I challenged myself to a six-day swing dancing gathering in Munich, my first serious social dancing after a year of training. Here are some things I noticed.
For every minute I spend on the floor, I spend ten watching, learning, copying. But as the night gets later and the floor fills up, this stops working. They’re moving too fast, too fluidly, and even when I focus on a couple in side-by-side charleston, deliberately observing for a single move (“Right - watch how he gets out of this”), it happens so quickly that I can’t replay it in my mind.
The skill gap is too big. It’s like trying to learn Newton’s laws of motion by observing the operation of a particle accelerator.
Even my dance partners aren’t in a position to show me things, not generally, because of the lead/follow nature of the dance. The best I get is “can you switch to eight count”, the thick German accent carrying more sympathy than impatience.
The lessons, back in London, don’t help much either. Performing a set routine is so different to social dancing that, without careful observation, you can’t even see the basic steps hidden inside the dancer’s movements.
It would be so easy, if I were in a room of people at and slightly above my level, social dancing slowly, observing and copying each others’ moves, talking about them after each dance. Deliberate practice. But that’s not how this goes. This is a terribly inefficient way to learn, and still not yet, not quite, fun.
But I am here, and I am doing this, and I will do this.
I get chatting to someone who, while very accomplished, is hesitating to ask anyone else to dance, because she’s been turned down a few times in a row. That doesn't happen to me: as a lead, I'm statistically in demand. But, instead, I lose confidence by dancing badly (as judged solely by me, since nobody here judges anyone else). When I get rattled, I don't just get more reluctant, I actually get worse.
Confidence is a resource, like willpower, like physical energy, and it too needs managing. It seems obvious, now, but I stumbled on a way to regenerate it: I went for a run.
Running is part of my physical recovery routine anyway, but I discovered an additional benefit. I'm _good _at it. With familiar hiphop instead of unfamiliar swing music, I'm in command, muscle memory effortlessly matching footfalls to syncopated beats even over uneven terrain.
And the buzz from that afternoon lasted well into the evening, which is when I really needed to feel good at something.
So if you want to remind yourself that you don't suck, go and do something you're good at. I don't think it really matters what.
Leaning on the table, I notice that the back of my hand is beaded with sweat. That must've been something like five dances in a row, all within twenty minutes of arriving. Completely routine for most of the people here, but a new record for me.
Once you know that you lock on to patterns - good and bad - quickly, you can use that to your advantage. I don't have to start my morning yoga routine, but once I've started, I must finish it. I don't have to run.. until I put my shoes on. Then I do. I don't have to approach the dancefloor, but once I'm there, I never, ever decline an invitation to dance. Every time that rule triggers, it gets stronger.
This involuntariness helps in other disciplines, too. Obstacle racing is one; with hundreds of runners in front and behind, and no easy way to leave the course, a jump that might previously have prompted an incredulous "... Jesus, what?" succumbs instead to "aaaaaaaaaarrr!"
Brute force of will should be the resource of last resort. More and more, I'm learning that getting out of your comfort zone is not about being brave. It's about manipulating the situation until you don't need to be.
The mind is conservative about its capabilities. Some of the things you think you can't do, you actually can. But some, you genuinely can't, and an aggressive strategy will lead to failures. For a lot of disciplines, that's not only okay, it's actually an advantage.
My high-school maths teacher used to say that we each had a certain number of mistakes in us, and that we should try to use them up before the exam. This isn't quite the same thing. Because there's no good feedback mechanism in social dancing, I'm not actually getting much better at the details; indeed, I'm probably learning bad habits.
Instead, what I'm doing is confronting my fears. Where "being stranded on the dancefloor with a slow, long, and rhythmically ambiguous song" seems like the kind of nightmare to be avoided by only entering when there's familiar music.. well, I've done that now. I have attempted to swingdance to Christmas music - god only knows how that found its way into the playlist - failed badly, and not suffered much. We laughed about it. I doubt that my partner holds it against me. To be honest, I very much doubt that she remembers at all.
I've been the least experienced guy on the floor for the whole night. I've fumbled transitions, and laughed about it. I've asked people to teach me moves, even basic stuff, on the go - some have, most have declined, but none have been offended. I've danced blues despite not knowing any. I've occasionally botched the floorcraft and caused collisions.
(That last one was beginning to edge from 'harmless failure' to 'damaging failure'; we didn't dance together again, and I waited for the floor to clear a little before heading back).
I've even triggered this deliberately. The band's final song at the farewell party was absolutely blistering, far too fast for the six-count I'd been practicing, but I wanted to try out some 1920s Charleston. So I extended my hand to someone, who raised an eyebrow and said "it's very fast", but came with me onto the floor.
It didn't really work, but it wasn't terrible. We continued to dance for the customary second song, which is (for now) my way of determining for certain whether my follow is having fun. Failure, if indeed that was failure, came with none of the imagined negative consequences.
For me, this is a long process of separating rational fear - which usefully protects you from devastating mistakes - from irrational fear, which prevents you from taking chances where the worst-case result is still okay. I'm coming to the overdue conclusion that there's not really any way to get hurt, here, and that frees me up to experiment, and to learn.
And, near the end of the last night, I notice that I'm checking the time with a different mindset: not "how much longer do I have to keep going?", but "how much more time do I have?"
This is starting to become fun. Which is, after all, the point.