A friend of mine – a follower – brought up an interesting point at the end of a bachata social last night. Her eyes trailed over me, slanking about in my pleather leggings and lace I’m-not-sure-if-thats-a-bra-or-a-shirt top, with a pair of stilettos slung over my shoulder. She laughed, then gestured around at the crowd of women changing their shoes. She asked me: “how do you deal with other followers?”
“What?” I responded, distractedly. My hair was getting tangled in my stiletto buckles.
She rolled her eyes. She said “how do you deal with having other followers around?” I stilled. “How do you cope with women who are talented dancers, who have clearly been doing this forever, who it’s clear lots of talented leaders enjoy, who are good looking, or who are otherwise slanking about in pleather leggings and lace almost-shirts?”
We laughed. I hugged her. I said, “Fuck if I know.”
But I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
This is a really challenging issue for a lot of people, and has been for me, personally, from the very beginning. My heart swam in self-doubt for a lot of my journey. I have since learned how to overcome the bulk of the weight of that (no small thanks to simply improving as a dancer), but it is still ever present, looming at the peripheries of my vision, ready to pounce should I have an off night or moment, for any reason.
I think also, as a quick aside, that this may be a particularly pressing issue for women, and, generally speaking, followers. I know that men deal with self-esteem issues most definitely. I do. But as women we are encouraged from birth to compete with one another for male attention, to judge our self worth based on what men think of us, to be wary of one another, to backstab one another, to be mean girls. This is exacerbated by the surplus of followers relative to leads in many dance communities. The latent competitive feelings we have become pressurized and magnified by the presence of so many other women, making us feel simultaneously doubtful of our own worth as well as resentful of others.
I am certain that I am not the only woman in salsa who “hates” particular follows because of jealousy, or resentment. “God, I just hate her so much,” I have not infrequently uttered to my closests friends. The tendrils of possessiveness and fear are quick to pounce. I really try not to think and to feel this way, but the impulse is there. And the impulse to doubt myself, especially when I am new to a particular dance, is also there. “God, I just hate myself so much,” is just an easy, if not easier, sentence to fall into the habit of thinking.
So how do we deal? How can we cope with the surplus of amazing dancers and beautiful people around us? How do we still be good people and feel love for everyone on the floor–including ourselves?
I can’t say I have all the answers – but I do have some that work for me:
1. Acknowledge that no one is malicious
Not a single person on the dance floor is out to make you feel bad. Well, come to think of it, it’s possible that some people out there wouldn’t mind if you felt jealous (I have been, horribly, one of them), but the vast majority of people have nothing but love for the dance and for each other in their hearts.
No leaders, or followers, will reject you for a dance because they think you are an unworthy human being. You have no idea why anyone ever says yes or no to a dance – it might have to do with the way that you dance, or it might have absolutely nothing to do with you at all.
No one intends for you to feel bad, ever. In fact I am quite sure they would like for you to feel nothing more than warm and fuzzy… they just may be too caught up in their own lives to go out of their way to help you achieve that. That’s simply human.
2. Acknowledge that all have their own insecurities
You know that woman slanking about in her pleather and stilettos? She is just as human, and she wrestles with just as much insecurity, as anybody else on the floor.
I grant that a degree of confidence does often come with improving one’s dance ability. I grant that some people become cocky and even real assholes about it. But far more often than not, people that you find intimidating are also worried about their dancing, about the way they are dressed, about the way they look, about their reputation, and about how many dancers love them and want to dance with them.
I don’t care how apparently badass someone is… we are all human, and we all feel concern about the approbation and love of others.
3. Cultivate emphathetic joy for others
This is probably the most important and helpful point for me.
We tend to live in egotistical little clouds. I can’t condemn any of us for this–it’s incredibly natural. We simply think about ourselves, our joy, and our pain, much more than we do that of others.
But if we step outside of ourselves… can we experience joy because we are grateful for the joy of the people around us? It really helps me when I see two people do a super badass dance to think “wow, how amazing that they’ve worked so hard to dance so beautifully and can relate to each other so subtley and intimately” instead of “oh god I suck so much.”
