When I fell, I fell hard. It started with total fascination…the teeming dance floor…the pulsating rhythms…the glorious dancers. It all captivated my spirit, and I simply could not resist. I was IN LOVE with salsa! This dance felt like discovering a whole new and exciting world. I desperately wanted to be a part of it all. The way I saw it, that meant getting good enough so people would want to dance with me.
In the beginning, I just wanted to master the basic step- to debunk that code that I knew would unlock the rest of the dance. After I got past that hurdle, I wanted to get proficient enough at following to make my way through a whole song without royally messing up. One goal led to the next, and a universe of potential opened up to me. The more I learned, the more I realized how much there was to learn. It was thrilling, entertaining, and endlessly satisfying.
But as I improved, an unforeseen and pernicious obstacle presented itself. Without even realizing it, I had come to take my dancing so seriously that I stopped having as much fun. I thought I was having fun: I was training with some of the East Coast’s top instructors; I was out dancing several nights a week; and I proudly identified as a salsa dancer for life. If you’d asked me, dancing absolutely topped my list of funnest things to do! Yet, on the deepest level, I wasn’t enjoying myself as much because I was so stuck on perfecting my dancing. I was so focused on being the best dancer I could be, that I was completely skipping the whole part about enjoying the journey to get there.
This realization struck me hard in my second year of salsa. I found myself on a weekend trip to New York City – the Mecca of Salsa. I was so excited just to be around so many top-notch dancers, and to hear such amazing music. And there I was, in the heart of midtown Manhattan, at a sublime dance studio with dancers oozing salsa magnificence, having a wonderful dance with someone I loved dancing with, when the unfathomable happened…
“I’m … bored.” That thought actually popped into my mind. Out of nowhere, a second treacherous thought interrupted the first. “I’m tired of this. Maybe it’s time to move on.” I was shocked by my own thoughts. Dancing in New York City – and feeling bored? Wanting to give up dance? I’d never say that. Who was that?
My new exploration into mindfulness and meditation practice served me well as I grappled to understand what was happening to me. I started to pay close attention. I focused on my breathing, and began to observe my thoughts and feelings from a neutral, curious, and open stance. What I observed (beneath the disheartening feelings of ambivalence) was a relentless stream of critiques I was lobbing at myself throughout the entire dance. “Too slow.” “Missed that one.” “That sucked.” “I need to work on my spins.”
It was almost like a metronome, so steady and constant was my own disapproval of my dancing. This continuous, unforgiving, negative self-analysis was automatic and involuntary. Mistakes were forbidden and were added to a long list of things for me to work on. I realized then: I was approaching imperfection as something that was intolerable. Something that had to be vanquished in order for me to accept my dancing. It hit me. I wasn’t bored of dance…I was bored with myself. I wasn’t sick of dance, but of the critical voice in my head that repeatedly ripped my dancing to shreds- to the point where it wasn’t as much fun to dance. It was my own mind, and my preconceived notions of what and how I was supposed to be doing, that was making dancing laborious and painstaking. I wasn’t even aware I was analyzing my dance so relentlessly- nor of the impact it was having on me.
I believe in dance as a sacred form of self- expression. I would encourage anyone to accept themselves and their dancing as beautiful and unique. But when it came to my own dancing, I wasn’t allowing myself any room for error. And it was stealing my dance joy.
Have you ever taken a day to observe your thoughts? What have you noticed? How are you talking to yourself? Are you compassionate and kind? Patient and understanding?
“Do better,” “Not good enough” … sound familiar? Some of the things we say to ourselves, we probably wouldn’t dare say out loud to someone else. The critical voice lodges itself in our minds somewhere between childhood and the conditioning by society and culture we are exposed to over the years, so that by adulthood, that critical voice is a resident in our minds. While we all may have this inner critical voice, most of the time we don’t even realize it, or know how to separate ourselves from it. It’s almost like a separate entity, a voice that constantly tells us to be better, quicker, smarter, stronger.
If you haven’t tried doing so, consider paying attention to your thoughts, and see what you find. You may find an insight that can really help you identify ways to ease up on yourself in an important area of your life.
Some could argue that the critical voice serves a purpose in that it pushes us to grow and excel. But if we look beneath the layers of thought and identify the feelings that drive them, we might find that this critical voice uses emotions like fear and shame as motivation. The critical voice creates the illusion of inadequacy…and focusing on deficiency is no way to live or grow. The negativity can just feed on itself, and makes us miserable. It keeps us from really seeing what’s happening at any given moment- preventing us from enjoying the precious moments of our lives.
There are other ways of learning. Positive motivators like joy, fascination, curiosity, and creativity are better fuel for growth than self-punishment. One of the great things about practicing mindfulness is that we can recognize when the critical voice is active. Mindfulness teaches us to identify thoughts as just thoughts – a function of the mind. Just because you have a negative thought about yourself doesn’t mean it’s true. When you examine your thoughts and question where they come from, you create space for new possibilities and ways of being. Without awareness of this negative voice, we lose the opportunity to challenge, silence and heal the subconscious beliefs that fuel this sense of deficiency. Awareness is everything- it paves the way to wholeness. By cultivating greater capacity for calm, and a greater awareness of self – you avail yourself of more choices for responding, instead of reacting, to life.
Realizing how my mind was dictating my dance experience motivated me to take the mental and spiritual side of dance as seriously as the physical training. I realized, if I didn’t get a handle on my perfectionism, I was going to kill the thing I loved most. Dance was the very thing that made me feel free! I didn’t want to ruin it with a To-Do list! I developed my own regimen of mindfulness practices that I used each time I went dancing to help me keep my focus. Whenever I noticed a negative thought or feeling arise about some aspect of the dance, I took that as a sign that the critical voice was at it again. I brought my attention back to my breath, and other points of concentration like notes of the music, or the connection with my partner, that would help me stay focused in the dance, rather than going in the direction of my thoughts. And I also practiced compassion- boatloads of compassion!
It was hard at first because I had to accept where I was at in my dance journey. I wanted to become a good dancer, but not at the expense of enjoying dance. It didn’t happen overnight, but ultimately, I became much better at just laughing at my mistakes and accepting my imperfections. I relaxed. It was not a big deal that my dancing didn’t match that of my dance idols. What became more important for me was celebrating the miracle of life through dance.
Then, the most interesting thing happened: the less I cared about my dancing- the better a dancer I became. Or, at least, the better I felt about my dance skills. My mind was relaxed. I took information in more easily, without anxiety or fear of not getting the move right. My movements became more fluid, more responsive, less contrived. I felt more free, expressive, in sync with my body, the music, my partner, and everything around me. I really just let myself go in dance. The best thing I ever did for my dancing was stop worrying about it so much.
I’m so glad I didn’t give up that day I felt boredom. I’m so glad I dug a little deeper, and stopped to question what I was experiencing. I still critique my dancing constructively and have many things I’d like to work on, but I care about all that less and less. I just want to dance and have fun. Life is too short. Yet, every now and then, the critical voice still creeps in. But now I have the tools to catch myself before I start to let that negativity take over. Dance for me now is about celebration of life and gratitude, for being able to express myself through movement. In learning to keep my mind focused on what’s important in the moment I’m dancing, I can make mistakes, be imperfect- and there is no other way for me to be than me. Mindfulness has taught me how to let that be enough.
For some of the mindfulness techniques I have used and found helpful in dance – check out
5 Mindful Steps for Social Dancers.
Have you ever fallen out of love with dance? How did you find your way back? Let us know in the comments!