Wednesday, July 06, 2011

An Open Letter to a Number of Dancers I Know

Dear Dancer,

Something has been bothering me for a while, and I just feel I have to say something about it. I know this will be a tough thing to hear, but I feel that it's something that needs saying, and I hope you'll take it in the helpful spirit in which it is intended.

You are not as good a dancer as you think you are.

Look, I didn't want to say anything, but the way you keep criticizing other dancers is driving me nuts. You will complain, with deep, bitter vitriol, about how dancers who take classes above their level drag down a class, and yet, I have seen you in classes you clearly weren't ready for, being that person everyone is dreading in the rotation. I have heard you bitch about how snobby dancers are who won't dance with you because they don't think you're at their level, and I have seen you snootily turn down dancers who you thought weren't at your level, even though in some cases they were actually just as good as you. You complain constantly that dancers reject you because of your age or looks or ability to be part of a social scene and never consider the possibility that you're not as much fun to dance with as you think you are. You are like those people in Dear Abby who write "I'm attractive and have a terrific personality, but I can't get a date," without seeming to consider the possibility that they aren't the catch they think they are.

It is very difficult in dance to gauge one's level of dance competence. This is not chess, where you are unambiguously worse than the people who always beat you and unambiguously better than the people you always beat. Dance is a cooperative activity, so you cannot truly be ranked as an individual. Each dance is a little partnership, and when we dance with really good dancers it feels so good that we naturally take a certain amount of credit for the wonderfulness of that dance, even if in reality our partner is, in some cases, a brilliant dancer struggling mightily to get the best out of a bad situation.

So I completely understand why you would think you're a terrific dancer. And compared to some people, you are. You completely wow those who have just started dancing. They find it hard to imagine being able to do what you can do. So sure, be proud of your accomplishments. You've worked hard, and high self esteem is a terrific thing to have.

But don't be too proud, because you're not nearly as good as you think you are.

I know you would reply, "I don't claim I'm the best." That's true, you don't. But that just means you're not clinically delusional. You also don't claim you're Abraham Lincoln or Jesus. Not being completely crazy does not mean you aren't wildly unrealistic. You are less humble than some of the best dancers I know. Those dancers are always aware of how far they still have to go to be as good as you think you are right now.

I know as you read this you're thinking wow, I know people just like that. This open letter really describes that sort of person beautifully. So I just want to make it clear: I'm talking about you. Not other people, you. And I know now you're thinking, good, he's letting those other people in denial know that they're the problem. But no, I'm letting you know that you're the problem. You. I don't know how else to get this across. It's an open letter, so you might see one sentence that really doesn't apply to you, but over all, yes, this is about you. Seriously.

I'm not saying I'm a better dancer than you. I may believe I am, but I'm sure I'm not as good a dancer as I think I am either, so how can I judge? And I'm not saying you need to become a better dancer. Certainly improvement is always a good thing, and the better you dance, the more fun dancing becomes. But you don't fall down and you have the basic mechanics in place and really, that's enough to get by. We are all limited by our natural talents and the amount of money we have for lessons, and some of us reach a point at which we probably are about as good as we're going to get, and there is nothing wrong with being only the best you can be.

I'd just like you to drop some of the attitude. Quit whining so much, especially in areas where other people are whining about you. Please keep in mind that you don't know everything, and that "judge not lest ye be judged" is really good advice.

When you crash into someone on the dance floor, don't assume it's always their fault, or your partner's. When you don't pass an audition, don't assume it's because the judge has a grudge against you, or is jealous of you, or just gave all the spots to his or her friends. Don't tell your friends you would have got into that dance troop if you hadn't got a bad partner who made you look worse than you are. I'm not saying that's never the case, but it's certainly not always the case.

Like you, I have believed I knew more about dancing than I did. There is a point where we have climbed so far that we think we're near the top, failing to recognize that we're actually still really close to the bottom. Then we give bad advice to beginners and cling to bad habits with a certainty that we have reached a point where we know what we're doing. Once you reach this point, you need to get to that next place, where you understand how utterly clueless you still are.

So before you turn down that struggling beginner, or bitch about that professional dancer who didn't seem enthusiastic about dancing with you (is a chess master expected to enthusiastically play that bright 8 year old?), or act like the whole world just doesn't appreciate you the way they should, pause, take a breath, and say to yourself: "I am not as good a dancer as I think I am."


  1. "Certainly improvement is always a good thing, and the better you dance, the more fun dancing becomes. "

    Not really sure about that. In my scene many of the best dancers don't seem to dance as much. Being the best in your local community is not always more fun

  2. I think it depends on your attitude. If people decide that no one's good enough for them, and then they're not going to have any fun dancing. But if they're really skilled, they have the potential to have fun.

    I just saw this quote: 1. Beginning Dancer: knows nothing. 2. Intermediate Dancer: knows everything; too good to dance with beginners. 3. Hotshot Dancer: too good to dance with anyone. 4. Advanced Dancer: dances everything, especially with beginners.