I turn 30 today. I started dancing when I was almost 20 (except for the ballet class I got kicked out of at age 5). That means that I’ve been dancing just over 10 years. From my infancy in Salsa to my current status as a Brazilian Zouk organizer and teacher, it’s been a long journey.

In those 10 years, my dancing, my role, and my outlook has changed and evolved. Things I used to think were clear are shades of grey. This blog (started in 2013? 14?) is a living testament to that; my first few posts are very, very different from how I write and consider things today.

Today,  I want to reflect back on that journey. Specifically, 10 things I have learned during my time in dance.

Lesson 1: You can dance.

Maybe you’re not world-champion material, but your body can dance. How well will depend on a lot of factors – but you don’t need to be amazing to get the privilege of enjoying and engaging in dance.

I was so bad in the beginning that my very first teacher told me dance probably wasn’t for me (I think they misjudged that one). At a minimum, I certainly wasn’t a fast-rising talent. But, I stuck around. I worked at it. One day (about a year later), I could finally do Cuban motion in my Salsa. My arms still alternated between looking like rabid velociraptors or dead fish – but I could do hip stuff. After those initial humps, my Salsa progress began to solidify.

Then I tried West Coast Swing and Brazilian Zouk. Move back 10 spaces.

I still have to quell the pangs of jealousy when I watch a student just naturally coast through head movement and isolations as if it’s no big deal to have body awareness/control and back flexibility. It took me at least a year before I could even faintly move my chest that way.

But, even in those days where I couldn’t do Cuban motion, couldn’t dance on time, and barely could stay standing through a spin, I could still dance. It wasn’t good dancing, but it was dancing. And, I still had a place within the community.

Lesson 2: Some people will learn faster than you.

In the ten years that I’ve been dancing (8 in Brazilian Zouk), I’ve watched people rise and surpass me in a fraction of the time I’ve spent working at my dance. This is normal. Why? Because there’s people whose background puts them in the perfect position to learn more faster. Maybe they were a classical ballerina; maybe they have a martial arts background. Maybe they’re in better physical shape than me. Maybe they’re in an area with more instruction and opportunity.

Some of these people are still around, socially. Some have become internationally-renowned teachers. Some have disappeared entirely. All of those are fine – that’s their journey, not mine. My job is to focus on what I need to develop into the dancer I want to become.

Lesson 3: You create your role in the community.

Although I love the idea of being a travelling teacher, my dance path went in a different direction. Why? Because my background, predispositions, and focus differed from what many travelling dance stars do.

Some people quit their jobs, found a partner, trained endless hours with that partner, choreographed, cross-trained, travelled extensively, went to the gym religiously, and had a previous professional dance background.

I went to law school, started a blog, began organizing a congress, started teaching/organizing extensively locally, got a full-time job, spent a lot of time thinking about dance, travelled when I could find time, and took privates/classes whenever I could. But, as expected, teaching regular classes, organizing, writing, and job somewhat detracted from the dedicated time I could have spent training my body and my dance.

So, instead of being a travelling professional, I ended up as an established local teacher/promoter. I became a writer through this blog. I started organizing. I still travel to teach, but I also organize and run competitions, and provide a lot of support for troubleshooting etiquette/behavioural problems in other scenes. I’d love to move towards MCing one day.

When you enter the community, you get to pick what role you fill. Are you the dancer who supports the infrastructure of the community by paying the ticket price and having fun within the community? Are you the volunteer who contributes their time to support those around you, in exchange for access to dance? Do you have a calling to learn the art of DJing, teaching, organizing, promoting, or dancing? Are you the massage therapist who sets up a table at events, or the vendor that creates a shoe/clothing business? Maybe you’re a media specialist, who can do all the photography and videography an event needs.

Or, are you someone who will create a brand-new type of role within the community because you have something very specific that you can offer?

Whatever it is, play to your strengths and create a role around what you are driven by (and actually willing to put in the work for).

Lesson 4: What people see and what happens behind the scenes are two very different worlds.

Think of dance like a theatrical production: what you see from backstage is very different from what the audience sees. Costumes that sparkle under the lights are held together by hope, safety pins, and double-sided tape. Fishnets have toe holes cut into them to show the toes, with the remainder hidden under the straps of the sandal. Set pieces that look polished from afar turn out to be a collection of spray painted dollar-store finds, and are completely unfinished from the back. Organizing and professional dance life is no different.

