  Obligatory goofy picture!

End of day:

Yes, time to take off some of my makeup, woohoo.  *peels off fake eyelashes*  I’m exhausted and I just want to go hooooome.  Let’s goooo, car!  Why do dance people take forever to go anywhere?  Team dinner, yay!  FOOD.  Better yet, MILKSHAKE.  And of course more dance talk.  This restaurant must hate us because we’re such a big group.  Alright, this was fun and all, but I gotta get home already.  *either drives or passes out promptly*

When to Move Up to the Next Level

So assuming you’ve been dancing competitively for some time, this question may arise: when do you leave your current level and move up to the next one, which presumably is more difficult, with new material and better dancers?  If you don’t compete, I think this still could be relevant for deciding when you should move up and take more difficult classes.

In the end, it’s a personal decision and there’s no real right or wrong answer (unless you have to move up due to a specific competition’s rules.)  That being said, here are my thoughts on when you should move up.

Definitely move up to the next level if you have pointed out of your current one.  If you have pointed out, it’s probably because you have won several (or many!) competitions in a particular level/style and it’s time to just accept your awesomeness and go up already! The YCN point system is rarely used anymore, but it’s easy to figure out.  USA Dance’s system is horridly complicated, but also useful if you frequent that circuit.  Just be prepared to spend some time figuring it all out.  You earn points in both cases for placing well in a competition, and the better you do, the more points you get.  Once over a certain threshold of points, you have “pointed out” and now should be competing in a higher level (newcomer -> bronze, bronze -> silver, silver -> gold, gold -> novice, etc.).  Don’t be that couple that dances down to win.  It’s pretty unsportsmanlike and unfair to others, and keeps you from challenging yourself at the next level.

If you dancing in newcomer, you should follow the rules of a competition – usually after 6 months or 1 year of dancing, you can no longer dance as a newcomer.  Some people stick around in newcomer longer than they’re supposed to, perhaps if they have an actual newcomer partner, but others will notice and judge you for it, particularly if you win a lot.  Related, even if you have been dancing within the specified time and are winning lots of newcomer events, it’s time to move on to bronze.  You’ve earned it!

If you consistently final in your events (even if you don’t always win), this is also time to think about moving up, or at the very least to consider double-registering in your level and the one above, if there’s some goal you just want to achieve before “graduating” from your current one.

If you dance pretty well but are getting bored and unmotivated with your current level.  Learning new material can be really motivating, fun, and encourages you to learn the necessary technique for particular figures.  It might make dancing exciting again, which fuels your drive to practice and improve.  This might be another double-registering situation, particularly if your results have been inconsistent in your current level.

If your (amateur) partner is significantly better/more experienced than you – you should try to meet in between,  but eventually go for his or her current level.  Having only one half of the partnership needing to learn new steps/technique significantly speeds up progress, and you should aim higher rather than lower.

However, I would strongly advise against moving up if you simply feel uncomfortable dancing up to the next level.  Well, if both you and your partner feel uncomfortable.  If one is ready, perhaps you both are, in reality.  If you truly believe you will stick out like a sore thumb because you are so much worse than everyone else, perhaps you should not take that next step yet.  However, this fear that many of us have is usually unfounded.  If it is grounded in reality, however, concentrate on improving your technique and doing the figures you are allowed to do to the best of your abilities so you can do well in your current level and prepare for the next.

The solution is often to double-register in your current level and the one above.  Caveats though – this can be more expensive if you have to pay by event.  It can also be exhausting, if you dance well and attend large competitions, because you are dancing twice as much!  Sometimes you might burn out before the day is over.

To share some personal experience, a previous partner and I were dancing gold standard and doing alright, but had an entire summer to work on things before the competition season started up again.  I wanted to learn open material but was hesitant about jumping in with both feet, but my partner and coach were confident that we should just go for it, especially since we had a lot of time to learn our open routines.  Having two sets of routines for standard was pretty hard to remember, so eventually we dropped gold and just did novice/prechamp, and didn’t do too badly in our first competitions, getting a few unexpected callbacks, which was validating.  Take-home message? Sometimes you just have to go for it!

Good luck dancing, competing, and improving!

