Most of us, when we enter the dance world, have a starry-eyed view of all the dancers currently in it.
The exclusive, close-knit group of dancers up by the DJ booth are seem to be experts; people in performance groups seem like great leaders and followers; instructors all most certainly seem to be experienced, amazing, and sage bastions of dancing wisdom.
Unfortunately, the longer you dance, the more and more you realize that this simply is not true.
Just because someone is a part of a particular social group, or has been dancing a long time, or behaves like a hot shot, doesn’t mean anything about the quality of their dancing.
Just because someone performs or even looks great when they dance doesn’t mean they feel great.
And just because someone teaches dance doesn’t mean jack shit about how talented of a dancer, leader, or follower that they are.
Here’s the kicker, however:
You are also, at least in some way, that person.
I am that person. My best friend is that person. My favorite dancers are that person. I say this because none of us are truly objective about our dancing. None of us can conduct a truly adequate self-assessment. We really cannot. Even if we think we are popular enough, as social dancers, we don’t know precisely what other social dancers experience when they are with us and why they keep coming back for m0re.
How are we ever supposed to know how talented we are? How are we supposed to know our “level”? How are we supposed to decide when we can teach, and when we cannot?
There are two important kinds of feedback you can get, and they are both crucial. There is solicited feedback, and there is unsolicited feedback.
On Soliciting Feedback
Dancers love to talk about each other, to debate technique, and to give each other feedback. If you want to know what is good or what is bad about your dancing, ask. You can ask friends and you can ask strangers and you can most certainly ask instructors.
Importantly, I advise asking a diverse pool of people. You might be unlucky and stuck asking someone who really doesn’t have a good understanding of the world of dance, and can only give you narrow feedback. If you want to be a good social dancer – someone who is capable of dancing with anybody out there – then you’re going to need to ponder and probe and work on your dancing with as wide variety of people as possible.
Getting unsolicited feedback
In addition to asking for feedback, however, you can pay close attention to the kind of unsolicited feedback that you get.
Dancers do – I promise, this is a real thing – express joy to one another if they like each other’s dancing. Of course not everybody does this all of the time. But if people like you, generally speaking, you will be informed.
After dances, depending on how talented (or fun, or experienced) you are, people at different levels will demonstrate interest in you. “What’s your name?” “How long have you been dancing?” “Where do you teach?”
Generally speaking (again), people within your own “level” and below will be the ones complimenting you. You can gauge your skill by paying attention to who it is precisely who likes you the most.
So pay attention to who gives you feedback. Pay attention both at home and abroad. If no one is telling you that they like your dancing, you should probably take this seriously. If only people who are beginner dancers give you unsolicited positive feedback, and you want to be a pro, take this seriously.
In my opinion, no one should start even contemplating teaching before seasoned professionals begin treating them like one of their own. Because this will happen. If you are qualified to teach (at a particular level), other people who are qualified to teach (at this level) will seek out and express admiration over your dancing.
I personally feel very humble about my dancing and know that I have very far to go. I am so young in the worlds of precision, scope, and skill. Yet as much as I know my weaknesses, I also know my strengths. I know what many dancers think of me. Sometimes this is because I ask. But usually it is just because I pay attention. I know where I fit into the various worlds of social dancing in which I participate.
I really wish more people would do this. So many people — and instructors — blindly assume their dancing is great (smdh. I recently saw an “instructor” leading bachata on four and no it was not a stylistic choice). This wouldn’t happen if this instructor and others would set aside their egos and pay attention to what the people around them think and feel.
These are partner dances. We will never be able to dance with ourselves. The only way to get a reasonably well rounded perspective of ourselves as dancers is to pay attention to the feedback we spontaneously receive, and also to seek out more as much as possible.
Importantly, I want to be clear of course also that there are many other ways to be reflective upon and improve your dancing. These include recording yourself, working alone in a studio or in your kitchen, keeping journal records of your progress, and the like. But what I really wanted to drive home today was the importance of the outsider perspective.