When I focus on the positive emotions that other people are feeling, and think about how great it is that joy is being added to the world in any measure, it keeps my own negativity and doubt from creeping in.
4. There is plenty for everybody
Even while I have always felt envy for people at higher levels of dancing than me, and even while I was a super beginner, there were still so many people with whom I developed great, loving dance relationships.
These relationships often occurred within a similar level of dancing… we were reasonably compatible in terms of our range of dance abilities. Of course they didn’t, and still don’t, always. I have great connections with people at a whole range of dance abilities.
But my point is this: there’s no need to think that you are deficient, or that you won’t find anyone to “love” you or dance with you, at any level of dancing. You definitely can, and will, and I am sure already do.
You might not dance ten times a night with the local hotshot, but you can certainly do ten a night with someone who values and enjoys you precisely for who you are, in this moment. And there is not a single thing wrong with that. We are all at different places on our journeys and can connect to different people differently.
5. Improve at the dance; be improving and proud of it
Not everybody cares all that much about being a “better” dancer, in terms of technique and the like.
But a lot of people do.
If you do, I advise that you simply accept where you are, enjoy it, and commit yourself to growing as a dancer. When you do so, it can give you a degree of pride in yourself and how far you’ve come, and can even make you excited about how much further you have to go.
I personally find that the more I improve, the more I realize how much more improving I could do. Dance perfection is an ever receding horizon… so I recommend enjoying the journey, more so than focusing on a destination that doesn’t really exist. Improving at dance can be seriously validating and addicting… so I even sometimes find myself being grateful that I have flaws. It means I get to keep working on my dance.
6. Invest yourself in the community
If you are envious of more experienced dancers or worried about your own dancing and worth, you might want to try investing in the community. Engage people off of the floor. Get to know them. Do nice things. Become their friends. See them as equally imperfect and equally lovely human beings.
When you do this, you not only might be able to learn about dancing from your new friends, but you will be able to demonstrate to them–and to yourself–what it is about you that makes you special. You are fun and funny and kind and sweet (or whatever, maybe you’re a dick but in that way people can appreciate) and this is apparent to everyone you interact with.
Perhaps more importantly to you, investing in your community can also mean that you end up dancing more often with people who have been in the scene longer and have more experience than you do.
7.Take pride in everything you have to contribute to the dance and the community
In any given dance you do, you don’t just have your good frame, your muscle control, your knowledge of how salsa rhythms work.
You also have energy, radiance, cheer, charm, and the like. People can love dancing and socializing with you for so many reasons. Your skill as a dancer is just one of them (if an admittedly important one). So if you are feeling self-conscious, just remember that you are a whole package, and any single aspect of you does not define who you are, or how much people enjoy dancing with you.
8. Take pride in your own journey, values, and story
Each of us has a specific background. Some people have been dancing for decades, some even before they could walk. Seriously, this is a thing. Sometimes parents carry infants in slings while they dance.
For better or for worse, that’s not 99% of us.
We are simply not in that position.
But what you might be is a warrior in your own way, having lived through a tough life, discovered dancing, fallen in love, and undertaken your own dance journey.
We all can only be who we are — no more, and no less. And we come from particular locations with particular difficulties. So I recommend giving yourself a pat on the back for everything you have managed to accomplish thus far. I mean this in terms of dance technique but also other things, like personal growth, overcoming tragedy, and the like. And screw anybody who judges you harshly or dismisses you… they simply don’t know your story; they can’t understand what makes you beautiful.
You are totally, remarkably, a badass, and please don’t ever, ever forget it.
So this is how I deal with being surrounded by talented, beautiful followers all of the time. This is how I sooth the nervous, threatened mouse in me, as well as tame the selfish and voraciously competitive tiger.
There is of course the one final option for mitigating your confidence issues – the one many people choose, and which is the most blantant – which is to have patience, work really hard, and get super talented. Improving helps alleviate feelings of being threatened, for sure. It can create confidence. But I want to be clear, and this is why I didn’t address this method above, that it still never does away with doubts completely. That has to come from the inside.
(For more on the hate and competition issue, this is an excellent article.)