When Dancing’s No Longer Just Physical

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the emotional side of dancing

It didn’t make sense, but about six months after I moved to New York, my dancing got a whole lot worse for a while. The girl who loved to dance and believed in herself disappeared. In her place was someone who had better body movement and faster spins, but who looked uncomfortable, tense, and unsure of herself. Despite the smile on her face and well-executed technique, judgment showed in every aspect of her performances.

I hate watching that dancer and I still cringe if I stumble on a video from one of these shows or competitions.

It took me a long time to see and feel the difference between these two dancers, and then, even more time to figure out what produced one versus the other. Along the way I discovered things I didn’t like. It was exhausting, it was hard, and it hurt. A lot.

It still is all of those things. BUT (and this is a huge ‘but’) if you don’t include emotional work as part of your dance training, regardless of how hard you physically train, you’ll never dance genuinely. And to dance genuinely––from a place inside of you that truly enjoys what you are doing––that is what captivates and truly mesmerizes an audience.

That’s what made me fall in love with salsa in the first place.

Yes, spins and tricks and flexibility impress me. I think long lines and fluid body movements are beautiful. All of those things are certainly important aspects of a great dancer and a great show, and I want to develop all of them. But those are not the elements of this art form that truly enchanted me. Nor are they what fuels my obsession with salsa, the reason I spend hours in the studio, or go out dancing night, after night, after night.

Furthermore, if you don’t train emotionally and mentally, you may let feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy stop you from even trying to reach your goals, unintentionally citing excuses that on the surface seem perfectly valid. Things like…“I need to focus on my career.” Or, “I’m getting older. “I don’t have enough time.” “I want to focus on my relationship.”

It’s not that those aren’t valid reasons to change how much you dance or the priority dance takes in your life. It’s that believing them is often easier (less painful) than doing the deep personal work required to uncover all the other things that are going on.

Eventually, I realized that the dancer I didn’t like watching stemmed from my own subconscious feelings of insecurity. I felt judged, pressured to prove something to the people around me. Fearful of not being good enough. These emotions surfaced when when I was most vulnerable, when I was onstage. They prevented me from fully enjoying my dancing, and because of that, my shows lacked authenticity. They didn’t honestly give to the audience. 

The most confusing part of this realization was that these destructive feelings of self-doubt hadn’t shown up in other areas of my personal or professional life before. Even as a teenager, I’d always had a lot of confidence, and it was something I had prided myself on as a young adult. Why were these emotions showing up here? Why now?

So I dove into a rigorous exploration of what are known as  shadowed qualities––the parts of ourselves that we push aside, the most negative aspects of our behavior, the very essence of our our deepest, darkest insecurities, the things we often don’t even fully know we’re struggling with.

Months later I finally had a better understanding of these shadowed qualities and realized they were intertwined with more complicated personal and professional experiences that on the surface seemed unrelated to my dance journey. Once I understood them, I worked to develop ways of recognizing them as they were just beginning to bubble up, as well as how to actively expel them so they couldn’t hold me back.

Then I had a genuine show, and it was incredible. I could feel the difference as I danced. I enjoyed every single moment. I had the time of my life.

I was struck too by the number of people who complimented me on the show afterwards. Particularly because it was a routine I had been performing for an entire year, and most of the people who came up to me had been in the audience less than two weeks ago when I had done the same number (and I know that my physical dance abilities hadn’t changed that much in 10 days!).

Emotional work is challenging, but it’s a big component of what helps you reach your full potential as a performer, competitor, or social dancer.

Start by surrounding yourself with good people who believe in you. Make friends that will encourage you to ‘do you,’ even if that often means that you won’t have as much time to spend with them. These people are not only your biggest champions––the people who cheer you on and comfort you when you cry at 4am––they recognize and respect what matters to you, even when your interests and values mean you make choices that don’t align with their own.

Find a coach who not only physically trains you to to be the best that you can be, but also trains you to recognize when you are holding yourself back. Because even if you are incredibly perceptive and self-aware, you still need someone else to call you out on your own bull&!*%.

Remember that the only person judging you is yourself. Really. Other dancers will be supportive and encouraging of your dancing and your goals, regardless of how beginner or advanced you are. They might even be inspired by them. Honestly, they probably aren’t paying all that much attention. They’re focused on themselves and their goals, so why not focus on yours?

Finally, just keep going. Pursuing your passion comes with really incredible highs, as well as really horrible lows. Everyone experiences both ends of these spectrums even if it seems like they don’t. Be a proud work in progress and celebrate not only each of your accomplishments (regardless how big or how small), but also every experience. And don’t ever give up.

Dance will always evolve in your life. Physical progress takes time and emotional comfort allows you to have patience and enjoy the entire journey.

Right now I’m learning how to produce a genuine show each and every time I step on stage. I’m focusing on musicality, building ankle strength, and increasing range of motion in my upper back. I’m also intentionally making myself explore new areas of dance, even if they make me uncomfortable at first (like performing a solo or even writing this article!).

And I’m loving every minute of it.

What role has emotional work played in your own dance journey? Do you have any advice for dancers who are struggling with how to begin investing in their emotional dance training?


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