Dance has this wonderful power to make everything else disappear. There’s just you, the music, and if it’s a partner dance, the person you’re dancing with. Whatever was bothering you earlier in the day is gone. Unpaid bills, stress at work, unfinished tasks – it all just fades away when you move your body to music.
When we start getting serious about our ballroom training, there is a lot more to think about than what we’re cooking for dinner. Depending on the style, you have at least four dances’ worth of steps to learn. There are specific routines to memorize if you’re competing. You have technique to learn and master for each dance, and I’m not just talking about maintaining good posture. You have to master your own body, your connection with your partner, and the dynamic of lead and follow. Then it all has to look pretty with styling to add flair. Don’t forget to breathe and smile (unless you’re dancing tango).
In many, many moments of feeling defeated, I’ve moaned to Teacher that there just isn’t enough time for me to recall everything I’m supposed to be doing and then act on it. There literally isn’t enough time in the music. You have to just act or react. That short response time is why you train and use tools like technique drills so your muscle memory can take on some of the burden.
It becomes more difficult for dance to make all your cares and worries fade away when your cares and worries are specifically concerning dance. I’m sure every dancer reading this has been told that they looked like they were thinking while they were dancing. When I’ve been focused on whatever technique we were discussing in my lesson, after we dance, Teacher has told me, “That was really good. Now can you try looking like you actually enjoy dancing?”
Of course I enjoy dancing, but when I get too focused on the details like my head position or the angle of my hip, I’m not actually present in the dancing. I’m running through checklists in my head.
Even though those checklists are full of items I need to remember in order to dance my best, they become a complete hindrance when it’s performance time. Checklists and details (and blank stares because I’m thinking so hard) are ok for lessons, but at competitions, I have to take the whole picture for what it is, even if I think it still needs a few adjustments.
I know if I start thinking too much, my dancing will look like crap. So to keep my mind occupied enough to allow me to be present and just dance, I’ll pick one, maybe two focus points. For example, at Millennium, my focus was my vertical alignment, i.e. making sure I wasn’t leaning back. That was it. At other competitions, I’ve focused on my elbows, my chest, or my head position.
Having a singular focus for my mind also helps focus my nerves. My anxiety often gets triggered when I feel out of control. If I know what I’m going to focus on, it’s like keeping some semblance of that control. It also helps the nerves from going wild from my thoughts going wild. Trying to consciously remember every little thing I’m supposed to do during a waltz while I’m dancing a waltz is an impossible task. Attempting that impossible task overwhelms my mind and pulls me completely out of the present.
Have you ever danced at a competition and later realized you don’t even remember hearing the music? Or you’re about to start a dance and you can’t even recall the first step?
I liken it to having way too many windows open on your computer. At some point, the computer just freezes and you can’t do anything. If I overwhelm my mind by trying to think about too many things while already being nervous about a performance, it’s going to give up and shut down at some point. It’s all downhill from there. My body tenses up, my connection with my partner is stiff, and joy is the last emotion you’d guess I was feeling based on my facial expression.
So I just don’t think. Even in my warmup at a competition, I never go through my entire routines. It’s too much to think about. At Embassy Ball, my only focus was to be present and dance for myself. I had to trust(!) that I was as prepared as I could be and my body would do what it’s supposed to do.
I feel like I need to come back and write more about that T word, but for now, if you’re like me with a mind that gets a little crazy with the thinking train, take a deep breath. Put away the checklists. Listen to the music that’s playing. See your partner. Feel your muscles engage as you prepare to take that first step. Be present and just dance.