Sunday, October 14, 2007

I Can't Dance Like Nobody's Watching

Maybe you’ve heard someone say "Dance Like Nobody's Watching," and maybe you’ve already embraced it yourself. But I’ve noticed that most people who spit this mantra at you are already strong dancers. It’s easy to dance like nobody’s watching when everybody likes watching you dance.

I think that’s like the calendar girls who say “the human body is art, and showing it is fine.” It’s easy to be comfortable in a swim suit (or less) when you could be on the cover of Victoria’s Secret. And I’m pretty sure they haven’t seen me without clothes, or they would amend their "body is art" statement.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the process of dancing without care or inhibition. In some venues, I do pretty well with that concept, but it isn’t always the case. In most clubs, there are a set of people dancing and a set of people watching, and I just do my thing, effectively ignoring them and focusing on my partner. In that environment, I know I’m a work in progress, and I’ve learned to deal with the discomfort of others being critical.

Frankly, I realize that most people simply don’t care about me; they’re focused on themselves, on their dancing, on their image. That’s fine with me.

As a musician, I learned a long, long time ago that when performing, someone is always in the audience saying “I could do that better.” In LA, many times there IS a set of stronger musicians in the audience, so I learned to ignore them and think, “Ok, maybe he could do it better, but he’s sitting in the audience. I have my strengths too. These musicians asked me to perform, not him, so I must be doing something right.” The more energy you spend worrying about what others are thinking, the less focused you are on your performance or social dancing.

Over time, I matured, and I suspect the same thing applies to dancing. You have to toughen yourself as you grow, putting yourself in situations that are not always comfortable. Over time, you realize that other people think about you much less than your paranoid ego fears they do, and you have to go through the experiences to get better.

I’ve had a couple times over the years where I’ve thought, “Maybe I should stop going to clubs for X months, and just practice on my own. The next time I show up at the clubs everybody will marvel at my progress.” Then I realize, “Ahhh, that’s not realistic; going to clubs and practicing is what makes me better, so just get over yourself and ignore everybody else while you learn.”

Of course, it’s easy to say that, but sometimes I’m still moderately embarrassed while working through different phases of growth. Being a work in progress means some days will be better than others, but nothing beats the experience of being in the arena rather than sitting and watching others have fun.

Here’s a simple example: Sometimes I’m in my car, and working on head, neck or shoulder isolations while driving or sitting in traffic. Funny thing is, I’ll often stop when I realize someone has noticed me doing exercises, even though I dance in front of hundreds of people per week at the clubs.

The exercise will help my dancing, and the car practice is good time management, as long as I don’t hear breaking glass from impact with those around me. I don’t know these people now, I doubt I’ll ever see them again, they can’t hear my music, and I’m actually making progress with my practice.

Why do I stop? What’s my problem? In that situation, I’m obviously too worried about them thinking I’m crazy or otherwise abnormal. When I take a cold, hard look, it’s obvious I shouldn’t care what they think.

If I actually continue my exercises, possibly entertaining them and giving them a good laugh, I’m making their world more interesting and improving my dancing. In a way, I’m giving them a gift, even though they may be laughing at me rather than with me.

Of course, if I continue and my dancing improves, I’ll have the last laugh. Someday all those car hours of practice will fool people into believing that I’m a naturally gifted dancer, rather than someone who practices good time management.

Think of them telling their friends, “Yeah, I’m sitting in traffic, and this gray-haired guy in his Lexus is grooving to something. I think he was on drugs, or maybe he was having a seizure, I almost called 911, but then I figured out he thought he was dancing and I laughed so hard I had to pull over and wipe the tears from my eyes. This guy is a hoot. Watch for that gray Lexus.”

So I’m on crusade: I’m trying to worry less about others, especially those who don’t know me. I’m thinking about what can I do to truly dance or practice like nobody’s watching, and give myself the mental freedom to occasionally look like an idiot.

How do we toughen ourselves, so we grow to our full potential? We can take different classes where our skills put us in the lower third of the class, then stick with it to become above average. We can read books about mind/body connections and high-pressure performance situations and find situations where growth is required. This may include doing a performance, going to new classes, entering a competition and/or joining a dance team.

In my case, I’m adopting the same dance attitude I have while playing music, plus taking classes and practicing.

We should also look for little things, like practicing shines in the line at the bank, or doing a few spins at the grocery store. The idea is to be bolder than you were in the past, doing little things in places where people will notice, knowing you have to ignore them and focus on refining your techniques.

For example, it would be easier to do our favorite, most rehearsed shine sequence while waiting at the bank, but we should also working on the ones that don’t always work, because the risk of temporary failure makes us stronger. Ninety-nine percent of the people around us can’t do the shines either, so if we “fail” temporarily, refine, and then get it right, it toughens us and makes us stronger dancers.

In some classes I've moved my location from hiding in the back, to being in the front row, someplace close to the instructor. I'm no longer in the middle of the pack on the "across the floor" exercises, instead going close to the front, or sometimes even last, which means almost everybody else in the class is watching.

It’s not always easy for me, but I do it anyway, and you should too.

I’m wondering what others are doing to toughen themselves? Let me know your thoughts and techniques.
I feel like I'm in a rut. Every time I go to bed at night, I find myself getting up again in the morning.
-Brad Stine


  1. Thank you for this post. I think you have some great insights, especially in purposefully working on overcoming fears while people ARE watching you. This is a good compliment to a post I recently wrote called "Relax, Nobody is Watching You." May I please quote part of this post and link to it on my blog, the Dance Primer?

  2. Thanks for the feedback. Please feel free to quote anything from the article as long as someplace a credit is recieved.

    And I like your Blog. I suspect others will also find it helpful. I agree in the classes everybody is focused on improving themselves and they rarely invest energy is thinking about me. Other students respect people who regularly attend, even if I'm a complete work in progress. Your insights are right on.

  3. LOL. I have to pass this on to friends of mine who don't understand how uncomfortable I get when they look in on class. I feel like a bug in a jar.

    (Though it does wonders for concentration to pretend they're not there. Then you have no choice but to focus completely on what your instructor's trying to teach, lol.)

    "In some classes I've moved my location from hiding in the back, to being in the front row, someplace close to the instructor."

    That's a hard day, isn't it? I try to give myself till midway through a set of group classes -- like if it's a month's seminar, I hide in the back for two weeks and practice at home in the meantime, then I tell myself I have to bite the bullet.

    Sometimes I chicken out till the third week. *g*

  4. Today I secretly practiced my front-leg-sweeping on the subway train.
    Yesterday I practiced my crazy spinning in a dark corner of my daughter's kindergarten.
    After reading this article, I guess I got to try the no-body-is-watching method. :>


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero