This winter, I went to an international West Coast Swing event and sat out the dance competitions instead of joining in. This probably doesn’t sound shocking to my non-dancing readers, but pretty much everyone I talked to that weekend wanted to know why I wasn’t competing.
I struggled to put it into words at the time, but I know that weekend was one of the most fun, relaxing and educational weekends I have spent dancing so far. I watched my friends on the competition floor, and felt that choosing to opt out of this one part of West Coast Swing – at least for a while – was a good choice for me.
I’ve never been motivated by competition. (So gamification doesn’t work on me, but that’s a subject for a different blog post). I had no intention of competing in West Coast Swing until one of my dance teachers gave me a good argument for doing so: You should start competing early, so that by the time you stand a chance of winning, you’ll be used to competing.
So I entered some competitions, won nothing obviously, and focused most of my attention on workshops, social dancing and rooting for my more advanced dance friends in the finals. My weekly classes and social dances were relaxing highlights of my otherwise fairly stress-filled grad student life, and I was in awe of many of my more experienced fellow dancers in London.
Then I moved to Norway, which automatically bumped me up from beginner+ to one of the more experienced West Coast Swing dancers in a country where the WCS scene was just getting started.
And at some point I started dancing like it was my job. Not just because teaching dance literally was my part-time job, but because West Coast Swing became the activity I spent the majority of my energy on, physically and emotionally. West Coast Swing had more control over my emotions than my actual full-time career did. Dancing could make me feel elated or dismal, and sometimes both within 24 hours.
I knew that dancing was becoming a source of increasing stress, but taking a break didn’t feel like an option. Constantly improving was one of the best things about dancing, and besides, it was still fun. But sometimes it was also exhausting, distressing and discouraging.
I competed a few more times, and counted it as a personal victory that I felt less nervous every time. But I also felt that my competition dances were my worst dances, my most inhibited, hyper-aware moments. I started thinking “To do well, I need to dance well when I am at my worst: when I am sleep-deprived, jumpy and anxious.”
Then I realized that was kind of an insane approach to a supposedly fun activity.
So I have made a conscious choice to only dance for fun. If it is ever not fun, I just don’t dance. If I feel tired and not into it when I arrive at a social dance, I just go home. I keep teaching because it is fun and inspiring – more so now that I am more relaxed overall. I keep attending so-called “competition training”, but I consistently call these gatherings “Thursday practice” and if I’m not in the mood, I don’t show up.
Now I’m not saying that trying hard is a bad thing – “fun” doesn’t mean “easy”. Proper technique gives you the tools for having fun, so I do not want to encourage anyone – especially not my students – to have a “whatever” approach to technique and practice. I am also personally motivated by learning and improving (I’m a nerd, remember?), so practicing in itself is fun to me. But I practice to have more magical moments on the social dance floor, not to win anything. I try to always remember that I started dancing to have fun.
And unlike some dancers who always push themselves through the hard, stressful, painful parts of dancing, dancing is not my main goal in life. Dancing is my wonderful escape from the stressful side effects of what my main goals in life actually are. And I need to keep it that way.
Now enjoy some crazy social West Coast Swing:
Related post: Think about why you started
Image sources are unknown, but I found them through Pinterest, where I have a dance-themed board.
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