I recently started going to a walk-in Beginner House Dance class on Monday nights. It’s been a struggle!
The first thing to know about walk-in beginner classes is that the other attendees are never actually beginners. The average student in the class, learning the choreography for the first time, looks substantially better than the second-best dancer on a club dance floor. The first walk-in I ever attended was a beginner hip-hop class with my friend Cyndie, who swore up and down that she’d never taken one before. It turned out that she had instead choreographed one in college.
As for myself, I’m not a great dancer but I like to try. I once got a high-five from a group of cool-looking black teens while dancing at Gov Ball, probably more for enthusiasm than technique. I have a basic two-step and I’m comfortable dancing while sober, which I think puts me above average in the general pop and firmly at the bottom of every walk-in class I’ve been to.
The bottom of a class is an uncomfortable place to be, especially in a setting where the other students can watch your every misstep. During each class our teacher tries to run us through a couple of basic moves, then adds on variations. She shows one move slowly and repeats it four times, asking us to follow. By the third repetition I can just about make out what her feet are doing. By the fourth I start to reason about which leg goes where and which foot supports my weight, while the other students are doing pretty close copies. Then: double-time! I have no chance, of course. Four more reps and it’s on to double-time, and also turn in circles!
I’ve always been a good student in school so it’s a novel feeling to see the pure confusion in our teacher’s eyes as she observes me. For the fourth time, it’s left-left-right! Is he spacing out or slightly brain-damaged? I imagine the other students side-eyeing my clumsy steps, wondering why the class can’t collectively move on from this basic routine yet. I think of each class as a battle between my frustration and competence levels. When the competence meter fills, I learn a move that’s eluded me before and gain confidence to continue. When frustration overflows, I shut down, make more mistakes, and struggle to take on feedback.
At the lowest points I start to worry that this will hinder the enjoyment and fluency of dancing for me outside of class too. This seems to be a general pattern with consciously practicing to improve tacit skills. There’s a period of time where I regress in performance because I’m consciously directing a behavior which is normally managed subconsciously. Then this degrades self-confidence, which further reduces performance.
So why haven’t I quit yet?
First, I’ve been trying to get more comfortable doing things that I’m bad at. Being bad at something is the first step to getting good at it. Plus, I’ll miss out on a lot of fun things in life if I only do things that I’m innately good at. Growing up I avoided most sports and I never put much effort into music because it didn’t feel like I was good at those things. But my friends who put in the time and struggled through being bad now have more hobbies that they can enjoy.
Second, I enjoy dancing and I go to a number of events where that’s the thing to do: weddings, concerts, raves, clubs, etc. I get bored of doing things unless I see some path to getting better, and I didn’t feel like I was really improving as a dancer despite the hours that I’ve spent dancing. The timing on these classes is a little unfortunate, since I expect that the majority of my dancing is behind me – economically speaking, it would have been better to invest into the skills earlier so that they would have more time to pay off later. But even though the area under the curve will be small, I still hope to enjoy the process of improving.