There are two groups of dancers most of us have heard of: the incompetent dancers who think they’re amazing, and the brilliant dancers who can’t understand the struggle of others.
On face value, these two groups couldn’t seem more different. One group is typically very good at what they do, and a pleasure to dance with. The other is full of ego and a sense of superiority – even though most dancers would rather avoid them.
But if we dig a bit deeper, they’re two sides of the same coin. They’re both based on an inability to understand their relative placement in the world of dance.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
I came across this idea accidentally, and it’s fascinating. At Cornell University in 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger studied the ability of individuals to understand their relative abilities and performance within a group.
Their motivation? A bank robber who put lemon juice on his face to ‘disguise’ himself from video cameras. His reasoning was that since lemon juice is used as invisible ink, it would make him invisible on camera.
(Spoiler: it didn’t work.)
The results of the study showed that people who performed very poorly grossly overestimated their performance, while the best performers underestimated their placement.
Dunning and Kruger hypothesized that the reason poor performers overestimated their ability was because they lacked the ability to understand what they were missing. On the other side, the brightest underestimated their own skills because it felt easy (If it was ‘easy’ for them, it must be ‘easy’ for others).
For both groups, the task seemed easy. The difference was whether the task seemed easy because they didn’t know what they were missing, or whether it seemed easy because they had all the tools to complete the task.
Incompetence means the inability to do something successfully. In dance, this idea is complicated because it is a partner activity.
For the purposes of this article, incompetence in dance refers to the inability to execute a movement or concept with a dancer of sufficient skill level to complete the movement, but insufficient skill to cover the ‘holes’ of the other party (meaning the partner is “competent”).
For example, you are not an incompetent leader because you can’t lead a complex movement on a brand-new follow. And you are not an incompetent follower if you’re unable to follow a completely unclear lead.
Further, it is possible to be competent at some aspects of dance and incompetent in others. For example, dancers who look good but have very poor connection skills. Or, you may be competent in your basics, but not in advanced movements.
The Curse of Incompetence
The Curse of Incompetence in dance is representative of the underperformers in the study. Incompetent dancers are frequently unable to understand that they’re not actually great dancers. As a result, they appear to have very large egos without the substance to back it up.
For example, I’ve had brand-new students tell me that they’re going to be the best dancer in the city in 4 months because they’re going to take private classes.
While I appreciate the student’s drive, there’s no one who is going to be the best dancer in an established scene within 4 months – privates or no privates. But, the new dancer doesn’t understand this because they don’t have an understanding of the knowledge they lack.
I also went through this curse. I was far from competent in even basic movements for around a year, before I got the chance to get real training (and I didn’t even know it).
Growing into Incompetence
The issue of incompetence is usually not rampant at the complete beginner level. Usually it sets in once they’re able to at least attempt a movement with variable success. Once some parts of the movement start to work OK, the Curse of Incompetence can set in.
The ability to ‘get through’ movements leads to a false idea that one is ‘competent’ in the movement. Dancing with more experienced partners further enforces that notion, since the incompetent move still works.
So, they move on to new movements because they think they have mastered the other ones. Once again, once they’re able to ‘get through’ the movements at the next level, they think that they’re very competent.
Thus, they grow an ego based on their absolute conviction that they are, in fact, good dancers. A dancer with the Curse of Incompetence won’t view their opinion of their skills as inflated because they honestly believe they are that good. It’s not them that’s the problem – it’s their partners who can’t keep up.
The Curse of Knowledge
On the other side of the spectrum, you meet dances who think they’re weaker than they are, or who think what they do is easy for everyone else.
These are the advanced dancers who think that people should just be able to ‘get it’. They get frustrated with weaker dancers not because they have an inflated sense of self, but because they legitimately can’t understand why the person isn’t able to do what they’re asking for.
In their mind, they learned it, so it can’t be that hard. They view themselves as not particularly gifted, so why can’t everyone else learn like they did?
(The unspoken assumption is that if it was that hard, they wouldn’t have been able to learn it.)
