In Grad School? Maintain Sanity with a Hobby (like Ballroom Dancing)

I got an email a while back from a UVA alumnus looking for people willing to contribute advice columns for a new social networking/media site, HoosNetwork.  So, here’s my first article.  Click away.

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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!

Hurrah!!! And Some Smooth Inspiration

I just turned in the take-home part of my PhD qualifying exams and have thus ended a summer of endless studying and stress. I don’t know how to convey clearly what the process is like to people unfamiliar with grad school, but it involved having to know basically ALL of social psychology (even stuff I hadn’t learned before) and remembering lots of studies and citations, but also thinking about it all on a deeper level.  And then writing 6 essays in 4 hours, and 2 longer ones over the course of a week.  But now that part is done, thank goodness. Huzzah!

Anyway, my partner and I have been working on some new smooth routines recently, which have been really fun and energizing.  In the past I was always sort of afraid of smooth (not that I’m not now) because it’s more independent and expressive than standard, two things that I feel aren’t really in my comfort zone.  Separate me from a partner and I go into “oh no, what is happening now” mode sometimes.  We haven’t done Viennese yet, but I wanted to share this lovely routine by one of my favorite smooth couples, Jonathan Roberts and Valentina, though their partnership was rather short-lived (but very accomplished!)

Bonus video. Watch for the amazing standing spin around 1:20. Sorry for the blurry quality.

Happy back-to-school season for the students (and parents) out there!

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.