Have you ever written an essay? Maybe in high school, university, or college?
I have. I have never gotten 100% on an essay. I did get a 95% once in the 8 years of post-secondary schooling that I’ve done. Once. On a topic I loved. It never happened again.
I am pretty sure you didn’t automatically assume that I am a poor student or writer. This is probably because it seems reasonable to you that I’ve never had a ‘perfect’ score on an essay. Even if I got 75% regularly, you probably would still think I was a pretty O.K. student.
Why is 75% not wrong? Well, writing is a form of art; there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. The arts exist on a spectrum. Even if things go very, very right, there will still be something imperfect. This is because they’re not purely objective fields – unlike most mathematical or scientific calculations.
The arts are judged, dissected, given new interpretations, and more. The arts are the product of human creativity, and are subject to human imperfections. Basically, they’re a reflection of us. And none of us are perfect.
So, why do some of us think about our dancing as “Right” or “Wrong”?
The ‘Percentages’ of Dancing
I’ve noticed that there is a pattern in dance to think about steps, connection, and other things as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I don’t think this is accurate.
Dance is also an art. Therefore, there is no objective ‘right’. There is just a range of things from ‘abysmal’ to ‘very good.’ There’s a theoretical ‘perfect’ out there somewhere, but no one really knows what it actually is. Plus, everyone’s idea of ‘perfect’ is different.
Perfect never happens. Maybe a ‘perfect’ dance, or a ‘perfect’ competition score. Definitely not a ‘perfect’ dancer.
When we start dancing, we start at 0%. We literally can do nothing. Basics are super difficult. Maybe some people with some music or athletic background start with a 10% advantage. Maybe people with some other dance background start with a 30% advantage.
As we dance, we quickly gain skills. Most people reach a functional level (say, 50%) in basic movements within a few weeks or months. After that, the percentage that you improve slows down. Maybe in the next year, you get to 70% through normal weekly classes and social dancing. If you’re super intense, maybe you’ll get to a higher percent.
Say that an average dancer and an average mark correspond. That would be about 70% (a B). You’re not fantastic, but you’re also not bad. If you put in some more work (or a lot of work, depending who you are), you might be able to get an 80% (an A). Maybe there’s that one person you’re super-jealous of because they get that 80% while barely practicing.
And that’s where things start to really, really slow down.
Once you’re ‘Good’, you start needing to ‘fight’ really hard to improve. If you’re looking to dance at a world-level, let’s say you aim to get to 95% or higher.
Of course, there are a few concrete aspects of any dance: you’re either on/off the beat at any given time. Sometimes and in some dances, it’s OK to break these general rules. Think of these like grammar: there’s a way to do it that is ‘right’, but just because there’s a right way to spell ‘writing’ doesn’t mean that your essay is perfect. Conversely, just because you accidentally typed ‘writting’ doesn’t make the whole essay crap.
“But what does this have to do with my dancing?”
I have had a lot of students who take criticism of their dancing rather harshly. For example, if I nitpick on a certain over- or under-rotation on a basic movement, they may feel like they’ve been doing it wrong this whole time. Forever. They may even feel like a fool for believing they understood the movement.
This can apply to any concept:
Literally, any component of dance.
STOP. Don’t think like that!!! You are taking lessons so that your teacher will tell you where to improve!!!
Seriously. Why else take lessons? The only other answer is an ego-stroke – and I’m sure you can get that somewhere without spending $$. If a teacher isn’t giving you constructive criticism, they’re not doing their job.
Instead of thinking you were doing the move ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, approach it from a percentage mindset. The higher your current mastery, the more nitpicky the critique and feedback will be. A teacher should give you feedback that corresponds to your current level of mastery.
Expecting a beginner to ‘master’ a step is like expecting a Grade 5 student to write a PhD thesis: it’s not going to happen, and everyone is going to get frustrated.
If you can’t even do the basic step, I’m not going to tell you to keep the weight only in the balls of your feet, hold your frame, not squeeze my hands, look up, and move your hips. I’m especially not going to tell you to interpret an obscure line of the music and create your own movements. That’s a recipe for failure.
First, I’m going to get it so you’re at least functionally doing the basic. Then I might fix other critical things. As you move from beginner to intermediate, I’ll go into more details. Once you are advanced, I will then throw the ‘minor’ stuff at you.
It is possible to be getting a ‘failing’ mark (less than 50%) in any particular area of dance. This is usually the result of doing things that are not in line with the form of dance at all. For example, arm-wrestling YouTube’d patterns may be the dance equivalent of looking up random, big words in a Thesaurus and using them in an essay. It’s not necessarily 100% incorrect conceptually, but it just doesn’t work in your situation.
So really, when you’re hearing more details that you need to fix, it’s usually because you are growing – not because you suck!
Want proof that there’s no such thing as ‘doing it right’? Look at your teacher!
You know that amazing, awesome teacher that you’ve been following forever? What about that YouTube dance idol you have? What about your favourite social dance partner of all time?
They aren’t perfect. They still mess up. Sometimes, rather spectacularly. In general, teachers are just really good at not taking it too seriously when something goes wrong, and they mess up a little less often/severely than some others.
I still get things wrong. I still learn things in classes from other teachers. I still need to go take private lessons, and marvel at all the fine-tuning that I need to do for my own dancing. From time to time, I misinterpret leads, mislead movements, forget what I’m doing, lose my balance, and more. So does every other teacher. Every. Single. One.
It’s the same reason professionals go to conferences. They still have stuff to learn. They still make mistakes from time to time. It’s just how the learning process works.
Embrace the idea of percentages
When we embrace the idea that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and just different amounts of ‘getting there’, we end up feeling much more secure in what we are doing. It gives us the freedom to tell the difference between a skill that is growing and improving, as opposed to becoming trapped in the idea of either doing it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
In the right/wrong binary, you either ‘have it’ or you don’t. There’s no room for gradual improvement. In reality, dance is all about the gradual improvement. It’s fixing your alignment on a step, or rolling through your foot a specific way. It’s remembering to lead throughout the movement, rather than just the beginning. It’s every little detail that separates your dancing from dancing like your idol.
This also removes our natural tendency to shoot down critique to protect our ego. After all, if we take criticism as ‘you’re doing it wrong’ rather than ‘improve this’, it is easy to become defensive. Instead, look at it as a pointer to make your dance even better!
There’s no magical day when a movement passes from you doing it ‘wrong’ to doing it ‘right’; only a lot of time and practice that leads to doing it better. Go easy on yourself. Let yourself progress up the scale, rather than forcing yourself into an artificial construct of right or wrong.