When someone tells you they’ve been dancing for 10 years, do you automatically expect that they’ll be a great dancer?

I used to. But, I’ve realized that there can be a massive difference in skill level between people who have been dancing the same length of time. That difference is primarily due to the difference between passive ‘experience’ and active ‘training’.

Dancers Under 1 Year

Before the first year mark, there’s not as much variation in levels. There are some who are stronger, and there are others who struggle more – but they generally have a similarly shallow pool of knowledge. Even the really dedicated dancers aren’t usually notably exceptional in the first year.

The 2-Year Professional vs. The 10-Year Hobbyist

These are two extremes. On one hand, you have the person who has been dancing a decade – but never really progressed that much. On the other, you have the person who has been dancing 2 years – but is sought out by professionals as a ‘fun’ partner.

The 2-Year Professional

The 2-Year Professional is not necessarily someone who is actively teaching or acting as a professional within the scene. This timeline more refers to the people who have achieved a level high enough to be on par with other local instructors (and, in exceptionally rare cases, internationals).

The 2-Year Professional is someone who started a dance, and took it very seriously. I’ve met dancers who travel the world to take several hours a day of private lessons with top professionals for a month. On their spare time, they work on their dancing. This includes thinking about dance, watching videos, and doing drills.

These people also frequently have other movement background to draw on. For example, solo-trained dancers, high-level crossover dancers from other partnered styles, martial artists, and elite athletes can usually learn a new style far more easily. It gives them a ‘head start’ in their dance progression.

Sometimes these people also get a practice partner (or three) to work with.

The result of all this training is that within a 2-year time frame, they have risen to become one of the ‘stars’ of their local scene.

The 10-Year Hobbyist

In contrast to the 2-Year Professional, the 10-Year Hobbyist is the person who never was all that motivated to ‘work’ at their dancing. A few fun, basic moves are awesome. A couple new patterns picked up from a congress adds a bit of spice.

But, drills? Practice partners? Private lessons? No, thank you.

These people can still be fun. Some can even feel really nice to dance with. There’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist – if you’re being safe and reasonable.

The Variable: Other Experience

This is where some people who are training but struggle with growth may get frustrated that they’re not progressing as fast as a colleague. Usually, this has to do with other movement background.

For example, a dancer with extensive ballet or other experience is usually going to pick up a lot faster than someone who exercises by typing on their keyboard at work.

When I’m looking at the picture of dance progression, I usually consider significant other movement experience as ‘training’, since it accelerates the learning curve.

Comparing the Two

The difference between the two types is training and exposure to dedicated learning time. Social dancing helps  you improve – to a point.

But, social dancing in lieu of training can lead to bad habits and ruts. Frequently, avid social dancers are unaware of all the technical details they are missing.

What the 2-Year Professional does that the 10-Year Hobbyist neglects is dedicated quality practice time. This is quality time that you spend honing your craft. Whether it’s classes, dedicated practice partners, privates, or personal movement studies, all the different types of training improve your base.

The other important vector is the quantity of time spent practicing and dancing. For example, is the Hobbyist dancing once per month, while the 2-Year Professional dances three times per week?

That’s a massive difference in exposure. After only 4 weeks, the 2-Year Professional has gained the same amount of experience that the Hobbyist will get in a year. This is compounded by the fact that they will retain more, since the instances of dance are closer together.

That doesn’t mean that the Hobbyist is bad. They just don’t have training as a priority. Which is fine – as long as they don’t conflate ‘experience’ with ‘training’.

In Conclusion

In dancing, the length of time you’ve been dancing is far less important than the amount of time you’ve actually spent dancing and training. Instead of assessing a dancer’s level or expertise by how long they’ve been dancing, ask questions about their training and exposure. Ask how often they dance, and who they learned from. Ask if they did other dances or sports beforehand.

Most of the time, we ask about someone’s experience as a way to benchmark our own learning. It’s easy to feel like we’re a ‘fast’ learner after a couple years of intense training, or that we’re terrible if someone who has been dancing 3 years less is a stronger dancer. But, we sometimes fail to take into account the more accurate qualifiers of dance skill.