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5 Life Lessons I Learned as a Dancer...that Might Change Your Life Too.
For a decade I straddled the worlds of academia and the arts, finishing my PhD while performing, teaching, and competing as a salsa dancer. Here are five unsung life lesson I learned through dance.
For the last ten years I’ve straddled the worlds of academia and the arts, completing my PhD in sociology while performing, teaching, and competing as a salsa dancer.
Training as a sociologist helped me build research and analysis skills, but becoming a dancer provided a completely different education – one that turned out to be critical to my development as a creative, and as a person.
As a society, we don't always give voice to the power and the utility of the skills we gain in the arts and recreation. So, here are five unsung life lessons I learned through dance, that might change your life too.
Take your journey into your own hands.
“It was just like Sonny always said it would be, nobody cares.”
Have you seen A Bronx Tale? If you have, you’ll know the scene (and I won’t spoil it here). But the gist of it is this - we spend a lot of time concerned about what other people are thinking of us, but most people are tied up in their own lives and concerns.
A cynical interpretation – one that’s probably more fitting to the film – says that people will smile in your face, spit behind your back, and not miss a beat when you’re gone.
But a gentler outlook says that there’s a liberation in shedding your concerns about other people’s judgment, and focusing on your own trajectory.
In dance especially, you have to be the one to champion your path. Support is important, but no one can create your vision or move it along for you, except yourself.
That’s true in life as well, especially if you’re doing something unusual, risky, or brand new. It doesn’t mean we neglect community or advice, it means that we avoid being derailed by the expectations of others, especially by bad faith expectations that are not in our best interests.
Build a vision for what you want to see, embody that vision, and step into the journey that comes along with it.
2. Invest in community-building. Then, pick each other up.
This may sound contradictory to the previous lesson, but stick with me.
Stepping on stage with a team you trust, knowing that you are in this together, can be a really powerful experience as a dancer.
As a salsa dancer, I frequently dance with a partner and/or teammates. And, because we do partnerwork, it's all about a give and take. Connection is literally essential to executing fast, clean, powerful movements, whether performing or social dancing for fun.
Even if you are dancing a solo though, you’re not alone in creating your art, because the audience is part of the experience as well.
Knowing that you’re not alone when you step on stage, or into any new life project, can be really affirming. And building a supportive team can make all the difference.
If you feel like right now the community you hoped for isn’t there for you and you don't have teammates to pick you up on the tough days, there are options to seek out support.
Look for folks who are doing the type of work you're trying to do, and making the type of impact you want to make.
Hire a coach or join an accountability group. If paying for services isn’t within your means, use the free resources available online.
Network on social media.
Community is all about relationships, and the really beautiful thing about building a community you can rely on, is that you also get to be someone that others can rely on. Show up for your people, support them, and pick them up. Join the work of establishing a new norm of community over competition.
3. Know where you stand. And, take “the big picture” into account.
One thing I learned over time as someone who’s been both a team member and a coach, is that your outlook and responsibilities in a given space are going to change depending on what role you’re occupying.
It’s the coach’s job to think about the big picture. Whereas as individuals we’re often focused on our spot, skills, choreography, and execution. Acknowledging your role in a particular space, and embodying it in the most considerate way possible is critical in dance, creative endeavors, and life.
It’s a good exercise to pause and ask yourself: Are you the coach right now or the individual?
It’s okay to focus on your particular role in a given moment, but being cognizant of what everyone else is doing can really elevate the collaborative processes.
In other words, it’s great to pour energy into your individual journey, as long as you’re also considerate of how your individual actions impact the group. And, if you’re the coach, it’s natural to be focused on the big picture - just remember that individuals make up that picture, and should be treated respectfully.
Extend each other a little grace as we embody different roles at different times in life.
4. Mistakes can be fixed…
As a performer, the moment right before you step on stage can be really intense.
Your nerves peak and the fear that something could go wrong hits.
And it’s true, too. Something could go wrong. Speaking from personal experience you could, for example, trip on your costume and fall on your butt.
But as my director Jeff would always remind his team, if something does go wrong, mistakes can be fixed.
If disaster strikes on stage, you get back up, you adjust, you finish the routine with or without the music, and it's fine. People love it, even. You’ve done the prep work of learning the routine, rehearsing, and cleaning it up. So, when you step out, nothing can happen that can’t be fixed a moment later.
Life isn’t like that.
Sometimes things break and we can’t fix them.
But the difficult things we go through are part of the ups and downs of being human and whenever it’s possible to get up and keep going, we do it.
If you plan on putting yourself out there in any endeavor, and holding onto your sanity while doing it, it’s important to understand that you can't control every moment.
So, at least for the little stuff, if something goes wrong, it’s gonna be okay. If you post something embarrassing or send out the wrong email or say the wrong thing, you can keep moving forward and adjust in the future.
On stage, once the music starts, the dancing takes over and the nerves go away.
Usually the doing is a lot less scary than the anticipation that comes beforehand. So, trust the imperfect, messy journey of life, let the dancing take over, and savor the moments of euphoria when they come.
5. …so, trust the process. And breathe.
That last but might sound obvious. I mean, we have to breathe.
But as a dancer it can take some skill-building to understand how to breathe through your movements. Relaxing into a move is giving yourself permission to fully experience your body’s physicality in a moment, and as an overthinker it was definitely a challenge for me to tap into that!
Breathing and being present is about relinquishing the illusion of control and developing the confidence that your body is indeed going to do what you're asking of it.
When times get tough, a lot of us have a tendency to tense up and hustle or fight through it.
And I literally can’t knock the hustle, because it’s a survival mechanism and sometimes it’s what we need to get through a situation.
But whether you’re exhausted two hours into a dance rehearsal or just going through the bumps and bruises of everyday life, it’s helpful in those moments to remember to trust your breath, your body, and yourself.
When you feel like you’re hitting a breaking point, give yourself permission to take a second breathe, and trust the process.
Dance reminds me all the time about the importance of trusting my body to carry me through challenging moments.
Recognizing that you can’t control everything allows you to be fully present to experience ease and comfort.
Being a dancer can be wonderful, and bizarre. And so can life.
The wisdom from spaces that foreground physical movement can help carry us through the ups and downs, and remind us to stay present and grounded to enjoy all the messy joy of being alive.
What are the unexpected lessons movement has taught you in life?