End-of-the-Year Thoughts

As 2013 comes to a close, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve done/accomplished this year when it comes to dance and contemplate my goals for 2014. Winter break hasn’t been great for that, since I haven’t practiced for a good three weeks now, but oh well! I did have  a lesson on my own with my old coach from home, which was great.

In 2013, I have:

  • Gotten back into open smooth and standard (novice/pre-champ) with pretty good results
  • Graduated from syllabus smooth/standard (again)
  • Learned 8 new routines
  • Danced with one regular partner and competed with 4+ others TBA
  • Found a new awesome smooth coach, thanks to friends’ recommendations
  • Sold my first ballroom dress 😦 but got two new ones 😀
  • Started my first big dress stoning project
  • Mentored quite a few people in dance, including newbies, who are the most fun (but also sometimes the toughest) to work with
  • Got an iPhone, which means I can now record lots of video

For 2014, I’d like to:

  • Place in the top three in standard
  • Move up to pre-champ/champ in smooth (daunting, but doable, I think)
  • Attend USA Dance Nationals, maybe aim to win Novice Smooth? *fingers crossed*
  • Dance more consistently
  • Survive Viennese and quickstep (also daunting)
  • Work on teaching – I might be co-teaching my team’s beginner classes this semester
  • Compete in Latin more consistently, maybe moving up to learning some open routines eventually, but we’ll see
  • Do another dress stoning project perhaps – totally unnecessary but so fun!
  • Make my own jewelry
  • Run rounds more consistently – they suck but they’re so necessary for improving endurance
  • Have a very productive summer – maybe attend Independence Day Ball?
  • Update this blog more regularly

As you perhaps can tell, I love lists. What are your dance goals for next year, and how do you plan on tackling them?

Good and Bad Practices

Well, with regard to my last post and talking about not having enough time to update, I suppose I spoke too soon. Time to use my insomnia for productive things such as blogging instead of doing actual work like I’m supposed to…  Anyway, I wanted to share some thoughts I had about practicing.

If you’re dancing regularly and have a partner, I’m going to assume that you practice fairly regularly.  Perhaps more often if you’re a competitive couple, though social dance couples and partners practice together all the time as well.  You can also regard social dancing a type of practice, too.  I’m sure you’ve all experienced awesome practices and disastrous ones.  So why is there this variability? Why can’t we have awesome practices every single time?   (That would be amazing, right?)  I don’t know if I can answer that, but maybe at least I can discuss what goes on in a good versus a bad practice.   Two of my partners would have these idealized perfect practices in their heads and be pretty disappointed that we couldn’t dance like that each and every time.  My response would be, well, things can’t always be perfect (though of course this is what we strive for).  Nerdy side note: I proposed that practice/dancing can go towards the asymptote of perfection.  It can steadily approach it but never quite get there…

The best practices tend to include these qualities:

  • Things seem to be working.  The dance just flows well, sometimes without putting a ton of effort into it.  You feel very “on” and it’s a magical feeling.
  • You get along with your partner.  If there’s any critique, it’s respectful and well-received.  Lots of statements such as “I feel” such and such and “I think” such and such seem to help with this (well, unless it’s something like “I think you suck!”), rather than things like “You aren’t” doing something good or “Why do you keep” doing something wrong.
  • Concepts you learned in your lessons (private or group) make sense and you can apply them to your dancing.
  • Being in a good mood!
  • Feeling productive – that you got a lot of work done, efficiently.
  • It’s fun! Pretty simple.

The worst practices, on the other hand, are the exact opposite:

  • Things are sucking.  No matter how hard you try, you can’t get X figure or Y concept to work, and you can’t figure out why at all.  It’s super frustrating.
  • You are not getting along well with your partner.  I’ve been through this, with a cycle of criticism-overemotional reaction-frustration-anger, etc.   The very very bad practices end with drama, someone storming off in a huff, or people refusing to talk to each other.  Or even worse, screaming matches, crying, etc.  This is clearly an exaggeration, but not unheard of.  I’ve been both a participant and an observer for these kinds of practices.  Yikes.  (No screaming for me though, but perhaps everything else…)
  • Using lots of “you” language in criticism certainly doesn’t help with the above. “You aren’t dancing well,” “why aren’t you moving?”, “you keep doing this wrong.”  Bad bad bad. AVOID.
  • You try your best to apply new concepts from lessons but for whatever reason it just doesn’t make sense or you can’t make it work.
  • Coming in with a bad mood or ending with a bad mood.
  • Maybe not being productive – especially when you feel like you’re trying your best.  But things just aren’t feeling any better, or they feel even worse.
  • It’s not fun.  It feels like work.  Or worse, torture.