The Curse of Knowledge in Poor Teaching
I want you to think of a brilliant dancer – who is also a very ineffective teacher. They may be suffering from the Curse of Knowledge.
These are people who really want to help their students and see them excel. But, they skip steps in the learning process because they’re not able to understand what it’s like to be a student – especially an inexperienced one.
For example, neglecting to talk about how to move between open and closed hold. Or, not mentioning where the foot goes. Or, saying ‘frame’ without explaining what it means.
They’re not trying to teach badly. They just legitimately don’t realize that they’re not explaining something. It’s the same as university professors teaching a science class and assuming everyone has the background to understand advanced principles.
Curse Overlaps in Teaching
Even worse, some teachers suffer from the Curse of Knowledge in dancing and the Curse of Incompetence in teaching. They understand dance inside and out, and they assume that their expertise in dance means they can teach it.
So, they fail to seek out the expertise and training they need to become effective teachers.
Avoiding the Curses
It’s very hard to avoid these curses because it is so hard to tell when they’re affecting you. They are curses that affect your perspective, which means you need an outside perspective or analysis tool to know if they’re impeding your vision.
Avoiding the Curse of Incompetence
One of the only ways to avoid this curse is to ask for honest feedback – and to not be content if someone tells you that you are doing something well. You must remind yourself that there is probably something you can still improve.
The moment that you think you’ve ‘learned it all’ is the moment that you’re most in danger of this curse. Yes, it is possible that you really have become competent. But, remember that the nature of this curse means you can’t know your incompetence until you’ve moved past it.
This means that we’re horrible judges of our own weaknesses. Others are much more able to point them out – especially if they are competent teachers capable of assessing our strengths and weaknesses.
Avoiding the Curse of Knowledge
A useful tool to avoid the Curse of Knowledge is to reflect back on your journey. For things like dance, keeping videos of your early dancing can help remind you of where you started.
Another thing you can do is to start a completely new skill. Remind yourself how hard skill-building is by starting from scratch and forcing yourself to keep track of all the little, ‘common-sense’ things experienced people take for granted.
The easier it was for you to learn something, the higher the chance you will develop this curse. If you do find something easy, remind yourself that ‘easy’ for you does not mean ‘easy’ for everyone else.
> … You must remind yourself that there is probably something you can still improve.
> The moment that you think you’ve ‘learned it all’ is the moment that you’re most in danger of this curse. Yes, it is possible that you really have become competent. But, remember that the nature of this curse means you can’t know your incompetence until you’ve moved past it.
I would argue that you’ve never “learned it all”, and there being something you can improve is not only probable; it’s a certainty. Thinking otherwise means that the person doesn’t grasp how deep the rabbit hole goes. 😉 They *may* have become competent, but there are many, many levels beyond competent. Good antidote to this line of thinking is the following thought experiment: Imagine the one professional dancer who is the best in the particular thing about which you’ve “learned it all”. Now imagine both of you using that thing in social dancing in varied ways. Can people watching see a difference in skill? Can the partner feel it? Now consider whether the professional in question thinks he’s “learned it all” and can’t improve any further; chances are, they didn’t become so good by being complacent in their skill, and still aren’t.
Completely agree with you, Jukka! The ‘learned it all’ was not meant to equate competent, since competence is not perfection. I suppose I should have made that more clear!
I understood your point Laura, I just felt like I wanted to make another one. 😀
Brilliant! As dancer and beginner instructor, I came to appreciate both of those pitfalls over the years. I really liked how they were articulated in this article.
Dancing is a complicate skill and teaching is all about pedagogy, you need a certification. Both worlds are difficult to combinate because most of the time the abilities required for certain type of dance does not require years of practice while teaching is relative simple. I dance ballet and for me is such frustrating do not have all the time and energy to do what it really required to achieve what I call a descent level of technique, just to do not feel embarrace in front of others, it could be that personally we as dancers are not such mentally confidents because dance is complex and has no limites.
Social dancing is for fun, and many of us generate our own self pressure to be better. Overall, proper technique is not difficult to learn, but it requires specific instruction. Once you master it, however, your dancing abilities will improve phenomenally.