As someone who has been involved in dance for decades, as both a competitor and a coach, I’m often faced with the reality that dance is not inherently comfortable. It’s fun. Invigorating. Healthy. Social. But not comfortable. So the question comes up, why? And should it or can it ever be comfortable to dance?
All aspects of dance take you out of your comfort zone. First, there’s the issue of learning a new and physical skill. Usually your first learning experience is with a group of people in a similar situation as you are: they are all learning something brand new. But that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable. You have to learn where to place your feet. You have to learn about the music and how to work with the beats and rhythm. You worry about not being as quick at picking up this new skill as the others around you. You worry about stepping on your partner’s feet. Basically, you worry about a lot of stuff.
Then, at least in the partner dances, there’s the issue of working with a partner. Most of the time that’s a partner of a different gender, leading to even more potential for discomfort. Men find it very challenging to be visibly unskilled at something in the presence of women. Unfortunately, for ballroom dancing this is an essential part of the learning process.
As teachers, we see all the dynamics of human psychology at work. Interactions between the sexes are endlessly fascinating. Both sides need to give up their egos to allow themselves to learn and be imperfect while they work together to improve their skills. There are a thousand different ways that people have to work through this discomfort. Some become animated and funny, while others become quiet and serious. Those who are particularly successful in a career or skill outside of dance, where they may have a high status or level of respect, often find it hard to be put in a place where they are not so skilled. It’s really interesting to watch the dynamics of this process.
Communications in dance are not especially comfortable. There’s the discomfort of admitting that you made a mistake, of using the right language so that you aren’t blaming your partner, or of being told by your coach that things didn’t quite match what the coach was looking for.
Social dancing also takes us out of our comfort zone. You may be rejected when you ask someone to dance. Or you may be asked by someone who is obviously much more skilled than you and feel that you will let them down. You may feel out of your comfort zone on the floor. You might make mistakes as a lead or a follow, leading to the discomfort of mismatched movement.
Some of the greatest moments in human achievement have been those where we overcome the uncomfortable challenges and learn what we are truly capable of
When it comes to competitors, it gets even more uncomfortable. Now you are looking at the whole aspect of performing in front of a group of people who are expecting to be entertained. You have the discomfort of knowing that there’s a standard you need to achieve, both for your own sense of accomplishment and for those watching. Performance anxiety can be crippling and can sometimes cause an otherwise great and talented performer to freeze up or fall apart. We’ve seen this kind of thing on shows like Dancing With the Stars, where famous celebrities just can’t bring their well known personality into the dancing because of performance anxiety around this new skill.
Your partner’s expectations may have also increased in a competitive environment, as they are under the same pressure to perform. As their partner, you are an integral part of the equation. Even as a multi-time regional champion who enjoyed competing, no competition was ever something that I would refer to as comfortable. If it had been, that would have signaled that I wasn’t trying hard enough to stretch myself.
There’s the aspect of understanding the character of the dance, the musical interpretation, the floor craft necessary to work your way around other dancers. At times, the lead may have to change the preplanned choreography on the fly, adding the whole element of leading something unexpected by the partner and hoping that she will follow successfully. On top of all that, as a competitor you are out of your comfort zone because standing around the floor are highly experienced former champions who are judging your performance and ranking you against others.
In short, nothing about ballroom dancing is comfortable. And it shouldn’t be. It should be fun. It should be energetic. But I would never say that it should be comfortable.
A performance by someone who is too comfortable lacks that excitement we feel when we watch great dancing. It lacks the fire and energy that are fueled by this need to reach a desired standard. The whole discomfort of dance leads us to push ourselves even further. It creates motivation and accelerates the learning process. Through it, we become stronger, more resilient and more skilled in the many aspects of dance.
Some of the greatest moments in human achievement have been those where we overcome the uncomfortable challenges and learn what we are truly capable of. Ultimately, that’s where champions are born.