These are clearly polarized examples of good and bad practices.  There’s of course everything in between, but that’s not nearly as interesting to write about, right?  I think something to keep in mind is that you can’t always have that perfect practice.  Sometimes you’re in a good mood coming in, sometimes you’re in a bad mood.  Dancing could cheer you up or worsen your mood, depending on how it goes.  Sometimes you’re “on,” and sometimes you just can’t get it.  And that’s okay!  The point of practicing is that over time, we’ll be more “on” and consistently good all the time, but that takes a LOT of practice to get there.  And by the time you feel that you’re good at something, you’ll learn about something else you need to work on to get better.  Asymptote, like I said.

Personally, I think it’s best to accept the ebb and flow of practice and be conscious of what you can do to maximize the positive aspects.  It’s perhaps easiest to apply this to interpersonal interactions with your partner – being respectful, being nice, being considerate, but still offering positive critiques when appropriate.  Also, being partners, there should always be that element of equality – both of you have something to bring to the table, even if perhaps one partner has more skill than the other, or is better at this particular thing than the other.  It’s a partnership, not a dictatorship.  (Pro-am has a different dynamic entirely, so this applies more to am-am partnerships.)

Disclaimer: none of this is based on psychology research, just my own experience and intuition.  I can think about it in a psych way though, just give me some time 😉

On Being the Baaaalllroom Dancer

By this title I mean, being a ballroom dancer and finding yourself in a more social-dance situation with people who do partner dancing that are not official ballroom styles falling under the International/American style umbrellas.  Examples are salsa, swing (East coast, West coast, and everything else), and Argentine tango.  For me, it’s both fun and a bit awkward.  There’s lots of moves I’m not all that familiar with, but I know the basics well enough to follow.  And, being a trained ballroom dancer, I am pretty decent at following, but sometimes my guess goes wrong.   But the unknown aspect of it makes it kind of exciting!  It’s especially fun when I’m led in something I’ve never done before, but it actually works out.

Another thing on my mind  during this situations is how I have to turn down my ingrained technique and try to fit in, to not stick out like a sore thumb with swinging hip action and knees and bounce during swing, or doing Latin line arms in salsa.  Nothing wrong with dancing ballroom technique in these situations, but if I feel like I’m a visitor in some different culture, I should try to embrace what they do, even if it feels kinda wrong instinctively.  (Funnily enough, my first experience with social dancing was with swing, but if I had any swing habits from then, they are now thoroughly wiped away.)  We had a multiple-dance-club event recently and it was amusing to me, seeing all my ballroom friends do their typical ballroom technique thing during some basic swing, while the swing club people are all more grounded and sorta hunchy in an athletic way, wearing Keds while we’re in heels and Latin shoes.  Not that there was anything better or worse about either interpretation of the dance; it was just an interesting contrast.

For Argentine tango, you have to kind of go with this closer, smaller frame and get reeeeal comfortable with your partner.  I’ve been told I need to relax more and lean into my partner more, which is just not what you usually do in ballroom tango. I’m all used to “Hey, I’m out here to the left and nope, I’m not looking at you!” rather than “Oh, your hand’s waaaay around my back….alright, then.”

Sometimes people get real defensive about what is the “real” form of a dance – you see this a lot on Youtube when people see International or American tango and are all, “this isn’t REAL tango” and get upset about it.  Okay, so it’s not the original form of the dance, but it is equally legitimate as an art form and sport.  Ballet didn’t used to be on pointe, but now it is.  There’s dozens of different styles of hip-hop, but they are all “real.”  There’s lots of different versions of things and they all deserve acknowledgement and appreciation.  And I wish there was more cross-talk between the different partner-dancing worlds, because we all have a lot to learn and gain from each other.  That’s probably about the mushiest thing I will write about on this blog, but there it is.

Ballroom people, wouldn’t you love to be able to learn how to do this? They are amazing (and were quite good teachers, I might add.)  The video’s from a swing event, so maybe there was already some good cross-talk going on there 🙂

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.