On Taking Dance Class: The Gift of Challenges

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On Dancers and Discouragement

The most surprising thing to us about dance class is how many people want to be there, but aren’t. All too many people suffer from what we believe are the two greatest sources of discouragement for new dancers: frustration and self-consciousness.

At its root, frustration in dance stems from a perceived inability to bridge the gap between what you want to do and what you can do—combined with a strong desire to do so.

And that’s not inherently a bad thing! If you’re not doing everything to your satisfaction in dance class, and you want to, that means you have both the room and the desire to grow.

The gap between your skill and your desire at any given moment can be defined as a challenge. Dance is full of challenges. And we like this, because challenges are exciting!

The challenges in dance inspire us to reach for things we hadn’t known were possible. They motivate us to focus, to push ourselves, to make the most of our abilities. Through challenges, we learn what we’re capable of—and become capable of more.

But when dancers respond to challenges with frustration, they can quickly become discouraged and even lose touch with their enjoyment of dance.

So if you’re getting frustrated in class, take action! Think of frustration management as an essential dance skill to develop—because it is. Work at finding a way to reframe, sidestep, defuse, minimize, tolerate, detach from, or just flat-out ignore feelings of frustration.

Accept frustration, and then put your focus elsewhere. Embrace frustration as the opposite of boredom in class. Get creative with it—we urge you to do whatever works for you!

But don’t let this extremely common, understandable emotion part you from your love of dance!

It’s Usually Not Just You

Sometimes frustration results from a mistaken belief that everyone in class is catching on easily but you. If you’re close to the average skill level of your class and you’re working really hard to get a routine, many of your classmates probably are, also. When a class is greatly challenged, but succeeding in learning the routine, you may not make enough mistakes to tip each other off to the difficulty you’re having.

When you think you’re the only one having trouble, sometimes a remark from your teacher will let you know otherwise. The instructor can see everyone’s expressions when you’re practicing the routine, while you’re too intent on your own dancing to pick up on your classmates’ intense effort.

Class Is about Learning, Not Perfection!

Dancers may feel self-conscious if they hold the surprisingly common belief that a person of normal ability should be able to walk into a dance class and learn and perform the whole routine flawlessly.

Often, new students come into dance class and start judging themselves for errors no one else can even see. A newcomer may feel sheepish about having difficulty with even one or two moves, when they’re actually doing better than some of the regulars!

Achieving anything short of perfection strikes some dancers as a sign of personal inadequacy. But if you’re achieving perfection in class, what’s the point?

Class is for learning! You know what happens when people become such great dancers that all the routines in their class come easily, without a great deal of focus or effort? They get bored!

It’s a bittersweet thing to outgrow a beloved dance class. Fortunately, in L.A. you can always find a new class to challenge you.

“Beginning” Is a Relative Term

Adults completely new to dance may quickly become discouraged if they take their first classes at a studio that specializes in training professional and aspiring professional dancers. A beginning class at a professional studio may be targeted to a trained dancer who happens to be new to a specific style of dance, rather than designed for a first-time adult beginner. Even a basic-level class in a technical style such as ballet may be above the skill of a completely inexperienced person.

Some beginners start out at a professional studio simply because that’s the studio they’ve heard of, or because they know the quality of instruction is high. These studios do welcome adult beginners, and staff can usually recommend the most appropriate classes for them.

We’re incredibly fortunate to have world-class dance studios in Los Angeles; we’re not saying not to go! We’re just saying if you find you’re in over your head, it doesn’t say anything about you. Except, of course, that you had the guts to try.

For Every Dancer Who Actually Takes Class . . .

For many beginners, discouragement results from the misperception that the people in dance class represent a typical range of dance ability. If I’m one of the least skilled dancers in class, the thinking goes, I must be really bad. But it’s not so!

In our observation, it’s a self-selecting group of people who take dance classes. Most people who aren’t already convinced they’re good at dance never even walk in the door. And of those who do, the majority try just one class, or two or three. When they don’t get everything right, they simply give up and stop coming!

So here’s what we recommend if you’re relatively new to dance and getting frustrated or self-conscious in class because you feel your skills are below those of the other dancers:

First, picture nine silent, motionless figures assembled behind you, like gray shadows. These are the people who tried a class, couldn’t handle not being perfect at dance, and didn’t come back.

Now picture ninety more silent, gray figures behind them. These are the people who wish they took dance classes, but haven’t been brave enough to try.

And then there is you. You are there, taking a dance class.

You are not gray or motionless. You are not silently longing to take dance classes. You’re in class with all the other dancers. You’re trying, and messing up, and learning. You’re dancing!

And if you keep coming to class, you’ll improve. When you get better at it, dance is likely to become even more fun. But it can be a lot of fun now, too!

In fact, the dancer you become may cherish the memory of these first classes. If you approach dance with well-fortified self-esteem and a sense of adventure, you may look back on your early days in dance class as one of the happiest, most exciting times in your life.

The Spotlight: Gentler Than You Might Expect

At the end of most dance classes, participants get the chance to perform in smaller groups for their classmates. For many dancers, this is their favorite part of class.

But some dancers feel very self-conscious about performing. They may believe they’re not fit to perform unless they know the whole routine, or fear their classmates will focus on their errors.

When you’re not getting a routine, it can seem natural to think that your mistakes will draw everyone’s attention in groups. In reality, spectators tend to focus closely on dancers they enjoy watching. Someone near the back of a group stumbling through the routine is often much less conspicuous than that person feels!

It’s certainly possible that in a very small group, you may stand out. But the truth is, pretty much every dancer has been in over their head in class before. Your classmates are more likely to empathize—and admire your courage—than they are to judge.

In some classes, you may learn the routine well, but find yourself getting tripped up on one or two moves. If you think you might mess up during groups, your instinct may be to scale back all of your dancing to avoid drawing attention to yourself. But there’s no need! What you do well is usually a lot more memorable than your mistakes.

Other days, even though you’re messing up a lot in a routine, there may be one part you can do beautifully. You may suspect you’d look silly performing just that one bit skillfully, with style and flair, when you’re off during the rest. But this isn’t so!

In the dance community, it’s considered positive—even admirable!—to put your all into whatever tiny part of a challenging routine you may be getting. Always know that your fellow dancers support you in doing your best, no matter what!

If you get lost during the routine, watch the people around you and join back in as soon as they reach a part you recognize. If there’s a move you especially like or are good at, kill that one move! And even if all else fails, strike the final pose along with your group; it leaves a great last impression.

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