Monday, January 7, 2013

Practice vs. Performance time - Failure Not Optional

In practice I'm a superstar. It's totally rocking. On the floor in front of others the same move fails or it's less then wonderful.

What's my problem? Not enough of the right practice!

Don't expect what you practiced recently to work flawlessly on the dance floor. Sometimes it will, often it won't, but don't let that bother you. Keep putting in the practice effort and it will make a positive difference over time.

We all have some temporary failures on the road to improvement, it's simply part of the process. The best fail too, and often in public, but then they continue doing their homework to refine their dancing.

When I was a 14 year old "know it all", I lucked into drum lessons with a master instructor in Detroit named Gene Stuart ("Mr. Stuart" as I called him then.) Gene was a Julliard grad and a Motown session player. More importantly, he loved to teach young people how to learn.

Gene passed away many years ago, but I hear him playing bongos every time the classic Stevie Wonder tune "My Cherie Amour" plays

He played on lots of Motown hits in his day, that's just one of my favorites so I included the YouTube link (which has nothing to do with dance, but it's still a timeless classic song.)

As I started performing live, Mr Stuart told me over and over:

"When practicing, practice! When performing, enjoy it and be in the moment with the others. Forget about what you practiced, just play!"

He then added, "If you find something doesn't work when you're with others, you simply haven't practiced enough. Don't get bothered, just practice some more and give it some time. Some things just take a little longer than we'd like..."

While he was referring to playing drums, the words are equally true about dancing.

Gene challenged me and guided me to break things down into manageable chunks, to practice intelligently, and to manage the mental aspects of performing. He knew public mistakes are part of the growth process for performers, and so many people quit when they put in effort and don't see immediate results. I wanted it all to work immediately, but over time learned to embrace his approach.

Almost everything I do well in teaching or learning today has its roots in his teachings.

When you've practiced enough, it will simply happen in the performances and/or clubs without lots of effort. If it doesn't work comfortably on the floor, then you haven't had enough practice or enough time yet. Just don't let it ruin your day.

I use those concepts all the time in my dancing today, and see so many things that I struggled with a couple years ago now work without thought. You'll see the same thing. You practice now and then later you see the return, but not always today or tomorrow. Some things simply take weeks, months or more to become part of you. If you want to improve, keep at it until you get where you want to go.

That's easy to say, but it's something I still have to work at today both in dance and music.

Time and practice are two magic ingredients for dancers (or other artists), and you learn to enjoy the ride.

Please let me know what you're doing to keep your attitude when something you practice doesn't work in the short term.

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This article was originally published in 2010. The YouTube link has been updated and a few sentences tweaked.


  1. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
    Samuel Beckett

  2. Very good article. I find the frustration is worse at the intermediate level because if I don't force myself to try new things on the dance floor, my 'builtin' moves will take over and I never get to try them. Often, though, new material just doesn't work very well. Then, maybe weeks or months later, I'll see someone else do it, and suddenly realize what was missing.

  3. Another article with great advice Don! I could not agree more. When I started dancing salsa, I sucked. I was a stiff basketball player. I definitely belong to your group of another one of those unlikely salseros :). There is even a youtube video out there when I performed on stage when I had just started. I knew it was going to look bad, but I thought I would do it anyway because I knew it was simply going to be a part of the learning process. But today, because of all of the practice, I am getting to the point where I feel much more comfortable performing and can actually be present with the audience and have a good time! Thanks for sharing!


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero