I dance several different styles socially – both Latin and non-Latin – and I hear this from time to time as I ask a prospective follower to dance: “Okay, but I’m not very good,” or variations on this theme. It’s hard to say whether the person feels less confident because I know my way around a dance floor, more or less, or whether they are sufficiently unsure of themselves in general. Among leaders this manifests as a person sitting on the sidelines during a social, perhaps waiting for a familiar (read: safe) person from their dance class to appear.
I had this experience most recently at last week’s Sidewalk Salsa (of which there are only 4 remaining weeks in our 12th season). I asked a woman to dance who, as it turns out, recently arrived in Toronto. She replied with the aforementioned insecurity response before I gently encouraged her and led her to the dance flo… err… sidewalk. “Do you know the basic step?” I asked. “Oh yes, of course,” she said. And we proceeded to have a very enjoyable dance together at a level of skill certainly beyond beginner. At the end, as I escorted her back to where she was sitting, I chided her in mock seriousness: “You officially no longer have permission to claim that you’re not very good!” She laughed.
A hundred years ago or so, when I was in what we now call middle school and such schools still had instrumental music classes, Mrs. Rogers, my teacher exhorted us not to make small mistakes. “If you’re going to play the wrong note,” she exclaimed, “make it loud!” With dancing, it’s much the same. As I regularly tell my students, the only way to learn how to dance – especially social dancing – is to dance. Dance with people who are equal to you in skill, dance with those who are more skilled than you, and dance with people who are less skilled than you. Lessons are fine, and indeed important to build certain skills, but dancing “in the wild” with a variety of partners enables you to develop your dance versatility. A big part of dance skill has to do with listening to, and “reading” your partner. It’s about responding in an instant to whatever it is the partner does, and turning a “loud mistake” (so to speak) into a great, improvised combination.
In fact, aside from dancing in a way that is unsafe – that is, likely to cause injury – to yourself, your partner, or both, there are almost no mistakes in dance. Not dancing the prescribed pattern that you happened to learn in a class or workshop is not a mistake. Neither is not knowing beforehand what pattern your partner expected you (via clairvoyance, I suppose) to do. Berating your partner for “not doing it right” is a mistake—one that will soon have you labelled as someone not worth dancing with. And it’s precisely that type of mistake that leads people to crises of confidence that result in them feeling “I’m not very good.”
See you on the dance floor,