If you’ve never been behind the scenes, then you may not have a full understanding of the differences here. And, that’s fine. If you only want to see the world of dance from the audience perspective, that’s perfectly wonderful. Dance needs the audience. In fact, we need more audience members than backstage personnel to make the community sustainable.

But, if it piques your interest, maybe one day you should ask for a peek behind the curtain. Maybe that’s volunteering once, just to see what it’s like. Maybe it’s just chatting to someone who is behind the curtain, to see how they view a problem or exciting thing that you perceive.

Regardless of what side of the curtain you’re on, you can always choose to peek at or switch to the other side.

Lesson 5: “No” is not a dirty word.

I started in the era of “never say no/always say yes”. Times have changed, but it still takes a lot of effort to make “no” feel OK.

What I found in my journey that if it was delivered without judgment and in honesty, it was a perfectly acceptable and kind response – regardless of the reason for saying it. But, when saying “no” becomes an excuse to be rude or mean (or when it’s used to blame someone), it causes rifts in the circle.

You don’t have to justify your “no” by convincing yourself that it was “deserved.” Most “no”s have nothing to do with whether it is deserved by the receiver; it has to do with the state of the person saying “no.” We need to take ownership of that – rather than feeling the need to make it deserved to assuage our guilt.

Lesson 6: Not all dancers are good people.

When I started to get more involved in teaching and organizing, some people I looked up to dramatically changed the way they treated me – up to and including telling me I wasn’t welcome at their events. Up until that point, dance had only been my safe haven. Sure, there were a couple “creepers”, but nothing I couldn’t handle – and nothing that really made me feel unsafe in the community.

Lots of time has passed since then, but those wounds – and the feeling of betrayal – will never fully fade. However, it taught me that just like in life, dance is full of people who are friends, but that there are also some less savoury people. The best any of us can do is control our small part of the community in a positive way to bring the best light we can into our scenes.

Lesson 7: You’re never done learning.

Even after a decade, I still learn new things every time I listen to another teacher. Whether it’s a better way to teach something, a new way to execute a movement, a great drill, or a creative combination, I think there’s a lot of value to be had at all levels of dance.

While it’s really easy to check out mentally in group classes, they have a lot of really valuable information. So do privates, and so does just general conversation. If your ears and eyes are always open to receive new info (even when it isn’t directed at you), you’ll never find an opportunity that lets you stop learning.

My extra tip: most major class breakthroughs I’ve had were in “easy” classes about a movement I already know. Whether it’s a twist on a concept, a new rotation angle, or some other tidbit of information, don’t underestimate the value of going to “easy” classes with competent teachers. The same goes for your local classes – there’s value to be gained in redoing the same level more than once.

Lesson 8: Dance like a beginner.

Have a partner that can’t keep beat? Can’t step fast enough? Doesn’t know how to do even the basic? Dance like them.

Seriously. When someone can’t keep a Zouk beat, I just step slow-slow-slow-slow… etc. If they can’t even do a basic, I just two-step forward/back or side to side and play with a couple hip movements. Maybe lift my hand for them to turn. If my lead is tap-stepping, I just tap step with them.

Same goes for those in the in-between. If they can’t come to you, go to them. After all, it’s just dancing; why so serious?

Lesson 9: Seek feedback.

It’s really easy to move through dance without asking about your dancing. But, if you notice people declining frequently or like something specific isn’t working, seek out an answer from a trusted or friendly partner. If you don’t know them well, you can ask if they’d mind you seeking feedback about that specific aspect.

This can help you uncover uncomfortable or difficult traits you may have. Just make sure you’re ready to receive the feedback. After all, if you’re defensive, it won’t help you improve. Instead, it will just sink self-esteem.

Lesson 10: Choose actively.

I stopped feeling violated in difficult dances after I made one mental change: choosing actively whether to go with the flow. This includes verbal/non-verbal communications, aborting movements, or making things work.

When I stopped being a passive object and turned into someone who actively made decisions about what was right for my body, defensive dancing became second-nature (if you need tips, reach out – I tend to teach it a lot). But, it also meant that I felt defensive less often because I didn’t stand and wait to be acted upon. Rather, I communicated my needs on a continuous basis non-verbally, with occasional (kind) verbal interjections when the physical wasn’t cutting it. This revolutionized my experience as a follow.

Looking forward…

I’m excited to enter my second decade of dance – and to hear what lessons you’ve come across in your own journey. Leave them in the comments below.